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The Most Famous Man in America

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It requires a certain amount of trust to read and to enjoy a biography. Most books are easily-verified, easily fact-checked. A book discussing a particular doctrine can be easily held up to the Scripture and seen immediately to be true or false. Biographies, though, and especially those that rely on secondary sources, are much more difficult to verify and thus the reader is left having to place his trust in the biographer, believing that she is providing the true story of her subject’s life. In the case of The Most Famous Man in America, a Pulitzer prize winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher, I was never able to reach the point where I really trusted the author, Debby Applegate.

Henry Ward Beecher is an interesting character. He was a Congregationalist minister who came from a family distinguished by many great accomplishments. He was the son of renowned evangelist Lyman Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Isabella Beecher Hooker, a prominent suffragist. His brother, Charles, was a highly-regarded Congregationalist minister. Beecher was well-known across America for being a social reformer and advocate of abolition. He pastored a very large church in Brooklyn, New York–a megachurch long before the word had been coined. Though he was raised by a Calvinist father, he repudiated those beliefs and came to advocate a kind of liberal theology that denied distasteful doctrines such as hell and eternal punishment and emphasized instead the attributes of God that were more palatable to his tastes. 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.” He was undoubtedly one of the most famous men in America for much of his life.

Despite his accomplishments in religion and politics, he is probably best known for being at the center of one of the nineteenth century’s greatest scandals and one whose lascivious details fueled the nation’s press. 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. The Beecher-Tilton Affair was played out in the media much as such scandals are played out in our day. Beecher was eventually exonerated by a hung jury. Yet his reputation has been forever tainted by the charges that he faced and strenuously denied.

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 subjects having to do with Christians. 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.

I had three prominent concerns with this book. First, the author is clearly ignorant in her understanding of Christianity. Beecher 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). 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 drawn from this chapter.

“As an orthodox Calvinist, Lyman Beecher interpreted the Bible literally, as solid fact…” “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.” “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.” “…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.”

Second, I could not help but feel that the author’s distaste for Christianity and even her distaste of particular characters in the narrative (and Beecher’s wife stands as probably the most obvious example) led her to portray them in a way that may be unfair and even untruthful.

Finally, the narrative of the book closes not with Beecher’s death (this comes in the Epilogue) but at the close of the sex scandal that tainted his career. It was clear that this scandal was the climax of the book and that everything else simply led to it. Hence the book was a biography, but one that led inevitably to the kind of scandal that so intrigues people in our day and age.

Whether Beecher was the serial adulterer portrayed in this book is difficult to know, even after reading this account. Older accounts of his life regard him as being completely exonerated of the charges he faced. Yet it is clear that he had a lifelong pattern of developing close relationships with women–relationships intimate enough that they disrupted marriages and caused several husbands great jealousy. If he was so willing to form these intimate relationships it seems only a small step from emotional adultery to the physical adultery that formed the basis of the charges against him. Though he was exonerated by a jury he has not been exonerated by history. While the scandal has forever tainted his name, I consider this far less serious than the liberalism he advocated. This biography would have been more interesting to me had it dealt with Beecher’s contribution to the theological downgrade in the late 19th century. Sadly, the biographer’s ignorance of Christian theology meant she had little to say in this regard and instead she focused on moral scandal.

The Most Famous Man in America is a well-written and interesting biography of a particularly fascinating character. Sadly, though, the biographer chose to focus too much on an area that, though important, was not her subject’s most prominent and longest lasting contribution. Though certainly a good biography, I am far from convinced that this one is deserving of a Pulitzer prize. Still, it is well worth reading and would be a worthy addition to a summer reading list.

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