Over the weekend I began reading The Most Famous Man in America, Debby Applegate’s recent biography of Henry Ward Beecher. The book has been widely celebrated, winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. It was a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award Best Biography of 2006 and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Best Biography of 2006. It was even winner of the Frederick G. Melcher Book Award for the most significant contribution to religious liberalism in 2006 (an award distributed by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations). As one might expect, the book has sold well and has been very widely and very well reviewed.
“Henry Ward Beecher (June 24, 1813 – March 8, 1887) was a prominent, theologically liberal American Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer, abolitionist, and speaker in the mid to late 19th Century. He was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the son of evangelist Lyman Beecher. He was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Isabella Beecher Hooker, a suffragist. He also had a brother, Charles Beecher, who was a renowned Congregationalist minister.” (This was taken from Wikipedia) Beecher was accused of having an affair with one of his parishioners, a married woman, and the subsequent trial became known as one of the most famous trials of the nineteenth century. A 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica says “He probably did more than any other man in America to lead the Puritan churches from a faith which regarded God as a moral governor, the Bible as a book of laws, and religion as obedience to a conscience to a faith which regards God as a father, the Bible as a book of counsels, and religion as a life of liberty in love.”
From what I can tell, the biographer, Debby Applegate, is not a Christian. It is often difficult to know just how much an unbeliever understands about a subject who is a Christian. Of course when Christians write about other Christians it is easy to overlook the subjects’ faults. As New York Times reporter Michael Kazin writes in his review of this book, “Few great preachers in American history have been well served by their biographers. Authors tend to smother princes of the pulpit like Charles Grandison Finney, Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham in tones so erudite and deferential that they end up understating just how controversial these men once were — and fail to explain their remarkable, if somewhat capricious, hold over the hearts and minds of millions of followers.” With a book of this kind there is sometimes reason to be just a bit suspicious, and especially so when the book is lauded by professed theological liberals. It took only a until the first chapter to show Applegate’s appalling ignorance of Calvinism and her hatred of this system of doctrine and hence of biblical Christianity.
Ward was born into a Calvinist home and his father was considered by some to be the last American Puritan. It seems like his father, Lyman Beecher, accepted the tenets of Calvinistic doctrine and may have even leaned towards some of the unbiblical hyper-Calvinistic teachings (though this is unproven in the text of the biography). Frankly, when a person is sufficiently hostile towards Calvinism, the critical distinctions between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism are quickly blurred and become indistinguishable. In the first chapter, when attempting to understand why Henry eventually accepted doctrine that was more liberal than what his father believed, Applegate shares the religious environment in which the Beecher children were raised. She continually smears Calvinism. Here are several quotes pulled from this chapter.
“As an orthodox Calvinist, Lyman Beecher interpreted the Bible literally, as solid fact…” This is clearly a liberal perspective on Christianity, for all true Christians regard the Bible literally and as solid fact. Of course there are portions that must be regarded as allegory or as metaphor, but where the Bible is written as fact, we must accept it as such. And we do. This does not apply only to Calvinists or Puritans but to all believers.
“In theory Lyman viewed the world through the fatalistic lens of Calvinism–believing that sin and corruption lurked around every corner, and that human fate was preordained by God’s plan.” It is not unusual for unbelievers, and even for non-Calvinistic unbelievers, to regard Calvinistic doctrine as fatalistic. Of course predestination and God’s sovereignty over the universe is made clear in Scripture and really those who decry Calvinism as fatalistic have an argument with the Bible, not with Calvin. Here is a good and quick summary of the biblical view: “God is working everything that happens in the Universe according to his own divine plan and will. But He’s chosen to work out this will through means. No Calvinist believes that God makes robots of us. The Westminster Confession itself says that God does no violence to our wills in predestination. Instead He works through our own actions — both good and evil ones” (link).
“Harriet Porter [Lyman’s second wife] suffered from what was then diagnosed as melancholy (what we would now call depression), which was exacerbated by her devotion to the grim teachings of Calvinism. She treated life on earth as an unpleasant duty, a cross to be borne until one reached the joyous gates of heaven.” I was intrigued by the word “grim.” This seems to be Applegate’s understanding of the doctrine, not that of Harriet Porter who was a convinced Calvinist, even if a melancholy one. Those who embrace the doctrines of grace know that there is no better remedy to melancholy than a proper, biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty.
“Yet, like the Lord of the Old Testament, Lyman often seemed capricious in the way in which he wielded his great power. Henry was never sure if he’d run into the lenient, affectionate side or the wrathful, authoritarian side of his father, and this uncertainty shadowed his childhood.” Again, charging God with capriciousness is clearly an act of the author and not her subject.
“…Under Harriet Porter’s chilly influence the dark, authoritarian aspects of Calvinism permeated the parsonage. The endless round of religious rituals that had once seemed merely gloomy now became utterly bleak.” Here is another example of the author’s personal disgust with Calvinism.
The indoctrination into Calvinism took a heavy psychological toll. In today’s culture parents consider it a prime duty to build up their child’s self-esteem, but prior to the 1830s most Christian parents took the opposite view, believing that their task was to tame their child’s strong ego and natural willfulness, to make him humble before God. ‘Henry, do you know that every breath you breathe in is sin?’ Lyman asked as soon as the boy was old enough to speak. ‘Well, it is–every breath.’ It was a crushing thing for a little boy to hear, especially from the mouth of his own father.
And why was he born so sinful? According to the catechism, the answer was clear: Because Adam and Eve disobeyed God, forever corrupting all human beings. This concept of ‘original sin,’ as it is known, was one of the first sentences a Yankee child learned to read, printed in every school primer: ‘In Adam’s fall, we Sinned All.’ The cruel logic of original sin was enough to turn any child away from religion…
This understanding of man’s sinfulness borders on truth, but certainly does not adequately or truthfully summarize the biblical position. The catechism referenced is the Shorter Catechism but, sadly, Applegate did not see fit to include excerpts which would far better summarize the Calvinistic position on original sin. In Adam’s fall we did all, indeed, sin. But there is more to the story than this. To suggest this is cruel logic is to ignore one of the great truths of the world–that we are all sinful and that we all have a propensity for sin. Who can deny this? What liberal explanation is there for man’s love of sin?
Applegate goes on to say that “the burden of original sin was compounded by the capriciousness of salvation. In the Calvinist universe, salvation was considered a supernatural act, a testament to God’s sovereignty and mercy, not merely a reward for good behavior.” So again, God is capricious, not only in the Old Testament, but also in the way He dispenses salvation. Once more, this dishonestly portrays the Calvinist position which makes it clear that God is in no way capricious. Finally, towards the end of the chapter she takes a final dig at Calvinism, contrasting Lyman’s Calvinism with the growing liberal tendencies of one of her daughters–a battle that was followed closely by young Henry. “Never before,” Applegate writes, “had the cruel contradictions of Calvinism been so dramatized in their house.”
All of this is drawn from a chapter entitled “Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t.” The title speaks volumes of the author’s understanding of Calvinism, of the Bible, and of the God of both. While this biography is well-written and has been greatly-acclaimed, it’s a shame that she has not seen fit to truly understand the religious environment of her subject’s youth. I hope the book’s remaining chapters depend, as any biography should, more on the words of the subject and less on the words of the biographer.