The Gospel of Love

Reviewed by Jon Meacham
Sunday, July 9, 2006


The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

By Debby Applegate

Doubleday. 527 pp. $27.95

After dinner one evening in December 1847, Susan Howard, daughter of a prominent Brooklyn family, wrote a letter to her brother to apologize for a long silence. Much had been happening, she said, but "were I to reduce them all to the first elements . . . I verily believe they would all come down to Beecher, Beecher, BEECHER ! He seems to be a subject of universal interest, and he is a curiosity, that is a fact. Don't ask what I think of him, I can't tell you, for the life of me. I only know that I am intensely interested."

As Debby Applegate's fine new biography, The Most Famous Man in America , makes clear, Howard was far from alone in her fascination with the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, one of the many great American figures who dominated an era just before slipping forgotten into history, providing the present with an object lesson in the brevity of celebrity. Preachers and commentators, even the most influential, are particularly prone to this fate, for their power lies in spoken or hastily written words -- words addressed to occasions that burn bright for those experiencing them but that may not resonate beyond the given moment.

Applegate, who holds a PhD in American studies, rescues Beecher from popular obscurity in this illuminating and thorough book. A son of the powerful Calvinist divine Lyman Beecher, young Henry Ward -- brother of Harriet, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin -- rose to prominence as a charismatic Congregationalist clergyman in Brooklyn Heights in the 19th century. His message was not as dark as his father's. To Lyman, talk of God tended to revolve around sin and the looming prospect of damnation; to Henry (born in 1813), the conversation was more about love and salvation. "I do not recollect," the son later said, that "one word had been said to me, or one syllable had been uttered in the pulpit, that led me to think there was any mercy in the heart of God for a sinner like me."

Where the father preached the fear of darkness, the son spoke of the hope of light. "It is Love the world wants," Henry declared from his pulpit in the 1850s. "Higher than morality, higher than philanthropy, higher than worship, comes the love of God. That is the chiefest thing."

It was not, however, always the chiefest thing in the Beecher family ethos. Applegate writes vividly of the tensions Lyman Beecher's vision created for his many children. "Lyman left his children a complex legacy," she notes. "They basked in his extraordinary love even as they quailed under his terrible theology." Two of them, Henry and Harriet, became national forces -- yet two others, Applegate writes, committed suicide. Henry loved his father, but Henry loved something else even more: making others love him. This hunger for the approval of the crowd and the affection of the congregation drew Henry out of his father's long shadow. "The less he preached of God's wrath, and the more he emphasized the pleasures of God's love," Applegate writes of Henry, "the more people came to listen."

And how he relished that. Congregants from Manhattan came to his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn in what were known as "Beecher Boats," and Beecher's embrace of abolition during the Civil War era earned him the privilege of delivering the first remarks as Union troops reclaimed Fort Sumter. He raised money to buy rifles -- called "Beecher Bibles" -- to arm antislavery forces in Kansas. Abraham Lincoln believed his support of emancipation essential to the Union victory.

Though at home in what Roger Williams called "the garden of the church," Beecher also enjoyed life in Williams's "wilderness of the world." He loved horses, shopping, art, books, classical music and more than a few women who were not his wife; this last weakness led to a celebrated scandal in New York as he faced legal proceedings for alleged adultery. An 1874 trial for "criminal conversation" with a married parishioner led one newspaper to write: "We can recall no one event since the murder of Lincoln that has so moved the people as this question whether Henry Ward Beecher is the basest of men." The jury ended in deadlock.

The verdict on Beecher's significance in the history of American religion, though, is clear. He was an early avatar of the highly personalized, gentler Christianity that came to characterize the nation as it grew more prosperous and more cosmopolitan. Describing his intense religious experience of Jesus, Beecher recalled a day in May when he was in seminary in Cincinnati: "There rose up before me a view of Jesus as the Saviour of sinners -- not of saints, but of sinners unconverted, before they were any better -- because they were so bad and needed so much; and that view has never gone from me." It has never gone from America, either: Evangelical Christianity is still founded in large measure on the personal experience of the individual, and, for a time in the midst of the Victorian Age, Beecher overcame childhood fears to articulate a vision of faith that won him fame in a nascent tabloid age. For readers seeking the roots of the popular religion and popular culture of our own time, Applegate's resurrection of Henry Ward Beecher is an excellent place to begin. ?

Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, is the author of "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company