Beautifully written biography of America’s one best-known preacher, who ingeniously transformed the harsh Calvinism of his famous father into a nurturing, middlebrow faith attractive and accessible to a country prepared to abandon Puritan orthodoxy.
If Henry Ward Beecher (1813–87) is remembered at all today, it’s for a notorious adultery trial near the end of his life. American historian Applegate reminds us, however, that at the height of his career, the likes of Emerson, Whitman, Lincoln and Twain each assumed upon meeting him that Beecher was the greater man. Well-grounded in New England’s doctrinal theology by his father Lyman, “the last great Puritan minister in America,” Henry was disciplined by the competition within his large, talented family (Harriet Beecher Stowe was his sister). After acquiring seasoning from his early pastoral postings in America’s rough west, Beecher brought his dramatic, emotional religious oratory to Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, which he transformed into a tourist attraction. As a traveling lecturer, a popular contributor to newspapers and magazines and even a novelist, he reached millions worldwide. Though a thoroughgoing member of the Establishment, he was also a moderate advocate of certain progressive views (abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage); similarly, his updated version of Christianity made him seem both cutting-edge and reassuring. Beecher’s fame exceeded that of all but a few men of his time, but Applegate’s sensitive, finely calibrated debut suggests that had he not been Lyman’s son, Henry would have chosen a role other than Moral Authority of the Gilded Age. Addicted to the rush of stardom, later to mammon, and throughout his life to the charms of the many women who were entranced by him, Beecher’s eventual fall reverberated throughout the country.
An exceptionally thorough and thoughtful account of a spectacular career that helped shape and reflect national preoccupations before, during and after the Civil War.