Old Yale

Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition

How Yale and New Haven sent settlers and "Beecher's Bibles" to 1850s Kansas.

Judith Ann Schiff is chief research archivist at the Yale University Library.

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery

Henry Ward Beecher (right), son of Lyman Beecher (center) and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (left), inspired a group of antislavery New Haven residents to go to Kansas. View full image

In 1916, Yale celebrated the 200th anniversary of its removal from Saybrook to New Haven with a grand pageant at the Yale Bowl, reenacting scenes from town and gown history. One scene, titled “The Kansas Volunteers,” told the story of the college and the town sending antislavery settlers and arms to Kansas in 1856. One of the leaders of that effort had been the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher, whose family had deep ties to Yale and New Haven.

During the winter prior to the settling of the New Haven Colony in 1638, an advance party, including John Beecher, had camped on the site to protect the settlers’ claim. Beecher died of exposure before the rest of the founders arrived from Boston. Widow Beecher became the town midwife.

The first Beecher to attend Yale was Lyman Beecher, Class of 1797 (1775–1863), the son of a New Haven blacksmith. Rated as one of the most effective preachers of righteousness in the first half of the nineteenth century, he was the father of Henry Ward Beecher.

Lyman’s son Edward graduated from Yale in 1822, his son George in 1828; his eldest son, William, received an honorary MA degree from Yale in 1833. Three daughters won national and international fame: educator Catherine Beecher; suffragist and social activist Isabella Beecher Hooker, and author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Although Henry Ward Beecher did not go to Yale—he graduated from Amherst in 1834—he lectured at the Divinity School for several years via the lectureship established by his father. (The Beecher family papers are in Manuscripts and Archives at the Yale Library.)

From his position as pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, Henry Ward Beecher would become the most famous preacher in America. Although an adultery scandal and trial in the 1870s later tarred his reputation, in the 1850s he was well known not just for his preaching, but also for his impassioned opposition to slavery.

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act made possible the expansion of slavery into those territories, there was a rush into Kansas by both proslavery and antislavery forces to populate the territory and influence the establishment of a government there. Beecher supported arming the colonists. He raised funds to send Sharps rifles to abolitionist forces, telling the New York Tribune in February 1856 that the weapons would do more good than “a hundred Bibles.” As a result, the Sharps rifle became known as a “Beecher’s Bible.” (Another reason for the nickname may have been that the cases in which the rifles were shipped were often marked “Books” or “Bibles,” to conceal the identity of the contents from proslavery men and from the federal and state authorities who had forbidden the shipping of arms to the region.)

At the same time, a company of colonists for Kansas was recruited in New Haven. On March 20, Beecher addressed a benefit meeting for these volunteers at United Church on the Green. Upwards of a thousand dollars was raised for the use of the company. Finding that the emigrants were unarmed, Beecher, Yale professor Benjamin Silliman, and others asked for pledges to furnish 50 Sharps rifles. Yale senior Ira Dunlap and junior Moses Tyler offered to raise $25 for a rifle from members of each class. The pastor of the church, Samuel Dutton ’33, presented a Bible and a rifle to Charles B. Lines, one of his deacons, who was among the volunteers.

Not everyone shared their enthusiasm. The Democratic-leaning New Haven Register published severe criticism of the company, and some Southern members of the junior class objected to the pledge of a rifle in the class’s name.  

The colonists left for Kansas on March 31. They settled in Waubansee, Kansas Territory, in time to see the worst of the violence that gripped the territory before it became the free state of Kansas in 1861. Some of the New Haven colonists spent the rest of their lives in Waubansee, where the historic Beecher Bible and Rifle Church still stands.   

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