No one predicted success for Henry Ward Beecher at his birth in 1813. The blithe, boisterous son of the last great Puritan minister, he seemed destined to be overshadowed by his brilliant siblings--especially his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned the century's bestselling book Uncle Tom's Cabin. But when pushed into the ministry, the charismatic Beecher found international fame by shedding his father Lyman's Old Testament-style fire-and-brimstone theology and instead preaching a New Testament-based gospel of unconditional love and healing, becoming one of the founding fathers of modern American Christianity. By the 1850s, his spectacular sermons at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights had made him New York's number one tourist attraction, so wildly popular that the ferries from Manhattan to Brooklyn were dubbed "Beecher Boats."
Beecher inserted himself into nearly every important drama of the era--among them the antislavery and women's suffrage movements, the rise of the entertainment industry and tabloid press, and controversies ranging from Darwinian evolution to presidential politics. He was notorious for his irreverent humor and melodramatic gestures, such as auctioning slaves to freedom in his pulpit and shipping rifles--nicknamed "Beecher's Bibles"--to the antislavery resistance fighters in Kansas. Thinkers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Twain befriended--and sometimes parodied--him.
And then it all fell apart. In 1872 Beecher was accused by feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull of adultery with one of his most pious parishioners. Suddenly the "Gospel of Love" seemed to rationalize a life of lust. The cuckolded husband brought charges of "criminal conversation" in a salacious trial that became the most widely covered event of the century, garnering more newspaper headlines than the entire Civil War. Beecher survived, but his reputation and his causes--from women's rights to progressive evangelicalism--suffered devastating setbacks that echo to this day.
Featuring the page-turning suspense of a novel and dramatic new historical evidence, Debby Applegate has written the definitive biography of this captivating, mercurial, and sometimes infuriating figure. In our own time, when religion and politics are again colliding and adultery in high places still commands headlines, Beecher's story sheds new light on the culture and conflicts of contemporary America.
- Pulitzer Prize
Now nearly forgotten, Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) was an immensely famous minister, abolitionist and public intellectual whose career was rocked by allegations of adultery that made nationwide headlines. In this engaging biography, American studies scholar Applegate situates this curiously modern 19th-century figure at the focus of epochal developments in American culture. Beecher's mesmerizing oratory and fiery newspaper columns made him one of the first celebrities of the nascent mass media. His antislavery politics, though often tepid and vacillating, Applegate argues, injected a note of emotionalism into the debate that--with his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin--galvanized Northern public opinion. And by preaching a loving God instead of a wrathful one, the author contends, Beecher repudiated the dour Calvinism of his youth and made happiness and self-fulfillment, rather than sin and guilt, the centerpiece of modern Christian ideology. (The implicit moral anarchy of his creed, critics charged, evinced itself in his sexual indiscretions.) Although marred by occasionally facile psychoanalysis (Applegate describes Beecher, the seventh of 12 siblings, as a classic "middle child" personality), this assessment of Beecher is judicious and critical. Applegate gives an insightful account of a contradictory, fascinating, rather Clintonesque figure who, in many ways, was America's first liberal. (June 27)
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Showing 1-1 of the 1 most recent reviews
1 . Pretty interesting story about someone I'd never heard of
Posted August 30, 2009 by Peter Martin , Zurich, SwitzerlandI liked this book, but it is certainly not for everyone. It is a rather lengthy volume about a relatively obscure American historical figure.
The real problem that I had with this book is all the typographical errors that the ebook version had. It was extremely distracting. I've read a lot of ebooks, but this one was the worst by far in terms of typographical errors. I'm not exaggerating by suggesting that there was an error about every other page. That doesn't seem acceptable in the age of spell checking programs.
June 26, 2006
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Excerpt from The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate
"Damned If You Do, and Damned If You Don't"
One evening in late December, sometime around 1820, Henry Ward Beecher trudged through the snow, returning home from running an errand for his parents. Exactly how old he was he couldn't say, but he was still a chubby little boy, with wide gray eyes set above apple red cheeks. As he passed up the long town common in the center of the village, he was surprised to see Litchﬁeld's little brown Episcopalian church lit up like a beacon in the early darkness.
Henry was far too young to follow the ﬁne theological distinctions his father used to separate the good Protestants from the bad Protestants, but of this he was sure: The Episcopalians were on the bad side. He needed no other proof than the fact that they didn't attend the white-steepled church where his father, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, preached every Sunday. In truth, God and Lyman Beecher were so intertwined in the little boy's mind that he did not quite grasp that Episcopalianism was a rival religion, he later recalled, "for I supposed there was no other religion except that which my father looked after."
Henry was irresistibly drawn to the open door of the church, and as he peered in he was shocked to ﬁnd candles blazing at every window; boughs of spruce, pine, and arborvitae twined around the pews; and a choir singing blissfully about the birth of Christ. He had never seen such a spectacle, certainly not in his father's austere meetinghouse, and he could not imagine what it meant.
Although he did not know it then, this dazzling vision would be Henry's only taste of Christmas as a child. Christmas "was not known in the house of my father, for he was a Puritan of the Puritans," Henry said years later. "I never heard of Santa Claus when I was a boy. I never hung up a stocking. I feel bad about it to this day."(1)
When Henry was a boy, his faith in his father was so deeply ingrained that it never occurred to him to ask why they did not celebrate Christmas. If he had, Lyman's answer would have been unequivocal. As an orthodox Calvinist, Lyman Beecher interpreted the Bible literally, as solid fact, and there was nothing in the Scriptures to suggest that Christ was born on December 25. And even if there were, the day would be an occasion for solemn prayer, not sensual frivolity. Why, the Beechers didn't even celebrate their own birthdays.
If the Episcopalians chose to delude themselves about Christ's birth that was one thing, as far as Lyman was concerned, but this business of ﬁlling the church with decadent appeals to the senses-with music, gaudy decorations, and gifts-was a sneaky attempt to lure the good Christians of Connecticut from the true faith of the Puritan fathers. Lyman had no patience for newfangled notions of religious tolerance or the separation of church and state. Episcopalians, Unitarians, Catho-lics-Lyman lumped them together with atheists, drunkards, thieves, and Jeffersonian Democrats, declaring each one a force of deviltry to be fought tooth and nail.
Despite his harsh dogma, Henry's father was not a cruel man. Those who knew the famous Reverend Beecher only by rumor or from reading his sensational ﬁre-and-brimstone sermons were often surprised to ﬁ nd that in person he was warm and witty, ﬁercely intelligent, and deeply compassionate. When he invoked the terrors of the devil and the terrible judgment of God's law, it was not out of perversity but because he was truly heartbroken that, as he saw it, so many "immortal souls are sleeping on the brink of hell."(2)
Lyman's devotion to God was rivaled only by his devotion to his children, and like any good parent, he wanted them to be happy. But in this age before modern medicine, when many families in New England lost at least one child to the grave, he was tortured by the fear that his children would be suddenly swept away by death before he could bring them to God. If they felt deprived by missing such pleasures as Christmas, Lyman was more than willing to trade their happiness on earth to secure their eternal happiness in heaven.
That cold Christmas Eve, Henry's small heart swelled with conﬂicting emotions as he "stood wistful, and with a vague curiosity, looking in, and wondering what sort of folks these Episcopal Church people were." He would have liked nothing better than to be in the middle of such gaiety and excitement. Yet even at this young age, he found it impossible to shake his father's teachings. He turned away from the church and headed home, with a "feeling of mixed wonder and pity" for those people who dwelled so far outside his father's sphere.