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The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  741 Ratings  ·  90 Reviews
No one predicted success for Henry Ward Beecher at his birth in 1813. The blithe, boisterous son of the last great Puritan minister, he seemed destined to be overshadowed by his brilliant siblings—especially his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned the century’s bestselling book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But when pushed into the ministry, the charismatic Beecher found intern ...more
ebook, 560 pages
Published December 18th 2007 by Image (first published April 17th 2006)
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Nov 29, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is not only a thorough exploration of a remarkable man, but a marvelous tour through 19th century America.

Recently, I asked two people in their 30's if they had ever heard of Henry Ward Beecher. They had not. They did recognize the name of his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. How time erases celebrity! H.W. Beecher was deeply involved in the major issues of his times, was credited by both Lincoln and Robert E. Lee with determining the outcome of the Civil War and became involved in a leg
Jul 14, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The bumptious, angry, confused adolescence that America went through in its first 100 years is brought resplendently to life in this biography of Beecher who, in many ways, personified the search for a workable identity that consumed the young nation. This incredibly epochal period saw the country wrestle with the choice of a strong aristocracy or a democracy, fight another war with Britain, and launch the wholesale extermination of indigenous populations, loftily calling it manifest destiny. Po ...more
Nov 30, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In the first part of the book the reader gets not only a biography but a description of life in post-Revolutionary America up to the Civil War. Through the life of Henry Beecher we get a look at how Calvinism of the period infused a pious household and how the Great Awakening played out in that clerical family.

The author's presentation of the country's social and intellectual changes through the life of Henry Beecher is a fascinating read. We see how the times forced the severe Lyman's move to B
K.P.B. Stevens
Dec 06, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As one of the members of our book club said, if you stop reading before Chapter 10 you can go away thinking that Henry Ward Beecher was a good man. Born a Puritan of Puritans in New England, he emigrated West and then returned to the East again, landing in Brooklyn, where he became famous as the pastor of Plymouth Church. Applegate's biography is also a history of American religion in the 19th Century, and particularly of the great transition that took place as Calvinism died away and was replac ...more
Dec 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This biography tells the story of a man eminently famous in his day, but relatively obscure in our time. This is a finely researched and well-written book that pulls the reader through the life of this complex man without descending into the dull recounting of years that often characterize historical biographies. The author, Debby Applegate, respects her character, but doesn’t caulk over his faults with thin defenses or convoluted explanations of his sometimes puzzling and unconscionable behavio ...more
Feb 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Applegate performs an astounding feat here: she manages to explain, concisely and clearly, everything from the origins and results of the Civil War to why religion played such a major role
in 19th century American life. On top of that, she illuminates the fascinating Beecher family, shining a light on Henry Ward, the most modern of that old Calvinist family. A really terrific read - bravo!
Julie Woods
Jul 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I absolutely loved this book. It is so packed with detail and intimate knowledge of the personal lives of Beecher, his family and contemporaries, (who wrote thousands of long letters still extant) that it reads like a novel. If you are interested in questions of faith, or how to live a good life, to be of service to others...deeply individual and personal matters set against the very public and momnumental events of American history like the Civil War, you will love this too. Now I want to read ...more
Apr 02, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An extremely well executed biography of a major figure in 19th century American culture - the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and scion of an absolutely fascinating New England family. Wonderfully and suscinctly written. At the end I have the sense that I know his personality, affect, drives. Well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize that it won.
Feb 25, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Isn't it interesting how one sibling often gets the credit when another sibling provides the substance? I personally had filed Henry Ward Beecher in my mental file as a great abolitionist when his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), embraced the cause sooner and more consistently.

Indeed, the most amazing part of this biography to me was discovering how inconsistent Beecher was, not only with regard to abolitionism, but also with regard to faith. He interpreted his faith
Sep 01, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition

I lost interest in this book after about 100 pages but kept reading because it had come highly recommended to me by a friend. I made it to page 268 before I just simply gave up. The life of Henry Ward Beecher was interesting at points, but the book seemed to lack cohesion. At 268 pages I decided to skip ahead to the chapter dealing with his affair with Elizabeth Tilton, but I lost interest in him as a person by that point- so I found myself not caring about it.

Applegate's narrative was hard to
Sep 03, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 19th-century
A solid, reasonably well-written and researched biography. Unfortunately, the author permits her skepticism of Beecher's Christianity unintentionally to make Beecher out to as a bit of a skeptic. She doesn't give his faith enough historic credence; on this front, the development of Beecher's theology is unjustly neglected; I only received a vague idea of what he actually believed, and how this changed over time--more discussion of his theological writings and sermons, not just his fascinating bi ...more
Richard Klueg
Very informative biography of a "celebrity preacher" from a different era. Henry Ward Beecher was the son of prominent Puritan minister Lyman Beecher. Henry also entered the ministry and over the years turned further and further from his father's Calvinism ... and even from orthodox Christian faith. Of most interest was how Beecher became deeply involved and influential in politics (especially as an anti-slavery activist), and of course the issue of his alleged womanizing, climaxing in the adult ...more
Merri Carol Martens
The book is well written and carefully footnotes. It was a sad story to me, as Henry Beecher had so many problems.
Mar 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Book is beautifully written. I enjoyed it most from a historical perspective. Lots of famous people like Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain walked into it. Answered a lot of questions about what the people were like at that time, the evolution of Calvinism, and what the churches were like. He was famous because he was infamous and it is always interesting to see what decisions lead to such and end. Liked that it really showed his character and the people around him.
Romela Encina
After being raised under the strict doctrines of Calvinism by his famous father Lyman Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher experienced astonishing success as an influential minister and orator proclaiming the contradictory “Gospel of Love” during the 1800s. In The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, Debby Applegate gives a detailed account of Beecher’s prominent effect on America before and after the Civil War.

Applegate gives us an elaborate picture of Henry Ward Beecher’s l
This is the first history I've read in quite awhile that kept my interest throughout. Perhaps this is because it's a biography and the genre necessitates a narrative structure. Great stuff here.

I knew pretty much nothing about Henry Ward Beecher before reading 'The Most Famous Man in America' other than his relation to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Nonetheless he was a very important actor in the development of the modern American experience. The first compassionate, secularized popular preacher in Am
Todd Thompson
Feb 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: gilded-age
This biography of Henry Ward Beecher is much more than an accounting of the man, but is equally a captivating story of 19th century America in all its failings as well as its triumphs. At, or near, the center of the moral and social debates stood this man, terribly flawed in many ways, though passionate, smart, and charismatic enough to overcome his failings time after time.

Influenced by Beecher were such well-knowns as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Abraham Lincoln.

As a chi
Jan 25, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People who like biograhies, American history, or reading about adultering narcissists
Recommended to Sarita by: Rachel
Shelves: history
I really enjoyed this book but with some reservations. It was exactingly researched. You can tell that Derby has amassed mountains of notes on her subject, and sculpting them into a cohesive, compelling narrative took remarkable talent.
My reservations are based mostly on the type of history I like to read, but I also think that she missed one of the major themes of the Beechers' collective story, and the nation's: race.

Derby fails to note that the early Temperance movement championed by Lyman
Jul 26, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Got to admit I really liked this book, although it took a while to get through. What a colorful character he was. I'd come across him mentioned in a number of books, so when I saw this recently, I grabbed it. Along with his foibles there's a lot of history from state of the country before the Civil War, to the destruction of Reconstruction afterwards. Henry was a real charmer; everyone loved him, especially the ladies. Which is, of course, what finally got him into such trouble. In his time, he ...more
Aug 06, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a superb and exceptionally well-written biography, in part because Applegate invested many years in studying Henry Ward Beecher and took the time to tell his story well. She has painted a beautifully detailed and powerfully honest picture of an immensely gifted and deeply flawed human being who used his great talent to help shape the history of his time for good. Beecher never feared to bring his Christian faith to bear on the great moral issues of his day, yet he did it in a way that st ...more
Oct 01, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had no idea who Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother Henry was.. Initially I picked up this book because I find biographies a great way to approach history. Debby Applegate spent many years teasing out the intriguing story of Henry Beecher through a lot of research which started with her Ph.D. thesis. Henry grew up as the son of a fire and brimstone no holds barred Calvinist preacher father. Several of his brothers became ministers as well. It was just expected. Two committed suicide. Henry, over t ...more
Sep 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Applegate has written a sweeping epic of American life from the early to the late 1800s, centering on the life of famed and infamous clergyman Henry Ward Beecher. With Beecher at the center, Applegate weaves a story of America over most of the 1800s. The reader will get a sense of not just the man but his surroundings, from the closed-in world of rural Connecticut to the expansiveness of the frontier Midwest, to the hustle-bustle of New York before and after the Civil War.

Beecher's life is reve
Aug 26, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Debby Applegate's excellent biography of preacher Henry Ward Beecher is also an excellent history of 19th century America on all fronts - political, moral, social, literary, and probably several others. Beecher, the son of the ultimate Calvinist pastor Lyman Beecher and brother of Harriette Beecher Stowe, broke from his father's strict religious stance to defend freedom for slaves and espouse a loving rather than a punishing God.He also apparently had a zipper problem, becoming involved in a sca ...more
Sep 07, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Harriet Beecher Stowe...most of us know her name. Henry Ward Beecher..the most famous man in America and Harriet's brother? I was intrigued. Henry was not mentioned in the history or literature books I studied while in school, yet as a famous minister and orator during his time he was a man with impact during the 19th century. He was friends with 3 presidents, including Lincoln, and a voice for abolition of slavery and women's rights. Henry was a truly interesting personality.
I had a bit of tro
Jack Getz
Apr 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wow!! Read this one!!

A surprising book with a surprising subject. A man few know about today was once the center of power in our country, rubbing elbows with great writers, politicians, clergyman, theologians, media moguls and even Abraham Lincoln who called him the most famous man in America, and Mark Twain who overtly cultivated a relationship with him.

The breadth of this book is amazing and covers theology, politics, a street level history of the entire Civil War saga as I have never seen, A
Oct 27, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
This was a very well written, fascinating book about the life and times of a very interesting man. Henry Ward Beecher was the most famous preacher in America in the second half of the 19th century. His views on the overpowering love of God were revolutionary compared to the more common contemporary belief in a demanding, wrathful God. His controversial, and many times contradictory, teachings and practices were brought to the forefront when he was embroiled in a sensational trial for accused adu ...more
Ruth Everhart
Sep 22, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was captivated by the first half of this book. Henry Ward Beecher was a significant person, and his story is entwined with so many others that are more commonly told. I loved reading about his evolution away from the Puritan Calvinism of his heritage and upbringing. As a pastor, it was fascinating to think that a pastor could be so highly esteemed and so notable! Reading about the building campaigns was just fun. The second half of the book started to feel a bit slow, although there was plenty ...more
Jan 22, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle
It took me almost two months to finish this book, due partly to a busy schedule, but mostly to its heft. Beecher was quite a character, but the most compelling part of this book for me is the context his life provides for 19th century American politics. I gained a new appreciation for the intricacies of the abolition movement, early women's suffrage, the many issues surrounding the Civil War, and how much religious views shaped all of them. I must echo other reviews I've read by saying that the ...more
Dec 20, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a well-researched, well-written account of the life of Henry Ward Beecher, one of the major players of the progressive religious movement of the 19th century. Like most people, Beecher was a mess of contradictions. His life story shows a man capable of moments of sublime brilliance, shining compassion, biting racism, and deep depravity.

Applegate won the Pulitzer for nonfiction with this book. Even more important, she managed to evoke for me -- a reluctant student of history in my school
Whoa this book is good! If you need to know how to write a biography, this should be your template. It's not just about Henry Ward Beecher and his immediate surroundings, but rather a wonderfully researched and informative historical timepiece on America during the 19th century (mostly pre-civil war). I don't think I have ever learned more from a book and immediately after returning it to the library I went out and bought a copy.

I really could not recommend this more; it feels more akin to a wo
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Debby Applegate is an American biographer. She is the author of the The Most Famous Man in America, a biography of Henry Ward Beecher, for which she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Born in Eugene, Oregon, Applegate grew up in Clackamas, graduating from Clackamas High School in 1985. She graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College in 1989 and earned a Ph.D. in American
More about Debby Applegate...