One of the treats of Christmas break is to crank through some biographies that I have been meaning to read. One such book is Debby Applegate's The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Doubleday, 2006). Applegate, an independent researcher who holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale University, offers a breezy look at one of the most important preachers of the nineteenth century. In a book that succeeds on a number of levels, especially in sorting out the details of Beecher's numerous extramarital affairs, I still finished the book wondering how to account for Beecher's amazing success as a religious figure and what this success tells us about American religious life on either side of the Civil War.
Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), the son of the famous New School minister Lyman Beecher and brother to numerous talented Beecher siblings, was always a bit backward educationally. His early years were spent trying to find a place in his precociously intellectual and talented family, led by his patriarch father. While Applegate sketches Henry's upbringing well, she shows little sensitivity to the religious issues that motivated Lyman's ministry, whether in Litchfield, Boston, or Cincinnati. Repeatedly, she characterizes the elder Beecher has a "rigid Calvinist" who held to arcane teachings regarding original sin and the "capriciousness of salvation" (38). And yet, when Lyman Beecher moves to Boston and eventually invites Charles Finney to hold a revival in 1828, she was forced to see him as "softening these ideas to fit a more progressive, self-empowered culture" (57). What the father actually believed is important to Applegate's story, because she presents Henry as rebelling against his father's Calvinism--but unless we understand the nature of that Calvinism, we cannot understand the lines of continuity and discontinuity between father and son, nor can we understand how the father approved his son's ministry nearly until his death in 1863.
During his college years, Henry falls in love with Eunice Bullard, with whom he is engaged for seven years, After Henry receives his education at Amherst and Lane Theological Seminary (overseen by his father), he takes a small pastorate at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and immediately goes to secure Eunice's hand in marriage. They return to Lawrenceburg to face a life of poverty, childbirth, and malaria; and yet, it is there that they were probably closest. Applegate presents Eunice Beecher as a shrew, a complaining, hypochondriac whom none of the Beecher's liked nor admired; while this may have been the case and while it sets up the numerous alleged affairs that Beecher had, Eunice came across as a two-dimensional figure--both jealous and bitter. There is no real basis for understanding why she would stand by Henry during the "trial of the century" in 1874 and endure the humiliation of hearing the accusations of his philandering; she must have had some redeeming qualities, yet her presentation is consistently negative.
After Lawrenceburg and a seven-year ministry at Indianapolis' Second Presbyterian Church, Beecher is recruited to minister to a new Congregationalist church, Plymouth Church. In describing the various forces that battled for control of the church, Applegate is at her best--her pictures of H. C. Bowen, Tasker Howard, Moses Beach, and Theodore Tilton are especially clear and moving; none of these men (with the exception of Beach) come off well in her story and all look as tawdry as Beecher himself.
And yet, I never felt clear about why Beecher was so popular--aside from the fact that he preached a "Gospel of Love" in place of a "Gospel of Law," why did he end up drawing 3000 people each Sunday? The only answers that seem clear are his own personal charisma and magnetism; and while it is certainly possible, I kept wishing that Applegate would help her readers feel Beecher's power in the pulpit. In addition, while she does a stunning job relating Beecher to the major political and cultural events of the day, Applegate is less sure on the religious events--for example, how did the sentimentalism of Romanticism, the rising tides of Victorian religion, or the Business Men's Revival of 1857-8 relate to Beecher? Had she paid attention to Kathy Long's The Revival of 1857-58, Thomas Jenkins' The Character of God, or even the classic Revivalism and Social Reform by Timothy L. Smith (none of which are represented in her bibliography), perhaps she would have situated Beecher's religion as surely as she does his politics and cultural contributions.
In addition, I kept wondering how Applegate's story connected to the loss of faith that Victorians experienced in the postbellum period. As historian James Turner argued in Without God, Without Creed, following on the heels of Paul Carter's The Spiritual Crisis of the Gilded Age, the postbellum period represented the first time in American history when non-belief was acceptable socially; in fact, to deny the existence of God or hell or to transform one's understanding of God to fit the sentimentalism of the day was a major characteristic of the period. Even ministers were articulating a new "liberal Protestantism," that drew from the older sentimentality of a Horace Bushnell and merged it with the radical approaches to the Bible emenating from Germany and articulated at places like Andover Seminary. It is striking, for example, that the same year New York City is convulsed by the Beecher trial for sexual immorality, Chicago is enthralled with the David Swing trial for hetrodoxy. Surely, Beecher contributes to this transition; Applegate leaves us wondering how.
In the end, it is all about Beecher's affairs--and he apparently had countless intimate encounters during his ministry both in Indianapolis and Brooklyn. Applegate does a good job supplying a great deal of evidence, especially for his paternity of Violet Beach (the letter that the cuckolded husband Moses writes to his pastor is particularly moving). And her coverage of the Tilton-Beecher trial was profoundly moving. Again, I kept wondering how Applegate's story interacted with the rising feminization of religion in the postbellum period; there was no evidence that she had engaged with Ann Douglas's The Feminization of American Culture or thought deeply about how Beecher's interaction with the women's suffrage movement meant for the large tides of American culture. And yet, the details are so salacious and the story told so well, that only someone who specializes in American religious history would be thinking about these things.
Undoubtedly, Applegate's biography of Henry Ward Beecher is now the standard and definitive telling of his life . And for those who have little background in the American religious history industry (with all the books that have been published over the past ten years), it is a crackling good read that is surprisingly (and depressingly) contemporary (as the recent Ted Haggard case makes abundantly clear). While the story could have contextualized Beecher's religion better, The Most Famous Man in America is recommended for an overview of the life of perhaps the most important preacher of the mid-nineteenth century.