Response to “The Most Famous Man in America,” by Debby Applegate – the story of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher

Finished reading “The Most Famous Man in America,” the story of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and how he tried to weave his way through antebellum America with the intransigent issue of slavery immovable and promising to hurl America toward a conflagration that would destroy the Union. It was slavery and abolitionism 24/7 without rest, decade upon decade. Beecher was an abolition man and yet not a “barner,” one who threatened to burn the whole barn down. He somehow found a way to avoid the radicals with his own more evolutionary approach that was willing to wait until slavery was strangled to death on its own internal contradictions, even while giving John Brown a crown and a place within the parthenon of heroes. At every step he was playing with fire, moving very close to the modernist impulse with its baggage of liberalism that included laxer sexual morality codes, suffragism, etc. He was not trying to take America back to its Puritan New England roots and its primitivism. He was an “adjustment” man. He caught the wave of American optimism, the promise of riches unleashed by growing economic opportunity, the inclusion of wave upon wave of immigrants. He intuitively sensed that the times needed, as he saw it, a less dogmatic God, a tenderer Christ, and a love driven religious impulse without the fine tuning of theological small print. The public was done with precise religious creeds, moral obsessions, and authoritarianism in all its forms. They weren’t in the mood for it. And Beecher was their man. He is the prototype of the liberal Protestant, and even in the midst of Evangelical revivals did not give way to the “old time religion.”

In his personal life he was no doubt a sexual libertine, but he had an amazing capacity for slithering away from being considered so. Still the word was out that on any given Sunday he was preaching to 7 or 8 of his mistresses. Finally he ended up being sued by his best friend for “criminal conversation’ with his wife. The trial lasted six months. While it ended in a hung jury, there is no way one could read the transcripts without concluding that Beecher lived the life of a slippery fellow. He contained within himself the very stress fractures of America and its dalliance with modernism and all that meant for new forms of society. The hippies of the 60s had nothing on the new generation that Beecher represented and surely the one that followed.

Beecher is a reminder that while America can be spiritually renewed and reinvigorated, America doesn’t go back to old forms. Christian theological and moral orthodoxy will always be interactive with a fluid social matrix that can’t be fixed into a final form. I place myself within the great and conservative Evangelical mainstream. Orthodoxy, as I know it, orders my interior and exterior world. But I have never been insistent that this can only look one way when it comes to church life and church order. I quickly lose sympathy with those orthodox movements that seek a return to old forms as the only wineskin that can contain the new wine. This is always a losing proposition and a waste of energy. After seventy years of belonging and observing, my conviction is that this is a road that leads to the wilderness and social isolation. And Beecher will always stand as a morality tale of playing with fire and getting burned. Cultural winds are not moral compass points. They are cultural conditions which we must navigate, using winds that can help and managing winds that threaten to cast our ship on the rocks and ruin the faith of many.

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