That Henry Ward Beecher, He’s so Hot Right Now

by Ellen Heltzel | Feb-16-2007

Today’s post focuses on "The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher," by Debby Applegate (Doubleday), a finalist for the 2007 NBCC prize for biography.

The tension in the Christian message -- which contrasts the belief that we’re all sinners with the affirmation of God’s abiding love through Jesus -- is the frame Debby Applegate puts around her subject in this highly readable and absorbing biography of a preacher Henry Ward Beecher. Now mostly forgotten or remembered as the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom’s Cabin," Henry was in his time a touchstone for Protestant belief. He possessed such fine oratorical skills that he drew crowds to his sermons and built a national reputation with his unequivocal opposition to slavery.

But Henry's career wasn't cut from whole cloth. His father, Lyman, was an equally towering figure in his own day, an old-school preacher whose message of hellfire and damnation was as comforting as a stone but had a long tradition in the Calvinist churches of New England. Applegate traces the various reasons that caused the son to break with this tradition: memories of a difficult childhood, a temperament ill-suited to his father’s inflexible theology, and the eventual conviction -- shared with no less than Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Transcendentalists -- that this vital, young country needed more light and hope, more comfort and less condemnation.

Applegate's engrossing biography gives a picture of an era in which Christian ministry was a profession more exalted than medicine or law. She delineates the two emerging strands of Protestantism -- Lyman's and Henry's -- that are still with us, in much the same form, today. The book culminates with the scandal that, in Applegate’s reading of this prevaricating personality with a fondness for attractive women, almost seemed inevitable: The long-wed Henry is accused of having an affair with a married woman. A full-blown trial that ended with a hung jury prevented his complete fall from grace. Still, the damage done to this "most famous man" and his loved ones could not be entirely redeemed --at least, not in worldly terms.

--Ellen Emry Heltzel, NBCC board member

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