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Q: Was the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher really “the most famous man in America”? What made him so famous and why has he been forgotten?
A: One nineteenth century observer answered the question this way: "Abraham Lincoln emancipated men's bodies; Henry Ward Beecher emancipated their minds. The one delivered them from injustice; the other, from superstition.” Beecher, son of the last great Puritan minister, shocked and enthralled America 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. He added to his infamy by mixing religion and politics, throwing himself into the antislavery crusade and preaching on behalf of the Republican Party. And he became one of the nation's most charismatic and profitable entertainers, lecturing to audiences across the country on the hot topics of the day.
Then, in 1870 at the peak of his fame, Beecher’s close friend and occasional ghost-writer, the journalist Theodore Tilton accused the pastor of seducing his wife Elizabeth. The ensuing public scandal created more newspaper headlines than the entire Civil War, and culminated in a six-month civil trial and media circus. When, after 8 days of deliberation the jury deadlocked, the case was dismissed. Beecher continued to preach until his death in 1887, but over time his reputation dimmed and by the mid-twentieth century he was dismissed as a sentimental buffoon and lecherous hypocrite. Nowadays he is remembered primarily as the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the blockbuster Uncle Tom's Cabin. My aim is to restore him to his rightful place in history, without whitewashing his sins.
Forthcoming at the Page 99 Test: The Most Famous Man in America.