Last week, I talked about the beauty of the ordinary life. This week, I want you to see what it looks like…and what it costs.
To do that, we’re going back to the 1800s.
This is Henry Ward Beecher.
Maybe you recognize his name like I did. (Then again, I actually did an Academic Super Bowl on the U.S. Civil War in high school, so you know. Levels of nerdiness.)
Here’s a quick bio: Beecher was the pastor of Plymouth Church, which became one of the largest in New York City. His sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and his sermons passionately decried slavery. He even sent rifles to Kansas for abolitionist settlers—nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles”—when they were attacked by pro-slavery forces.
I remembered him as one of the allies fighting for his black brothers and sisters, not just with words but with actions, championing the heart of God for restoring justice to the world.
Except it’s not that simple. This year, I was researching influential figures before and during the Civil War and came across Beecher’s name again…in a less positive way.
Turns out, Henry was also the predecessor of modern-day prosperity gospel preachers. He never mentioned sin and wrath in his sermons to keep wealthy congregants piling contributions into the offering plate. At times, he played with gemstones in his pocket like they were marbles, and he had so many Persian carpets in his extravagant home that in places they were stacked on top of each other.
Worse, his ministry was eventually marred by charges of an affair with a congregant—one of many alleged sexual indiscretions that were quietly buried and bought out toward the end of his ministry.
So…a mixed legacy, to say the least. That’s Pastor #1. Here’s #2: Leonard Grimes.
If you’ve never heard of him, neither had I. So let me tell you a little about him.
Leonard Grimes, a free black man, converted to Christianity while serving a prison term for helping runaways escape. After he was released, he started a church in Boston that came to be known as the fugitive slaves’ church because at times almost half of his congregation had once been in bondage in the South.
Despite this, he didn’t join the Boston Vigilance Committee, a group committed to protecting runaways in the city in case of re-capture, primarily because he didn’t believe a minister of God should put himself in a position where he’d have to blindly obey an outside, political (and sometimes radical) authority.
He and his wife Octavia gave sacrificially from their own resources and those of the church to the poor and frightened refugees, whether they were staying in Boston or just passing through. Both helped runaway slaves find jobs and sheltered them with members of their congregation.
One by one, frightened by the threat of re-capture, many of Leonard’s friends in the church fled to Canada. Some who stayed claimed he wasn’t doing enough, that his unwillingness to join the Vigilance Committee showed he wasn’t committed to the cause. The church finally had a building to meet in, but the construction remained incomplete because giving was down, and future payments loomed. Leonard himself was living on a poverty-level salary of $100 a year.
And then came the Anthony Burns trial. Tony was a faithful member of Leonard’s church…and arrested as a runaway slave. If the trial could prove his identity, he would be sent back to slavery.
As the proceedings went on, it was clear: Tony would lose. The judge had pro-South leanings and the evidence was obvious. Attending the trial to show his support, Leonard got an idea: what if they offered to buy Anthony Burns from his master?
Right away, he went to raise funds from his wealthy friends and patrons, most of them white. For hours he went door to door, pleading for the life of his church member, trying to gather $1200. A large sum in the day, but he was calling on Boston’s upper crust who had the money to spare.
Except…some refused to give. A few of them thought Tony’s master wouldn’t really sell. But more felt it was ethically questionable to pay off a slaveholder, to put money into the pocket of someone who bought and sold other human beings. So they kept their purses closed.
It was late on Saturday night when Leonard finally scraped together the $1200 to ransom Tony. He rushed to the meeting place…but the slaveowner’s representative arrived late. When the town’s corrupt marshal informed him that buying slaves was illegal inside Boston’s limits, Leonard agreed to turn himself in and go to jail for the “crime” of buying Tony.
Slowly, asking questions and stalling, the marshal went through the paperwork. Then he looked at the clock. It was one minute after midnight. And in Boston, no sales could be made on Sundays.
The deal didn’t go through, and by Monday, the slaveowner changed his mind and decided to make Tony into a lesson for other runaways. Hundreds of federal troops, sent by order of the president, loaded Tony in chains and shipped him back into bondage. Leonard’s best efforts had failed.
Do you see him there, silent and invisible in the history books, kneeling in a half-finished church to pray for the young man he was one minute too late to save? Try to feel what he felt for a moment. Surrounded by accusations of “selling out” and inaction, his congregation dwindling and full of fear. His own deacon, Lewis Hayden, at the head of the violent mob rushing to the courthouse, killing one of the guards in a failed attempt to get to Tony. Defeated, harassed, alone.
And over in New York, Henry Ward Beecher was preparing another sermon on the love of God and making $20,000 a year, double that with earnings from his books.
My point isn’t that wealth is a sign of sin or even that Beecher doesn’t deserve the recognition he gets. My point is that God doesn’t value what we value. Here’s my version of the anti-prosperity gospel, based on these stories and the life of Paul and Jesus and the whole of Scripture:
You may be faithful and still poor or sick or underappreciated. You may never be remembered by history, even if you throw yourself into the work you know God has for you. You may be misunderstood and maligned by the people you love. You may go through dozens of minute-after-midnight situations where all you have doesn’t seem like enough, where broken relationships aren’t restored and justice isn’t done and God seems silent.
But faithfulness is still worth it.
If you want the applause of thousands, Beecher can tell you how to do that. Say what people want to hear. Gather treasure on earth and live in comfort. Even champion a noble-sounding cause and fight injustice…while ignoring personal holiness.
But if you want to hear God tell you “Well done, good and faithful servant,” take a look at the ministry of Leonard Grimes and think about where you’re putting your priorities, your money, your hope.
And in case you were wondering, after all the hype died down and no one else cared, Leonard spent months tracking Tony after his master tried to hide him, quietly re-raised the money after the original donors withdrew, and brought Tony back home.
Appearances can be deceiving. Faithfulness has a cost. And history sometimes exalts the unworthy and forgets the selfless heroes…but God does not.