Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition | Old Yale

National Portrait Gallery

Henry Ward Beecher (right), son of Lyman Beecher (center) and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (left), inspired a group of anti-slavery New Haven residents to come to Kansas. See full picture

In 1916, Yale celebrated the 200th anniversary of its move from Saybrook to New Haven with a grand spectacle at the Yale Bowl, re-enacting scenes from the city and the history of dress. One scene, titled “The Kansas Volunteers,” told the story of the college and town sending anti-slavery settlers and weapons to Kansas in 1856. One of the leaders of this effort had been the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher, whose family had deep ties. at Yale and New Haven.

During the winter before the settlement of New Haven was established in 1638, an advancing party, including John Beecher, had camped at the site to protect the settlers’ claim. Beecher died of exposure before the rest of the founders arrived from Boston. The widow Beecher became the town midwife.

The first Beecher to attend Yale was Lyman Beecher, Class of 1797 (1775–1863), son of a New Haven blacksmith. Considered one of the most effective preachers of justice of the first half of the 19th century, he was the father of Henry Ward Beecher.

Lyman’s son Edward graduated from Yale in 1822, his son George in 1828; his eldest son, William, received an honorary master’s degree from Yale in 1833. Three daughters achieved national and international fame: educator Catherine Beecher; suffragist and social activist Isabella Beecher Hooker and author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Although Henry Ward Beecher did not go to Yale—he graduated from Amherst in 1834—he taught at the Divinity School for several years through the lectureship established by his father. (The Beecher family papers are in the Yale Library Manuscripts and Archives.)

From his post as pastor of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, Henry Ward Beecher would become America’s most famous preacher. Although an adultery scandal and trial in the 1870s marred his reputation, by the 1850s he was well known not only for his preaching but also for his passionate opposition to slavery.

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act made possible the expansion of slavery into these territories, there was a scramble for Kansas by pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces to populate the territory and influence the settlement of a government there. Beecher supported arming the settlers. He raised funds to send Sharps rifles to abolitionist forces, telling the New York Grandstand in February 1856 that arms would do more good than “a hundred Bibles”. As a result, the Sharps rifle became known as “Beecher’s Bible”. (Another reason for the nickname may have been that the crates in which the rifles were shipped were often marked “Books” or “Bibles”, to conceal the identity of the contents from pro-slavery men and federal and state authorities who had banned the shipment of arms to the region.)

At the same time, a company of settlers for Kansas was recruited in New Haven. On March 20, Beecher spoke at a benefit meeting for these volunteers at United Church on the Green. Over a thousand dollars were collected for the company’s use. Finding that the emigrants were unarmed, Beecher, Yale professor Benjamin Silliman, and others asked for pledges to provide 50 Sharps rifles. Yale senior Ira Dunlap and junior Moses Tyler offered to raise $25 for a rifle from members of each class. Church pastor Samuel Dutton ’33 presented a Bible and a gun to Charles B. Lines, one of his deacons, who was among the volunteers.

Not everyone shared his enthusiasm. The Democratic tendency New Haven Registry published harsh criticism of the company, and some Southern members of the junior class objected to the promise of a rifle in the name of the class.

The settlers left for Kansas on March 31. They settled in Waubansee, Kansas Territory in time to see the worst of the violence that gripped the territory before it became the Free State of Kansas in 1861. Some of the New Haven settlers spent the rest of their lives in Waubansee, where the historic Beecher Bible and Rifle Church still stands.