During the decades before and after the Civil War, Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) was not just the nation's best-known preacher, he was also, according to Abraham Lincoln, "the most influential man in America."
Yet Beecher's fame owed as much to scandal as to sermons. His 1875 trial for adultery was a national sensation, with its tales of sexual intrigue and religious hypocrisy. The Most Famous Man in America, Debby Applegate's impressively written and painstakingly researched biography, documents Beecher's influence on religion, politics, and America's fascination with celebrity.
Applegate faces a challenging task in conveying Beecher's enormous cultural significance for 19th-century Americans. With a firm grasp of theology and history, she explains the crucial nature of religion in both Beecher's life and the nation's. Beecher's father, the famous Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher, preached a strict, fundamentalist brand of Calvinism that stressed obedience to an omnipotent, often wrathful God. Young Henry developed an "instinctive rebellion against his father's unforgiving religious dogma," writes Applegate.
Henry's rebellion forever altered the landscape of American religion. The son ultimately eclipsed his father, and would champion a brand of Christianity that stressed God's unconditional love and the possibility of earthly happiness. In Applegate's estimation, Beecher's sentimental, populist gospel fit his era perfectly, mirroring its optimistic, can-do spirit.
Beecher was also ambitious, starting out ministering to a tiny flock in rural Indiana, moving up to Indianapolis, and finally on to Brooklyn's prestigious Plymouth Church, where some of the nation's leading merchants and intellectuals worshiped.
To all these places, Beecher brought his passionate, plainspoken preaching style. While building a national reputation through his Plymouth Church sermons, Beecher also became an influential journalist and a sought-after public speaker on the issues of the day.
Slavery, of course, was the central issue. Beecher continually attacked the "sin" of slavery, but, as Applegate points out, he was far less radical than abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. What Beecher had was a public platform. He'd become the nation's top star on "the lyceum circuit," at a time when public speaking was wildly popular entertainment.
Beecher's speeches, sermons, and newspaper columns lashed out against slaveholders and their supporters. But Beecher's views on the issue of slavery could be inconsistent and seemingly opportunistic. In 1852, his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe published "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which further polarized the national debate on slavery. …