The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
560 pp., 22.0
That Loving Feeling
Henry Ward Beecher, the son of a New England divine and brother to the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, became the most celebrated preacher of the Civil War era. The subject of Debby Applegate's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Most Famous Man in America, Beecher is also remembered for a sex-scandal that played out on the front pages—a tabloidish drama that will remind many readers of the Clinton-Lewinski affair. The obvious parallel may well account for the biography's publication to a wide audience.
When the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher's seduction of Mrs. Elizabeth Tilton became public knowledge, Brooklyn's Plymouth Church tried to cover up their pastor's infidelity through a rigged investigation. By that time, 1871, Beecher, the offended husband, Theodore Tilton, and their mutual business partner, Henry Bowen, had been trying to reconcile for two years through secret meetings and written agreements. Their efforts came undone when the radical suffragette Victoria Woodhull, offended by Beecher's sisters, decided to let the world know that Henry Ward Beecher practiced the free love principles Victoria Woodhull was being vilified for advocating.
Others knew that in addition to Mrs. Tilton, Beecher had "ravished" Edna Dean Proctor, likely fathered Mrs. Chloe Beach's child Violet, and had other women slipping in and out of his church office. Still, Plymouth Church thought it could keep the lid on. Because Beecher had often been abetted in his infidelities by the injured parties, including the cuckolded husbands, the victims' stories appeared too outrageous to be credible. Since Mrs. Tilton confessed and retracted her confession of the affair multiple times, and Beecher always took care to phrase his admissions with a Clintonian nicety, proof of Beecher's affair with Mrs. Tilton, as well as his dalliances with others, remained circumstantial.
Debby Applegate presents her subject in the way his audiences and friends found him, as a figure of endless fascination, if mysteriously flawed. Beecher was a charismatic orator who combined the eloquence of a Phillips Brooks with the emotional appeal of Charles Finney. Applegate credits Beecher with moving mainline Protestantism away from its abstract, cold Calvinist roots to the pervasive belief in a loving God that we now take for granted. Beecher put man at the center of theological discourse and, following the Romantics and America's Transcendentalists, looked to the "reason of the heart"—imagination and intuition—to find life's meaning.
Applegate is a fine writer, and she does many, many things wonderfully well here. The book opens with a bravura set-piece: Beecher's address at the celebration of Ft. Sumter's recapture. This took place, unexpectedly, just after Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox and on the very day of Lincoln's nighttime assassination. Applegate shows us the setting and the festivities in vivid descriptive passages that a novelist might envy.
The coming-of-age story that occupies the first third of the biography has more to say about the spiritual struggles of Beecher and his contemporaries than the later scandal. Henry Ward Beecher and his gifted siblings were raised and largely educated by their celebrated father, Lyman. Lyman Beecher began his ministry as an advocate of "Old School" Calvinism. He taught his children to understand Christianity in the metaphysical framework of their catechism. Original sin and predestination of the elect were foundational.
Beginning with the era of Jonathan Edwards and the first Great Awakening, the American Reformed tradition had been struggling to integrate revivalism into its understanding of election. The Calvinist model of family covenant baptism and subsequent confirmation suffered alterations to various degrees. While teaching his children a Calvinist Christianity, Lyman Beecher also embraced revivalism, watching anxiously over his children to see if they underwent a sufficiently cataclysmic personal conversion. His brood of twelve may have known nothing but Christ and Him crucified from their first breaths, but Lyman Beecher was convinced that they must experience themselves as desperate sinners and reach out to an unknown God.
His son Henry Ward Beecher went through the ups and downs of many revivalist children. In his youth he had several encounters with the Almighty dramatic enough to convince him for a time that his soul had been turned permanently toward paradise. But when the ecstasy of these experiences faded and he found his behavior succumbing to old wayward patterns, he began to doubt once more. Applegate shows how the tensions of Calvinism and revivalism abraded Henry's temperament. He wanted to be sunny, to enjoy life. His sensuous nature was starved by a Calvinism that went so far as to eschew the festivities of Christmas.
Applegate takes it for granted that the dour manners of Old School Calvinism in early 19th-century New England are direct reflections of the "cruel, convoluted logic" of such doctrines as original sin. She can hardly wait, it sometimes seems, for Henry to throw this over and identify religion with noble sentiments. Indeed, her point-of-view as biographer seems so much the product of theological liberalism that her book is tainted with liberalism's most insufferable habit: the assumption that traditional doctrines are so passe that they are best passed over with a wink and a nod. This stance typically represents itself as courtesy, but it originates in conceit and clothes itself in decorous condescension.
Â In the case of Applegate's otherwise fine biography, this presumption displaces and then leaves in neglect the drama of Beecher's interior life. Applegate's writing is at its best when she settles into historical narrative. Her recitation of the Civil War years, in which she uses Beecher largely as a lens on the great events of his time, is compelling. But the narrative material too often becomes a scrim shielding Beecher from close inspection. The reader will learn more about what Beecher actually thought in the five pages George Marsden devotes to Beecher in his indispensable Fundamentalism and American Culture.
Much against Applegate's intent, we are left to conclude—as did many of Beecher's contemporaries—that his liberalism and his perfidy went hand in hand. E.L. Godkin, who wrote for The Nation, commented on Beecher's theology: "As his God is wholly love and is no respecter of persons, attempts to imitate Him result simply in the deliberate and systematic suppression of all discrimination touching character and conduct, and the cultivation of a purely emotional theology, made up, not of opinions, but of sights and tears and aspirations and unlimited good-nature. As God loves and forgives the sinner, why should not we?"
Applegate wants to maintain Beecher's status as a liberal hero. She defends him on the grounds that the great strength of his emotional candor—the driving force behind his spellbinding powers as an orator—unhappily had its dark side in his inability to resist having sex with his friends' wives:
One cannot view Beecher's career without thinking of the many charismatic men who were driven to heady heights by their unquenchable longing for approbation and who risked their legacies by letting this longing shade into lust—men of indisputable stature such as Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton. Like them, what made Beecher larger than life was his ability to transform his flaws into a powerful force of empathy and ambition.
As to such reasoning, I stand with one of Beecher's contemporaries, the founder of Wheaton College, Jonathan Blanchard, who saw Beecher as preaching "Scripture like Satan, and, like Satan, defeating its practical intent." He claimed that Beecher was "dealing out the love of Christ to sinners with the indiscriminate fondness of a successful prostitute who loves everybody who does not condemn her trade."1
If Applegate would have paid more attention to the "cruel, convoluted logic" of original sin, she might have discovered its explanatory power for the tale she's telling. If anything does, original sin accounts for the behavior of Beecher, his paramours, their conflicted husbands, and the complicit church committees. One of Beecher's friends, John Bigelow, summed up the matter nicely: "Though all the parties, witnesses and medley in the case were educated in his church and were or had been members of it, I have yet to hear of one who seemed to have any more hesitation in lying than in picking his teeth."
Â Most of us are grateful that the joyless manners of some Christians have given way to Jesus' embrace of life and what he taught about his loving heavenly Father. But this was always the core of orthodoxy. Methodism and Moody had much more to do with its proper re-emphasis in Protestant circles than Beecher. The followers of Beecher ended up preaching little but self-improvement. A loving God soon became extraneous, and the Plymouth Churches of the world emptied.
Harold Fickett is the author of many books, including The Living Christ: The Extraordinary Lives of Today's Spiritual Heroes (Doubleday).
1. As found in George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism: 1870-1925 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1980), p. 30.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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