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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."

Abraham Lincoln sat in this pew

Henry Bowen, who was a member of the
Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver

Henry Bowen, who was a member of the church and publisher of The Independent newspaper, invited Abraham Lincoln to speak at Plymouth in 1860. Because Brooklyn was hard to get to in the days before the Brooklyn Bridge, his speech was moved to Union Hall in Manhattan. Lincoln still attended a church service (twice in fact) and sat in this pew, four rows from the front. Even cooler, you can sit there, too.

The church's 19th century organ has more than 4,000 pipes

The original organ from 1849 was operated by
Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver

The original organ from 1849 was operated by pumping water into it, but it was replaced with a new one in 1866, which was updated over the next century. With 4,000 pipes and a large structure, its been retrofitted over time to keep it from toppling over or sinking down. Now safely secure, the instrument's vibrations can be felt by the choir on stage. Those who take the tour this weekend will be able to peek inside a secret door to see the pipes up close and listen to the church's organist performing.

The church is said to have created the first hymnal

Churches in the mid-1800s would usually have a
Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver

Churches in the mid-1800s would usually have a cantor sing a line of music and the congregation would echo it back or the choir would do all the singing. But the first pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, wanted the congregation to get people invested in the lyrics they were singing. Despite publishers not seeing any money in it, the hymnal was published by the church and the idea spread across the country.

Its sanctuary windows tell stories

The sanctuary's Tiffany windows depict founding and leading
Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver

The sanctuary's Tiffany windows depict founding and leading members of the church, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose brother was the pastor.

The church's basement was a stop on the Underground Railroad

The church aided escaped slaves from the South.
Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver

The church aided escaped slaves from the South. They'd come mostly by water and always under the cover of darkness, staying only one or two nights in this dark basement with low ceilings. A tour of the church always includes a trip down the metal stairs and under the archways to see the space.

There's a piece of the coat Lincoln wore when he was assassinated

A square-cut piece of Abraham Lincoln's coat jacket
Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver

A square-cut piece of Abraham Lincoln's coat jacket that he wore the night of his assassination is on display in the church's long gallery. The staff see it as a grimly interesting artifact but also distasteful on the part of whomever came up with the idea to cut up the poor man's coat and sell it.

An actual piece of Plymouth Rock is on display, too

In the same gallery, you can touch a
Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver

In the same gallery, you can touch a piece of Plymouth Rock that is mounted to the wall. It was given to the church in 1940 after the actual rock had to be moved back from the water. As it was moved, pieces of it fell off and were taken. Since the congregation was founded by members of the original Plymouth church, it is history from its very beginning.

It's also where Branch Rickey decided to sign Jackie Robinson

Senior Minister Brett Younger's own office is said
Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver

Senior Minister Brett Younger's own office is said to be where the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, decided to sign Jackie Robinson. The then-pastor reminded Rickey, who was also a church member, about the church's investment in social justice, and before Rickey left he said, "Now I know what I'm going to do." There also are artifacts displayed about the office, including a wooden communion chalice brought back by church members from their tour of Israel -- the same tour that Mark Twain went on for his book "The Innocents Abroad," in which he "insulted everyone at Plymouth," the pastor said.

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