Q & A with Debby Applegate
Q: Was the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher really “the most famous man in America”? What made him so famous and why has he been forgotten?
A: One nineteenth century observer answered the question this way: "Abraham Lincoln emancipated men's bodies; Henry Ward Beecher emancipated their minds. The one delivered them from injustice; the other, from superstition.” Beecher, son of the last great Puritan minister, shocked and enthralled America 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. He added to his infamy by mixing religion and politics, throwing himself into the antislavery crusade and preaching on behalf of the Republican Party. And he became one of the nation's most charismatic and profitable entertainers, lecturing to audiences across the country on the hot topics of the day.
Then, in 1870 at the peak of his fame, Beecher’s close friend and occasional ghost-writer, the journalist Theodore Tilton accused the pastor of seducing his wife Elizabeth. The ensuing public scandal created more newspaper headlines than the entire Civil War, and culminated in a six-month civil trial and media circus. When, after 8 days of deliberation the jury deadlocked, the case was dismissed. Beecher continued to preach until his death in 1887, but over time his reputation dimmed and by the mid-twentieth century he was dismissed as a sentimental buffoon and lecherous hypocrite. Nowadays he is remembered primarily as the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the blockbuster Uncle Tom's Cabin. My aim is to restore him to his rightful place in history, without whitewashing his sins.
Q: How did you discover this forgotten figure – and what made you spend so much time researching his life?
A: I was only 18 years old when I was asked to put together an exhibit on famous but forgotten alumni as a student worker in the Amherst College Archives. As one of them, Beecher immediately grabbed my attention. I’d been raised in an unusual religious environment—my mother's family is Mormon, my father's is Irish Catholic, I grew up around many evangelical Christians in Oregon, and my mother is a New Thought minister—and Beecher was unlike any religious figure I’d ever seen. I loved his very modern sense of humor, his irreverence, and his joyful, ecumenical approach to religion and life in general. After I wrote a sophomore seminar paper about him, he took such hold on my imagination that I made him the subject of my senior thesis. By then I was hooked. I decided to get a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale University, where Beecher was the topic of my dissertation.
Of course, a biography had to be the big climax. Naively thinking that, since I’d already been working on him for ten years, the book would be a snap I signed a contract to write it in a year and a half. That was over seven years ago—it begins to seem almost Biblical how long this project took to come to fruition. The research part was the most fun, mucking around in the Beecher family papers. I often felt like the historian as jealous wife, searching through Henry's pockets for clues. When I finally began to write in earnest I decided to structure the book like a psycological thriller, building it like a suspense novel that allows the reader to decide -- just like the jury -- whether Henry is guilty or innocent.
Q: A number of reviewers have noted surprising parallels between Beecher story and today’s world – in religion, politics, race, celebrity, and scandal among others. In what way are they connected?
A: Although most people don’t realize it, many issues dominating today’s headlines actually have their origins in the nineteenth century. For example, the rise of the Religious Right was not new to the late 20th century, but was begun in the 1810s and ‘20s by ministers who were outraged by the final separation church and state and were looking for a new way to influence politics. The split within the Republican Party between the Christian conservative and pro-business wings, to take another example, was present at its founding in the 1850s, when the pro-business wing subordinated their agenda to win power, only to remerge with a vengeance once the party had control of Washington. In journalism, Beecher’s spectacular sex scandal helped create the concept of the objective “reporter,” whose job is to investigate and interview, but it also taught publishers just how profitable a sensational “media circus” could be. As for racial attitudes, nearly all the challenges we still face can be traced to the ugly battles over slavery, which did almost as much to entrench racial prejudices as to ease them.
Q: You describe Beecher’s generation – “the generation of 1830” – as a 19th century mirror of the late 1960s generation. What makes them so similar?
A: Both the generation of the late 1960s and the early 1830s instigated social revolutions that radically changed American culture. Both were born in post-war baby booms, in Beecher's case following the War of 1812, and both were reared in eras that put a premium on order and morality. The first three decades of the nineteenth century saw a groundswell of passionate religious revivals that inspired ambitious social activism and unyielding idealism in many young people. In both eras, a classic “generation gap" arose when these idealistic youngsters came of age and discovered that the adult world was full of hypocrisy and corruption. And after years of cultivating the moral consciences of these kids, the adults were shocked when they turned their well-sharpened scruples against traditional authority. The struggle against their conservative elders only fueled their determination to make America live up to its principles – both generations fought against political inequality, racial injustice, inhumane social practices, and the tyranny of cultural conformity. And like the 60s generation, once they were old enough to take the reigns of power themselves, many of them “sold out,” becoming no better -- and in many cases much worse -- than the people they had once scorned.
Q: What will most surprise readers about this book?
A: We have a tendency to imagine the past as “the good old days” when order and morality reigned, certain that it’s been all downhill since then. Readers have been very surprised at how much more violent, immoral and unregulated American society was in the nineteenth century than now. Things that would shock us nowadays – like violent mobs, widespread public drunkenness, political kickbacks, loaded guns and physical threats on the floor of the U.S. Congress – were an accepted part of life. We complain of religion meddling in politics as if this were new, forgetting that many states, even some “blue” ones, began as theocracies. We rail against the commercialization of sex by the media, but don’t know that in cities like New York prostitution was so common that it was the number two female occupation behind seamstress, and so critical to tourism that books like A Gentleman’s Guide to the sex trade, were published for out-of-towners. We think politicians have never been more unethical, but don’t remember that in the late nineteenth century President Grover Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock, inspiring the memorable campaign ditty:
Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?
Q: Do you think Beecher actually committed adultery? Is there a connection to contemporary adultery scandals like those of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart or Bill Clinton?
A: In the absence of modern DNA evidence we can never know for sure what happened in the privacy of the bedroom – or in Beecher’s case the parlor and the church office – but there is very good reason to think he did. He had a lifelong pattern of inappropriate emotional intimacies with women other than his wife, which caused great pain and jealousy in their various marriages and left a trail of hard-to-deny rumors. Once he was accused of adultery in 1870, his response was to tearfully and repeatedly beg for forgiveness, and to threaten to commit suicide – in writing. When he was hauled into court by the cuckolded husband, he refused to swear on the Bible and gave a testimony filled with evasions and contradictions. Three of the twelve jurors believed him guilty.
Yet, as with Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and many others accused of chronic womanizing, it seems impossible that Beecher would risk everything for a sexual peccadillo. Upon reflection, however, it seems entirely logical that men whose public stature was driven by an unquenchable longing for the world’s approbation would occasionally drift into lust. In such men, ironically, their greatness springs from the same source as their weakness. Or as Beecher often put it, without sin there can be no saving grace.
Q: After all this time and all these new revelations, do you like Henry Ward Beecher?
A: I can honestly say I feel great affection for him, although he can be maddening in his foibles and contradictions. "Life is a kind of zig-zag," as Henry Ward Beecher liked to say. But that’s part of his charm. Few men could sing with more sincerity the words of Walt Whitman, Beecher’s fan and fellow Brooklynite:
Do I contradict myself?