The Most Famous Man in America: A Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

The Most Famous man in america - Debby Applegate '89

by Debby Applegate '89

Excerpt from Chapter 1

“Damned If You Do, and Damned If You Don’t”

One evening in late December, sometime around 1820, Henry Ward Beecher trudged through the snow, returning home from running an errand for his parents. Exactly how old he was he couldn’t say, but he was still a chubby little boy, with wide gray eyes set above apple red cheeks. As he passed up the long town common in the center of the village, he was surprised to see Litchfield’s little brown Episcopalian church lit up like a beacon in the early darkness.

Henry was far too young to follow the fine theological distinctions his father used to separate the good Protestants from the bad Protestants, but of this he was sure: The Episcopalians were on the bad side. He needed no other proof than the fact that they didn’t attend the white-steepled church where his father, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, preached every Sunday. In truth, God and Lyman Beecher were so intertwined in the little boy’s mind that he did not quite grasp that Episcopalianism was a rival religion, he later recalled, “for I supposed there was no other religion except that which my father looked after.”

Henry was irresistibly drawn to the open door of the church, and as he peered in he was shocked to find candles blazing at every window; boughs of spruce, pine, and arborvitae twined around the pews; and a choir singing blissfully about the birth of Christ. He had never seen such a spectacle, certainly not in his father’s austere meetinghouse, and he could not imagine what it meant.

Although he did not know it then, this dazzling vision would be Henry’s only taste of Christmas as a child. Christmas “was not known in the house of my father, for he was a Puritan of the Puritans,” Henry said years later. “I never heard of Santa Claus when I was a boy. I never hung up a stocking. I feel bad about it to this day.”(1)

When Henry was a boy, his faith in his father was so deeply ingrained that it never occurred to him to ask why they did not celebrate Christmas. If he had, Lyman’s answer would have been unequivocal. As an orthodox Calvinist, Lyman Beecher interpreted the Bible literally, as solid fact, and there was nothing in the Scriptures to suggest that Christ was born on December 25. And even if there were, the day would be an occasion for solemn prayer, not sensual frivolity. Why, the Beechers didn’t even celebrate their own birthdays.

If the Episcopalians chose to delude themselves about Christ’s birth that was one thing, as far as Lyman was concerned, but this business of filling the church with decadent appeals to the senses–with music, gaudy decorations, and gifts–was a sneaky attempt to lure the good Christians of Connecticut from the true faith of the Puritan fathers. Lyman had no patience for newfangled notions of religious tolerance or the separation of church and state. Episcopalians, Unitarians, Catho-lics–Lyman lumped them together with atheists, drunkards, thieves, and Jeffersonian Democrats, declaring each one a force of deviltry to be fought tooth and nail.

Despite his harsh dogma, Henry’s father was not a cruel man. Those who knew the famous Reverend Beecher only by rumor or from reading his sensational fire-and-brimstone sermons were often surprised to find that in person he was warm and witty, fiercely intelligent, and deeply compassionate. When he invoked the terrors of the devil and the terrible judgment of God’s law, it was not out of perversity but because he was truly heartbroken that, as he saw it, so many “immortal souls are sleeping on the brink of hell.”(2)

Lyman’s devotion to God was rivaled only by his devotion to his children, and like any good parent, he wanted them to be happy. But in this age before modern medicine, when many families in New England lost at least one child to the grave, he was tortured by the fear that his children would be suddenly swept away by death before he could bring them to God. If they felt deprived by missing such pleasures as Christmas, Lyman was more than willing to trade their happiness on earth to secure their eternal happiness in heaven.

That cold Christmas Eve, Henry’s small heart swelled with conflicting emotions as he “stood wistful, and with a vague curiosity, looking in, and wondering what sort of folks these Episcopal Church people were.” He would have liked nothing better than to be in the middle of such gaiety and excitement. Yet even at this young age, he found it impossible to shake his father’s teachings. He turned away from the church and headed home, with a “feeling of mixed wonder and pity” for those people who dwelled so far outside his father’s sphere.(3)

This complex constellation of feelings colored every corner of Henry’s childhood. He idolized his father and yearned desperately for Lyman’s love and approval, yet every natural impulse in him craved forbidden pleasures. He longed to be like his older brothers and sisters, who seemed so easily to meet the high standards of Lyman and his fearsome God. But no matter how afraid he was of hell and how hard he tried to get into heaven, his desire for earthly happiness kept getting in the way.

 Twenty-five years would pass before Henry would begin to question seriously his father’s opinion on this or any other matter. When he did, however, he quickly made up for lost time, tossing out his father’s beliefs by the bushel. By then Henry was becoming a wealthy, worldly man who shamelessly indulged his newly acquired tastes for European travel, velvet jackets, sumptuous rugs, and expensive art, spending enormous sums of money on gifts for his family and friends. Before long he would even give up his belief in hell itself.

But even when he succumbed to the Victorian craze for Christmas, celebrating it at home and in his church with all the merry trimmings, the holiday never really took hold in him. What he had yearned for all those years ago was not toys or Santa Claus, he recalled in old age–“A little love was what I wanted[.]”4

Lyman Beecher had good reason to fear for his son’s soul. Henry Ward Beecher was born in the summer of 1813, in the midst of one of the most terrifying, tumultuous periods in American history. From the distance of two centuries, we have mythologized the decades after the War for Independence as an Arcadian idyll of happy farmers and wise founding fathers. But the American Revolution was a genuine, bloody revolution, and, like all revolutions, it left a long wake of social, economic, and political upheaval. The future of the young Republic was still very much up in the air in 1813, creating an atmosphere of tremendous exhilaration and profound anxiety–a potent combination that would shape the emotional core of Henry Ward Beecher and his generation.

Relations between the United States and England had remained strained and murky since the end of the war, growing even more complex as the French Revolution of 1789 and then the invasion of Europe by Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies tore up old diplomatic alliances. Tensions peaked when England attempted to cut off sea trade between the United States and the Continent by attacking American ships and impressing almost a thousand American sailors, in essence kidnapping them and forcing them to work on British ships. Finally, in the summer of 1812, President James Madison declared war on the United Kingdom–the War of 1812 or the Second American Revolution, as it came to be known.

Eager to retake their former colony, the British invaded from all sides, from the Great Lakes in the north to the Gulf of New Orleans in the South. In the spring of 1813 eight British warships sailed into the waters of the Connecticut Sound, blockading the ports, burning wharves and trading ships, and forcing the city of New London to evacuate when the fleet tried to sail up the Connecticut River. By the summer of Henry’s