During the decades before and after the Civil War, Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) was not just the nation's best-known preacher, he was also, according to Abraham Lincoln, "the most influential man in America."
Yet Beecher's fame owed as much to scandal as to sermons. His 1875 trial for adultery was a national sensation, with its tales of sexual intrigue and religious hypocrisy. The Most Famous Man in America, Debby Applegate's impressively written and painstakingly researched biography, documents Beecher's influence on religion, politics, and America's fascination with celebrity.
Applegate faces a challenging task in conveying Beecher's enormous cultural significance for 19th-century Americans. With a firm grasp of theology and history, she explains the crucial nature of religion in both Beecher's life and the nation's. Beecher's father, the famous Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher, preached a strict, fundamentalist brand of Calvinism that stressed obedience to an omnipotent, often wrathful God. Young Henry developed an "instinctive rebellion against his father's unforgiving religious dogma," writes Applegate.
Henry's rebellion forever altered the landscape of American religion. The son ultimately eclipsed his father, and would champion a brand of Christianity that stressed God's unconditional love and the possibility of earthly happiness. In Applegate's estimation, Beecher's sentimental, populist gospel fit his era perfectly, mirroring its optimistic, can-do spirit.
Beecher was also ambitious, starting out ministering to a tiny flock in rural Indiana, moving up to Indianapolis, and finally on to Brooklyn's prestigious Plymouth Church, where some of the nation's leading merchants and intellectuals worshiped.
To all these places, Beecher brought his passionate, plainspoken preaching style. While building a national reputation through his Plymouth Church sermons, Beecher also became an influential journalist and a sought-after public speaker on the issues of the day.
Slavery, of course, was the central issue. Beecher continually attacked the "sin" of slavery, but, as Applegate points out, he was far less radical than abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. What Beecher had was a public platform. He'd become the nation's top star on "the lyceum circuit," at a time when public speaking was wildly popular entertainment.
Beecher's speeches, sermons, and newspaper columns lashed out against slaveholders and their supporters. But Beecher's views on the issue of slavery could be inconsistent and seemingly opportunistic. In 1852, his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe published "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which further polarized the national debate on slavery. In the 1850s, Beecher raised money to send rifles ("Beecher Bibles") to Kansas during the bloody border war between pro-slavery forces and Free Soilers.
At the same time, however, as Applegate meticulously illustrates, Beecher advocated a gradualist approach to abolitionism, which angered more radical contemporaries. Beecher's gradualism, however, perfectly suited the fledgling Republican Party; he was a major booster of Abraham Lincoln's 1860 candidacy. But his failure to take a stronger stance would get him in trouble with radicals again during Reconstruction, when he supported President Andrew Johnson's lenient policy toward the former Confederacy.
Applegate hints that Beecher's sentimentalism, and his desire for popularity, may have prevented him from taking more principled, all-or-nothing stands regarding slavery and other issues. This sentimentality certainly extended to his relations with women. He married young and not quite happily.
He and his wife, Eunice, witnessed the deaths of six of their children, and Beecher's busy schedule and travels created an environment where Eunice nagged and her husband sought refuge in the company of other women.
The "other women" were many, and Applegate offers plentiful evidence of Beecher's highly flirtatious, probably sexual relationships with at least three of them.
The scandal that would rock Beecher's career began in 1870, when he allegedly initiated an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of a former friend. Applegate explores the complexities of the Beecher-Tilton affair, its intricate cover-up, and the ultimate public scandal that ensued.
In 1874, Theodore Tilton sued Beecher in civil court for interfering with his marriage. Applegate describes the staggering level of press coverage the scandal attracted: "the 'New York Times' alone ran 105 stories and thirty-seven editorials," notes Applegate, and the whole nation seemed to take sides for or against Beecher. In the end, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, leaving a cloud of suspicion over Beecher's life.
Debby Applegate has given us an intellectually stimulating "life and times" of Henry Ward Beecher, whose populist appeal, skill at self-invention, and ambivalent experience with celebrity seem as quintessentially American today as ever.
• Chuck Leddy is a writer and book reviewer in Quincy, Mass.