The Most Famous Man in America Summary
Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music, 2007
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 siblingsespecially his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned the centurys bestselling book Uncle Toms Cabin. But when pushed into the ministry, the charismatic Beecher found international fame by shedding his father Lyman's Old Testamentstyle fire-and-brimstone theology and instead preaching a New Testamentbased 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 Yorks 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 eraamong them the antislavery and womens 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 riflesnicknamed Beechers Biblesto the antislavery resistance fighters in Kansas. Thinkers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Twain befriendedand sometimes parodiedhim.
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 theGospel 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 causesfrom womens rights to progressive evangelicalismsuffered devastating setbacks that echo to this day.