The Most Famous Man in America: a Biography of Henry Ward Beecher - by Debby Applegate
Debby Applegate
Brief Timeline of Beecher's Life

 

 

1813 -- June 24, 1813, Henry Ward Beecher is born in Litchfield, Connecticut, during the “Second Great Awakening,” an era of powerful religious fervor. 

 

1826 -- Henry’s father Lyman Beecher moves the family to Boston, Massachusetts to fight the rise of religious liberalism. Hoping to push Henry into the ministry, Lyman sends him to boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts.

 

1830 -- Henry enrolls as a freshman in Amherst College, as a controversial antislavery movement begins to take hold.

 

1834 -- Henry graduates from college and follows the rest of his family to Lane  Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio.   Just before he arrives the famed Lane Debates on slavery nearly destroy his father’s seminary.

 

1837 --  Henry graduates from Lane Seminary, becomes a minister in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and marries Eunice Bullard.

 

1839 -- Henry moves his young family to the state capital Indianapolis, where he finds regional fame as a frontier revival preacher and moral reformer.

 

1847 -- Henry becomes pastor of Plymouth Church in the booming suburb of Brooklyn Heights, New York.  He gains wide popularity by replacing his father’s old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone theology with a more forgiving “Gospel of Love,” and begins a lucrative career as a public lecturer and cultural gadfly.

 

1850 -- Outraged over the Compromise of 1850 – especially the draconian “fugitive slave laws” – Henry gains national notoriety for his sensational antislavery speeches and essays.

 

1851 -- Henry’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, publishes the antislavery blockbuster Uncle Tom's Cabin, transforming popular opinion and bringing the Beechers international fame.

 

1853 -- The Republican Party is founded on the principle of “free soil,” or halting the spread of slavery into the new western territories.   Beecher enters the rarified circles of the “American Renaissance,” befriending Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and other literati.

 

1856 -- During the presidential election of 1856, Henry campaigns openly for Republican candidate John C. Fremont.   Henry stirs more controversy by sending rifles – nicknamed “Beecher Bibles” – to the antislavery settlers battling against the proslavery ruffians in the Kansas Territory.

 

1859 -- Henry allegedly has an extramarital affair with Edna Dean Proctor, the co-author of his first best-seller.  Rumors of Henry’s possible sexual indiscretions begin to circulate in Brooklyn Heights and beyond.

 

1860 -- Abraham Lincoln visits Plymouth Church at the time of his landmark Cooper Union Speech.  Henry campaigns for Lincoln in the presidential race. 

 

1861 -- Fort Sumter is bombarded by the Confederate army, initiating the Civil War.

 

1863 -- The Emancipation Proclamation ends slavery. Henry delivers a series of speeches in England which helps turn the diplomatic tide toward the North.  Lyman Beecher dies.

 

1865 -- Henry delivers the oration at Fort Sumter marking the end of the Civil War, on the day Lincoln is assassinated.
 


1867  -- While writing his best-selling novel, Norwood, Henry allegedly consummates an affair with his neighbor, Chloe Beach, who gives birth to a possible love child named Violet.

 

1868 -- Henry takes up the cause of women’s rights, and allegedly begins an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of his close friend, the prominent radical journalist and reformer Theodore Tilton.

 

1870 -- Elizabeth Tilton confesses the affair to her husband, but later denies it, contradicting herself several times. Theodore Tilton confronts Beecher, who begs for forgiveness.  Tilton relents and a long cover up begins.

 

1872 -- Victoria Woodhull, spiritual clairvoyant and women’s rights activist, learns of the cover-up.  When neither Tilton nor Beecher support her campaign for the presidency against Ulysses S. Grant, she retaliates by exposing their secret.

 

1874 -- The “Scandal Summer” – the story explodes in newspapers across the country, creating more news headlines than the entire Civil War.  Plymouth Church exonerates Henry of all wrong-doing.

 

1875 -- Theodore Tilton sues Beecher in Brooklyn civil court for alienating his wife through “criminal conversation.”  After six months the trial ends in a hung jury.  

 

1878 -- Henry is rebuilding his tarnished reputation when Elizabeth Tilton again reverses herself, publicly declaring that she did indeed have an affair with Henry.  Few minds are changed.

 

1882 -- Henry officially repudiates orthodox Christianity, particularly the belief in hell. He begins promoting Darwinian evolution in his speeches and essays, arguing that Christianity is compatible with natural evolution and science generally.

 

1884 -- Beecher bolts the Republican Party to back Grover Cleveland for the presidency, despite the fact that Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock, and helps tip the close election to him.


1887 -- Beecher dies of a stroke on March 8, 1887.  Brooklyn declares a day of mourning and 40,000 mourners come to pay their respects as he lay in state.