Although his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is the better known of the two Beecher siblings, in the mid 19thC, the eloquent and energetic Reverend Henry Ward Beecher was arguably as celebrated.
A pastor of the first mega church, Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, Beecher was a combination of Oprah and Billy Graham. A vocal abolitionist, his enormous congregation adored him, and his sermons were widely quoted. In addition to his pastoral duties, he edited several religious newspapers and maintained an ambitious lecture schedule.
FAMILY AND FAITH
Preaching was the family business. Henry Ward Beecher was the eighth of twelve children of renowned Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher. Raised on the fire and brimstone sermons of his father, Beecher eventually rejected his father’s doctrines in favor of a “gospel of love” that is the foundation of mainstream Protestantism today, but was quite radical at the time.
In 1874, Beecher’s legendary charisma got him into trouble. He was accused of adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of an old friend. The six month trial (no verdict) was exhaustively covered by the newspapers. Beecher continued working during the ordeal, but his reputation suffered a severe setback.
The Most Famous Man in America is not just a portrait of a complicated man but also an insightful portrayal of Victorian America, a contentious era of major upheavals in politics, religion, business, and the media.
Many thanks to Saralee Woods of BookMan BookWoman for recommending this biography.
WHAT OTHER REVIEWERS THINK
The New York Times: “Applegate…tells this grand story with aplomb, intelligence and a sure feel for historical context.”
WHO WROTE IT?
Debby Applegate is graduate of Amherst College and was a Sterling Fellow at Yale University, where she earned her Ph.D in American Studies. She was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Reverend Beecher.