The Hollow Men

Debby Applegate’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, treats a wide range of subjects: religion, politics, social upheaval, war, and clerical sex scandals.  And, while such a list might sound as if it were referring to contemporary America, the events recounted here occurred a century-and-a-half ago.  In chronicling Beecher’s life, Applegate, a professor of American studies at Yale and Wesleyan Universities, brings to light the era Beecher helped shape and makes clear to the astute reader that his influence remains with us today.

A son of the Rev. Lyman Beecher, a well-known Congregationalist preacher and professor, Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87) possessed impressive oratorical skills.  He was pastor of one of the largest churches of his day, Brooklyn’s famous Plymouth Church, as well as a key spokesman for the antislavery cause.  And he preached the so-called Gospel of Love, which placed him on the cutting edge of 19th-century liberal Protestantism.  In many ways, Beecher was progenitor of the socioreligious phenomenon that would eventually be called the “mega-church” movement.

Beecher was reared a strict New England Congregationalist.  However, the rigidity of his upbringing was challenged by two factors: an insatiable need for love (owing partly to the death of his mother when he was three...

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