Name: Plymouth Church
Address: 75 Hicks Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY 11201
Architect or Builder: Wells, Joseph C.
Style: Classical Revival
NYC Boroughs/Neighborhoods: Brooklyn Heights
Special Activities: Choir Performance/Concert, Guided Tours, Organ Demonstration, and Self Guided Tours
Date/Time of Activities: Saturday & Sunday 12:30pm – 2:30pm
Plymouth Church has been a vital presence in Brooklyn for over 160 years, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
Its long and vibrant musical history begins with its founding minister, Henry Ward Beecher, who loved music and wanted what he called “a singing church.” Under his guidance, Plymouth put both words and music into the hands of a congregation for the first time when it published a hymnal in 1855.
Plymouth’s sanctuary is dominated by a magnificent organ. The four-manual, 59-rank, 4162 pipe instrument was the largest in the country when it was installed in 1866. It is one of only a few Aeolian-Skinner organs to have retained its original design. Visitors will have a special opportunity for an up-close look at it.
Free musical performances will be offered between tours on both Saturday and Sunday at 1:15 pm. These will feature works for voice and organ by American composers, centering on the theme of “Freedom.”
Guided tours will highlight Plymouth’s unique role in American history. The congregation’s invitation to Abraham Lincoln resulted in his momentous Cooper Union address, securing his nomination for the presidency. In the 1850’s the church earned a reputation for being the “Grand Central Depot of the Underground Railroad.” Member Branch Rickey prayed at the church before hiring Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech at Plymouth called “The American Dream.”
The congregation remains an active community for social justice, education and spiritual growth.
Plymouth Church was founded in 1847 by transplanted New Englanders who wanted a Congregational church like those in which they had been raised, with a simple order of worship, governed by the congregation.
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 served the church from its founding in 1847 until his sudden death in 1887. His 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, designed by Joseph C. Wells with seating for 2,800 was quickly constructed, and completed in 1850, fronting on Orange Street, behind the ruined original. Among its many innovations were delicate cast iron columns holding up the main balcony, first introduced in 1849. A smaller pipe organ installed in 1849 was replaced in 1866 with what was then the largest organ in the United States, built by E. and G.G. Hook of Boston. More recent additions to the Sanctuary include the chandelier and front portico.
The nineteen major windows of the Sanctuary, installed between 1907 and 1909, were designed by Frederick Stymetz Lamb and fabricated by his brothers, of the J. and R. Lamb Studios in Greenwich Village. As planned by then-minister Newell Dwight Hillis, they are unusual in depicting historical, not religious, subjects, taking as their theme the influence of Puritanism (the parent of Congregationalism) on the growth of liberty in the United States–personal liberty, religious liberty and political liberty. After a 1934 merger with the neighboring Church of the Pilgrims (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, and also open this weekend for tours), Tiffany windows from the former Church of the Pilgrims were relocated to the Hillis Hall behind Plymouth Church.
In 1867, a group from the Church undertook a five-and-a-half month voyage 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 Thackeray. 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.