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Sunday, July 30, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Beecher story beautifully told

"THE MOST FAMOUS MAN IN AMERICA: THE BIOGRAPHY OF HENRY WARD BEECHER," by Debby Applegate, Doubleday, 527 pages, $27.95

The sex scandal in which Henry Ward Beecher was the protagonist involved Elizabeth Tilton, a member of the congregation Beecher preached to each Sunday. According to Tilton, the sex did not come "out of low or vulgar thoughts either on her part or his, but always from pure affection and a high religious love." She felt "justified before God in her intimacy with him."

That is according to the magnificent new book, "The Most Famous Man in America," by Debby Applegate. And while a significant portion of the book is devoted to this 1872 scandal involving a minister and one of his flock, it's far from the only thing of interest.

Henry Ward Beecher, who is not well known to contemporary Americans, was bigger than life. He was surely charismatic and he got his kicks mainly from delivering emotional, powerful sermons at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.

Later, he expanded his reach by traveling the lecture circuit all over the country. In those days, most people got their entertainment either from going to church or attending a lecture. In the process, Beecher became extraordinarily familiar to most Americans.

Newspapers of the day reveal him to have been by far their most popular subject — even in the midst of the Civil War.

Beecher's sermons were not characterized by fire and brimstone. He believed that the Puritan sermons delivered by his father, Lyman, were incorrect. Henry not only denied the existence of hell, he decried the tendency of other preachers to teach an angry God. Instead, he preached a gospel of unconditional love.

In a manner that is somewhat reminiscent of Billy Graham, Beecher taught
ecumenical Christianity. He was not interested in knowing which church was better than another — he just wanted to preach Christ and his love. But his sermons were personally memorable because he delivered them with such vivid personality and humor.

Off the pulpit, Beecher was a fun-loving man who spent much time with his kids. He demonstrated the highest ideals of fatherhood.

He even took the time to write a bad novel, "Norwood."

Beecher lived in the middle of the woman's suffrage movement, the literary ideals that emanated from Emerson and Thoreau, the Darwinian interpretation of evolution and the bloody Civil War. He opposed slavery with a vengeance, so he was caught in the political crossfire of the day.

Like most great men, Beecher was flawed — as a pastor he hated visiting the sick and the shut-ins. Instead, he gravitated toward women and anyone who was literary or lively in mind. He was hooked on books and had to resort to chicanery to get new books into the house without explaining them to his wife.

Part of his problems lay in the fact that he married too early, and he married the wrong woman. He and Eunice had virtually nothing in common, and he certainly could not talk with her about intellectual matters. She even seemed unaware that he had strayed.

With this impressive volume, Applegate, a first-rate narrative historian, takes her place beside David McCullough and Joseph Ellis in her ability to make history interesting. She truly writes for the general reader, even though her research, as demonstrated by her bibliography, was massive.

She also shows genuine appreciation for her subject, but she does it without compromising her objectivity as a historian.

Beecher, who deserved this excellent treatment, jumps off these pages fully realized because Applegate writes so beautifully.