by Peter Bratt
Just a week before the 2006 midterm elections, the Reverend Ted Haggard, head of the National Association of Evangelicals, pastor of the enormous New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and reputed counselor to the president, fell into a media firestorm over revelations of his drug use and same-sex adultery made by a former male prostitute.Within a few days, one of the leading voices of evangelical Protestantism had to step down from his pulpit at the height of his power. It was supremely ironic that Haggard’s “gay transgressions” marked the climax of an election season filled with heated appeals to the “family values” of the Republican Party’s evangelical core, who thickly populated the pastor’s pews. On top of personal scandals plaguing Republican notables Tom DeLay and Mark Foley, not to mention declining voter trust in the Bush administration’s handing of the conflict in Iraq, the Haggard exposÃ© contributed to a resounding GOP defeat at the polls.
In this context the biography of Henry Ward Beecher makes especially apt reading; thankfully, author Debby Applegate makes it entertaining as well. A revision of her Yale doctoral dissertation in American Studies, Applegate’s The Most Famous Man in America carefully considers the changing contexts in which Beecher lived. Throughout, Beecher moved in a force field of persistent dualities: between his father and himself, religious orthodoxy and sunny liberalism, Midwestern town and east-coast metropolis, the demands of moral purity and the riches of public show, family rectitude and personal scandal. Beecher is important because he personally walked through all the crucibles in which nineteenth-century evangelical America was being re-forged.
Applegate divides his life into three sections. The first frames Henry’s formative years in New England and early parishes in the Midwest. Born in 1813 in Litchfield, Connecticut, Henry was a middle child in Lyman Beecher’s famous progeny of thirteen children and felt pressured from an early age to pursue a career in ministry. The goal would be to defend Calvinist orthodoxy amidst a nation growing quickly in size and population. Lyman himself set the pattern, taking orthodoxy to Unitarian-dominated Boston in 1826 before moving to Cincinnati in 1830 to make the newly established Lane Theological Seminary the evangelical citadel of the West. Henry started out on the same pattern, going to college at Amherst before following the trail of New England migration into the Midwest.
But at his first two Presbyterian churches there, Henry started going his own way. While Lyman was the foremost engineer of proper New England revivalism in the Second Great Awakening, Henry’s congregation in Indianapolis, Indiana grew rapidly after he began to mimic revival methods popularized by Methodist and Baptist itinerant preachers. During this time Henry also departed from his father’s orthodoxy, although perhaps not as abruptly and completely as Applegate suggests. Regardless, Henry soon found himself, along with his father, in the thick of denominational disputes between New and Old School Presbyterians over rules of doctrinal adherence, revival methods, and regional tensions between the Northern and Southern states. Although New School himself, Henry soon became frustrated enough with denominational tensions so that, when offered the pastorate at the newly founded Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York in 1847, he quickly sought cover under its local church autonomy.
It was this autonomy that allowed Henry to become the world-famous preacher that tourists from all over the world would be sure to visit, and that people from Manhattan would regularly ferry over to hear on Sunday morning. The second portion of Applegate’s narrative charts the growing religious and political influence Beecher found in Brooklyn from the late 1840s through the Civil War. Applegate neatly intertwines Beecher’s professional rise with the sectional crisis and the birth of the Republican Party during this period. Arguably the most effective public speaker in the North, Beecher gave voice to all its progressive movements: social reform, selfperfection, and viciously anti-immigrant–hence, anti-Catholic–screeds. Theologically, he turned further from his father’s stress on human sin to the power of God’s love to overcome it.
If Henry received much criticism for this departure, he won even more praise, especially as a pulpiteer. Almost always speaking to a packed audience, Beecher preached passionately and did not hesitate to resort to stunts to bring his message home, whether it be waving John Brown’s chains or holding the mock auction of a female slave to purchase her freedom.
He also enthusiastically supported the Union war effort during the Civil War. His congregation raised a regiment, and Beecher himself gave a crucial series of speeches in Britain during 1863 to promote the Northern cause. Plymouth Church counted in its membership many leading New York City Republicans, who had significant influence within the Lincoln Administration. Lincoln returned the favor by asking Henry to give the speech at Fort Sumter upon the Union’s reconquest of the fort in April 1865. In 1865 Beecher truly merited Applegate’s title: he was the most famous man in America.
Then came the sex scandal that has sealed his lasting reputation. In her third section, Applegate lays out in great detail Henry’s relationship with Elizabeth Tilton, a devoted member of Plymouth Church and wife of reform-Republican newspaper editor Theodore Tilton. To make a long story short, in 1872 suffragist Victoria Woodhall along with Beecher’s own sister, Isabella Hooker, claimed that Henry had been performing more than simple pastoral duties with Mrs. Tilton during their many private visits. A media frenzy ensued when Mr. Tilton sued Beecher in 1875. Nor was this the first hint of sexual scandal in Henry’s career. Applegate evaluates the many rumors of affairs between Beecher and Plymouth Church women and concludes that, even in the absence of rock-hard evidence, Henry certainly had intense personal relationships with females throughout his life that ruined more than one marriage, caused irreparable harm among his close friends, and generated great discord within his own home. The Beecher-Tilton trial ended in a hung jury, and Henry remained as head pastor of Plymouth Church until his death in 1887. Yet, for all his fame, religious passion, and Republican reforming zeal, Applegate concludes, Beecher, like Ted Haggard, will be most remembered for his personal scandal. Such are the perils of evangelical love.
The fault of Applegate’s approach is its neglect of developments in Beecher’s religious thought and parish work after 1865. It is unlikely that his thinking, any more than Brooklyn itself, remained static for the last twenty years of his life, especially as the United States grappled with a vast new array of intellectual offerings and immigrant groups coming over from Europe. Despite its own possible tailspin into the sensationalism that surrounded Beecher at the time, however, The Most Famous Man in America is an excellent introduction for anyone interested in an oversized, creative, energetic, slightly pathetic figure who was once America’s favorite preacher. Just like Ted Haggard.