The Most Famous Man in America: A Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
by Debby Applegate '89
This book is about the three things never to be discussed in polite conversation: Sex, Politics and Religion. The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher loved nothing more than breaking taboos and overturning expectations. Born in 1813, the son of the last great Puritan minister, Beecher was a bubbly, boisterous child who chafed against his solemn Connecticut upbringing, and his brilliant, competitive siblings. Pushed by their ambitious father, all seven sons entered the ministry and three daughters earned renown as public reformers. One sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the best-seller, Uncle Tom's Cabin, became the most famous woman in the English-speaking world.
Although unable to escape the ministry, young Beecher lit out for the Western frontier of Indiana. Preaching in log-cabins and raucous open-air camp meetings, he shook off his stiff Yankee training, developing an emotional, melodramatic style all his own. After being discovered in 1847 by several wealthy New York businessmen, he moved his young family to the up-and-coming suburb of Brooklyn, New York, where his eccentric combination of western informality, eastern intellectualism and unabashed showmanship made him an overnight sensation. He shocked religious conservatives by replacing his father’s hell-and-brimstone theology with an all-forgiving “Gospel of Love.” He threw himself into the blistering battle against slavery, preaching politics from the pulpit. Funny, lovable and emotionally soul-baring on stage, he made a fortune in the early entertainment industry. By the end of the Civil War he was at the pinnacle of fame and influence.
Then the rumors began– tales of indiscreet flirtations and extramarital affairs – spread through the gossipy networks of New York journalists, Washington power-brokers, and women reformers. In 1870, Beecher’s close friend and occasional ghost-writer, the journalist Theodore Tilton accused the pastor of seducing his wife Elizabeth. Beecher and the Tiltons agreed to cover up the story, but when the radical feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull tried to blackmail them, it exploded like a bombshell. During the “Scandal Summer” of 1874 and the subsequent civil trial, the scandal garnered more newspaper headlines than the entire Civil War. The sensational trial ended in a hung jury, leaving Americans bitterly divided over Beecher’s guilt or innocence.
Offering dramatic new historical evidence and the taut suspense of a psychological thriller, The Most Famous Man in America puts the reader in the place of the jury. Reading groups will find a variety of captivating discussion topics, ranging from personal questions about love, sex, and spirituality, to philosophical debates about race, human rights, and human nature, to current political and religious controversies ripped from today’s headlines.
Questions for Discussion:
1. The book presents a portrait of a man filled with deep contradictions and flaws, as well as many noble and lovable traits. Do Beecher’s faults cancel out his accomplishments, as some critics suggest? Or are his flaws part of the source of his power? For example, do you agree with critics who contend that his free-and-easy “Gospel of Love” was a slippery slope that led to “Free Love”? Or with those who suggest that it was Beecher’s struggle with temptation and guilt which inspired his innovative message of forgiveness and love?
2. Beecher believed that churches should play a direct role in politics, promoting “politics in the pulpit” as the path to a more humane society. At the same time, he fought against religious bigotry and attempts to impose religious doctrines on non-believers. What is the appropriate place for religion in the public and political sphere? Did Beecher go too far or not far enough?
3. Before the Civil War when people began questioning the Constitutional protection of slavery, Beecher declared that he would not return runaway slaves as Congress required, because there was a “higher law” of conscience that trumped the merely mortal laws of the government. At the same time he feared the anarchy that might follow if everyone refused to follow laws with which they didn’t agree. Should Americans follows laws they regard as unjust? When is civil disobedience acceptable, even noble, and when is it a threat to society? How do we fairly decide which acts of disobedience to praise and which to penalize?
4. Beecher adored the company of women. He supported better education for women, wider job opportunities, expanded political participation including the right to vote, greater social freedoms including an end to the sexual double-standard, and he aided the careers of many female writers and reformers. Yet he occasionally behaved like a cad and a hypocrite, and his adultery scandal seriously damaged the women’s rights movement. In the end, did he help or hurt the status of women in America?
5. Beecher often preached that, “It is better to do good, than to be good.” What does he mean? Is he right?
Post your thoughts on The Most Famous Man in America by adding a comment below.
You will need to log in to view any comments already posted.