As one of the members of our book club said, if you stop reading before Chapter 10 you can go away thinking that Henry Ward Beecher was a good man. Born a Puritan of Puritans in New England, he emigrated West and then returned to the East again, landing in Brooklyn, where he became famous as the pastor of Plymouth Church. Applegate’s biography is also a history of American religion in the 19th Century, and particularly of the great transition that took place as Calvinism died away and was replaced by a less logical, more emotive form of Christianity. Beecher was a pivotal figure in this change. Raised by a strict Calvinist father, a preacher famous in his own right, Beecher gradually turned his interest from an image of God as the distant, judgmental Father, to God as the loving, forgiving Son. American society shifted its focus right along with him. Accompanying this shift in focus was a growing concern over slavery, and Beecher was one of the leaders of the abolition movement as well, although at first reluctantly. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a better overview of America’s struggles over slavery prior to the Civil War. Applegate is a fine writer, and she made this world come alive.
And then we get to the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth chapters. It is a mark of how deeply I’d been drawn into this book that I took such offense at Beecher’s behavior, as told about in those chapters. The story shifts from one of cultural uplift to one of deep tragedy, as Beecher is revealed as a womanizer, but in the oddest of ways. He didn’t chase young girls, but staid married women. Was he a man who simply needed the companionship of women, and was unhappy in his own marriage? Or were his actions as devious and egotistical as they seemed? Applegate is careful not to provide too easy an answer to these questions, and the reader is left feeling as unsettled as Beecher’s contemporaries must have been.