A layman is ordinarily not supposed
to trouble himself very much about theology, but to
leave that as the special prerogative of the ministers.
This was certainly true of the great majority of the
lay members of Plymouth Church. At the same time
they were by no means indifferent to theology.
They could not be so long as Mr. Beecher was pastor,
and Dr. Abbott’s positive opinions on theological
questions, while not obtruded, were never hidden.
It must be remembered, too, that the constitution,
articles of faith and covenant were drawn up by laymen.
Henry C. Bowen was undoubtedly the moving spirit,
but the others heartily concurred. The articles
of faith were as follows:
“1. We believe
in the existence of One Ever-living and True God,
Sovereign and Unchangeable,
Infinite in Power, Wisdom and Goodness.
“2. We believe
the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be
inspired of God; to
contain a revelation of His will, and to be the
authoritative rule of
faith and practice.
“3. We believe that the
Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are revealed
in the Scriptures as existing, in respect to attributes,
character and office, as three Persons, equally
Divine; while in other respects they are united,
and are, in a proper sense, One God.
“4. We believe that our
First Parents were created upright; that they
fell from their original state by disobedience, and
that all their posterity are not only prone to
sin, but do become sinful and guilty before God.
“5. We believe that God
so loved the world that He gave His only begotten
Son to die for it; that Christ appeared in the flesh;
that He set forth a perfect example of obedience;
that He purely taught the truths needful for
our salvation; that He suffered in our stead,
the just for the unjust; that He died to atone for
our sins, and to purify us therefrom; and that
He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven,
where He ever liveth to make intercession for us.
“6. We believe that God
offers full forgiveness and everlasting life
to all who will heartily repent and believe in the
Lord Jesus Christ; while those who do not believe,
but persevere in sin, shall finally perish.
“7. We believe
in the resurrection of all the dead; in a final and
general judgment, upon
the awards of which the wicked shall go into
and the righteous into life eternal.”
These were adopted by the church as
they stand on April 17, 1848, by a rising vote.
They represent the platform on which Mr. Beecher accepted
the pastorate of the church, and have remained essentially
the doctrinal basis of the church under the pastorates
of Dr. Abbott and Dr. Hillis.
It will readily be seen that in general
the position of Plymouth Church was essentially that
of the New England churches, and when, after being
trained in orthodox Windsor, Conn., I came to Brooklyn,
I found myself in much the same atmosphere. At
the same time there was nothing hidebound. There
was no attempt to draw lines too tight; indeed, there
was little drawing of lines. Principles were stated,
and applied. Description took the place of definition.
One result was the intensifying of
certain convictions, and of these the chief was that
the test of belief was the life. Mr. Beecher’s
breadth of sympathy on all public questions, manifested
particularly in the slavery discussion, came out if
possible more clearly in regard to doctrinal matters.
He made it a principle to seek for the best in every
man, and was very loath to believe evil of anyone.
So when men differed from him in theology his tendency
always was to seek for the truth that was contained
in that view, and give it all possible emphasis.
In his preaching he did not feel obliged to guard
himself against every possible misconception, and
would speak on a topic or present a truth, as if for
the moment at least, that was the one topic, the one
truth, to be considered. The result was that
he was claimed by very nearly every denomination in
the country. When this was done by Universalists
or Unitarians, the old-line Congregationalists were
troubled, and Presbyterians thanked God that they
could not be held responsible for his views.
When Dr. Abbott became pastor the
same condition continued, perhaps emphasised, as Dr.
Abbott is broader in his theology than Mr. Beecher
ever was, while still preserving Mr. Beecher’s
general attitude toward divergent beliefs. Under
Dr. Hillis theological matters are subordinated to
general aggressive church work, although now as always
there is the most cordial welcome to all of every
form of Christian statement who emphasise Christian
The effect of all this upon the church
itself, in its membership, has been to make it exceedingly
liberal. Men are taken for what they are, not
for what they believe, and this principle accepted
in one respect is easily extended to others.
It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that broadness
of theology is the same thing as looseness of doctrinal
Plymouth Church is loyal to the faith
in which it was born and nurtured, and there are not
a few who do not accept many of the forms of statement
current to-day. They do not therefore condemn
those who do, realising that the very principle of
intellectual independence, which has always been so
powerful an element in the church life, inevitably
involves difference of opinion. Many who might
not accept all Dr. Abbott’s views have received
great benefit from his preaching, emphasising, as he
always has, life rather than doctrine.
In its ecclesiastical organisation
and relations Plymouth Church was thoroughly independent,
scarcely even Congregational. Rule 1 of its ecclesiastical
principles says: “This church is an independent
ecclesiastical body; and in matters of doctrine, order
and discipline is amenable to no other organisation.”
It did not propose to stand absolutely alone, however,
as is shown from Rule 2: “This church will
extend to other evangelical churches, and receive from
them, that fellowship, advice and assistance which
the laws of Christ require.” In its general
customs, as to membership, ordinances, meetings, etc.,
it conformed to those of the Congregational churches,
with which those who were its first members had been
connected, and when it installed its first pastor,
as in each succeeding instance, it called in the Congregational
churches to assist. So also in its time of greatest
stress it recognised the obligations of its fellowship
with the Congregational churches by calling the largest
Congregational council ever convened in America.
At the same time, if it seemed to it right and wise
to emphasise the broader fellowship with those of other
faith it did so, whether Congregationalists at large
liked it or not. So in its benevolences, it gave
where it chose. If it liked to give through the
medium of what were known as the Congregational Societies,
it did; if it didn’t like to, it didn’t.
Every once in a while from some source, near or more
remote, generally more remote, protest would come that
Mr. Beecher and his church were not carrying their
full share of denominational burdens; there was courteous
attention, but a very definite giving to understand
that the church would do as it thought best.
The independence of the organisation
manifested itself in individuals. Those who wished
their gifts to go through a certain channel were perfectly
at liberty to send them there, and no one felt aggrieved
because others did not see their way clear to do the
Another effect, both of the ecclesiastical
independence and the broad humanitarian theology,
was manifest in the social life, to which reference
has been made many times, not too often however, for
it was and is one of the chief features of Plymouth
In the northeast corner of what is
now the Sunday School room were located the social
parlours. They were handsomely furnished, and
there every Monday evening Mr. Beecher held an informal
reception, when all members of the church or congregation
were cordially welcomed. The prominent members
of the church were present, including such men as
Messrs. Howard, Bowen, Claflin, Sage, Storrs, Freeland,
Wheelock, Fanning, Mason, Caldwell, Ropes, Southwick,
Murray, Leckler, Sloat, Corning, Hutchinson, Burgess,
Dr. Morrill Studwell and others, and this was often
an opportunity to welcome distinguished visitors.
One such occasion I remember well, when a large number
of distinguished people gathered to welcome Mr. Beecher’s
sister, Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe. She had just
returned from England, where she had been introduced
to Queen Victoria as the first American authoress;
the papers had announced that two million copies of
her book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” had
been sold, and the congratulations and social enjoyment
The same characteristics that distinguished
the regular church life were manifest in all its departments,
as the Sunday School and Bible classes. In all
there was free play for individual ideas and development.
One Bible class in particular I would mention, that
conducted for many years by Mr. Wilbur, and which
had more than one hundred members. In a variety
of ways, by freedom of discussion in the class, by
excursions, receptions, entertainments of various
kinds, it bound the young people together, helped
greatly to build up the church, and particularly contributed
to its social life. How firmly it was established
is witnessed by the fact that it has never weakened,
even in the changes that have come in the membership,
or the official direction of the church. With
three pastors so different in many respects as Mr.
Beecher, Dr. Abbott and Dr. Hillis, there has been
no difference in the general type of church life.