Friday, 17 August 2012

The Most Famous Man in 19th-Century America

With one week before the start of the semester, I chose to read Debby Applegate's book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. I had leafed through several other books on my shelves, including Sarah Rivett's The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England and Amanda Porterfield's Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation, but I decided to take a break from reading academic monographs. I couldn't have picked a more refreshing book than Applegate's.

I'm about half-way through and can easily say that this is an extremely well-written and engaging biography of arguably the most famous American preacher in the nineteenth century. Henry Ward Beecher was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the son of Lyman Beecher, the New England minister who went on to serve as the founding president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. Applegate presents H. W. Beecher as a shy boy who overcomes his insecurities to become a masterful rhetorician and extroverted preacher. Over time Beecher rejects the message that he was accustomed to hearing as a child of God's judgment, instead promoting the love of God towards humanity. Toward the end of his life, Beecher gained national headlines when he was accused of having an adulterous relationship with one of his parishioners.

Applegate is a superb writer, and the book is very well researched (Applegate earned a PhD in American Studies at Yale University). There is one issue, however, that I did not think received adequate treatment. She presents Lyman Beecher as a "Puritan" who preached "fire and brimstone" messages on God's wrath and judgment. Yet after these opening chapters on the elder Beecher's role as the town dictator of Litchfield, Connecticut, she sneaks in that he was scrutinized by conservative Calvinists for holding liberal theological views. After he moved to Cincinnati, Lyman was put on trial for his perceived heterodoxy (he was acquitted). In reading this type of background information, one wonders if Applegate had digested the nuances between the various types of Calvinism taught and practiced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In fairness, some of the debates between the Old and New School Presbyterians and New England and New Haven ministers are difficult to digest. Nonetheless, it would have been nice to have placed Lyman Beecher within the proper theological context.

Putting aside these comments, I can't praise this book enough. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to read an intelligent biography about a key American figure.

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