The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

by Debby Applegate

Paperback, 2007




Image (2007), Edition: Reprint, 560 pages


No one predicted success for Henry Ward Beecher at his birth in 1813. The blithe, boisterous son of the last great Puritan minister, he seemed destined to be overshadowed by his brilliant siblings--especially his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned the century's bestselling book Uncle Tom's Cabin. But when pushed into the ministry, the charismatic Beecher found international fame by shedding his father's Old Testament-style fire-and-brimstone theology and instead preaching a New Testament-based gospel of unconditional love and healing, becoming one of the founding fathers of modern American Christianity. By the 1850s, his spectacular sermons at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights had made him New York's number one tourist attraction, so wildly popular that the ferries from Manhattan to Brooklyn were dubbed "Beecher Boats." Beecher inserted himself into nearly every important drama of the era--among them the antislavery and women's suffrage movements, the rise of the entertainment industry and tabloid press, and controversies ranging from Darwinian evolution to presidential politics. He was notorious for his irreverent humor and melodramatic gestures, such as auctioning slaves to freedom in his pulpit and shipping rifles--nicknamed "Beecher's Bibles"--to the antislavery resistance fighters in Kansas. Thinkers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Twain befriended--and sometimes parodied--him. And then it all fell apart. In 1872 Beecher was accused by feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull of adultery with one of his most pious parishioners. Suddenly the "Gospel of Love" seemed to rationalize a life of lust. The cuckolded husband brought charges of "criminal conversation" in a salacious trial that became the most widely covered event of the century, garnering more newspaper headlines than the entire Civil War. Beecher survived, but his reputation and his causes--from women's rights to progressive evangelicalism--suffered devastating setbacks that echo to this day. Featuring the page-turning suspense of a novel and dramatic new historical evidence, Debby Applegate has written the definitive biography of this captivating, mercurial, and sometimes infuriating figure. In our own time, when religion and politics are again colliding and adultery in high places still commands headlines, Beecher's story sheds new light on the culture and conflicts of contemporary America.… (more)

Media reviews

Applegate tells this grand story with aplomb, intelligence and a sure feel for historical context.

User reviews

LibraryThing member dlovins
Beautifully written book. Shows how Henry Ward Beecher made the journey (and took many with him) from the Calvinistic worldview of his father Lyman Beecher's generation, to the more forgiving (decadent?) world of mid-to-late 19th century America. Beecher came from a remarkably accomplished family (e.g., his father Lyman and sister Harriet Beecher Stowe) and attracted some of the greatest intellectual and political leaders to his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. The account of the famous Beecher-Tilton scandal is both illuminating and titillating.

Acknowledgments include some nice bits about librarians and Yale University: "It is a terrible cliche, yet the most indisputable thing I ever uttered: This book could not have been written without the librarians." And she points out that most of Henry Ward Beecher's papers are held at the Yale library.
… (more)
LibraryThing member brigitte64
it`s a big long book, about the life around the 1850th`s . Full of politik, and family life in the New England area. From my view a little weared and over emotional, but that was the way people were thinking and living.
LibraryThing member brentcnall
Because there are so many surviving letters, Applegate's work is very richly detailed with accurate info. The narrative flows like a dream. I loved it...
LibraryThing member maryreinert
A book about a 19th century preacher sounds as if it could be boring and not pertinent to today's world. This fascinating account of the life of Henry Ward Beecher proves that wrong. Henry was indeed the most famous man in America in the 1880's. People hung onto every word of this highly charismatic, brilliant, and complex minister. Henry's father was also a preacher who was a strong follower of Calvin believing in a wrathful God; his children grew up with rules and fear but with love.

After a somewhat slow beginning, Henry also joined the ministry and married young to a woman he hardly knew. He first tried evangelizing the West in Ohio and Illinois and became well known for his interesting and forceful sermons. Success eventually brings him to Brooklyn, New York where there was a church on almost every block. Henry's view of God has been turning away from that vengeful Authority to a God Henry believed was the source of love and forgiveness for all. The teachings of Jesus became his focus and his sermons reflected that inspiring people from all walks of life. Henry seemed the epitome of all that was good.

However (and this is what makes this book so fascinating), Henry was a highly complex individual. Trapped in a very unhappy marriage, surrounded by many attractive and adoring female members of the congregation, increasingly disdainful of his Calvinistic upbringing, Henry's ego grew to the point that he himself believed he could do no wrong. As Henry became more popular, Eunice, his wife, became more bitter and more disliked.
Eventually, accusations of adultery came from the husbands of close friends. Henry's personality was such that he could wave off these rumors with ease even to the wronged husbands. What was to become the biggest scandal of the 19th Century, these accusations soon became public and were intimately discussed in the newspapers as church trials and public court trials drug out all the sordid details. Although deeply troubled, Henry managed to come through all even gaining back his congregation and getting a raise. The women around him including Eunice, his sister (Harriet Beecher Stowe), and his adoring lovers all suffered greatly.

Today, emails or texts might be considered evidence. In the 1900's people wrote letters often revealing highly personal information and in what today would be considered suggestive language. Those letters were always kept unlike today where emails are deleted. The author has done years of research into those letters and public documents recreating a time and life that is totally fascinating. This is a very readable book which makes some of today's notorious public figures seem pretty bland. Every famous person of the time plays a role: Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Andrew Johnson, Grant, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Henry's sister, Harriet. Beecher's teachings and life set down a new road of religion in America, one that still affects religious thought today.
… (more)


Original language

Page: 0.7194 seconds