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No one predicted success for Henry Ward Beecher at his birth in 1813. The blithe, boisterous son of the last great Puritan minister, he seemed destined to be overshadowed by his brilliant siblings—especially his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned the century’s bestselling book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But when pushed into the ministry, the charismatic Beecher found intern No one predicted success for Henry Ward Beecher at his birth in 1813. The blithe, boisterous son of the last great Puritan minister, he seemed destined to be overshadowed by his brilliant siblings—especially his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned the century’s bestselling book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But when pushed into the ministry, the charismatic Beecher found international fame by shedding his father’s Old Testament–style fire-and-brimstone theology and instead preaching a New Testament–based gospel of unconditional love and healing, becoming one of the founding fathers of modern American Christianity. By the 1850s, his spectacular sermons at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights had made him New York’s number one tourist attraction, so wildly popular that the ferries from Manhattan to Brooklyn were dubbed “Beecher Boats.” Beecher inserted himself into nearly every important drama of the era—among them the antislavery and women’s suffrage movements, the rise of the entertainment industry and tabloid press, and controversies ranging from Darwinian evolution to presidential politics. He was notorious for his irreverent humor and melodramatic gestures, such as auctioning slaves to freedom in his pulpit and shipping rifles—nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles”—to the antislavery resistance fighters in Kansas. Thinkers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Twain befriended—and sometimes parodied—him. And then it all fell apart. In 1872 Beecher was accused by feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull of adultery with one of his most pious parishioners. Suddenly the “Gospel of Love” seemed to rationalize a life of lust. The cuckolded husband brought charges of “criminal conversation” in a salacious trial that became the most widely covered event of the century, garnering more newspaper headlines than the entire Civil War. Beecher survived, but his reputation and his causes—from women’s rights to progressive evangelicalism—suffered devastating setbacks that echo to this day. Featuring the page-turning suspense of a novel and dramatic new historical evidence, Debby Applegate has written the definitive biography of this captivating, mercurial, and sometimes infuriating figure. In our own time, when religion and politics are again colliding and adultery in high places still commands headlines, Beecher’s story sheds new light on the culture and conflicts of contemporary America.


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No one predicted success for Henry Ward Beecher at his birth in 1813. The blithe, boisterous son of the last great Puritan minister, he seemed destined to be overshadowed by his brilliant siblings—especially his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned the century’s bestselling book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But when pushed into the ministry, the charismatic Beecher found intern No one predicted success for Henry Ward Beecher at his birth in 1813. The blithe, boisterous son of the last great Puritan minister, he seemed destined to be overshadowed by his brilliant siblings—especially his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned the century’s bestselling book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But when pushed into the ministry, the charismatic Beecher found international fame by shedding his father’s Old Testament–style fire-and-brimstone theology and instead preaching a New Testament–based gospel of unconditional love and healing, becoming one of the founding fathers of modern American Christianity. By the 1850s, his spectacular sermons at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights had made him New York’s number one tourist attraction, so wildly popular that the ferries from Manhattan to Brooklyn were dubbed “Beecher Boats.” Beecher inserted himself into nearly every important drama of the era—among them the antislavery and women’s suffrage movements, the rise of the entertainment industry and tabloid press, and controversies ranging from Darwinian evolution to presidential politics. He was notorious for his irreverent humor and melodramatic gestures, such as auctioning slaves to freedom in his pulpit and shipping rifles—nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles”—to the antislavery resistance fighters in Kansas. Thinkers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Twain befriended—and sometimes parodied—him. And then it all fell apart. In 1872 Beecher was accused by feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull of adultery with one of his most pious parishioners. Suddenly the “Gospel of Love” seemed to rationalize a life of lust. The cuckolded husband brought charges of “criminal conversation” in a salacious trial that became the most widely covered event of the century, garnering more newspaper headlines than the entire Civil War. Beecher survived, but his reputation and his causes—from women’s rights to progressive evangelicalism—suffered devastating setbacks that echo to this day. Featuring the page-turning suspense of a novel and dramatic new historical evidence, Debby Applegate has written the definitive biography of this captivating, mercurial, and sometimes infuriating figure. In our own time, when religion and politics are again colliding and adultery in high places still commands headlines, Beecher’s story sheds new light on the culture and conflicts of contemporary America.

30 review for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

  1. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    https://thebestbiographies.com/2019/0... “The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher” is historian Debby Applegate’s inaugural biographical work and earned the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2007. For the past several years Applegate has been working on a biography of Polly Adler, a Prohibition-era brothel keeper in New York City. Applegate first began studying Beecher while an undergraduate at Amherst College – which was also her biographical subject’s alma mater (a cent https://thebestbiographies.com/2019/0... “The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher” is historian Debby Applegate’s inaugural biographical work and earned the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2007. For the past several years Applegate has been working on a biography of Polly Adler, a Prohibition-era brothel keeper in New York City. Applegate first began studying Beecher while an undergraduate at Amherst College – which was also her biographical subject’s alma mater (a century-and-a-half earlier). In total she spent almost two decades researching Beecher’s life before completing this biography. Her interest in her subject and her skill at uncovering and synthesizing the most important elements of his life are quickly evident. It is helpful, of course, that Beecher is a fabulously interesting character. A wildly popular preacher in the mid-19th century, Beecher’s life story benefits from his inexplicable oratorical charisma, his willingness to embrace conflict (particularly, as a staunch abolitionist, in matters concerning slavery) and his apparent proclivity for sleeping with parishioners. Applegate’s writing style is clear but not uncommonly eloquent. She does not describe moments or set scenes with the flair of biographers such as Chernow, Caro or McCullough. But she is often able to review complex subjects with remarkable dexterity, distilling and conveying them in a comprehensible way. Highlights include a thorough and perceptive review of slavery in the early-to-mid 19th century, an insightful examination of Beecher’s evolving religious philosophy and enlightening observations concerning American politics and popular culture during her subject’s lifetime. She also does a nice job describing the undeniably rustic life of a typical family in this era. But Beecher himself remains a bit too elusive. His multifaceted and metamorphic persona defies easy explanation and although he is often attentively-described, he frequently proves frustratingly opaque and enigmatic. In the end, most readers will walk away with a good – but seemingly incomplete – understanding of who he was and what made him tick. His final portrait is resembles a jigsaw puzzle never entirely assembled. The narrative itself is often excellent but disappointingly uneven. Applegate has clear talent as a storyteller and the book is often fluid and utterly captivating. But the book’s flow too frequently feels tedious and difficult to follow. This is due, at least in part, to an inconsistency in the level of detail provided throughout the text. Overall, Debby Applegate’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Most Famous Man in America” is a solid if not quite exceptional biography. It proves extremely well-researched and Applegate demonstrates a remarkable mastery of the religious, political and cultural currents of the times. But Beecher led a complex and often convoluted life. And while Applegate does her best to simply and articulate his contradictions she is only partially successful. Overall rating: 3½ stars

  2. 5 out of 5

    Clif

    This book is not only a thorough exploration of a remarkable man, but a marvelous tour through 19th century America. Recently, I asked two people in their 30's if they had ever heard of Henry Ward Beecher. They had not. They did recognize the name of his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. How time erases celebrity! H.W. Beecher was deeply involved in the major issues of his times, was credited by both Lincoln and Robert E. Lee with determining the outcome of the Civil War and became involved in a leg This book is not only a thorough exploration of a remarkable man, but a marvelous tour through 19th century America. Recently, I asked two people in their 30's if they had ever heard of Henry Ward Beecher. They had not. They did recognize the name of his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. How time erases celebrity! H.W. Beecher was deeply involved in the major issues of his times, was credited by both Lincoln and Robert E. Lee with determining the outcome of the Civil War and became involved in a legal case over adultery that easily equals the O.J. Simpson spectacle in our own time. Yet, he is almost entirely forgotten - I would not have been able to properly identify him before reading this book. Henry, the son of a Calvinist preacher, Lyman Beecher, ended up repudiating Calvinism and bridged the time between the fire and brimstone school of preaching and the modern era of American Christianity that he initiated, in which God is equated with love and forgiveness. An emotional man enraptured by the effect of adoring audiences, Henry Ward Beecher lived to address the multitudes. The other duties of a minister paled by comparison; he never cared to be a pastor visiting his flock and listening to their troubles. Rather, he enjoyed mingling with the public at large from the elite of Manhattan to the workers toiling on the docks, Christians and pagans alike. With his long hair, open collar and idea that nobody was sinless or could be, he made a distinct impression wherever he went. Working his way up through churches near Cincinnati and in Indianapolis, Beecher ultimately had a church in Brooklyn, NY built specifically for him in 1859 (Plymouth Church that still stands today) and from there he ruled the roost until his death, consistently pulling in packed audiences. A member of a large and famous family and husband to a prolific wife who viewed herself as a martyr, his chilly marriage resulted in long periods of separation in which his open and understanding manner could lead to complications with the opposite sex. The last quarter of the book is filled with the details of the Beecher - Tilton affair that led to a trial that filled the newspapers of America; well over 100 stories on the matter appeared in the New York Times alone. This book is enjoyable on many levels, from an investigation of the psychology of Beecher and those closest to him, through an analysis of the religious and political movements of the time, to the issue of how the preservation of what a man represents can be more important to the public than the actual personal actions of that man. In other words, if you are an icon, much will be forgiven before those who treasure the icon will allow it to crumble. Beecher could lead on the issues, such as the right of women to vote, but he more often took the pulse of his public and moved in the direction to which they pointed. Contradiction was part of the man, as it is with all of us, but Beecher never looked back and never tried to maintain that he was always right as so many do. His conversation with individuals was uninhibited and open-hearted and the emotional transport he achieved in his sermons could lead him to say things he later found hard to defend. Perhaps this was a large part of his attraction; he expressed the emotional freedom for which his straight-laced listeners longed, even if they would never dare to say so. Read this book and you will understand why Henry Ward Beecher deserved his fame. No less a critic of humanity than Mark Twain claimed Beecher was a Gulliver among Lilliputians. Every chapter will leave you eager to find out - what happens next!?

  3. 5 out of 5

    John

    The bumptious, angry, confused adolescence that America went through in its first 100 years is brought resplendently to life in this biography of Beecher who, in many ways, personified the search for a workable identity that consumed the young nation. This incredibly epochal period saw the country wrestle with the choice of a strong aristocracy or a democracy, fight another war with Britain, and launch the wholesale extermination of indigenous populations, loftily calling it manifest destiny. Po The bumptious, angry, confused adolescence that America went through in its first 100 years is brought resplendently to life in this biography of Beecher who, in many ways, personified the search for a workable identity that consumed the young nation. This incredibly epochal period saw the country wrestle with the choice of a strong aristocracy or a democracy, fight another war with Britain, and launch the wholesale extermination of indigenous populations, loftily calling it manifest destiny. Political parties and religious sects popped up like weeds; the struggle between the strictures of religion and the logic of science, between agriculture and a burgeoning industrial economy consumed the hearts and minds of its citizenry. America resembled a surly teenager whose moods, hairstyles, clothes, and friends change by the hour. In this swirling vortex, stood Beecher: a curiously clintonesque preacher, charismatic orator, abolitionist, social reformer, newspaperman and public intellectual. He was central to the creation of the Republican party, created the modern Christian ideology that repudiated the Calvinist tradition of sin and guilt and developed a very modern taste for the baubles of conspicuous consumption – carrying precious jewels to pull out when he felt down. Largely forgotten to history or only remembered as the brother of the woman that wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Beecher now takes his places in the pages of history in this illuminating biography written with vigor, intelligence and a keen sense of historical context.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    In the first part of the book the reader gets not only a biography but a description of life in post-Revolutionary America up to the Civil War. Through the life of Henry Beecher we get a look at how Calvinism of the period infused a pious household and how the Great Awakening played out in that clerical family. The author's presentation of the country's social and intellectual changes through the life of Henry Beecher is a fascinating read. We see how the times forced the severe Lyman's move to B In the first part of the book the reader gets not only a biography but a description of life in post-Revolutionary America up to the Civil War. Through the life of Henry Beecher we get a look at how Calvinism of the period infused a pious household and how the Great Awakening played out in that clerical family. The author's presentation of the country's social and intellectual changes through the life of Henry Beecher is a fascinating read. We see how the times forced the severe Lyman's move to Boston. The anti-Catholicism he preaches comes back to haunt him when his church burns and liquor bottles burst in its basement. The incident graphically illustrates that a clerical collar no longer brings deference and why. Applegate provides exceptional and very readable documentation of how Henry was schooled in his father's narrow mindedness and taught the opposite of self esteem. The author says Beecher had great parental love, but as one of 12 children, but how many minutes in a week could have been bestowed on this young and seemingly unexceptional child, particularly upon the arrival of a morose stepmother producing her own offspring? (Among Henry's siblings there are 2 suicides.) Childhoods such as Henry's provide the empathy common to many who advocate for those in trouble as well as produce untidy lives. Henry, longing to please his stern father, developed people skills, perhaps by observing his sermons, his opinion morphing and his control of others. You can extrapolate that Henry's talent for getting people to love/follow/support (politically and financially) him was an adaptation necessary to his psyche. The author credits it as essential to the anti-slavery movement. We follow Henry's pathetic 7 year courtship of the even more emotionally deprived Eunice to a hardscrabble life in Indiana where the author documents the consequences of any anti-slavery whiff. Henry is discovered for promotions to Indianapolis, pop. 3,000 and then to NYC where SoHo is still a suburb. We see how pro-slavery fanaticism of the South and appeasement of the northern politicians outraged the general public in the North. It made anti-slavery more generally more acceptable in the North and in particular Henry's circles. Henry knew how to articulate it, and how far his audience was able to go with him on it. We see Henry as a man of this times and a product of them too. There's a different tone when it gets to the consequences of Beecher's untidy life. This part is like a different book. It's mostly a report on the moves of the accusers and defenders and descriptions of hearings and trials. There is little analysis or historical context. Yes, we see Mark Twain, the woman's suffrage movement and hear of Grant's scandals, but they are the backdrop and not wound into the story. The book is a great work of scholarship throughout. The pre-Civil War and War parts deserve 6 or 7 stars, for weaving Henry's saga into the times. The 100 or so pages at the end, which show thorough research, do not have the analysis equal to the previous standard. I would have liked to see the allegations and trial parts significantly cut and the resulting space devoted to the social and political context of the times. For this reason, I gave 4 stars and not 5.

  5. 4 out of 5

    K.P.B. Stevens

    As one of the members of our book club said, if you stop reading before Chapter 10 you can go away thinking that Henry Ward Beecher was a good man. Born a Puritan of Puritans in New England, he emigrated West and then returned to the East again, landing in Brooklyn, where he became famous as the pastor of Plymouth Church. Applegate's biography is also a history of American religion in the 19th Century, and particularly of the great transition that took place as Calvinism died away and was replac As one of the members of our book club said, if you stop reading before Chapter 10 you can go away thinking that Henry Ward Beecher was a good man. Born a Puritan of Puritans in New England, he emigrated West and then returned to the East again, landing in Brooklyn, where he became famous as the pastor of Plymouth Church. Applegate's biography is also a history of American religion in the 19th Century, and particularly of the great transition that took place as Calvinism died away and was replaced by a less logical, more emotive form of Christianity. Beecher was a pivotal figure in this change. Raised by a strict Calvinist father, a preacher famous in his own right, Beecher gradually turned his interest from an image of God as the distant, judgmental Father, to God as the loving, forgiving Son. American society shifted its focus right along with him. Accompanying this shift in focus was a growing concern over slavery, and Beecher was one of the leaders of the abolition movement as well, although at first reluctantly. I don't know if I've ever read a better overview of America's struggles over slavery prior to the Civil War. Applegate is a fine writer, and she made this world come alive. And then we get to the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth chapters. It is a mark of how deeply I'd been drawn into this book that I took such offense at Beecher's behavior, as told about in those chapters. The story shifts from one of cultural uplift to one of deep tragedy, as Beecher is revealed as a womanizer, but in the oddest of ways. He didn't chase young girls, but staid married women. Was he a man who simply needed the companionship of women, and was unhappy in his own marriage? Or were his actions as devious and egotistical as they seemed? Applegate is careful not to provide too easy an answer to these questions, and the reader is left feeling as unsettled as Beecher's contemporaries must have been.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tammy

    This biography tells the story of a man eminently famous in his day, but relatively obscure in our time. This is a finely researched and well-written book that pulls the reader through the life of this complex man without descending into the dull recounting of years that often characterize historical biographies. The author, Debby Applegate, respects her character, but doesn’t caulk over his faults with thin defenses or convoluted explanations of his sometimes puzzling and unconscionable behavio This biography tells the story of a man eminently famous in his day, but relatively obscure in our time. This is a finely researched and well-written book that pulls the reader through the life of this complex man without descending into the dull recounting of years that often characterize historical biographies. The author, Debby Applegate, respects her character, but doesn’t caulk over his faults with thin defenses or convoluted explanations of his sometimes puzzling and unconscionable behavior. Regarding the character of Henry Ward Beecher himself, I found him strangely unattractive, despite innumerable mentions of his popularity and the effect his personality had on others. It’s not that he possessed faults – faults common to any man (whether clergy or not) – but his refusal to acknowledge and own up to his questionable behavior and his often circuitous and contradictory reasoning was maddening. I found his personality unaccountably distasteful…much as I still find those who rely on their fame, popularity, or notoriety to circumvent social, political, and judicial rules that apply to the rest of us. For those who enjoy historical biographies, this is one of the best I’ve read.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    Applegate performs an astounding feat here: she manages to explain, concisely and clearly, everything from the origins and results of the Civil War to why religion played such a major role in 19th century American life. On top of that, she illuminates the fascinating Beecher family, shining a light on Henry Ward, the most modern of that old Calvinist family. A really terrific read - bravo!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Julie Woods

    I absolutely loved this book. It is so packed with detail and intimate knowledge of the personal lives of Beecher, his family and contemporaries, (who wrote thousands of long letters still extant) that it reads like a novel. If you are interested in questions of faith, or how to live a good life, to be of service to others...deeply individual and personal matters set against the very public and momnumental events of American history like the Civil War, you will love this too. Now I want to read I absolutely loved this book. It is so packed with detail and intimate knowledge of the personal lives of Beecher, his family and contemporaries, (who wrote thousands of long letters still extant) that it reads like a novel. If you are interested in questions of faith, or how to live a good life, to be of service to others...deeply individual and personal matters set against the very public and momnumental events of American history like the Civil War, you will love this too. Now I want to read the biographies of all the great Americans of this time....Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln...the list goes on... What a time to be alive in the United States!

  9. 4 out of 5

    John

    An extremely well executed biography of a major figure in 19th century American culture - the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and scion of an absolutely fascinating New England family. Wonderfully and suscinctly written. At the end I have the sense that I know his personality, affect, drives. Well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize that it won.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Johnny

    Isn't it interesting how one sibling often gets the credit when another sibling provides the substance? I personally had filed Henry Ward Beecher in my mental file as a great abolitionist when his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), embraced the cause sooner and more consistently. Indeed, the most amazing part of this biography to me was discovering how inconsistent Beecher was, not only with regard to abolitionism, but also with regard to faith. He interpreted his faith Isn't it interesting how one sibling often gets the credit when another sibling provides the substance? I personally had filed Henry Ward Beecher in my mental file as a great abolitionist when his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), embraced the cause sooner and more consistently. Indeed, the most amazing part of this biography to me was discovering how inconsistent Beecher was, not only with regard to abolitionism, but also with regard to faith. He interpreted his faith as something of Christian transcendentalism such that he was, according to Ms. Applegate's understanding, more comfortable with Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Romanticism" and "Naturism" than with former Calvinists like Hawthorne and Melville who, in Melville's words "could not believe, but could not be comfortable in unbelief." (p. 271). This was so obvious that Walt Whitman once asked if his followers were "Beecherites or Christians?" (p. 299). I loved the colorful description of his working relationship with Henry Bowen in building Plymouth Church: "...when one fires the shot, the other pays for the powder." (p. 231) I enjoyed historical details such as discovering that Cincinnati was once known as "Porkopolis." (p. 109) I further enjoyed the colorful description of the Missouri Compromise as a "frozen ball of rattlesnakes" and the call to "courage or carnage." (p. 277). One of my favorite lines was when Beecher had his speaking tour of the British Isles. When one Scotsman cried out that they sympathized with the South because they were the "weaker party." To which Beecher replied, "Go, then, and sympathize with the devil--he was the weaker party also when he rebelled and was turned out of heaven." (p. 348) One thing is certain, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher is anything but worthy of the bad review quoted on p. 415 of the book: "Such a book is a tomb from which no author again rises." I'm going to remember that for the next time I hate a book.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Omar

    I lost interest in this book after about 100 pages but kept reading because it had come highly recommended to me by a friend. I made it to page 268 before I just simply gave up. The life of Henry Ward Beecher was interesting at points, but the book seemed to lack cohesion. At 268 pages I decided to skip ahead to the chapter dealing with his affair with Elizabeth Tilton, but I lost interest in him as a person by that point- so I found myself not caring about it. Applegate's narrative was hard to I lost interest in this book after about 100 pages but kept reading because it had come highly recommended to me by a friend. I made it to page 268 before I just simply gave up. The life of Henry Ward Beecher was interesting at points, but the book seemed to lack cohesion. At 268 pages I decided to skip ahead to the chapter dealing with his affair with Elizabeth Tilton, but I lost interest in him as a person by that point- so I found myself not caring about it. Applegate's narrative was hard to follow at times. A glossary of names would have been helpful in keeping all of the names straight (something most biographers should consider). Applegate's largest problem, however, is her caricatures of Reformed Theology. These caricatures were most prevalent in the early chapters of the book when she dealt with Henry's father Lyman Beecher. Had this book been shorter and more balanced in it's presentation of Reformed Theology I would probably have finished it

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jared

    A solid, reasonably well-written and researched biography. Unfortunately, the author permits her skepticism of Beecher's Christianity unintentionally to make Beecher out to as a bit of a skeptic. She doesn't give his faith enough historic credence; on this front, the development of Beecher's theology is unjustly neglected; I only received a vague idea of what he actually believed, and how this changed over time--more discussion of his theological writings and sermons, not just his fascinating bi A solid, reasonably well-written and researched biography. Unfortunately, the author permits her skepticism of Beecher's Christianity unintentionally to make Beecher out to as a bit of a skeptic. She doesn't give his faith enough historic credence; on this front, the development of Beecher's theology is unjustly neglected; I only received a vague idea of what he actually believed, and how this changed over time--more discussion of his theological writings and sermons, not just his fascinating biography, would have made this book much stronger. While the majority of the book is a breeze, and easy to read, the early chapters are a bit tedious, and too speculative on how a child H.W. may have felt. Recommended, however, for its strong placement of Beecher in his intellectual context of nineteenth century America.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Don Bryant

    Finished reading "The Most Famous Man in America," the story of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and how he tried to weave his way through antebellum America with the intransigent issue of slavery immovable and promising to hurl America toward a conflagration that would destroy the Union. It was slavery and abolitionism 24/7 without rest, decade upon decade. Beecher was an abolition man and yet not a "barner," one who threatened to burn the whole barn down. He somehow found a way to avoid the radicals wi Finished reading "The Most Famous Man in America," the story of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and how he tried to weave his way through antebellum America with the intransigent issue of slavery immovable and promising to hurl America toward a conflagration that would destroy the Union. It was slavery and abolitionism 24/7 without rest, decade upon decade. Beecher was an abolition man and yet not a "barner," one who threatened to burn the whole barn down. He somehow found a way to avoid the radicals with his own more evolutionary approach that was willing to wait until slavery was strangled to death on its own internal contradictions, even while giving John Brown a crown and a place within the parthenon of heroes. At every step he was playing with fire, moving very close to the modernist impulse with its baggage of liberalism that included laxer sexual morality codes, suffragism, etc. He was not trying to take America back to its Puritan New England roots and its primitivism. He was an "adjustment" man. He caught the wave of American optimism, the promise of riches unleashed by growing economic opportunity, the inclusion of wave upon wave of immigrants. He intuitively sensed that the times needed, as he saw it, a less dogmatic God, a tenderer Christ, and a love driven religious impulse without the fine tuning of theological small print. The public was done with precise religious creeds, moral obsessions, and authoritarianism in all its forms. They weren't in the mood for it. And Beecher was their man. He is the prototype of the liberal Protestant, and even in the midst of Evangelical revivals did not give way to the "old time religion." In his personal life he was no doubt a sexual libertine, but he had an amazing capacity for slithering away from being considered so. Still the word was out that on any given Sunday he was preaching to 7 or 8 of his mistresses. Finally he ended up being sued by his best friend for "criminal conversation' with his wife. The trial lasted six months. While it ended in a hung jury, there is no way one could read the transcripts without concluding that Beecher lived the life of a slippery fellow. He contained within himself the very stress fractures of America and its dalliance with modernism and all that meant for new forms of society. The hippies of the 60s had nothing on the new generation that Beecher represented and surely the one that followed. Beecher is a reminder that while America can be spiritually renewed and reinvigorated, America doesn't go back to old forms. Christian theological and moral orthodoxy will always be interactive with a fluid social matrix that can't be fixed into a final form. I place myself within the great and conservative Evangelical mainstream. Orthodoxy, as I know it, orders my interior and exterior world. But I have never been insistent that this can only look one way when it comes to church life and church order. I quickly lose sympathy with those orthodox movements that seek a return to old forms as the only wineskin that can contain the new wine. This is always a losing proposition and a waste of energy. After seventy years of belonging and observing, my conviction is that this is a road that leads to the wilderness and social isolation. And Beecher will always stand as a morality tale of playing with fire and getting burned. Cultural winds are not moral compass points. They are cultural conditions which we must navigate, using winds that can help and managing winds that threaten to cast our ship on the rocks and ruin the faith of many.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Peter Corrigan

    This was a complete surprise. I knew virtually nothing, no actually literally nothing about Henry Ward Beecher. I only learned from the book jacket that he was brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe. So it was fun to read about something about which I had almost no preconceived ideas. This is a highly readable account , very well written and researched and fascinating to a degree I hardly expected. I have been a Civil War 'buff' forever but it was always about the the Generals and the battles. But the This was a complete surprise. I knew virtually nothing, no actually literally nothing about Henry Ward Beecher. I only learned from the book jacket that he was brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe. So it was fun to read about something about which I had almost no preconceived ideas. This is a highly readable account , very well written and researched and fascinating to a degree I hardly expected. I have been a Civil War 'buff' forever but it was always about the the Generals and the battles. But the history (especially the pre-war) and politics surrounding the abolition movement and influence were superb and informative. There are many excellent reviews on here so I will not go into much detail. But there were so many things about Beecher that caught my attention even from a personal viewpoint. He was born in Connecticut where I was raised and went to Amherst College, where my dad went. The early history of Amherst and the contrast with the lefty-loony bin it has become was really interesting for me. His life story is very well told and she provides a wonderful snapshot of an incredibly turbulent period in American history. He was a preacher who 'evolved' from a strict Calvinist upbringing into a some type of 'man for all seasons' or perhaps all ladies. If I had a mild criticism it almost seems that the author got too close to this guy. I am sure many biographers are susceptible to this. But she seems determined to see him in best possible light when it becomes apparent that at the end of the day he was an absolutely massive hypocrite who stood around for decades (literally) preaching but not following his own words. He doesn't come off as a guy you hate (in fact he might have been a good guy to have a beer with when he wasn't thundering about the evils of drink). But when it came to the insanely big 'trials' he was more than content to lie endlessly and destroy a woman he probably professed to love (if nothing else to get past all those petticoats, although the author has a funny take on that!). This could get 4.5 stars and I would highly recommend it!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Richard Klueg

    Very informative biography of a "celebrity preacher" from a different era. Henry Ward Beecher was the son of prominent Puritan minister Lyman Beecher. Henry also entered the ministry and over the years turned further and further from his father's Calvinism ... and even from orthodox Christian faith. Of most interest was how Beecher became deeply involved and influential in politics (especially as an anti-slavery activist), and of course the issue of his alleged womanizing, climaxing in the adult Very informative biography of a "celebrity preacher" from a different era. Henry Ward Beecher was the son of prominent Puritan minister Lyman Beecher. Henry also entered the ministry and over the years turned further and further from his father's Calvinism ... and even from orthodox Christian faith. Of most interest was how Beecher became deeply involved and influential in politics (especially as an anti-slavery activist), and of course the issue of his alleged womanizing, climaxing in the adultery trial. I learned a lot from this well-researched book, and appreciate the author's evident hard work. I normally give 4 stars to a good book like this, but had to drop it to 3 due to the author's annoying practice of adopting an elitist, judgmental, mocking air whenever possible - mostly regarding Christian beliefs or Beecher's motives. Besides her ill-concealed dislike of Christian faith, the author at times also displays a lack of knowledge of Christian doctrine and the Bible. One example: the Pharisees were not "Hebrew priests" as she says, but were in fact Jewish laymen. The priesthood was dominated by the Sadducees, whom the Pharisees despised. And all Calvinists are not dour, unhappy, miserable, and legalistic. Most I know are quite pleasant, and I rather fancy myself a happy person, too. :)

  16. 5 out of 5

    Chrisanne

    A hefty undertaking. I enjoyed reading more about the family. I felt like it could have used a few more revisions and a few more clarifications-- some intriguing bits were glossed over and others were just confusing. That exposition bit there was almost relieving after the long, drawn out silence. I almost wished that the surviving letters had been reprinted. I get the feeling that it was rushed in order to make a splash after Woodhull's bio came out. One thing is for sure, American Politics hav A hefty undertaking. I enjoyed reading more about the family. I felt like it could have used a few more revisions and a few more clarifications-- some intriguing bits were glossed over and others were just confusing. That exposition bit there was almost relieving after the long, drawn out silence. I almost wished that the surviving letters had been reprinted. I get the feeling that it was rushed in order to make a splash after Woodhull's bio came out. One thing is for sure, American Politics have never been clean.* And accusations (many with plenty of good cause) did not start with Kennedy/Clinton/Kavanagh. *Gives me much more admiration for Lincoln, though. And her treatment of him is done well.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Deborah Lincoln

    Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher. Think a combination of Billy Graham and Donald Trump. What charisma can do: the man charms, seduces, beds his friends’ wives and his friends grovel, even when they hate him. Oh, and throw in the sordid fascination of the OJ trial: there were (so it is claimed) more stories in the newspapers of the day about the Beecher adultery trial than there had been about the Civil War during its four years. This is a snapshot of the Gilded Age: sex, mo Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher. Think a combination of Billy Graham and Donald Trump. What charisma can do: the man charms, seduces, beds his friends’ wives and his friends grovel, even when they hate him. Oh, and throw in the sordid fascination of the OJ trial: there were (so it is claimed) more stories in the newspapers of the day about the Beecher adultery trial than there had been about the Civil War during its four years. This is a snapshot of the Gilded Age: sex, money, women as objects, free love, excess, suffragists, Mark Twain, politics, miserable wives and dying children, preachers living in mansions — it’s all here.

  18. 5 out of 5

    ann

    Harry Beecher was an important man in his time, making it more socially acceptable for white middle class people to support the abolitionist movement and popularizing the love of God. The book doesn’t read quickly, as there are many people involved, and I finished it out of duty and persistence more than anything else.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jossalyn

    read with westridge alum book club; Winner Pulitzer prize, 2007. really engaging story, amazing and interesting history surrounding the man, his times, his character. book was very long, and a slow read.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    One simply wants to meet the man after reading this beautifully written biography. Oh would that we could. However, it is well worth it to read for the history of religion, politics and slavery in this country.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Terence

    I didn't know much of Henry Beecher and this book was interesting. He had an outsized impact on politics and culture. Unfortunately his impact on the church probably still reverberates today. I would recommend other biographies over this one though.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Merri Carol Martens

    The book is well written and carefully footnotes. It was a sad story to me, as Henry Beecher had so many problems.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Michele

    A must-read to understand so many threads of American history. The amount of research this author did to produce this book is incredible. Yet her writing style is far from academic. #ReadMoreWomen

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jason Wright

    Interesting how someone who introduced America to a kinder God was seduced by temptations of fame and felt unconstrained by societal restrictions on marriage, financial frugality, and humility.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Theo Erasmus

    Fascinating history, and well-written.

  26. 4 out of 5

    YeOldeReader

    Except for his life before his marriage, the book worked better as a study of the slavery debate through the end of the war.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bev

    Book is beautifully written. I enjoyed it most from a historical perspective. Lots of famous people like Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain walked into it. Answered a lot of questions about what the people were like at that time, the evolution of Calvinism, and what the churches were like. He was famous because he was infamous and it is always interesting to see what decisions lead to such and end. Liked that it really showed his character and the people around him.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Romela Encina

    After being raised under the strict doctrines of Calvinism by his famous father Lyman Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher experienced astonishing success as an influential minister and orator proclaiming the contradictory “Gospel of Love” during the 1800s. In The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, Debby Applegate gives a detailed account of Beecher’s prominent effect on America before and after the Civil War. Applegate gives us an elaborate picture of Henry Ward Beecher’s l After being raised under the strict doctrines of Calvinism by his famous father Lyman Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher experienced astonishing success as an influential minister and orator proclaiming the contradictory “Gospel of Love” during the 1800s. In The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, Debby Applegate gives a detailed account of Beecher’s prominent effect on America before and after the Civil War. Applegate gives us an elaborate picture of Henry Ward Beecher’s life by incorporating numerous primary sources, such as letters, pictures and direct quotes, by the very people involved in the controversies she writes about in the book. Her intricate details coalesce to provide a thorough description of life in America at the time. Her accuracy is proven by her consistent references to the major events that she backed meticulously. She also writes with an element of proficiency that captivates the reader and compels him or her to continue reading. I think that what Applegate did best was showing a panoramic perspective of all the people, effectively demonstrating the changes each character went through and how those changes played a factor in the events in Beecher’s life. For example, she shows the development of the friendship between Beecher and Bowen in constructing Plymouth Church and the subsequent disintegration of that friendship that led to his public trial. I must admit that, although it was a considerably lengthy read, from a historical standpoint, it was a very good book. For any fan of American history, especially during the 1800s, I would highly recommend The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. It directly corresponds with the events around the Civil War while successfully weaving Henry Ward Beecher’s story into the times.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    This is the first history I've read in quite awhile that kept my interest throughout. Perhaps this is because it's a biography and the genre necessitates a narrative structure. Great stuff here. I knew pretty much nothing about Henry Ward Beecher before reading 'The Most Famous Man in America' other than his relation to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Nonetheless he was a very important actor in the development of the modern American experience. The first compassionate, secularized popular preacher in Am This is the first history I've read in quite awhile that kept my interest throughout. Perhaps this is because it's a biography and the genre necessitates a narrative structure. Great stuff here. I knew pretty much nothing about Henry Ward Beecher before reading 'The Most Famous Man in America' other than his relation to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Nonetheless he was a very important actor in the development of the modern American experience. The first compassionate, secularized popular preacher in America, Beecher took advantage of being at the right place at the right time again and again. He was the first superstar in American history to fully use the press to his advantage. Though he preached his entire career in a Congregationalist church, he inspired Christians to enjoy life, to love one another, and to become an active voice in national politics. In the end, his image was defiled by an affair with his protege's wife. This is the thing that most people remember about him and Applegate's last comment in the book is to connect Beecher with JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bill Clinton - other 'indisputably' great men who suffered the press's obsession with their lustful indiscretions. Bill Clinton? I'll give you Martin Luther King, but Bill Clinton. His greatness, I hope, can still be disputed. In any case, I found Beecher's early life much more intriguing than his later life in the national spotlight. He really developed a wholly American Christianity - synthesizing his experiences in the Northeast and the Mid-West and the burgeoning entertainment culture of the United States. Not to mention, he was quite a ladies' man.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Sarita

    I really enjoyed this book but with some reservations. It was exactingly researched. You can tell that Derby has amassed mountains of notes on her subject, and sculpting them into a cohesive, compelling narrative took remarkable talent. My reservations are based mostly on the type of history I like to read, but I also think that she missed one of the major themes of the Beechers' collective story, and the nation's: race. Derby fails to note that the early Temperance movement championed by Lyman I really enjoyed this book but with some reservations. It was exactingly researched. You can tell that Derby has amassed mountains of notes on her subject, and sculpting them into a cohesive, compelling narrative took remarkable talent. My reservations are based mostly on the type of history I like to read, but I also think that she missed one of the major themes of the Beechers' collective story, and the nation's: race. Derby fails to note that the early Temperance movement championed by Lyman Beecher and his acolytes fed on the rabid anti-immigration feeling of the times (it was the lower class new immigrants who were brewing and distilling spirits). Later, she describes Beecher's relationships with African Americans during his seminary years that led to Harriet Beecher Stowe's descriptions of Uncle Tom, and of the pastor's auctioning of the freedom of the slave girl. Derby paints these moments as revelatory of Beecher's better nature. I wish that there were quotes by any African Americans in the book besides the incidental single-sentence quotes by Frederick Douglass. Surely there was something said of Beecher's escapades in the nacent black press at the time? I imagine Derby sees this omission as a stylistic decision, but I was still disappointed. While I was fascinated by Derby's way of using Beecher to depict a definitive era in American history (and was thrilled particularly by the intimate cameos of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Abraham Lincoln), I think the portrait would have been even more telling if it had come in full color.

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