Thursday, March 10, 2016

Beecher Bibles and Rifles

The Beecher Bible & Rifle Church
Henry Ward Beecher has been the subject of several posts in this blog, including his influence on Isaac B. Werner's journal ("Finding Isaac's Journal," 10-23-2011; "Historic Diaries," 5-14-2015), his broader influence ("Advice from Henry Ward Beecher," 12-7-2012), and his position among wealthy men and women of the Gilded Age ("Turmoil in the Gilded Age," 1-14-2016).  However, this post relates to his very direct role in the history of Kansas.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in 1854 focused the spotlight during the prelude to the Civil War directly on Kansas by allowing its residents to determine whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state.  While allowing voters to determine the nature of their own state may have seemed to be a reasonable solution, the result was a competition to populate the state with voters sympathetic to one side or the other.  In effect, both sides set out not to stuff the ballot box with bogus ballots but rather to stuff the state with sympathetic voters.  Some of these new-comers to the region were genuine settlers; others came solely to establish temporary residences to serve their side of the issue.
New England was home to many people opposed to slavery, and some of them decided to leave New England and settle in Kansas.  New Haven, CT not only raised money for the resettlement but also some of their most prominent men joined the group willing to leave comfortable homes and established reputations for the uncertainties of Kansas.  When a meeting was held to raise money for the Connecticut-Kansas Company established for this venture, Henry Ward Beecher prompted others in the crowd to make their own pledges after making his pledge for money to buy 25 rifles if others in the crowd would meet that number with their pledges.  They did, with a total of 27.  Rev. Beecher's congregation in Brooklyn, NY honored their minister's pledge, sending not only $625 to buy the rifles but also 25 Bibles given by one of Beecher's parishioners.

This group of settlers from New Haven settled south of the Kaw River in a place called Wabaunsee.  Not all of them were prepared for the hardships of settlement in this remote place, which they referred to as "The New Haven of the West," and some returned to New England. Others were committed, and they organized "The Prairie Guard" in response to calls for men to defend Lawrence and spent 6 weeks fighting border ruffians harassing other Free State settlers there.

Their faith was an important part of their Free State mission, and they organized worship services immediately upon their arrival.  It was not until 1862, however, that their stone church was dedicated.  By then most of their men were away fighting in the Civil War, except for the old and the young.  Eventually, most of these settlers returned to live out their lives in the area from which they had come, but the few that remained influenced the region's development.

Wabaunsee's population decreased but the church was maintained well enough for the structure to survive, with a particular effort made on the Church's Centennial in 1957 to renovate the building.  The pictures taken for this blog show the church as of January 2016.  In a park nearby, the Kansas State Historical Society erected a monument reading:  "In Memory of The Beecher Bible and Rifle Colony, Which Settled This Area in 1856 And Helped Make Kansas A Free State.  May Future Generations Forever Pay Them Tribute."  R.S.C., 1969

In 1856 Henry Ward Beecher spoke not only in opposition to slavery but in favor of using lethal force to oppose slavery, specifically recommending the Sharps rifle.  On February 8, 1856, the following quote appeared in the New York Tribune:  "He (Henry W. Beecher) believed that the Sharps Rifle was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles.  You might just as the Bible to Buffaloes as to those fellows...but they have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in Sharp's rifle." 

Sharps 1863 Carbine .50-70 Calibre Antique Original
It is reported that shipment of rifles were transported in cases marked "Books" or "Bibles," and Sharp's Rifles acquired the common name of Beecher Bibles as a result.  Because shipments were often made in secret, the exact number of rifles is uncertain, but it is estimated that about 900 to 1,000 Sharps rifles were purchased for the border conflict in Kansas.

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