Plymouth Church, Brooklyn Hts: An Historic Beacon for Civil Rights

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The façade of Plymouth Church on Orange Street, c. 1934.

 

One of the largest and historically most important churches in Brooklyn is almost hidden away on tiny Orange Street in Brooklyn Heights. Plymouth Church, a Congregationalist parish established in 1847, was led for forty years by the orator and fierce abolitionist, Henry Ward Beecher, one of the loudest voices and most active people in America’s struggle against slavery in the years before the Civil War. This simple yet beautiful church, which opened in January of 1850, holds upwards of 2,500 people. It was built so large specifically to hold the crowds who came to hear Beecher preach, and from its opening was consistently packed with parishioners and visitors from across Brooklyn and from across the East River who came to hear Beecher’s thoughts not just on slavery, but on life and the human condition.

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The interior of Plymouth Church, with the pipes of the Aeolian-Skinner organ rising high above the chancel.

Putting his words into practice, Beecher used the church as a major stop on the underground railroad, helping to move runaway slaves from the south through the northern states to Canada and freedom. A tunnel under the nave was used to hide slaves during their layover at the church, which became known as “the Grand Central Depot.” The preacher encouraged his flock to join his active efforts to free slaves, and even held “slave auctions” in the church, where parishioners could bid to buy the freedom of slaves. In addition, Beecher brought in many abolitionist guest speakers, such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Charles Sumner, to promote their cause.

In February of 1860, the church invited Abraham Lincoln to speak to the congregation. Lincoln came and attended a service, and the pew where he sat has a small marker noting the seat’s history. (Lincoln’s speech was moved at the last minute to the auditorium at Cooper Union in Manhattan to assure a large crowd.) Another great speaker and civil rights champion, the Reverend Martin Luther King, spoke at the church in February of 1963.

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The shrine to Henry Ward Beecher in the garden of Plymouth Church, with the relief of Lincoln to the left.

Plymouth Church merged with a nearby Congregational parish, the Church of the Pilgrims, in 1934, and the full name of the church now is Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims. The building achieved National Historic Landmark stature in 1961.

One of the church’s main interior physical features is its beautiful organ, an Aeolian-Skinner with what those who know about these things call an “American Classic” sound. Originally installed in 1904, it was refurbished in the 1990s. A well-known exterior feature is the statue of Henry Ward Beecher in the garden area just west of the church proper. Nearby is a relief of Lincoln at the church. Both were sculpted by the same man who created the Mt. Rushmore presidential monument, Gutzon Borglum. Ironically, Borglum was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Today, this active church is extending its history in promoting and working for civil rights, with programs against human trafficking called the New Abolitionists, and the Racial Justice Ministry, a program of both action and reflection in the name of ending racism “in ourselves, and our society.

Next time you’re in Brooklyn Heights, whether heading for the promenade or Brooklyn Bridge Park, take a few minutes to walk down Orange Street and have a look at an important piece of American History, Plymouth Church.

 


 

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