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The great sermonizer

Emily Barton lives six blocks from Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church. For three years, she worked on a novel about the minister, but later abandoned that project to write the novel "Brookland," which, while not about Beecher, does crib from one of his sermons.

DEBBY APPLEGATE isn’t exaggerating as much as you might think when she calls the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher “the most famous man in America.” In his prime -- the 1850s and 1860s -- the Brooklyn minister’s sermons were so popular that the Sunday morning ferries from Manhattan were called “Beecher Boats,” and he regularly preached to crowds of thousands on subjects ranging from the moral issues surrounding slavery to his personal religious doubts. In an era in which old-school Calvinists like his father, Lyman, still taught adherents to fear God, Beecher asked them to love him. His personal, seemingly spontaneous oratorical style was a revelation to his contemporaries, for whom churchgoing was one of the only respectable forms of entertainment. Both the mode and the substance of his preaching greatly influenced the development of American Protestantism as we know it.

One of his sisters, Isabella Beecher Hooker, was a vocal early suffragist, while another, Harriet Beecher Stowe, lighted a fire under white complacency toward slavery with novels such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Still another, Catharine Beecher, wrote the “American Woman’s Home,” a prim and thorough guide to domestic economy.

In Brooklyn, grand statues of Henry Ward Beecher adorn the courtyard of Plymouth Church, the Congregational pulpit from which he thundered, and the public square near the main post office, although few passersby mark them nowadays, except perhaps to wonder why small figures cling to his garments and grovel at his feet. When the statues went up, these personified Beecher’s work for abolition, but now the African American figures eerily more resemble slaves than freedmen.

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Yet like many a great man, Beecher was no saint. As one contemporary detractor sniped, “I am reliably assured that Beecher preaches to seven or eight mistresses every Sunday evening.” And it’s high time for a new biography. The most recent full-scale one I know of is Paxton Hibben’s “Henry Ward Beecher: An American Portrait,” which has grown pretty fusty since its publication in 1927.

Beecher was born in 1813, the eighth child of the Rev. Lyman Beecher and his wife, Roxana. Lyman was a fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian with, as Applegate aptly puts it, “no patience for newfangled notions of religious tolerance or the separation of church and state. Episcopalians, Unitarians, Catholics -- Lyman lumped them together with atheists, drunkards, thieves, and Jeffersonian Democrats.” Henry showed little promise in school (as an adult he recalled learning “how to make paper spit-balls, and to snap them across the room with considerable skill”) or in college. In 1837, when he accepted his first calling -- in Lawrenceburgh, Ind., a frontier crossroads where “rangy, long-legged hogs roamed the muddy streets” -- he seemed unlikely to achieve even a fraction of his father’s influence.

But in the mid-1840s he received a call from Plymouth Church, a new congregation in Brooklyn, eager to hire one of Lyman’s sons and wealthy enough to pay him handsomely. (Beecher was, then and always, a bit of a spendthrift: In middle age, he developed the dandified habit of carrying unset, polished gemstones in his trouser pocket and worrying them like beads.) It was here that he began to develop his commanding oratorical style. A reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper wrote of him, “His knowledge of human nature is better than that of any other minister in the city -- in fact astonishing. He seems to have sounded the deepest springs of the human heart and brings up, of good and bad, all that is lodged there.”

Before long, the problem of slavery began increasingly to preoccupy the nation, and Beecher began -- tepidly at first -- to turn his powerful rhetorical engine on that topic from the pulpit. He famously sent both Bibles and Sharps rifles to support the abolitionist Free-Soilers in Kansas.

Some of Beecher’s antislavery sermons were high theater. Twice, he “auctioned off” beautiful mulattoes to buy their freedom. Applegate recounts one such event:

“A pretty young woman with light brown skin and long, wavy hair ascended the steps of the platform and then sank down, blushing and embarrassed, into the pulpit chair. ‘And this,’ proclaimed the minister, ‘is a marketable commodity.’ Then he demanded, ‘What will you do now? May she read her liberty in your eyes? Shall she go out free?.... Let the plate be passed, and we will see.’ ”

Although Applegate gives Beecher his due as an activist, she seeks to balance his era’s outsized image of his courage with the subsequent assessment of his work as “sentimental” and “unsystematic.” She notes that he came rather later to abolition than radical thinkers like William Lloyd Garrison and sees the naivete in his early censure of the abolitionists “for their bellicose agitation and ‘provocative language’ ” and in his “belief in peaceful evolution, that with patience and time liberty would naturally drive out slavery.” Although Beecher’s position on slavery is not altogether to 21st century tastes, Applegate paints a vivid and realistic portrait of a person -- neither titan nor confidence man -- who no doubt wished to act better than he sometimes did.

While such moderation is any good biographer’s aim, Applegate’s temperance seems particularly commendable, given that her subject’s late career was marred by a sordid sex scandal. (The allegation was that Beecher seduced Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of his protege, Theodore Tilton; conniving middlemen and ravening reporters trumped up the accusation until its plot resembled something from “Dynasty.”) The most recent book on the topic, Richard Wightman Fox’s 1999 “Trials of Intimacy,” ruinously attempted to mirror the scandal’s complexity in its own structure; Chris Adrian’s 2001 novel, “Gob’s Grief,” commented intelligently if elliptically on the fracas, imagining that a child the lovers never had bounces around Brooklyn, inspiring cautionary dread.

Applegate devotes three chapters to the scandal, the civil trial and Beecher’s eventual quasi-acquittal by a hung jury in 1875. She thus allows herself to revel in salacious details -- suffragist, medium and 1872 independent presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull asserted that Beecher supported her theories in private but wouldn’t avow them in public; Beecher’s physician ordered him to use “Cannabis Indica, or Haschish as it is called in the East” to ease his cares during the trial -- without letting them overwhelm her narrative as thoroughly as they did the newspapers and the public imagination. (Media coverage of the trial was nearly as obsessive as the attention paid to the O.J. Simpson trial in our era.) I do, nevertheless, get the feeling that Applegate enjoys narrating Beecher’s narrowly averted downfall. As well she should: It’s a suspenseful story, and her recounting of it is wonderfully vivid.

Applegate has a good teacher’s ability to recast events in present-day terms and explore root causes without oversimplifying. She invokes the 2000 presidential election to explain the Tilden-Hayes debacle of 1876 (Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote, but a congressionally appointed commission awarded the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes), and she writes of the period in general thus: "[D]espite the twentieth-century stereotypes of rapacious robber barons and prudish moral hypocrites, Victorians were no more greedy, lustful, or insincere than any other generation.” Such writing may not exactly sparkle, but it does bring the era convincingly to life. Although Applegate’s prose at times echoes too closely her 19th century sources (she begins one unfortunate sentence, “Even those who cared not a fig for the slave”), she more often writes an elastic sentence that integrates quotations from letters, diaries and public sources with admirable humor. (Of Henry’s school performance, she writes: “Mathematics would be his Waterloo -- ‘algebra was my master and it rode me like a nightmare,’ Henry recalled with a shudder.”)

My one significant qualm with “The Most Famous Man in America” is that, for all the depth of her engagement with Beecher as a minister, thinker and man, Applegate spends little time with Beecher the author. In addition to his sermons and newspaper writings, Beecher wrote two books: “The Life of Jesus, the Christ” and a treacly abolitionist novel, “Norwood, or Village Life in New England.” (A representative sentence: “Look with my eyes, good reader, upon the town of Norwood, that, refusing to go down upon the fat bottom-lands of the Connecticut, daintily perches itself upon the irregular slopes west, and looks over upon that transcendent valley from under its beautiful shade trees, and you will say that no fairer village glistens in the sunlight, or nestles under arching elms!”) Applegate’s failure to explore these books seems a missed opportunity, given that no one in recent years has significantly weighed in on them.

(It is also worth mentioning two smaller qualms: the book’s index, which is so incomplete as to be functionally unusable, and chapter titling fonts that are difficult to read. Both hamper the book’s usefulness as a resource.)

Yet despite the challenges to moderation that Henry Ward Beecher presents, Applegate steers an even course between praise and condemnation, all the while keeping the story lively. I sense that she finds Beecher’s foibles amusing, and this bonhomie suits both her subject and the art of biography well. Her book succeeds as a level-headed piece of scholarship and as an enjoyable thing to read: a rare and pleasing combination. *


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