He's Lost That Loving Feeling

Harold Fickett has posted a somewhat contrarian review of Debby Applegate's Pulitzer-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher, in the most recent Books and Culture. While appreciative in parts, the salient points are biting (if, to me, unpersuasive, to put it mildly!):

Much against Applegate's intent, we are left to conclude—as did many of Beecher's contemporaries—that his liberalism and his perfidy went hand in hand. E.L. Godkin, who wrote for The Nation, commented on Beecher's theology: "As his God is wholly love and is no respecter of persons, attempts to imitate Him result simply in the deliberate and systematic suppression of all discrimination touching character and conduct, and the cultivation of a purely emotional theology, made up, not of opinions, but of sights and tears and aspirations and unlimited good-nature. As God loves and forgives the sinner, why should not we?"

Applegate wants to maintain Beecher's status as a liberal hero. She defends him on the grounds that the great strength of his emotional candor—the driving force behind his spellbinding powers as an orator—unhappily had its dark side in his inability to resist having sex with his friends' wives:

"One cannot view Beecher's career without thinking of the many charismatic men
who were driven to heady heights by their unquenchable longing for approbation
and who risked their legacies by letting this longing shade into lust—men of
indisputable stature such as Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Bill
Clinton. Like them, what made Beecher larger than life was his ability to
transform his flaws into a powerful force of empathy and ambition."

. . . . If Applegate would have paid more attention to the "cruel, convoluted logic" of original sin, she might have discovered its explanatory power for the tale she's telling. If anything does, original sin accounts for the behavior of Beecher, his paramours, their conflicted husbands, and the complicit church committees. . . .
Most of us are grateful that the joyless manners of some Christians have given way to Jesus' embrace of life and what he taught about his loving heavenly Father. But this was always the core of orthodoxy. Methodism and Moody had much more to do with its proper re-emphasis in Protestant circles than Beecher. The followers of Beecher ended up preaching little but self-improvement. A loving God soon became extraneous, and the Plymouth Churches of the world emptied.

I won't bother with the ridiculous railing about liberalism and perfidy; but it is interesting to me to think about how evangelical writers define the "core of orthodoxy," surely a historical variable if there ever was one!


Ralph Luker said…
I'm glad you took on Fickett's review here. It's by far the weakest of three reviews in B&C and the weakness , as you point out, is an oddly compelled one. As if enough blows hadn't already been thrown in the culture wars.
"If anything does, original sin accounts for the behavior of Beecher, his paramours, their conflicted husbands, and the complicit church committees. . . ."

Original sin as historical causation? Sort of an intelligent design for historians?

Pretty much what Ralph said, I guess.
John Fea said…
Some American religious historians of faith have not ruled out "original sin" as an explanatory category. See Bancroft Prize winning historian George Marsden's essay, "Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category," in Wilfred M. McClay, ed., *Figures in the Carpter: Finding the Human Person in the American Past*. (Eerdmans, 2007).