Monday, March 8, 2010
Thomas K. Beecher
Among the famous Beecher family of mid 19th Century America was born Thomas Kinnicut, brother to Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Like Henry, Thomas trained as a Congregationalist minister. Like Harriet, he had a keen interest in social issues of the day, except, curiously, abolition.
Starting out with a congregation in New York City, Thomas moved to Elmira, NY and became the minister of Park Church in 1854. During his tenure, he cultivated an approachable reputation, riding a tricycle through town in his overalls, and making himself available to his people any time, for any reason they might have need of his help. He believed in a concept he called "muscular Christianity" in which he participated in lively activities with men in the community such as cricket, baseball and billiards as alternatives to saloons and gambling. Beloved by his congregation and by townspeople alike, he worked hard to dispel the arrogant and distant facade of the ministry, and to win converts by his lifestyle rather than preaching alone. No job or task was beneath him if he could help someone, from laying brick to chopping wood.
Thomas Beecher took an avid interest in science. He dabbled in watchmaking, and opened his own science academy where astronomy was studied. He preached Sunday sermons at the opera house, and drew criticism by his contemporaries for his deviation from propriety, yet thousands turned out to hear him speak. He enlisted as a chaplain in the Civil War in the 141st NY Volunteers. Later in the war when Elmira hosted a prison camp for captured Confederates, he ministered to them on Sunday afternoons. He and his wife Julia adopted three children, and cared for others in the community.
Though not an abolitionist per se, Beecher nonetheless befriended or assisted individual slaves seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad, among them John W. Jones, a prominent former slave who settled in Elmira. He personally believed in slavery, and somehow maintained close friendships with the known abolitionist Langdon family whose daughter married Samuel Clemens. Beecher himself was a contemproray and personal friend of Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. The reverend had the rare sort of personality to express his strongly held views, and yet to manage not to disenfranchise those of the opposite persuasion.
He and his wife served the Park Church for over forty years until his death in March 1900 following a stroke. His wife enjoyed national fame for her stocking dolls, which she hand-made and sold for the benefit of charity. The couple worked in the temperance movement toward the end of their lives, and Thomas ran for Elmira mayor under the Prohibition Party.
Though not as famous as his bother Henry Ward Beecher or his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thomas left a deep impression on the city of Elmira which stands to this day in a statue of his likeness downtown, the beautiful historic church which he built, and an Elementary school named in his honor. But it is the legacy of charity and help, and the marks of kindness on souls which deserves the lasting tribute of this great, innovative 19th century man of God.