The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
Debby Applegate (Doubleday, 529 pages, $27.95)
Cliches notwithstanding, Debby Applegate’s fact-studded and fast-paced portrait of one of America’s most famous preachers from one of America’s most famous 19th-century families is a remarkably authentic mirror of the times. It was America’s Victorian era and like Britain’s, it seethed with a lively mixture of despair, reform and hope. Henry Ward Beecher was a dynamic creature of his times and here he is portrayed in exquisite and honest detail.
The mid-1800s was a utopian era of secular and religious utopianism. It produced the hard utopianism of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1948) and the soft utopianism advocated by the American writer, Edward Bellamy, in his Looking Backward, published a year after the death of Beecher. Bellamy’s bestseller vied with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the century’s best seller.
Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) shared the limelight with contemporary influentials, including his sister Harriet, who vigorously opposed slavery, and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) who fought a war to abolish it. And there was the redoubtable Mark Twain (1835-1910) who, while usually on the side of the angels on the big issues, poked fun at the pomposity and hypocrisy all around him.
In this dynamic America, Beecher shared 52 years with Lincoln and 20 with Twain. Then as now, virtually all top celebrities crossed paths, if not swords, with one another.
In this wild, wistful and tragic era, Beecher was considered by many as “the most famous man in America.” Like his more famous sister Harriet, he also was strongly opposed slavery and, like her, he advocated universal women’s suffrage.
Henry Beecher, no Jonathan Edwards, was a liberated Calvinist, and the most popular preacher of his day. He departed from the stern Calvinist teachings of his famous theologian father, Lyman Beecher, and embraced a more uplifting view of the human situation, but was quite capable of compromise when hard facts intruded.
Beecher was the senior minister of the famous Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, a national center of antislavery ferment. His opposition to slavery plunged him into politics and he was not reluctant to endorse candidates from his prestigious pulpit. He even staged mock slave auctions at his famous church.
Beecher was more like the 20th-century’s Harry Emerson Fosdick or Norman Vincent Peale than Reinhold Niebuhr, who emphasized the persistence of original sin — and original righteousness.
Like Fosdick’s Riverside Church in New York’s Upper West Side, Beecher’s Plymouth Church, buttressed by his flamboyant oratory and no less flamboyant personal life, drew regulars and visitors by the thousands to his Sunday services. They came from Manhattan to hear him in what were known as “Beecher Boats.” Among the throng were ordinary people, social reformers, politicians and the famous, such as Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln.
Aspects of Beecher’s place in the latter 19th century can be illustrated by Mark Twain’s visit to New York in January 1868, recorded in intriguing detail by Mrs. Applegate. Giving short shrift to his bohemian journalist buddies in Manhattan, Twain “Like all tourists . . . made Plymouth Church one of his first stops.”
After the ferry trip to Brooklyn and attending a Sunday service, Twain wrote: “Mr. Beecher is a remarkably handsome man when he is in the full tide of sermonizing . . . but he is as homely as a singed cat when he isn’t doing anything.” He also sneered at “Beecher’s free and easy salvation.”
Despite Twain’s mixed appraisal of America’s best-known cleric, he signed up for a deluxe cruise on the steamer Quaker City to the Holy Land sponsored by Beecher, who at the last minute decided not to go, prompting some of the women passengers to cancel their voyage. Twain went as a reporter, but his “shipboard essays soon turned . . . into a biting satire of his sanctimonious shipmates.” The account by Twain of visiting the Pyramids of Egypt on the Sabbath is hilarious.
On his return from the Holy Land cruise, Twain again met Beecher and gave him a compliment by calling him “a brick.” Later, when Twain was negotiating a book deal based on his overseas dispatches, Beecher advised him how to make a sound business contract. Twain followed his advice and his book, Innocents Abroad, made a small fortune.
Contemporary public figures felt free to poke fun at Beecher. One was Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who penned this classic limerick:
“Said the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher / ‘The hen is an elegant creature.’ / The hen pleased with that / Laid an egg in his hat. / And thus did the hen reward Beecher.”
Beecher’s role in more consequential matters was demonstrated by the way he grappled with slavery and with the efforts of an anguished President Lincoln deal with the problem. The two men knew each other and at least twice before becoming president, Lincoln stopped by Plymouth Church to hear its famous preacher. He later told the White House artist painting his portrait that “there was not upon record, in ancient or modern biography, so productive a mind as had been exhibited in the career of Henry Ward Beecher.”
Within hours after Beecher learned of his Lincoln’s assassination, he compared the president unfavorably with his successor, Andrew Johnson. Beecher said Johnson’s “little finger was stronger than Lincoln’s loins.” But soon his visceral utopian reaction to Lincoln gave way to a more pragmatic appraisal. And he actively supported Lincoln’s measured policies that helped guarantee a post-Civil War South “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Active in national politics, Beecher associated himself with the so-called “Conservative Republican” camp and “strongly supported universal suffrage for women as well as black men” and was an active fund-raiser for “freedmen’s aid organizations.”
Mrs. Applegate had no choice but to deal with the most controversial aspect of Henry Ward Beecher’s turbulent life — his relationship to the wives of wealthy members of his church, and she does so extensively. In Chapter 12, entitled “I Am Reliably Assured That Beecher Preaches to Seven or Eight Mistresses Every Sunday Evening,” and elsewhere she presents compelling evidence of his more than pastoral encounters with adoring women.
Even in those Victorian days, there were radical feminists who advocated “free love” and who justified Beecher’s behavior, but the vast majority of Americans were aghast. In those straight-laced Victorian days it was considered uncouth to expose adulterous behavior for fear that such exposure would undermine the very foundations of society. Eventually, Beecher’s behavior resulted in a trial that became the most widely covered event of the century.
Yes, Henry Ward Beecher was a philanderer. So was Albert Einstein. Does that make Beecher any less of an abolitionist or Einstein any less of an eminent physicist?
Mrs. Applegate’s fine book is a rich multihued tapestry of a man and an era. Like David McCullough’s monumental John Adams and The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, she painstakingly mined the resources of multiple libraries and archives.
But she sometimes falls short of the nuances of character and philosophy of her subject that these two authors so brilliantly display. She does not, for example, delineate sufficiently the subtle differences between the hard and soft Calvinists.
But that’s a minor flaw. She provides a rich menu of detail about the lives, thoughts, and foibles of Americans who are very much like their counterparts today. And she accomplishes what every good biographer should: present a full-blooded portrait of her character in the context of his times.
A rollicking good read.
— Ernest W. Lefever is founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is Liberating the Limerick: 230 Irresistible Classics. He can be reached at email@example.com.