Plymouth Church History

Twenty-one men and women of faith gathered in 1847 in what was then the city of Brooklyn to form Plymouth Church. This fledgling congregation called Henry Ward Beecher as their minister, knowing full well that an anti-slavery message would be preached from the pulpit. Whether because Manhattan was vehemently pro-slavery or because so many free blacks lived on Long Island, including in Brooklyn, Plymouth Church became intimately involved in the Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad, the secretive network of people who helped slaves escape to the North and Canada. This active involvement resulted in the church’s becoming known as Brooklyn’s “Grand Central Depot” of the Underground Railroad.

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When fire damaged the original sanctuary on Cranberry Street in 1849, a new and larger sanctuary building was built on Orange Street, directly behind the original. Beecher, a master at creating newsworthy events, staged mock auctions in the new sanctuary, encouraging the congregation to purchase the freedom of real slaves. He also invited the country’s anti-slavery advocates, including William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, and Frederick Douglass, to speak. Beecher’s older sister Harriet Beecher Stowe frequently visited Plymouth Church and maintained membership there.

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In February 1860 Abraham Lincoln was invited to speak at Plymouth Church. The unannounced candidate for the Presidency arrived in New York City to find that the venue for his speech had been moved from Plymouth Church to the Great Hall of the Cooper Union in Manhattan. His momentous speech is credited with winning him the Republican nomination for President. Despite the relocation, Lincoln attended worship services at Plymouth Church twice, first the day before the speech and again three weeks later, following a campaign trip to New Hampshire. Plymouth is the only church in New York City that Lincoln ever attended.

Beecher was succeeded at Plymouth first by Lyman Abbott, a lawyer turned minister and religious journalist, and then by Newell Dwight Hillis, who oversaw the completion of the Plymouth campus as it exists today.

In 1934, Plymouth merged with the neighboring Church of the Pilgrims, the first Congregational church in Brooklyn. Organized in 1844, Church of the Pilgrims had as its founding pastor Richard Salter Storrs, who served until 1900. Storrs, one of the most famous clergymen in America, was known as a great thinker, writer, and orator.

Among the many illustrious guest speakers at Plymouth Church over the years was The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. A classmate of Plymouth’s Senior Minister Harry Kruener, Rev. King was invited to speak at Plymouth’s dedication as a National Historic Landmark in February 1963. King’s sermon, “The American Dream”,  presaged his later and more famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC.

In 2004, Plymouth Church began to reverse a decades-long decline in membership by calling Rev. Dr. David Fisher as Senior Minister, and today during this interim time, Plymouth remains a vibrant and growing Congregational church.