Fall Books
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

By Debby Applegate
Doubleday, 384 pages, $27.95
Lionized in his own time, half-forgotten in ours


In prose as vivid as her subject’s personality, historian Debby Applegate narrates the life of Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87) in this solidly researched and well-written biography. In her skilled hands, Beecher’s life becomes a lens through which to view a time of unprecedented change in America’s religious, political and social life. Ms. Applegate deftly weaves in information on the settling of the West, slavery and abolition, presidential politics, the Civil War, and women’s rights -- all issues that concerned Beecher and his family -- with concise explanations of intellectual and social history.

Henry Ward Beecher was, for most of his career, the charismatic and successful pastor of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, a gifted orator at a time when public speaking was a source of both popular entertainment and social influence. He was also a vain and ambitious man with a need for adulation that his wife could not, or would not, provide. His vanity and self-pity led to reckless seductive behavior with women in his congregation, frequently the wives of his wealthy friends. Despite persistent rumors (“I am reliably assured that Beecher preached to seven or eight mistresses every Sunday evening”), he remained so popular with his congregation that he survived an 1864 civil trial for adultery. (It ended, after six months, in a hung jury.)

Ms. Applegate offers a sensitive treatment of Henry Ward Beecher’s religious journey from the Calvinism of his youth, with its “burden of original sin ... compounded by the capriciousness of salvation” to a “vision of Christ as a lover sent down to ease the burdens of mankind.”

Ms. Applegate writes, “Mainstream Christianity is so deeply infused with the rhetoric of Christ’s love that most Americans can imagine nothing else, and have no appreciation or memory of the revolution wrought by Beecher and his peers.”

It was all the more remarkable that this therapeutic understanding of religion (“Christianity did not exist for the glory of God ... but for the pleasure and health of mankind”) would be shaped by a son of the influential minister Lyman Beecher (1775-1863.) Henry’s early religious struggles with the “heavy psychological toll” of Calvinism led, “in his darker moods ... into a cycle of shame and self-loathing, which, in turn, bred discouragement, skepticism, and secret resistance.” Shortly before his 1837 ordination, however, Beecher had a religious breakthrough, concluding that God was “parental, not governmental; medicinal, not punitive; and salvation came from love rather than obedience to the law.”

As a young, newly married minister, his romantic dream of being a missionary was tested against the poverty of Lawrenceburgh, Ind., but it was there that he learned to preach through close observation of his more successful Methodist peers. A wonderfully social man, he rarely, if ever, made pastoral visits, but delighted in friendships with people in all walks and classes of life. After two years he left Lawrenceburgh for Indianapolis, and in 1847 went to Brooklyn Heights, where he would remain until his death.

He may have shed Lyman Beecher’s theology, but he remained his father’s son in the way he responded to contentious public issues. In 1832 Lyman Beecher had assumed the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. When Henry began his studies there two years later, the seminary was divided, as was Presbyterianism, by disputes that, ostensibly about theology, were actually about slavery. Henry kept to the “moderate middle” of the slavery question. “He [had] inherited his father’s political temperament. He shied away from the grand revolutionaries, leaning instead toward the conservative gradual reformism.”

Beecher would struggle with a lifelong tension between conscience and expediency. “His progressive, crusading instinct warred against his conservative tendency to claim the middle ground.” New York City’s financial wealth was tied to the Southern economy and its working class was a “sea of Southern sympathizers,” but Plymouth Church was solidly antislavery. Beecher organized mock slave auctions to purchase the freedom of slaves, raised money for rifles (“Beecher’s Bibles”) to send to antislavery settlers in Kansas, and through his extensive writings and speeches helped to frame the religious response to slavery.

“His painful awareness of his own weaknesses and his ongoing battle to overcome them were the wellspring of his great and lasting contribution to American life: the all-forgiving Gospel of Love” that he preached through “an era of bewildering change and fratricidal war.” After Beecher’s death “it became fashionable to dismiss him as a soft-headed sentimentalist” but Ms. Applegate argues that he was “a consummate realist, who preached the consolations of love precisely because he was so keenly aware of the world’s inevitable pain and alienation.”

Debby Applegate may not succeed in convincing everyone that Henry Ward Beecher was, or deserved to be, “the most famous man in America,” but she offers an insightful analysis of a period that shaped (and in some ways continues to shape) American political and religious life. Ironically, she achieves this through a clarity of focus that the frequently undisciplined Henry Ward Beecher lacked, a quality that made his life so tumultuous and thus so representative of 19th-century America.

Rachelle Linner, a librarian and writer, lives in Boston.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to:  webkeeper@natcath.org