The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

Written by: Debby Applegate

The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher Book Cover
No one predicted success for Henry Ward Beecher at his birth in 1813. The blithe, boisterous son of the last great Puritan minister, he seemed destined to be overshadowed by his brilliant siblings—especially his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned the century’s bestselling book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But when pushed into the ministry, the charismatic Beecher found international fame 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. By the 1850s, his spectacular sermons at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights had made him New York’s number one tourist attraction, so wildly popular that the ferries from Manhattan to Brooklyn were dubbed “Beecher Boats.”
Beecher inserted himself into nearly every important drama of the era—among them the antislavery and women’s suffrage movements, the rise of the entertainment industry and tabloid press, and controversies ranging from Darwinian evolution to presidential politics. He was notorious for his irreverent humor and melodramatic gestures, such as auctioning slaves to freedom in his pulpit and shipping rifles—nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles”—to the antislavery resistance fighters in Kansas. Thinkers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Twain befriended—and sometimes parodied—him.
And then it all fell apart. In 1872 Beecher was accused by feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull of adultery with one of his most pious parishioners. Suddenly the “Gospel of Love” seemed to rationalize a life of lust. The cuckolded husband brought charges of “criminal conversation” in a salacious trial that became the most widely covered event of the century, garnering more newspaper headlines than the entire Civil War. Beecher survived, but his reputation and his causes—from women’s rights to progressive evangelicalism—suffered devastating setbacks that echo to this day.
Featuring the page-turning suspense of a novel and dramatic new historical evidence, Debby Applegate has written the definitive biography of this captivating, mercurial, and sometimes infuriating figure. In our own time, when religion and politics are again colliding and adultery in high places still commands headlines, Beecher’s story sheds new light on the culture and conflicts of contemporary America.
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The Most Famous Man in America The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher Reviews

Jerry
Our book club was pretty well split between liking and not liking this book. Those who liked it said the good news is, if you are a history buff, you will find lots of little known information about noteworthy American historical events of the mid-180os woven into this incredibly well documented biography. The importance of Henry Ward Beecher's role has not been well known or documented until now, and it makes for interesting reading. Those who didn't like it said the bad news is that the overly Our book club was pretty well split between liking and not liking this book. Those who liked it said the good news is, if you are a history buff, you will find lots of little known information about noteworthy American historical events of the mid-180os woven into this incredibly well documented biography. The importance of Henry Ward Beecher's role has not been well known or documented until now, and it makes for interesting reading. Those who didn't like it said the bad news is that the overly long and detailed book is not a page turner, maybe even boring.
Dayla
When David McCullough was getting ready to write his book about the Brooklyn Bridge, he resorted to many biographies about the Beechers, and especially ones with Henry Ward Beecher, whose church was the first "mega-church." Applegate is one of the best new biographers of our time. Her research into this mostly unknown man (other than he was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) was done with a fine tooth comb. Tour de force for Applegate.

Of course, as an added bonus, my sisters and I visited th When David McCullough was getting ready to write his book about the Brooklyn Bridge, he resorted to many biographies about the Beechers, and especially ones with Henry Ward Beecher, whose church was the first "mega-church." Applegate is one of the best new biographers of our time. Her research into this mostly unknown man (other than he was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) was done with a fine tooth comb. Tour de force for Applegate.

Of course, as an added bonus, my sisters and I visited the Beecher home in 2008 as well.
Ginna
I was compelled to read this book after a field trip with Middle Schoolers to Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights. I am half-way through and enjoying it quite a bit. While I have always known about HWB and his sister HBS, this well researched and and well-written book has shed new light on a fascinating American Family. I am also enjoying the details about Brooklyn before the bridge when it was merely a separate "suburb" of Manhattan.
Meditation and Kabbalah :: The Bahir: Illumination :: Exiles :: Dinny Gordon, Senior :: Scales of Gold
Pamela Montano
Henry Ward Beecher was an American minister in the late 1800's. He was raised a stern Calvinist, but when he started preaching, he decided that he didn't like the punishing, fire and brimstone God he was taught. He developed a theology emphasizing God's love. He was a complicated man, often getting involved in social causes and politics. His widely publicized trial for adultery nearly ruined him and it did ruin several marriages.
Amy
This is a really interesting biography of a man I had heard little about. It's amazing to consider that "the most famous man in America" 150 years ago could be a preacher. And in order to explain some of Beecher's theological viewpoints and the significance of his beliefs, the author explains a lot of the context, which makes this a good history on the evolution of the church in America as well. The book feels long and a bit laborious at times, but it was definitely an interesting read.
Nancy Graham
Beautifully written account of the conflicted and deeply flawed Rev. Beecher. His speaking skills -- coupled with a capacity to play his audience and nurture narcissistic tendencies -- led him to become a 19th century Christian celebrity. I found myself angered at patterns of Christo-tainment and blind allegiance that have wended their way into the 21st century. Liked the book; didn't like Mr. Beecher very much.
Autumn
This is the second Henry Ward Beecher bio I have read, and both were just great (the other was Paxton Hibben). Both were very honest about his strengths and many, many weakness. This book emphasized how his upbringing shaped his later life, especially his theology and relationships with women. I wish the ending hadn't been as rushed. The last 10 years of his life were given short shrift in the book. And I would liked more information about the trial. I could not put this book down.
Elizabeth
Henry Ward Beecher, the minister from Brooklyn, is perhaps most well known for being accused of adultery. But his family (Harriet Beecher Stowe is his sister) and his life has a lot more to offer. His view of Christianity as a religion of love rather than law was new to those pre-Civil War Americans and has shaped our lives today. This biography won the Pulitzer Prize and if you like biographies, you will become absorbed by this one.
Strancar
I liked this book, but it's not one of my favorites. I did learn a lot. I've been a Presbyterian my whole life, and yet never heard of Henry Ward Beecher until I read a book review and decided to buy this book. I found myself alternately admiring him and being disappointed in him. The book was well researched and interesting to read, but not a page-turner.
Dick Hamilton
I thought the book was very good and gave excellent insights into both Mr. Beecher and his family. The last two pages of the book left me with a bad aftertaste - there was no need to guess as to guilt or innocence or compare Mr. Beecher with current figures. His story speaks for itself and the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.
Elsa Feiring
So far, this has been a wonderful book. The author has a great narrative style, and has really kept me enthralled. I knew next to nothing about Beecher (other than he had a famous sister), but I've truly enjoyed getting to know Henry. It's helping my along on my Civil War-era reading kick I'm on as well. Highly recommended to anyone on a similar kick...
DeB MaRtEnS
Excellent. Had never heard of Henry Ward Beecher before I read this Pulitzer Prize winning book. In depth history of the opening of the midwest, the war against slavery, the religious right and the unfortunate end to a very influential man.
James
Easy to see why this won the Pulitzer. Beecher is an oft forgotten figure in American history and many of the accounts in this book were new to me as a fervent student of American history (though not necessarily the antebellum period).
Nicole
Henry Ward Beecher influenced so much of modern religion, I can't believe I'd never heard of him. What a fascinating life story, well told. (Unusual number of typos in the final half of the book. This is a Pulitzer Prize winner! Show some respect.)
Sara
Interesting read. I like biographies and Henry ward Beecher was a man with a lot of influence during a very pivotal time in American history. I Thought this book did a great job discussing issues and Beechers influence with those issues.
Yvonne
I was immersed in the 1860's, after reading "Manhunt", a Lincoln bio, and the bio of Victoria Woodhull, first woman to run for president, who was also the nemisis of Henry Ward Beecher; so I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Karen Miller
An interesting history about a controversial preacher from a controversial family. Describes the religious atmosphere during the early-mid 19th century and the shift away from Calvanism. Also describes the impact of religion on the abolition of slavery.
Darian G.
A good solid biography. The Beecher family is the most important family in American history outside of politics. They have long been overlooked within popular culture for their impact. This biography of America's "Prince of Preachers" Henry Ward Beecher is a welcome rival.
Tory Wagner
I finally finished it -- a long book. It was very interesting, really didn't know anything about Henry Ward Beecher (Harriet Beacher Stowe's broter). A real abolitionist and preacher, but also a womanizer!
Brian
A great biography of a interesting man. Henry Ward Beecher was the most famous man in America through the 1800's and is mostly forgotten today. A preacher's son that became a preacher himself, he changed from a stong Calvinist viewpoint to a more liberal one.
TJ
First off, I have to say Henry Ward Beecher is an ass. An ass who cannot think of anyone other than himself. If you can get over that, then this is a great book and a great history of the time of Beecher's life- history of slavery and the Gilded Age. Worth reading for the history aspect alone.
April
I don't usually read biographies, but now I am thinking that has been a big mistake. This was a great read--American history interlaced with a juicy personal story. Fun!
Alexander Peck
Well written, interesting. The author did not treat his theological views as evenly as his political and social ones.
Catherine Mustread
Interesting and well-researched look at 1800s America -- the transformation of religious thought and the Beecher family's part therein.
Abranch71
Interesting to read another biography from the age of Lincoln.
Dennis Henn
Beecher was an egomaniac, almost felled by sexual indiscretions. Well written. Shows how far charisma and marketing can carry a preacher.
Marion
Very interesting book about a fascinating and very popular minister, who was the brother of Harriett Beacher Stow, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Cyndie
I really learned alot about Henry Ward Beecher.
Muffi
A breathtakingly fascinating and comprehensive biography. History made readable, entertaining, and suspenseful. Highly recommended!
Lynnie
An engaging story! Have read some very interesting reviews by the author. She had to learn how to write engagingly for a general audience--not an easy task for an academic. I can empathize!
Karen
Have been trying ever since reading this to find another biography or historical fiction book about someone I do not know much about that tells so much about American history.
Rich
A great story about a man nobody knows but everybody knew!
Cathy
interesting for a biography. need to have lots of time to read this book.
Saul
A very absorbing narrative that reads like a really good novel.
Kalina Ingham
This book won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and deservedly!
Emily
I usually love biographies but only made a little past the first 100 pages before the library claimed it. I might try again...
Judy
Excellent biography of Henry Ward Beecher, with information about other Beechers and the mid-1800's in America
Denise
This is a book that is interesting as its own piece of history. As a resident of Brooklyn, I found it further interesting. As a pastor, I found it a telling window into the pastorate.
Mary
I read this book several years ago, but still find myself recommending it to people. I may want to read it again!
Josephine
A fascinating biography, sometimes bogging down in details, at other times hard to put down.
Erin
Extrodinarily well-written and entertaining. Think it won the Pulitzer? I really enjoyed it.
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