Henry Ward Beecher: Environmentalist for God
By Dr. Jerry L. Terrill, Professor Counseling and Director of the Counseling Program, Houston Graduate School of Theology
The annual observation of Earth Day by millions of people around the world, this year falling the day after Easter, presents Christians with an opportunity to consider our relationship to God’s creation. This week, Dr. Jerry Terrill introduces a 19th-century preacher who believed our relationship to nature was a key to emotional and spiritual wellness. —MJF
Probably best known today as the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87) was an influential voice in his own right. He was the pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, and as a committed advocate of abolitionism, he spoke from the pulpit regarding the evils of slavery. In the 1850s, when the fight over slavery spread to the Kansas Territory—Bloody Kansas—he became infamous for sending boxes of “Beecher Bibles” (Sharps rifles) to abolitionist settlers. And yet, even as he lived through this turbulent era in American history, Beecher experienced mindfulness, peace, and joy in nature’s beauty, and this was reflected in his life and ministry.
Many of Beecher’s sermons were on the theme of the sanctity of nature, and he often developed these sermons while working on his farm.
“After breakfast, I go into my study, as a man goes into his orchard; …as he finds the ripest and best and plucks them while it (the fruit) is fresh.”
Beecher’s sermons and meditations were the “fruit” of the spring days spent on his farm. In his sermon, “Lilies of the Field: A Study of Spring for the Careworn,” he provides an interpretation of nature for individuals dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This theme is further developed in “The Storm and Its Lessons.” These sermons evoke a mindfulness of the sanctity and beauty of God’s creation we are called to respect and enhance as stewards of his creation: “The Lord took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15).
Beecher believed that “Christ is the living Seed; the Bible is the husk that contains the Seed.” The “Bible is a book of hieroglyphics,” signs of God’s revelation to this world in which he calls us to be his servants, his emissaries.
“Have you, as part of your obedience to Christ, taken time to sit down and think what birds and flowers mean? You have taken flowers, and you have enjoyed them—their forms, their colors, their odors—simply as objects which had a relation to a certain sense of beauty in yourself.” For Beecher, nature reflects the promise of salvation as it creates life anew, and through careful attention to nature, we are guided to be “saved by hope.” Beecher loved form and color in flowers, birds, and precious stones, which he believed evoke harmony and peace with God, instilling spiritual, physical, and emotional mindfulness in his human creation.
In the life and work of Henry Ward Beecher, it is dysfunction, evil, and sin that destroy nature’s harmony and the integrity of creation. Beecher understood emotionally, spiritually, and environmentally the impact of nature on humanity in restoring harmony to men and women’s lives in a world filled with trauma.
[Note: Mindfulness is defined as being aware of one’s thoughts and feelings in the moment and being able to accept them non-judgmentally.]