Preacher Beecher and the Molding of the American Christian Mind
A review of Debby Applegate’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography.
By Mary Beth Crain
And why not? After all, military battles soon become tedious, atrocities commonplace, death a mere fact of life. But the Beecher-Tilton affair was never for one moment boring. On the contrary, it provided endless titillation for a headline-hungry America in which the relatively new invention of the daily paper was today’s equivalent of TV and the Internet, and an outwardly prim populace was seething with sexual curiosity, especially where its most illustrious man of the cloth was concerned.
“The Most Famous Man in America,” Debby Applegate’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Beecher, gives us all the juicy details of her subject’s adulterous escapades, and far more. Applegate, a summa cum laude graduate of Amherst College, Beecher’s old alma mater, has performed a literary feat of admirable proportions. Not only does she provide a fascinating biography of Beecher; in the process she gives us a biography of 19th century America as well. And it’s a veritable page-turner; from the moment the book opens—on April 14, 1865, with Beecher on board the ocean liner Arago, on his way to deliver the main address on the grand occasion of the Union Army’s recapture of Fort Sumter, unaware that this historic event would fatefully coincide with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln—to the final page, by which time we have lived through not only Beecher’s but the new nation’s turbulent life—the reader is driven to discover just what made both of them tick.
In fact, Beecher and America really grew up together. The breath of the American Revolution could still be felt on the country’s neck when Henry Ward Beecher was born in 1813, in Litchfield County, Connecticut. It was, as Applegate notes, “one of the most terrifying, tumultuous periods in American history…The American Revolution…left a long wake of social, economic and political upheaval. The future of the young Republic was still very much up in the air in 1813, creating an atmosphere of tremendous exhilaration and profound anxiety—a potent combination that would shape the emotional core of Henry Ward Beecher and his generation.”
America was really not America yet, at least not the America we know today. Those were the days when Way Out West meant the crude pig and whistle stop known as Ohio, and New York had not yet become the ruling metropolis of the nation. The United States of 1813 was little more than an untamed collection of 18 headstrong states, each with its own peculiar history and sensibility, and each casting a suspicious eye on the others.
The Connecticut in which Beecher grew up was Puritan, hard working and education oriented—“clocks, granite and schoolteachers were its chief exports.” It was also a proud opponent of the separation of church and state guaranteed, at a national level, anyway, by the new federal constitution of 1788. In 1813, Connecticut was still a theocracy, in which, notes Applegate, “every household was taxed for the support of the state-sanctioned Congregationalist Church.”
In the village of Litchfield, Lyman Beecher, Henry’s father, ruled as one of the most famous preachers of his day. An orthodox Calvinist, the grim, austere Beecher senior had earned the unflattering nickname of “Brimstone Beecher,” and life in his household was one of relentless strictness and moral chastising. Young Henry grew up with the fear, not the love, of God instilled in his heart. “Sunday was the dreadful day of the week to me,” he later recalled. “Thou shalt not, thou shalt not.” Being happy was equated with idleness and sinfulness, to the point where the little boy was wracked with guilt when he woke up one morning “merry as a cricket, singing almost before I was awake,” until it hit him that it was Sunday. “I had such a horror of the wickedness which I supposed I was committing that I hid myself under the bed clothes, creeping out as I found I was not dead.”
But Lyman Beecher was a complex character. He could be as kind and loving as he was harsh and exacting, as intellectually rigorous as he was theologically closed-minded. The Beecher children were known as brilliant scholars and thinkers, for debate on religious and political issues was a popular pastime in the house. And, contrary to the thinking of the day, which kept women firmly secure at the hearth and far away from intellectual pursuits, the Beecher girls were expected to hold their own in the arena of mind sports. Remember Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the runaway anti-slavery bestseller of 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Yup, that was Henry’s older sister.
Lyman made his way through America determined to bring the masses to their repentant knees before it was too late. He genuinely believed that he was put on the earth to save everybody’s soul, and took it for granted that his sons would follow in his footsteps. Two of them did succumb to his wishes, with disastrous results; one was miserable at the profession and the other committed suicide. Henry, on the other hand, just didn’t seem like good ministerial material. As a boy, he hated speaking in front of an audience, to the point where he stuttered and froze. He wasn’t a great student. And, above all, he simply didn’t feel the “call.”
Ironically, it was Henry who became, in the end, the prodigal son, not only following in Lyman’s footsteps but overshadowing him in a way no one could have dreamed. He had a mystical experience that led him to feel that he had at last been called to the clergy. He not only lost his childhood fear of public speaking; he became the most sought after speaker in the country. By the 1850’s, his pulpit, Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, was so famous that his sermons garnered SRO crowds. And his audiences included some of the most famous men of the time, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain, who, while a tourist in New York, considered Plymouth Church one of the must-see sites. He described his experience:
He then added, dryly,
Even more interesting than the fact that Henry became a preacher in the first place is the fact that his theology differed so profoundly from his father’s. He could have become a carbon copy of “Brimstone Beecher,” converting the multitudes through the threat of eternal hell fire. Instead, he had an epiphany in his 20s, in which it was revealed to him that God was not fury and vengeance but rather love and compassion. While this may seem like old news to us, it was, in the early 19th century, a daring concept, one that made Beecher a pioneering advocate of the “feel good” spirituality that has such a modern ring.
But Beecher did far more for Christianity than to simply transform the recipe for salvation from bitter into sweet. He drove it into the very heart of society, equating true Christian love with true democratic justice. From the 1830s until the Civil War, the most sizzling issue on the political/economic/religious stove was slavery, and Henry Ward Beecher was at the forefront of the controversy. An early abolitionist, Beecher’s impassioned discourses were built upon the belief in God’s love for all men, and his eloquence lit fires under listeners and readers across the country and beyond. His sermons were not merely reflections; they were a call to arms. In effect, says Applegate, “he turned the church into a powerful anti-slavery institution.”
In 1863, when Great Britain was contemplating an alliance with the Confederacy, Beecher made a series of speeches in England that helped to quash that notion and win international sympathy for the Union forces. The popular reverend was so integral to the Union victory, in fact, that it was none other than President Lincoln who hand picked him to give the address at Fort Sumter. “We had better send Beecher down to deliver the address on the raising of the flag,” Lincoln said, “because if it had not been for Beecher, there would have been no flag to raise.” (Ironically, if it had not been for Beecher’s sister, there might not have been the Civil War, period; it’s said that at a gathering some ten years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lincoln introduced Harriet Beecher Stowe as “The little lady who started this Great War.”)
If, as Applegate maintains, “Beecher made the anti-slavery movement respectable to mainstream Americans,” he made Christianity happily accessible to them as well. Yet his all-embracing ideas of God as love, and human beings as the natural instrument of that love, would eventually become the biggest nails in the coffin of his undoing. As charismatic, witty, and passionately intense as Beecher was, it was inevitable that women would find him irresistible, and that he would be tempted accordingly. To put it another way, breed Billy Graham with Bill Clinton and you have Henry Ward Beecher.
Although married to the same woman for over 40 years, and the father of some 10 children—most of whom, sadly, died in early childhood—Beecher was rumored to have had affairs with a number of parishioners and wives of his friends, and even to have fathered at least one illegitimate child. But the incident that burned the ears of the world concerned Elizabeth Tilton, wife of the famed social reformer Theodore Tilton, a long-time pal of Beecher’s. For years, Beecher practically lived at the Tilton’s, and had become the pastorly confidant of Elizabeth when Theodore was away on his many speaking tours.
Eventually it was revealed that their intimacy was far more than platonic. Beecher’s enemies seized the opportunity to destroy him, and Elizabeth Tilton ran the emotional gamut from publicly admitting the affair to publicly retracting her confession to publicly retracting her retraction! The civil trial, Theodore Tilton vs. Henry Ward Beecher, became the media circus of 1875. At the end of it all, Beecher’s popularity saved him from total ruin. But his reputation was badly tarnished, and his great legacy tragically compromised.
To her credit, Ms. Applegate does not downplay Beecher’s flaws. He was as self-indulgent and narcissistic as you might expect from a stage hog; while most preachers of the day were dry and dull, Beecher was a consummate actor, mime, comedian, and wit. He could also be whiny and obnoxiously melodramatic. By the same token, he was brilliant, unabashedly romantic, and kind, and a supreme non-elitist who was loved by both sexes and all classes. As a friend, he shone, as a husband, he sucked—so what else is new?
As a biography, “The Most Famous Man in America” is almost a virtual reality experience. Applegate has done such a remarkable job of making Henry Ward Beecher come alive that you feel as though he’s sitting in the room with you. It’s eerie, even creepy. How she did it I’m not sure, but I take my hat off to her. And so, I’m sure, does Beecher. In fact, let’s hope he’s not taking off any more than that. Keep your trousers on, Henry!
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last essay for SoMA was Cleanliness Is Next to Craziness: A Domestic History, Part I.
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