Plymouth Church of Brooklyn’s long history of social justice, from Henry Ward Beecher to MLK

Plymouth Church has had a longstanding presence in Brooklyn Heights, but many people do not realize the wealth of history that its walls have seen and the influential people who passed through its doors.

Founded in 1847 by New Englanders and families of the original pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, the church is as storied as any New York City landmark. But it’s not a relic. It’s accessible and still used much in the same way it was in its beginning, according to its historians and members.

It’s most notable member was its first pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, who was a staunch abolitionist and brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” There was a “rock star quality” to Beecher, whose sermons could pack the sanctuary 2,800 people deep, according to the church’s historians. Not one to shy away from controversy, Beecher held mock auctions to show the horrors of slavery and actually purchase the freedom of real slaves.

Under his leadership and its continued advocacy of justice for all, the church became one of the most prominent Protestant churches and saw visitors like Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and later, Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered the speech “The American Dream” on its altar.

It also has a very important history as a stop on the Underground Railroad — escaped slaves would be hidden under the church’s foundation, which you can still physically visit to this day.

Senior Minister Brett Younger says the church is still working hard to bring people together and help the needy.

“It’s like a working museum,” he said of the church. “You saw the abolition stuff and we keep doing that with anti-trafficking. You saw the courage of Beecher when it came to racial justice and we have a racial justice ministry … we are a part of the history and we are continuing to do the things that made this church great 171 years ago.”

Shaye Weaver