MORE THAN A CENTURY AFTER he departed his beloved Brooklyn Heights and life on earth, Henry Ward Beecher is still capturing devotees. High on that list is author DEBBY APPLEGATE, who on Friday night described the reasons for her 20-year fascination and inquiry into the life of the once-most-famous man in America, which culminated in her winning the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 2007.
The setting was the Heights’ Plymouth Church — founded by Beecher during the mid-1800s. The orator’s impassioned speaking and fiery opposition to slavery grew the congregation from the founding 21 members to “the most prominent ministry in the second half of 19th-century America,” according to the church’s web site. Although Oregon-based Applegate has spent much time at the church and elsewhere in Brooklyn during her research, she said from the podium: “I give a lot of talks, but this is the first time I’ve been nervous. This is not only my first time standing on the platform Beecher spoke from, but the first time speaking with Henry Ward Beecher looking down from stained glass above me!”
Applegate has been studying the eighth child of the famous and controversial Beecher family since she was a sophomore in college at Amherst, the pastor’s alma mater. Assigned to create a library display about a man she then knew nothing about, Applegate became intrigued by her research. Who was this character who kept popping up in so many corners of history? Who had something to say about the suffrage movement, slavery, God and free love and drew unprecedented crowds to Plymouth Church each Sunday? By the time she made Beecher the topic of her master’s thesis, she was captivated and went on to make him the focus of her PhD dissertation.
Once out of school, Applegate felt free to pursue a particular question that had been of little interest to her academic advisors: that alleged affair of Beecher’s with a married woman, Elizabeth Tilton. It was hashed and rehashed through Brooklyn civil court and was the cause of his national celebrity, which inspired more newspaper headlines than the whole civil war. Did that really happen? The result was her Pulitzer-winning book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. She found that Beecher had stolen the attentions of several married women, but to find Applegate’s conclusion about whether the allegations of sex were true pick up the book.
On Thursday, Applegate described Beecher’s uncanny instinct for staying just one step ahead of conventional wisdom, but not so much as to scare people. He caused a scandal in the papers by being the first Protestant pastor to bring fresh flowers to a pulpit. His more notorious stunts included bringing slave girls from the South to mock-auction them off in the front of the church, bringing his congregants to tears as they threw money into the collection plates to purchase the girls’ freedom. Plymouth was the first “mega-church,” although the term came much later, and on days when it was announced that a substitute pastor would be speaking, it was not uncommon for half of the congregants to stand and leave.
Ralph Waldo Emerson called him “transcendental”; Walt Whitman gave him a first edition of Leaves of Grass. During President Lincoln’s visit to New York, to give what would be his Cooper Union Address, he visited Plymouth twice to watch Beecher, later describing himself as “spellbound.” Lincoln was actually to give his address from Plymouth, but because it snowed, it was decided (said Applegate — “this will sound familiar”), “that no one really goes to Brooklyn anyway,” so they especially wouldn’t under snowy conditions, and the speech was relocated.
Beecher was also popular for changing the concept of original sin. As an alternative to his puritanical father’s dogma that each breath he took was a sin, Beecher taught that sin is not so much an offense of God’s will, but that as humans, we are all filled with mixed motives. Most perpetrators, he thought, truly feel so guilty about their actions that hell is not a necessary additional punishment. Following his scandal, he was invited to speak around the country, during which he liked to say that love of God and love of fellow humans are different ways of dealing with the same human longing.
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By totaling the years of education and research Debby Applegate speaks of, one imagines she can’t quite be as young as her looks portray. Animated, charming, effusive and warm, she is among the ranks of authors who best demonstrate that history — and Brooklyn history, specifically, as if we have forgotten — is topical, fascinating and anything but dry. She spoke Thursday at Plymouth as the keynote speaker of a congregational theological symposium.