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Politics, sex and a popular pastor of the 1800s: The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher

Biographer shares stories about the dynamic, controversial abolitionist

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The Rev. Tom Taylor shares lunch with Debby Applegate

The Rev. Tom Taylor, president-elect of the Presbyterian Foundation, shares lunch with Debby Applegate, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Tuesday at the Presbyterian Historical Society luncheon. —Photo by Tony Oltmann


Some may call the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher notorious, but Pulitzer Prize-winning author Debby Applegate thinks he’s a human being who got caught up in the trap of being a minister. Applegate spoke Tuesday at the Presbyterian Historical Society’s luncheon.

At the age of 18, while working in a library, Applegate stumbled across information about the noted minister, and from there she was hooked. Her quest to learn everything about him kept her digging through historical files for nearly 20 years to perfect her book, “The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher.” The book, published in 2006, has been a winner and finalist of multiple awards.

Born in the summer of 1813, Henry Ward Beecher was the son of the Rev. Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian minister of the early 19th century. The younger Beecher rejected his father’s Calvinist faith and became a preacher of the “Gospel of Love.”

“He loved Jesus. The more he spoke about Christ’s loving grace, the more people flocked to him,” Applegate reflected.

During the 1850s through 1880s, Beecher served the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Applegate told about Beecher’s preaching during the Civil War when the General Assembly encouraged pastors to preach monthly on the issue of slavery. “He would mimic a slave auction by bringing in young black women from the south and pretending to auction them off. Parishioners would get worked into such frenzy, they would give their watches, money and jewels to help these poor slaves,” she said.

“Then, in 1872, when he was at the prime of his career, Beecher was accused of seducing a parishioner’s wife,” Applegate said. The alleged adultery claims began a scandal, and a civil trial that followed created news headlines that rivaled those during the O.J. Simpson trial. Applegate grinned, adding, “Nothing like a national sex scandal to ruin your life.”

When asked about a poem written by Oliver Wendell Holmes about Beecher, Applegate entertained the group by reciting it on the spot:

“The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher
Called a hen a most elegant creature,
The hen, pleased with that,
Laid an egg in his hat,
And thus did the hen reward Beecher.”