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Henry Ward Beecher's Life and Times

The Most Famous Man in America follows the preacher through his late-life scandal.
2007This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
Debby Applegate
Doubleday
544 pages, $27.95

The title is absurd, reeking of hype; the subtitle is subliterate (what we're getting is a biography). Never mind. Neither is representative of the book itself, which is well written, entertaining, and likely to be of particular interest to readers of CT.

If not the most famous man in America, Henry Ward Beecher sprang from the celebrated clan that produced the distinguished churchman Lyman Beecher (his father) and the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe (his sister), author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Born in 1813, Henry Ward Beecher became a spellbinding preacher. A little more than a decade before his death in 1887, though, he weathered a sex-scandal as tawdry in its own way as the Clinton-Lewinsky affair—managing, like the President, to brazen it out, though his reputation was permanently tarnished.

Applegate exaggerates the extent to which Beecher's emphasis on God's unconditional love was a novelty and mischaracterizes the religious landscape in other ways (for example, you'd never intuit from her account the perfectionist strain in early Methodism that led to the Holiness movement). Still, she's one of those rare writers who manage to combine in a single book the virtues of scholarly and popular biography, immersing themselves in the archives without losing the human touch.

There's a powerful temptation to use a fall such as Beecher's as an arguing point. All too many preachers of the Word, obscure as well as famous, representing wildly contradictory theologies and churches of every stripe, have fallen prey to temptation. Let us give thanks for the many more pastors and priests who, with God's grace, have stayed ...

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