All You Need is Love (or, A Book I Should Have Read Three Years Ago)



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by Steven P. Miller
I was doing many things back in 2006—namely, defending a dissertation, then beginning the laborious task of revising it. I was not, I regret, reading Debby Applegate’s thrilling and richly contextualized biography of Henry Ward Beecher, The Most Famous Man in America—and wouldn’t finally do so until last week. Paul talked a while back about a “boomlet in religious biography.” Applegate’s Pulitzer Prize winner puts the boom in boomlet. The book provides a window into the human (very human) side of perhaps the greatest of the many great reversals in American Protestant history: the transition from Lyman Beecher’s providential God, who already was warming up to the idea of human improvement, to his son Henry’s Gospel of Love, from which derives that warm fuzzy feeling I get every time I attend a Presbyterian Church, USA service. In short, Applegate offers a riveting coming-of-age story for liberal Protestantism. In the sense that Beecher was at the center of so much of mid-nineteenth century American history, the book also is a mini coming-of-age story for the nation itself. (Applegate proudly writes in the old-school—that is, pre-theory—American Studies tradition, which practically begs for such sweeping generalizations.)

Ward’s status as the man at the center got me thinking. Purportedly, more than a few conservative Protestants in this country are nostalgic for an earlier golden age of evangelical culture and influence, which likely occurred sometime in antebellum America. Likely, that is, just as Beecher started mucking everything up with his Gospel of Love and, if you believe the evidence in the book (from which Applegate, in an odd replication of the euphemistic ways of her Victorian subjects, skirts around outright conclusions), his propensity to express that love in diverse fashions. Maybe Beecher wasn’t a hypocrite, but rather a good anything-goes liberal, suggests this shallow reading of Beecher, which Paul smacked down when it surfaced in a Books & Culture review. But, if you think about it, shouldn’t fans of the old-time Christian America wish that, say, Ted Haggard’s own extramarital endeavors had caused as much of a stir as did the charge that Beecher seduced Elizabeth Tilton? Perhaps what evangelicals should really be nostalgic about is a period when an adulterous minister was the subject of a national scandal precisely because that minister had real influence outside of his home base. On the cusp of the Beecher-Tilton scandal, New York elites genuinely believed that revelations about Beecher’s exploits “would tend to undermine the very foundation of social order” (408). Say what you what you will about Ted Haggard, but he can only wish he had ever been a pillar of the social order. Besides, Beecher’s story would make a much richer movie. Anyone know if one is in the works?

3 comments:

John G. Turner at: December 15, 2009 at 8:15 PM said...

I'm quite proud that PCUSA services give you warm, fuzzy feelings. Mostly, we tend to put visitors to sleep or simply leave them confused as to what if anything we believe, so I'm taking your feedback as evidence of a pronounced step in the right direction. Might help reverse our membership decline.

Seriously, wonderful review, and I'll have to move this higher up on my lengthy "to-read" list. (Speaking on biography, I'm currently enjoying John Wigger's Asbury bio).

Randall at: December 16, 2009 at 9:43 AM said...

I would certainly like to see that movie. Would be a very non-Gangs-of-NY sorta film. r

John Fea at: December 19, 2009 at 5:17 AM said...

Steven: Thanks for the review. I have had this book sitting on my shelf for two years now. You have inspired me to crack it!

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