Celebrated Preacher with a Flamboyant Personal Life

Article excerpt


Cliches notwithstanding, Debby Applegate's fact-studded and fast-paced portrait of one of America's most famous preachers from one of America's most famous 19th-century families is a remarkably authentic mirror of the times. It was America's Victorian era and like Britain's, it seethed with a lively mixture of despair, reform and hope. Henry Ward Beecher was a dynamic creature of his times and here he is portrayed in exquisite and honest detail.

The mid-1800s was a utopian era of secular and religious utopianism. It produced the hard utopianism of Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto" (1948) and the soft utopianism advocated by the American writer, Edward Bellamy, in his "Looking Backward," published a year after the death of Beecher. Bellamy's bestseller vied with Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the century's best seller.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) shared the limelight with contemporary influentials, including his sister Harriet, who vigorously opposed slavery, and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) who fought a war to abolish it. And there was the redoubtable Mark Twain (1835-1910) who, while usually on the side of the angels on the big issues, poked fun at the pomposity and hypocrisy all around him.

In this dynamic America, Beecher shared 52 years with Lincoln and 20 with Twain. Then as now, virtually all top celebrities crossed paths, if not swords, with one another.

In this wild, wistful and tragic era, Beecher was considered by many as "the most famous man in America." Like his more famous sister Harriet, he also was strongly opposed slavery and, like her, he advocated universal women's suffrage.

Henry Beecher, no Jonathan Edwards, was a liberated Calvinist, and the most popular preacher of his day. He departed from the stern Calvinist teachings of his famous theologian father, Lyman Beecher, and embraced a more uplifting view of the human situation, but was quite capable of compromise when hard facts intruded.

Beecher was the senior minister of the famous Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, a national center of antislavery ferment. His opposition to slavery plunged him into politics and he was not reluctant to endorse candidates from his prestigious pulpit. He even staged mock slave auctions at his famous church.

Beecher was more like the 20th-century's Harry Emerson Fosdick or Norman Vincent Peale than Reinhold Niebuhr, who emphasized the persistence of original sin o and original righteousness.

Like Fosdick's Riverside Church in New York's Upper West Side, Beecher's Plymouth Church, buttressed by his flamboyant oratory and no less flamboyant personal life, drew regulars and visitors by the thousands to his Sunday services. They came from Manhattan to hear him in what were known as "Beecher Boats." Among the throng were ordinary people, social reformers, politicians and the famous, such as Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln.

Aspects of Beecher's place in the latter 19th century can be illustrated by Mark Twain's visit to New York in January 1868, recorded in intriguing detail by Mrs. Applegate. Giving short shrift to his bohemian journalist buddies in Manhattan, Twain "Like all tourists . . . made Plymouth Church one of his first stops."

After the ferry trip to Brooklyn and attending a Sunday service, Twain wrote: "Mr. Beecher is a remarkably handsome man when he is in the full tide of sermonizing . . . but he is as homely as a singed cat when he isn't doing anything." He also sneered at "Beecher's free and easy salvation."

Despite Twain's mixed appraisal of America's best-known cleric, he signed up for a deluxe cruise on the steamer Quaker City to the Holy Land sponsored by Beecher, who at the last minute decided not to go, prompting some of the women passengers to cancel their voyage. Twain went as a reporter, but his "shipboard essays soon turned . …