The 21 men and women who founded the church in Brooklyn Heights called as their first pastor Henry Ward Beecher, thus beginning the most prominent ministry in the second half of 19th century America. Beecher's powerful preaching and outspoken opposition to slavery filled the pews to overflowing, so it was a blessing in disguise just two years later when fire damaged Plymouth's original church on Cranberry Street. A new red brick Sanctuary seating 2,800 was quickly constructed, fronting on Orange Street behind the ruined original. That first building was later rebuilt to house offices, parlors and Sunday School rooms.
Under Beecher's influence, Plymouth Church held deep philosophical connections with the Underground Railroad--the secretive network of people who helped slaves escape to the North and Canada. Documentary evidence lends support to the belief that Plymouth was also a site of active participation, known as Brooklyn's “Grand Central Depot.”
Beecher was a master at creating public events to strengthen the fight against slavery. He staged mock “auctions” at Plymouth, urging the congregation to purchase the freedom of actual slaves. During one service, he trampled the chains that had bound John Brown. He invited famous anti-slavery advocates to speak at the Church, including William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, and Frederick Douglass.
Beecher was also an ardent supporter of congregational singing during church services, with all members participating. With his brother, Charles Beecher, and Plymouth's organist, John Zundel, he began compiling a book of hymns for his church. Beecher published The Plymouth Collection in 1855, introducing the world's first modern hymnal in which words and music were printed on the same page.
Many celebrated Americans became a part of Plymouth history. In February 1860, the as-yet unannounced presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln was invited to speak at Plymouth Church. The Young Men's Republican Union, perhaps fearing that few people would cross the icy East River, moved the speech at the last moment to The Great Hall of The Cooper Union in Manhattan. This momentous speech, in which Lincoln stated his position against slavery, is credited with winning him the Republican nomination for president. In spite of the relocation, Lincoln did attend church at Plymouth the day before, and his pew is now marked with a silver plaque. Three weeks later, after campaigning in New Hampshire, Lincoln again worshiped here. Plymouth is the only church in New York City Lincoln ever attended.
In 1867, a group from the Church undertook a five-and-a-half month voyage aboard the steamer Quaker City to Europe and the Holy Land. Joining them as a journalist was the young Mark Twain. His satiric account of this pioneering tour group, The Innocents Abroad, was Twain's best-selling work throughout his lifetime. Twain spoke at Plymouth, as did many other famous writers and activists, including Clara Barton, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley, and William Thackery. More recently, in February 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon on "The American Dream," echoed just months later in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
Beecher died suddenly in 1887 and was succeeded 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 Church merged with the neighboring Church of the Pilgrims, the first Congregational church in Brooklyn, becoming Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims. Organized in 1844, Church of the Pilgrims had as its founding pastor Richard Salter Storrs, who served the Church until 1900. Like Beecher, Storrs was one of the most famous clergymen in America, known as a thinker, writer, and orator of note. Selected as Brooklyn's keynote speaker at the dedication of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, Storrs was also a trustee of Amherst College and president of both the Long Island Historical Society (now known as the Brooklyn Historical Society), and the American Historical Association.
The original Church of the Pilgrims was housed in architect Richard Upjohn's 1846 building at the corner of Henry and Remsen Streets in Brooklyn Heights, now the home of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church.
In the 1950s, Plymouth chose to remain an independent Congregational church, rather than join either of two new Congregational denominations formed after World War Two: the United Church of Christ or the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. Instead, Plymouth belongs to the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, a fellowship of several hundred autonomous Congregational churches.
In acknowledgment of Plymouth Church's significant and unique place in American History, the National Register of Historic Places designated the church a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
In September 2011, Plymouth Church returned to its original name, without the added "of the Pilgrims," for all public purposes. In going back to our roots prior to the 1934 merger with Church of the Pilgrims, Plymouth Church welcomes a new era with a name as modern as it is historic.
The roots of Congregationalism go back to the English Reformation and, as the name Plymouth suggests, the earliest settlers of New England. From our colonial roots, marked by simple white meetinghouses on virtually every village green in New England, Plymouth has expanded its present-day identity to reflect the broad diversity of our urban Brooklyn community.