By 1872, Henry Ward Beecher was one of the most popular and respected clergymen in the nation. For 25 years he had been the pastor of the large and successful Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn.
But his relationship with one woman would change all that.
Beecher had navigated a Civil War, pastored through the tumultuous rebuilding of a nation, and had labored through the birth and development of his church, when, on the heels of Plymouth Church’s 25th Anniversary, a dubious woman named Victoria Woodhull, editor of the Weekly, published an article that accused Beecher of having committed adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of Theodore Tilton, editor of The Independent. Since this charge was a criminal offense in that era, Woodhull’s poor reputation was taken into account, and the charges of the scandal died down fairly quickly.
However, gossip and political factions kept the issue at hand long enough for the scandal to regain lost momentum. Adding to the quandary, Mr. Tilton had been removed from the roll of Beecher’s church on a technicality, and this upset other church leaders in the area. Those pastors insisted upon a church council to hear both sides, and in the end, the editors of the Congregationalist asserted that Beecher was, in fact, clear of any charges of impropriety.
But Tilton was convinced that too much evidence had been withheld during the church trial, and so in July of 1874, he accused the pastor of adultery and demanded $100,000 in damages. The trial began on January 11, 1875 and was so wildly popular with the public that tickets had to be distributed to limit the crowds in the courtroom.
The accusations against Beecher created a national sensation, and the trail that followed, which was covered by the country’s leading newspapers, dragged on for half a year, and became more than just a public scandal; it became a test of the public’s confidence in the Christian ethics that Beecher represented.
The judicial trial ended in a 9-3 split in favor of Beecher, though the evidence for and against the pastor was so muddy that historians still debate the trial to this day (mostly because of the circus-like flip-flopping of Elizabeth Tilton on whether or not she had an affair with Beecher). However, in the aftermath of the public debacle, the New York Times wrote that Beecher’s actions were “entirely unworthy of his name, position, and sacred calling.”
Beecher paid a terrible price for private sin that wound up in public.
How sad when a Christian fails to live what he/she believes. How sadder is it when that Christian is a pastor and has failed to live according to what he/she has preached.
The Apostle Paul outlined the requirements of a Christian pastor in 1 Timothy 3. Here is a portion of those requirements:
He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. (1 Timothy 3:4-7)
Unfortunately, when we “fall into disgrace,” we drag Jesus down with us. Outsiders look at us, and judge our Savior based on our actions. That alone is reason enough to live our lives free of reproach.
Henry Ward Beecher by Clifford E. Clark, Jr. University of Illinois Press, 1978, Pages 197 – 229.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)