Through his sermons, public addresses and writings, Henry Ward Beecher was an immensely influential and often revered public intellectual in 19th-century America. He is probably best remembered as the brother of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe and as the son of Lyman Beecher, the last great Puritan minister in America. From Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, Henry had a profound effect on American Christian thought when he broke away from his father's strict Rule of Law and God's wrath teachings and emphasized instead God's unconditional love and forgiveness.
As for public policy, perhaps the best example of the extent of his influence was an opinion shared by Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. Both men believed that five speeches Beecher gave in England and Scotland in 1863 kept the Confederacy from gaining diplomatic recognition in England and France at a time when material help from those countries could have made a crucial difference in the outcome of the war.
In her exhaustively researched and endlessly fascinating The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, Debby Applegate brings the charismatic Beecher and his times vividly to life. She skillfully weaves the intense personal life of her subject with the dynamic religious, social and political history of the period, and shows how Beecher, with his amiable personality and oratorical and writing talents, was able to gain a large audience for his views. He was concerned with the general reform of society, including universal suffrage and opposition to slavery. Beecher, Applegate writes, was considered a great, if erratic, intellect, whose talents were eagerly sought out in the fiercely competitive newspaper business.
Beecher's friends and acquaintances included Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once described him as one of the four most powerful men in the virtuous class in this country, and Mark Twain, who took Beecher's counsel on publishing and made a small fortune when his Innocents Abroad, or, the New Pilgrims became a bestseller.
However, the career of this prominent preacher, lecturer and writer suffered a serious setback when charges of adultery were brought against him in a trial widely covered by the press. Applegate masterfully guides us through the six months of testimony, eight days of debate and 52 jury ballots, after which the jury could not reach a verdict. Beecher was able to recover somewhat from this ordeal, but many still watched [his] public pronouncements for clues to his guilt or innocence, according to Applegate. This is a major biography of an important, if seriously flawed, figure who made significant contributions to public and religious life in his time. Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.