Preciousness of the Sanctuary: A Prayer by Henry Ward Beecher

J.R. Waller, MBA


The following is an opening prayer by Henry Ward Beecher before one of his sermons at Plymouth Church, New York City.

It has been taken verbatim from an original 1867 copy of Beecher’s Prayers from Plymouth Pulpit which will be reprinted by The Greater Heritage later this year.

Henry Ward Beecher was a public speaker of the highest caliber. It is our hope that his words herein increase your faith and inspire your devotion.

Most importantly, we hope the following broadens your knowledge of Christianity’s distinctive legacy in American history.

About Henry Ward Beecher

Above: George Augustus Baker Jr. (American, 1821-1880). Henry Ward Beecher, 1874. Oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the American Art Council, 1999.54.1.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87) was an influential American Congregationalist minister, abolitionist, religious reformer, political activist and renowned orator.

Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, Beecher was the first pastor at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York City, where he preached for nearly 40 years, at times to audiences of over 2,500 people.

It was from the pulpit at Plymouth that Henry became a recognized champion for the anti-slavery movement.

He was editor of the Independent, and founder of The Christian Union (the first nondenominational religious journal) and earned his Bachelor’s degree from Amherst College and divinity degree from Lane Theological Seminary which his father Lyman Beecher was president of at the time.

Henry’s older sister was noted author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Though not without his flaws, his theology became more liberal in time (he espoused evolution) and scandal (adultery) crept in upon his character later in his life, Henry Ward Beecher stands proudly as a monumental figure in America’s abolitionist and Christian history.

He was one of the most influential churchmen of his time and his dynamically powerful speeches are still studied to this day.

Preciousness of the Sanctuary

Sabbath Morning – Invocation

We thank thee, our Father, that we are gathered from so many places by thy kind providence to this, thy house of prayer.

Thou hast in other times been here to receive us. Stand in thine own house again to-day, and bid every heart welcome with the assurance of thy love, of thy favor, and of thy presence; and by the power which thou dost show forth upon us, may we discern the truth hidden in thy word.

May we take hold upon thee in communion; may we be able to unite together in fellowship of song, and praise thee with one heart and voice.

Grant that all the exercises of the Sabbath, whether in the sanctuary or in our several homes, may conduce to our spiritual comfort and edification: and thus may thy name be honored. We ask it for Christ’s sake. Amen.

Before Sermon

Our heavenly Father, we do not draw near to thee in this place as if only here thou wert to be found.

Thou hast made the whole earth to be full of thee. The heavens declare thy glory and the firmament showeth thy handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech of thee, through all the years of our lives.

Neither is there any place so solitary, nor any so barren, nor any so dark and sad and seemingly neglected, that thou art not to be discerned there.

Thou hast written of thee in every part of this domain, and they that are instructed in thee know how to find thee everywhere.

But yet, in some places we find thee more easily than in others. Thou hast made this place peculiarly dear to us, because here we have often lingered, waiting for the dawn, until the day-spring came from on high.“Here thou hast made us seem more lovely to each other than ever we are in our outward and earthly relations.”

Here we have come, unable to see by the multitude of our tears, and gone away seeing all the better through them, as if thou hadst made them lenses.

Here we have been pressed down, burdened, and gone leaving our burden, we knew not where. We have come, heavily, and gone out light-hearted indeed.

When we turn back our thoughts to the many years that we have been wont to come here; when we bring to our remembrance those that aforetime have been with us, and are no more upon this side, how sacred is the place; though no sprinkling of water and no reaching out of hands, and no pronunciation of blessing have been here vainly to seek to consecrate these elements, yet ten thousand hearts have consecrated this place.

Lane Theological Seminary

Above: A postcard of Lane Theological Seminary (c. 1916) where Henry Ward Beecher graduated from in 1837.

The sprinkling hath been of tears, and the reaching out and imposition of hands hath been indeed in spiritual things.

Here have we not beheld our children bowing to thee? Have they not stood before us and with us, grouped by faith into the same household? Here have we not had triumph given to us through our sorrow and anguish in their early release, and our loss of them?

Here thou hast made it sweet for us to pray, to sing. Here thou hast made us seem more lovely to each other than ever we are in our outward and earthly relations.

Here thou hast made the light of heaven to shine golden on the wings of life that aforetime hath been gloomy.

The hast here taught us courage, and hope, and faith, and love. Thou hast so stricken us through with these divine elements, that we have been able to carry them with us every week, as we went along our troubled way.“We thank thee for the memories of the sanctuary, for the experience of the sanctuary, and for all the blessedness which yet is in it or waiting for our reception.”

And now when the Sabbath dawns, it comes speaking thoughts of pleasure and rest to us; and when the gates of God’s house are thrown open, how do we rejoice to come up together!

How sweet and pleasant a house thou hast made it to us. Though we are in the flesh, and though we are restricted in every thing that is good by pride and selfishness, and by the low-mindedness of our habitual thoughts, yet with all these hindrances how hast thou made us to discern things here in the light and glory of heaven.

We thank thee for the memories of the sanctuary, for the experience of the sanctuary, and for all the blessedness which yet is in it or waiting for our reception.

And now we beseech thee, O thou that hast power to touch our imagination, our affection, and our understanding, to-day, interpret to us the exceeding greatness of the truths of God.

Those least truths around about us, that thou hast interpreted through forms of matter, are more than we can search, and deeper than we can understand ; yet these are the under-foot truths, and the least, while above us and related to our spiritual being, what is the grandeur of those immortal truths of love and purity and rectitude which thou art attempting to teach us!

Be patient yet, O thou long-suffering Saviour, as thou hast been patient in days past with us, for it is through thy patience that we have hope.

Above: Portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous sister of Henry Ward Beecher, philanthropist, abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851). Painted by Alanson Fisher in 1853. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery. NPG.68.1.

It is not because we are good nor easily made good; it is not because we are docile or easily instructible that we have any hope – for we find ourselves coarse, and dull, and worldly; ungenerous, selfish, and proud; at times envious and jealous and filled with all hatefulness of that which, when it comes to us revealed in the light of higher truths, makes us shrink from ourselves with unutterable loathing and to wonder that thou couldst look with complacency for a moment upon us.

And yet, such is thy love, and such is the patience with which it hath inspired thee, that thou hast not yet been weary of thy charge.

Thou hast borne us up more tenderly than ever did our parents in our infancy, and thoughts toward us, how precious and how exceeding great the number of them!

The wonder of thy grace, of thy tenderness, and of thy kindness, have begun to awaken in us an earnest desire to please thee.

But only when we endeavor to please thee, do we find how void we are by nature of goodness – only then when we attempt to reach forth our hand to write or to appear growing and vigorous, do we find how rude and untaught our hands are.

We stand before thee undressed; we stand empty; yet with all thy teaching, there is nothing that we should presume to hold up before thee and say, “Be gracious unto us by reason of our excellence.”“The wonder of thy grace, of thy tenderness, and of thy kindness, have begun to awaken in us an earnest desire to please thee.”

Our whole hope and faith is in the greatness, in the grandeur, in the inexhaustibleness of thy love. In thyself we must needs find our redemption, our sanctification.

We beseech thee, O Lord, that thou wilt cause this glory of thy nature more and more to rise up before us that we might be shown for evermore, beneficiaries – how we live upon the charity of our God; that we may feel that we receive every thing from thee as a grace, as a gift undeserved; and that, conscious of living upon thee, we may learn to lean toward our fellow-men, and in our small measure endeavor to reflect upon them from ourselves the same charity; that we may bear with them patiently; that we may be more gentle to all; that we may have love in our heart that shall be able to overflow and hide as the tide hides the rocks and all noisome things beneath its abundant depths: so may we have that charity that shall cover a multitude of sins and hide them, though it may not destroy them.

And we beseech of thee, having the same experience of thy nature in love, that we may have the evidence that we are thy children and are born again, in the presence, activity, and increasing power of love in us.

Plymouth Church Brooklyn

Above: The organ at Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, New York City where Henry Ward Beecher preached form 1847 to 1887. From Brooklyn, Long Island, Staten Island. Assorted churches. View 001: Organ of Plymouth Church, 1898. Lantern slide. Brooklyn Museum.

And we pray that thou wilt teach us more and more the knowledge of ourselves, more and more the skill to extend this divine glory; more and more may we carry in our personal disposition, in our household, and through every part of our worldly business this nobler spirit of the divine nature; so may we live as perpetually to preach; so may we live that men shall be curious to know from what source we draw the inspiration of our life, and thus seeing our good works be led to glorify our Father which is in heaven.

Wilt thou grant to every one in thy presence the blessings which they need. Have none come in hither unconscious of their duty, unconscious of their need? Have none come drawn merely by curiosity?

If there be any such, O Lord, we pray that thou wilt be better to them than they meant to be to themselves, and meet them with such divine influence, such an opening of their eyes, such a quickening of their affections, that they shall feel that indeed God hath led them hither for a purpose which they suspected not, and led them in a way they knew not of.

“And we beseech thee that thou wilt accept, this morning, the heart-felt thanks of those who have seen the sun of righteousness, with healing in his beams, who dwell in the summer of his love and are satisfied, whose days go past in music, and all of whose sounds are harmonies of God.”

Are there those that have been conscious of unsupplied want? Are there any that have been as birds flying prematurely into a land in which no seed nor flower hath yet come up, waiting for the summer to come, and know not what they suffer from hunger?

Are there not some that thou hast brought, who sit hungering on the tree and longing for food, and know not where to turn? O, thou art the God for such.

In their helplessness, in their ignorance, in their want of knowledge of themselves, they shall find in three supremest joy, for thou dost love to do great things for such, because thou art great in all the inflections of generosity and goodness.

If there be such here to-day, may they hear the voice of God in these very musings and wants of their nature, and may they be drawn to thee for their supply.

And if there are any in thy presence that stand doubtful, whose sun is risen but whose heavens are clouded, O grant that the light may no longer shine twilight through the cloud, but break away and give a clear, effulgent experience.

And we beseech thee that thou wilt accept, this morning, the heart-felt thanks of those who have seen the sun of righteousness, with healing in his beams, who dwell in the summer of his love and are satisfied, whose days go past in music, and all of whose sounds are harmonies of God.

May they not fall from this blessed state, nor deem it a trance, but may they abide in it and find the fullness of thy love, and its sweet fruition, which they may have, who have put their whole trust in Christ Jesus.

Bless all that are young; help those that are appointed as parents, or guardians, or teachers, to so rear them that they may walk from the freshness and purity of youth, untempted, up to the experience of Christian purity and love, without swerving, without contamination.

Succor those, we beseech thee, that are discouraged in the rearing of thy children, and may they have hope and trust in God, and not be discouraged in themselves.

And now we ask of thee that we may all have more and more of the knowledge of God; may we grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, until we are changed from glory to glory, and are permitted to take our place by thy side in heaven, where we will praise thee forever and ever. Amen.

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Cover Image Credit

View of Poestenkill, New York. Joseph H. Hidley (1830–1872) ca. 1870. American. Oil on wood. 19 3/4 x 28 in. (50.2 x 71.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1963. 63.201.5.

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