DEBBY APPLEGATE isn't exaggerating as much as you might think when she calls the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher "the most famous man in America." In his prime -- the 1850s and 1860s -- the Brooklyn minister's sermons were so popular that the Sunday morning ferries from Manhattan were called "Beecher Boats," and he regularly preached to crowds of thousands on subjects ranging from the moral issues surrounding slavery to his personal religious doubts. In an era in which old-school Calvinists like his father, Lyman, still taught adherents to fear God, Beecher asked them to love him. His personal, seemingly spontaneous oratorical style was a revelation to his contemporaries, for whom churchgoing was one of the only respectable forms of entertainment. Both the mode and the substance of his preaching greatly influenced the development of American Protestantism as we know it.
One of his sisters, Isabella Beecher Hooker, was a vocal early suffragist, while another, Harriet Beecher Stowe, lighted a fire under white complacency toward slavery with novels such as "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Still another, Catharine Beecher, wrote the "American Woman's Home," a prim and thorough guide to domestic economy.
In Brooklyn, grand statues of Henry Ward Beecher adorn the courtyard of Plymouth Church, the Congregational pulpit from which he thundered, and the public square near the main post office, although few passersby mark them nowadays, except perhaps to wonder why small figures cling to his garments and grovel at his feet. When the statues went up, these personified Beecher's work for abolition, but now the African American figures eerily more resemble slaves than freedmen.
Yet like many a great man, Beecher was no saint. As one contemporary detractor sniped, "I am reliably assured that Beecher preaches to seven or eight mistresses every Sunday evening." And it's high time for a new biography. The most recent full-scale one I know of is Paxton Hibben's "Henry Ward Beecher: An American Portrait," which has grown pretty fusty since its publication in 1927.
Beecher was born in 1813, the eighth child of the Rev. Lyman Beecher and his wife, Roxana. Lyman was a fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian with, as Applegate aptly puts it, "no patience for newfangled notions of religious tolerance or the separation of church and state. Episcopalians, Unitarians, Catholics -- Lyman lumped them together with atheists, drunkards, thieves, and Jeffersonian Democrats." Henry showed little promise in school (as an adult he recalled learning "how to make paper spit-balls, and to snap them across the room with considerable skill") or in college. In 1837, when he accepted his first calling -- in Lawrenceburgh, Ind., a frontier crossroads where "rangy, long-legged hogs roamed the muddy streets" -- he seemed unlikely to achieve even a fraction of his father's influence.
But in the mid-1840s he received a call from Plymouth Church, a new congregation in Brooklyn, eager to hire one of Lyman's sons and wealthy enough to pay him handsomely. (Beecher was, then and always, a bit of a spendthrift: In middle age, he developed the dandified habit of carrying unset, polished gemstones in his trouser pocket and worrying them like beads.) It was here that he began to develop his commanding oratorical style. A reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper wrote of him, "His knowledge of human nature is better than that of any other minister in the city -- in fact astonishing. He seems to have sounded the deepest springs of the human heart and brings up, of good and bad, all that is lodged there."
Before long, the problem of slavery began increasingly to preoccupy the nation, and Beecher began -- tepidly at first -- to turn his powerful rhetorical engine on that topic from the pulpit. He famously sent both Bibles and Sharps rifles to support the abolitionist Free-Soilers in Kansas.
Some of Beecher's antislavery sermons were high theater. Twice, he "auctioned off" beautiful mulattoes to buy their freedom. Applegate recounts one such event:
"A pretty young woman with light brown skin and long, wavy hair ascended the steps of the platform and then sank down, blushing and embarrassed, into the pulpit chair. 'And this,' proclaimed the minister, 'is a marketable commodity.' Then he demanded, 'What will you do now? May she read her liberty in your eyes? Shall she go out free?.... Let the plate be passed, and we will see.' "