Review: The Most Famous Man in America

The Most Famous Man in America, Debby Applegate. New York: Three Leaves Press, 2007.

Summary: The Pulitzer prize-winning biography of the most famous preacher in nineteenth century America, and the scandals around his sexual life.

The story of the writing of this biography strikes me as nearly as interesting as the book itself. It began when Debby Applegate was an undergraduate student at Amherst researching famous Amherst alumni. She selected Henry Ward Beecher and then went on to write her senior thesis about him. She then went on to Yale, making him the subject of her doctoral thesis. And like any good writer of theses in history, she sought a book contract to turn it into a book. This was in the Clinton era and the sex scandals surrounding his administration. However, due to the time needed for research, it finally published in 2006 (in paper in 2007). The culmination of this twenty year project was that the book was a National Book Critics Award Finalist and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Her biography traces the life of Henry Ward Beecher, who, if not the most famous man in America, was certainly the most famous preacher of America. He was asked by President Lincoln to speak at Fort Sumter at the end of the Civil War, an event overshadowed by Lincoln’s assassination. He filled the pulpit of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, a nineteenth century megachurch. At one point he drew a $100,000 salary–in the nineteenth century. He pioneered a more informal style of preaching using humor and pathos and emphasizing the love of God as well as social reform.

He was a mover in the abolitionist movement, although Applegate emphasizes his ambivalent record. One one hand, he raised money to emancipate slaves and sent rifles to Nebraska and Kansas to aid abolitionists–“Beecher Bibles.” On the other hand, he counselled caution and moderation, offending more radical proponents like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. He also campaigned for women’s suffrage and for temperance.

The book portrays his distinguished family. His father Lyman was a New England Calvinist, later transplanted to Cincinnati as president of Lane Theological Seminary. Harriet Beecher Stowe, was his sister. One of the striking facts is that all of his children departed from this stern Calvinism, although a number were ministers. Nine were writers. Applegate traces Henry’s career from his early struggles with his charge in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, where he first begins to shift from the more Calvinist form of preaching to the more informal and engaging style he observed among the Methodists. His success was great enough to attract the notice of church leaders in Indianapolis, who offered him a salary that finally allowed him and Eunice to live more comfortably. Increasingly his preaching focused on the love of God rather than human sinfulness. This, in turn, caught the attention of Henry Bowen, who lured the Beechers to Brooklyn, and the shared ambitions of building up Plymouth Church.

Applegate chronicles the influence of money and power that became increasingly alluring to Beecher. Bowen helped Beecher with his debts and Beecher contributed to his publishing enterprises. Beecher’s fame led to political influence within the newly born Republican party. As he became ever busier on social campaigns, he and Bowen relied more on Theodore Tilton for his writing enterprises.

This powerful alliance unraveled when Beecher became emotionally, and, it seems likely, sexually involved with several women, culminating in an affair with Tilton’s wife Elizabeth. Applegate records a tawdry set of confrontations, confessions, retractions and denial, and ultimately a civil trial that ended with a hung jury and a church trial that exonerated Beecher and shamed his accusers.

Reading the biography brought to mind the Apostle Paul’s counsel to a young pastor, Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16, NIV). As Beecher pursued pastoral success, he jettisoned unpopular doctrines for public acclaim. Having struggled with desperate circumstances, he gave way to the allures of money, power, and sex. At one point he defends and propounds free love and the rightness of intimacy with a woman not his wife. And sadly, because of his success, the leaders of his church cast a blind eye to these abuses, and the relational wreckage that resulted with Bowen, the Tiltons, and others.

If the biography came after the scandals of the Clinton administration, it came before the sex scandals, #MeToo, and #ChurchToo of the last decade. It seems to me that Applegate’s biography ought be recommended reading for aspiring ministers as well as the church boards who oversee their efforts, especially where such efforts result in significant growth and acclaim for minister and church. The biography explores not only the personal temptations but the systemic dynamics that contribute to pastoral unfaithfulness and the covering up of moral failures. The biography also traces the rise of the personality cults around pastors, which may arguably have begun with Beecher. A study of the circle around Beecher reveals a web of dysfunctionality. Even if none of this interests you, read this simply for Applegate’s fascinating chronicle of one of the most influential figures of the nineteenth century.

One thought on “Review: The Most Famous Man in America

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: January 2023 | Bob on Books

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