Monday, July 30, 2007

Off the shelf: The Most Famous Man in America

This is a whopper of a book about a whale of a man. Clocking in at nearly 500 pages, this book almost matches its subject in girth (at least in later life).

I was drawn to this book for one main reason: Henry Ward Beecher's father, Lyman Beecher, pastored the church which I serve (what was once Second Pres, Cincinnati and is now Covenant-First Presbyterian). I was looking for information on Lyman's tenure here.

However, when I skimmed the book in the bookstore, I put it back as not worth my time. I'm glad I changed my mind on it, but first I have to tell you what bothered me so. The author, Debby Applegate, seems to have a clear confusion about my religious tradition - Calvinism (though I prefer the moniker "Reformed Christianity"). Again and again, Applegate paints Calvinism as the most dour and rigid form of Christianity imaginable. She paints adherents as part of a mirthless parade of vinegar faced parsons and school marms who scowl at the notion that someone somewhere might be having a good time.

I know, it's a familiar charicature; I come across it all the time. I just get tired of it. If these folks would but read Calvin or Edwards they might get a different picture. All the same, I sucked up my objections, realizing that for better or worse, Applegate (and others) have formed these opinions based on the very 19th century reports of the people who rejected the Calvinistic doctrines of their fathers. We shouldn't lay too much blame at Applegate's feet, but rather look to the Beecher children, to Melville and Hawthorne and Emerson. All great writers indeed, but none of them had positive experiences of Calvinistic christianity.

Applegate relates Lyman's treatment of Henry's older sister Catherine. At the time, she was as yet "unconverted" and engaged to be married. Her fiancee tragically died in a shipwreck, but rather than extending words of comfort, Lyman pressed the opportunity to urge for Catherine's conversion. She and her father would get in shouting matches about theology, neither giving quarter to the concerns of the other. Catherine was no intellectual slouch either, so the combat took place in high planes of rhetoric and logic. Ultimately, Catherine did convert, but she over the years became a hard bitter woman. Is it any wonder in such an environment that Henry would consider rejecting the doctrines of his youth? As Applegate says on the book's website:
As Henry’s famous sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, put it, orthodox Christianity of the time was “calculated, like a skilful engine of torture, to produce all the mental anguish of the most perfect sense of helplessness with the most torturing sense of responsibility.” This was the doctrine preached by Henry’s father, that Puritan stalwart, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, and it nearly turned Henry and his eleven siblings away from religion forever.
I don't understand Reformed Christianity this way -- I find it quite liberating and refreshing to bask in the sovereignty of God and the riches of God's grace. I find it freeing to not have to rely on any goodness on my part to win my salvation, and I find it hopeful that Christ's work and grace forms the basis for all my moral improvement. However, it seems that 19th century presentation of Reformed Christianity was in some cases a bit...different.

Applegate has a keen sense of the story of Beecher's life -- she foreshadows early on the dysfunctional relationships that drive Henry Ward Beecher into the arms of adoring parishoners. As the book continues, the tension mounts, coming to a climax in the sordid details surrounding Beecher's adultery trial. Along the way, Applegate gives us broader glimpses into the cultural landscape of the time. We meet a young Mark Twain, a hoary headed Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Walt Whitman, ready to burst onto fame. We learn how oratory and the lecture circuit was the main form of entertainment in those days, and Henry Ward Beecher was a master. We're reminded that Harry Potter wasn't the first blockbuster book that caused a sensation in the streets -- Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was just as famous for its day, spawning an empire of merchandising and adaptations to the stage. (Heck, it even helped start a war, let's see the boy wizard do that!). We get glimpses of the early women's suffrage movement and we see the US flag being raised over Fort Sumter at the conclusion of the Civil War. Applegate gives us a taste of the breathtaking press of history in the 19th century, as though the century were too small to contain all that happened in it.

She also reminds us of a few trends in evangelicalism that perhaps we need to be reminded of, for instance, the early interest in promoting education: “In the twentieth century, evangelical Christians came to be characterized as reactionary and anti-intellectual, but in the 1830’s they were the nation’s most ardent advocates of education, believing that ignorance and sin went hand in hand.” (78)

Sadly, Applegate spends little time examining Beecher's theological slide. She seems to take it for granted that it was revolutionary and thus a good thing. Christianity Today reviewer John Wilson nails it, I think:

Applegate exaggerates the extent to which Beecher's emphasis on God's unconditional love was a novelty and mischaracterizes the religious landscape in other ways (for example, you'd never intuit from her account the perfectionist strain in early Methodism that led to the Holiness movement). Still, she's one of those rare writers who manage to combine in a single book the virtues of scholarly and popular biography, immersing themselves in the archives without losing the human touch.

Tim Challies looks at it a little differently:

This biography would have been more interesting to me had it dealt with Beecher's contribution to the theological downgrade in the late 19th century. Sadly, the biographer's ignorance of Christian theology meant she had little to say in this regard and instead she focused on moral scandal.

I'm afraid that I have to chime in here too -- We get none of the nuance of the complex nature of the religious landscape of the era. Applegate mentions the 1857/8 New York Prayer revival, but little else about revivalism. We hear little to nothing about old Princeton orthodoxy as maintained by Charles Hodge and AA Hodge. We hear nothing about that other rotund megachurch orator, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Of course, Applegate hardly had room to squeeze in another page, but clearly the religous landscape was not so black and white as it seems in this book (from stern orthodoxy to light and airy newness).

All told, the book is an entertaining read and useful in understanding history. Applegate is a fine stylist, and I look forward to reading more of her work (She really ought to try her hand at fiction -- for she has a natural instinct for drama). But I would suggest taking religious inspiration from other sources.

Soli Deo Gloria