Before He Was Famous
By Debby Applegate '89
At one time, Henry Ward Beecher, Class of 1834, was as well-known as Oprah Winfrey is today. But first, he arrived at Amherst as a shy freshman, Bible in hand.
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 would pen the century’s classic bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But when pushed into the ministry, the charismatic Beecher found international fame by shedding his father’s Old Testament–style fire-and-brimstone theology and instead preaching a New Testament–based gospel message of unconditional love and healing, becoming one of the founding fathers of modern American Christianity. By the 1850s, his spectacular sermons at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights had made him New York’s number-one tourist attraction, so wildly popular that the ferries from Manhattan to Brooklyn were dubbed “Beecher Boats.”
As a lecturer, columnist and cultural gadfly Beecher inserted himself into all the great dramas of the era—including the antislavery and women’s suffrage movements, the rise of both the entertainment industry and the Republican Party, and controversies over everything from Darwinian evolution to whether women should wear bloomers. Notorious for his irreverent humor and melodramatic gestures, he “auctioned” slaves to freedom from his pulpit and supplied high-powered Sharps rifles—nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles”—to the “Free State” settlers seeking to free Kansas from the scourge of slavery. Thinkers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Twain befriended, admired—and sometimes parodied—him. While president, Abraham Lincoln bent over backwards to please Beecher, and credited the preacher with saving the Northern cause.
And then it all fell apart. In 1872 Beecher was accused by feminist firebrand Victoria Woodhull of seducing one of his most pious parishioners. Suddenly the “Gospel of Love” seemed to rationalize a life of lust. The cuckolded husband filed civil charges of “criminal conversation” against the minister. The salacious trial was the most widely covered event of the century, garnering more newspaper headlines than the entire Civil War. Beecher survived the scandal, but his historical reputation and his causes—from women’s rights to progressive evangelicalism—suffered devastating setbacks.
Henry Ward Beecher arrived at Amherst in the fall of 1830, a bashful freshman from Boston. In his battered horse-hair trunk he carried a Bible, some well-patched clothes and the suffocating weight of his father’s insistence that he enter the ministry. Over the next four years, Amherst transformed him from an insecure, immature preacher’s kid into an ambitious, original thinker, overflowing with a curiosity, confidence and charisma that would lead Emerson and Lincoln to declare Beecher one of the most influential men of the century. Beecher declined an honorary doctorate from Amherst as too pretentious, but he later served as a trustee of the college, and in 1871 he publicly called for the admission of women. After the 1872 adultery scandal, the disapproving college president, Julius H. Seeley, unofficially banned Beecher from speaking again on campus. Beecher later returned to the college for good, as a statue, by J. Q. A. Ward, that sits near the Octagon.
To save money, Beecher rented a room a mile from campus. The first-year schedule was full of his worst subjects.
The question of where Henry Ward Beecher should go to college was a dilemma. His father, Lyman, longed to see him at Yale, his own alma mater. But he worried. Henry was smart, no doubt about it, but as blithe and distractible as a spring colt—an easy mark for temptation. In New Haven, Henry would be in large classes taught by young, inexperienced tutors where he could easily slip through the cracks. And Yale boys had a rowdy reputation as brawlers and pranksters; just recently several Elis had exploded a makeshift bomb in the college chapel.
So, reluctantly, Lyman Beecher put his son on a stagecoach headed toward a fledgling college in the country village of Amherst, Mass. Founded in 1821 as a bulwark against the “Unitarian menace” spreading from Harvard, Amherst was dedicated to preparing indigent young men for the Congregational ministry. “I shall regard his safety greater in Amherst than in New Haven,” Lyman concluded. Besides, with tuition only $40 a semester and a generous Charity Fund, Amherst was a bargain.
The village had few pretensions. The town common was still used as pasture, with each local family allowed to graze one cow apiece during the summer. At one end of the green was a weed patch of thistle and burdock, at the other a marshy frog pond, home to geese, peepers and various amphibians. A dirt path led up a steep, treeless hill to the spare brick buildings of the college. The town’s only vanity was its passion for higher education. It boasted the Amherst Academy, one of the best schools in western Massachusetts; Henry’s alma mater, the Mount Pleasant Classical Institute for Boys; as well as the college.
Breaking Up with Beecher:
Questions for Debby Applegate ’89
You’ve said it was a work-study job at Amherst that introduced you to Henry Ward Beecher. How did it happen?
I was working in the college archives, and one of my first
tasks was to put together an exhibit about notorious alumni. Beecher was one of them, but I had no idea who he was. I’m from Oregon. I had never met a Congregationalist, let alone heard of their most famous preacher. So I decided to write a seminar paper on him.
What’s your religious background?
My father’s side is Irish Catholic and my mother’s is Mormon. I grew up in a rural area that was rapidly becoming suburbanized, with a very strong evangelical presence. None of those traditions really pleased me.
Are you religious?
Actually, I am surprised over and over again that I’m a religious historian. I’m consciously an agnostic, and yet I must be internally conflicted since I can’t seem to shake it.
Few agnostics study Christian ministers. What’s the draw?
I was instantly charmed by Beecher. He was unlike any minister I’d ever seen. He was irreverent and funny. He insisted that religion could be about happiness here on earth as well as after death. Above all, he hated sanctimonious bigotry.
You wrote your senior thesis on Beecher. Do you remember the title?
“Breach of Faith.” It focused on Beecher’s adultery scandal and the nature of truth and fiction. After he was accused of seducing a member of his parish, the cuckolded husband sued him for “criminal conversation,” and the trial garnered more headlines than the entire Civil War. Novels, including the Scarlet Letter, were introduced as evidence to show motive, and the legal arguments were based on novelistic conventions. In the end, a hung jury let him off the hook because they really believed that Beecher—this character they’d loved for more than 30 years—was incapable of doing the things it seemed clear to me he had done.
What makes Beecher a perfect character for a book?
He shows up like Forrest Gump at the all hotspots of 19th-century history. He weighed in on every issue of the day: the Emancipation Proclamation, tariff policy, whether women should wear bloomers. You name it, there he was.
Is the book based on your Ph.D. dissertation at Yale?
No. Beecher was the subject of my dissertation, but that was even more dry and academically highfalutin than my senior thesis, which still reads pretty well by comparison.
How did you make the jump to popular writing?
After all those years with Beecher it seemed like the natural climax. In the end all I wanted was to write a book that would make people turn the page. It had to be scrupulously accurate but also suspenseful. So I read books on how to write thrillers and then adapted the advice. I outlined each chapter like a novelist, asking: Who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? What’s driving the action?
Do you feel like you know Beecher?
Of course I do. Henry wouldn’t like me dragging out his dirty linen like this, but I do think he’d appreciate that he’s getting another turn in the spotlight.
After nearly 20 years with Beecher, what’s next?
It feels a little like breaking up with a boyfriend. I was so tired when I finished that I had no other plan than to lie around eating bonbons until I die of ennui. But it turns out that the devil makes work for idle hands. So I guess I should think about writing about something else. You have to really like someone to spend so many years with them. Frankly, I didn’t have a plan. I just had Beecher.
—Interview by Emily Gold Boutilier
The early 1830s were a remarkable time to be a college student—akin to the late 1960s. An intoxicating air of “Newness,” as one contemporary called it, pervaded the culture. The nation was young, literally—the average age of the population was 16, the result of a baby boom after the War of 1812—and bursting with the zeal of youth. Henry began his freshman year in the autumn of 1830, at the climax of what was later dubbed the Second Great Awakening, as a tidal wave of religious revivals was washing tens of thousands of souls up to the shores of heaven, and inspiring a barrage of social and moral reforms. “Universal Education,” “Universal Reform” and “Progress” were now the great rallying cries of the thinking classes.
Amherst perfectly captured the zeitgeist. The campus was painfully plain, as even its admirers admitted. Johnson Chapel housed the classrooms and laboratory. South, Middle and North Colleges were the student dormitories. A water well, privy and woodshed rounded out the official architecture of the school. There was no dining hall, so students took their meals in town. There were only six full professors, most of them ordained ministers, and a minuscule endowment, yet students were pouring in so fast that Amherst was rapidly becoming the second largest college in New England.
he later returned to the
college for good as a statue
near the Octagon.
Unlike Harvard or Yale, where the prerogatives of tradition, wealth and aristocratic bloodlines dominated, here most of the students were the pious sons of farmers and parsons, from the hardscrabble hill towns of western New England and upstate New York. Nearly half were on financial aid. They were “Country graduates,” to use Nathaniel Hawthorne’s phrase: “rough, brown-featured, schoolmaster-looking, half bumpkin, half-scholarly figures, in black ill-cut broadcloth—their manners quite spoilt by what little of the gentleman there was in them.”
If they lacked poise, they compensated in brains and ambition. Amherst was “an infant Hercules,” declared Ralph Waldo Emerson after visiting the campus. “They write and study in sort of fury, which, I think, promises a harvest of attainments.” The school’s reputation for religious zeal was notorious. Temperance societies, in which students pledged to avoid hard liquor, were common on many campuses, but Amherst was famous for adopting the radical “cold water” requirement that members abstain from beer, wine, opium and tobacco as well.
Amherst was also influenced by the new German theories of liberal education, which emphasized independent thinking over rote recitation, and scientific observation and experimentation over a priori reasoning. It was among the first schools to adopt blackboards—an innovation that seems small today but that changed the very nature of teaching. The faculty’s attempt in 1828 to introduce the study of modern languages and literature collapsed for lack of support, but in 1831 they successfully scraped together $4,000 to send a professor to Europe to purchase the latest scientific books and equipment.
But that September, Henry was too homesick and lonely to care. To save money he’d rented a room a mile from campus in a
private home, sharing with a boy two years younger than himself and several seniors who took no notice of the bashful freshman. At the same time, as the son of the notorious Lyman Beecher, Henry was “a marked man” on campus, as one classmate recalled. (One fellow student was actually named Lyman Beecher Harkin.) Henry was certain everyone was judging him.
Schoolwork was the wellspring of his despair. The first-year schedule was full of his worst subjects: Latin, Greek, algebra, geometry and English grammar. Henry was wracked by insecurity and certain that his classmates were far better prepared. “I have not fixed a plan of study or anything else hardly,” he lamented to his older brother. “I have tried to form them so many times and failed that I begin to distrust my own self.”
As usual, Henry’s anxiety erupted into a spiritual crisis. It was February of his freshman year, just as a fresh wave of religious revivals was sweeping through the schools of the Northeast. The Amherst faculty tried to spark their own revival with a “concert of prayer.” But none of their efforts took hold until one of the senior boys was suddenly struck down with a mysterious illness. Shocked and frightened by their classmate’s death, several seniors experienced dramatic conversions, sending a domino effect through the rest of the school.
Night after night prayer meetings filled the classrooms, and morning after morning the names of new converts were announced at chapel. Henry longed to hear his name on the roll-call of saints but no matter how hard he prayed, God seemed to take no notice. After weeks of anguished soul-searching, Henry went to see the college president, Heman Humphrey. “I am without hope and utterly wretched, and I want to be a Christian,” he moaned in the president’s study.
“Ah! It is the spirit of God, my young man,” President Humphrey responded solemnly, “and when the Spirit of God is at work with a soul I dare not interfere.”
“I went away in blacker darkness than I came,” Henry recalled.
Ultimately, aid came from a very different quarter: Moody Harrington, an earnest senior who, at the age of 32, was far more mature. As Moody took the boy under his wing, Henry began to blossom. The friendship inspired Henry to stumble, half blindly, toward the spiritual vision that would later become his famous “Gospel of Love.” Henry was tramping through the woods one day after class, when, he remembered later, “there arose over the horizon a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ as a living Friend, who had the profoundest personal interest in me.” This divine version of Moody Harrington stood in stark contrast to his father’s theology of God as capricious sovereign and stern judge and Christ as sacrificial scapegoat for mankind’s crimes. For the first time, Henry glimpsed a new path to salvation based on acceptance rather than judgment. “A little love was what I wanted,” as he put it years later.
With his soul safe and his spirits lifted, Henry discovered the pleasures of college social life. He played flute in the college band, was a proud member of the College Temperance Society and undoubtedly shone in the Society for Inquiry, the school’s religious club. With his sparkling humor and practical jokes, Henry was a popular boy who could often be found lounging on the steps of Johnson Chapel, regaling a crowd with his wit. Best yet, he discovered girls. Now his pals were complaining that Henry spent too many evenings taking tea and trading confidences with the young ladies of Amherst; girls like Catharine Dickinson, daughter of one of the college’s founding fathers and aunt to a newborn baby who would one day become the poet Emily Dickinson.
Soon it seemed that Henry’s real life was at school, making even Boston feel dull by comparison. As he grumbled to one college chum over summer vacation, “It will take me weeks to throw off the stupor acquired while stagnating here.” That autumn he returned to campus a quintessential sophomore, taking juvenile delight in his new sophistication, solemnly dedicating himself to Truth and Light and then merrily tossing out Latin puns and cracking in jokes about professors, classes and books. He cultivated a reputation for eccentricity, building an odd doughnut-shaped desk for himself out of a circle of wood with a hole cut in the middle for a chair. He was ensconced in his nest, surrounded by books. His room was the natural hangout for the late-night bull sessions he loved.
He still wasn’t much of a scholar. “I studied what I liked and didn’t study what I didn’t like,” he said flatly. Henry’s lackadaisical approach verged at times on insolence, saved only by his obvious good nature. He informed Ebenezer Snell, the round-faced, sweet-tempered young professor of mathematics, that he should not have to study math since it would be of no use to a minister. When Snell insisted that math would discipline his mind, Henry retorted, “If that’s all, I shan’t go to class any more. My mind gets enough discipline inventing excuses for not being there.” By the end of his junior year, Snell had generally given up calling on him—a tacit admission of defeat.
Instead, Henry found his intellectual home in a cluttered corner room in North dormitory, the headquarters of the Athenian Society. Two literary societies, the Athenians and the Alexandrians, dominated intellectual and social life on campus. Each club gathered weekly to read and write poetry, essays and anonymous satires and to debate the hot topics of the day. They sponsored guest speakers, held public-speaking exhibitions and intramural debates and pooled their money to buy the latest books, magazines and newspaper subscriptions.
The club room was the antithesis of the classroom: democratic, spontaneous and cutting edge. The Athenians exposed Henry to the latest ideas in literature, philosophy, politics and current events—all the modern movements, including European Romanticism, ignored by the classical curriculum. Having spent his youth struggling to shoehorn his own effervescent personality into starchy social conventions, Henry took to the Romantics instinctively. He loved their iconoclasm, their exaltation of the imagination, their fascination with nature and their insistence that human passion should be explored rather than suppressed. He was enthralled by the idea of the poet as a natural aristocrat whose self-expression was a conduit between heaven and earth. After years of probing his motives and moods and always falling short, he found that suddenly his sensitivity, suffering and self-doubt were no longer signs of sinfulness, but of his superior sensibility.
Now Henry burned with a new ambition: to be a man of letters. “I never have performed so much real mental labor as within six months past,” Henry enthused to his sister Harriet in the spring of 1832. “I am beginning to learn to think, write and debate.” On campus he quickly became renowned for his originality, eloquence and fierce debating skills. It was a sign of his stature that when the statesman and presidential candidate Henry Clay visited the college, Henry had the honor of presenting the senator with a memorial Bible.
The beginning of junior year was marked by the arrival of the long-awaited crates of scientific books and equipment from Europe. Overnight, scientific inquiry became all the rage on campus, inspiring the boys to found a Society of Natural History, with its own library and cabinet of natural curiosities.
The architect of the new science curriculum was the legendary Reverend Professor Edward Hitchcock. (See “Etched in Stone,” Summer/Fall 2006.) The study of cause and effect was Hitchcock’s passion. He taught the boys to study nature’s mechanisms and interrelationships. He pushed them to see analogies and connections where they perceived only contrasts and antitheses, to observe closely and hold their presumptions until the evidence began to suggest theories and conclusions. He insisted that they develop the moral courage to question ideas that flew in the face of conventional wisdom.
Henry showed no special interest in science until one day he watched the normally shy and stammering Professor Hitchcock grow rapturous as he described his discovery of a new species of flower. It was a plain little white flower, as far as Henry could see, but that only made his teacher’s enthusiasm more curious and compelling. Soon Henry’s tramps in the woods were no longer devoted to catching flying squirrels and stealing apples but to collecting geological and botanical specimens.
But it was the new “science” of phrenology—a word taken from Greek to mean “discourse on the mind”—that captivated Henry’s imagination. (See “Head Games,” From the Archives, page 11.) Phrenologists argued that the shape of the surface of the skull revealed one’s emotions, character and intelligence. Physiologically it was bunkum, but as an early, popular form of psychology it was groundbreaking. Henry teamed up with a classmate named Orson Fowler, and began performing around campus as a duo, with Henry lecturing on the “fundamental principles” of phrenology and Fowler reading the boys’ skulls.
As for Henry’s own skull, Fowler diagnosed “an impassioned temperament,” with “very large Benevolence” (that is, kindness toward others) and “Amativeness fully developed” (amativeness meant sexual or romantic love). Speaking frankly, from the shape of Henry’s head—“small brow and big in the lower part of his head, like a bull”—Fowler predicted that Henry was “not likely to be a saint.” No doubt, the young mind reader meant this as a helpful warning, rather than a fatal prophecy.
Henry entered his senior year very much the big man on campus. He was elected president of both the Athenian Society and the Society of Natural History and had several pieces coming out in the literary magazines. He jumped at any chance to speak in public, leading prayer meetings, conducting a Bible class for the young ladies of the village and lecturing on temperance, always ending with a dramatic call for everyone in the audience to sign “the pledge.”
As in the 1960s, the exhilarating spirit on campus soon spilled over into aggressive rebellion. Henry’s senior year, the college was bedeviled by conflicts between the administration and the student body. The faculty infuriated the boys by banning anonymous essays in the literary clubs after their satires grew too nasty. They expelled several seniors for “gross immorality,” including drinking, card playing, stealing college property and a hint of fornication. But one issue towered above all these controversies: the battle over slavery.
The last time slavery had dominated public debate was in 1820, when Congress deadlocked over whether slavery would be legal in the new western states. For a time, it seemed that the fragile bonds of the United States might snap. Disunion was narrowly averted by the Missouri Compromise, which preserved the federal balance of power by admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, and confined slavery in the new territories south of the latitude of 36? 30’. While many northerners disapproved of human bondage, nearly all viewed it as a dangerous political quagmire, best left alone.
But this new generation, born after the upheaval of the Revolutionary era and mere children during the Compromise debates, was less fearful and more idealistic. Many genuinely saw themselves as their brothers’ keepers, duty bound to emancipate the world from sin. They did not see slavery as a question of political compromise but as one of religious principle.
Henry’s conservative father advocated gradual emancipation, supporting the American Colonization Society, which proposed to end slavery by purchasing and then deporting slaves back to Africa. It was a scheme that put as much emphasis on ridding America of free blacks as ridding it of slavery.
Then, in 1829, a balding, bespectacled William Lloyd Garrison announced that under Lyman Beecher’s influence he had come to believe that human bondage was a heinous sin and that Christians should demand that slaveholders immediately repent and free their slaves. When Lyman defended colonization, Garrison charged him with hypocrisy in his new antislavery newspaper, The Liberator. Radicalized by Garrison’s arguments, 10 bold students quit the College Colonization Society and made Amherst one of the first schools in the nation to establish a College Antislavery Society.
On the slavery question, as in virtually all of these squabbles, both petty and profound, we find Henry hewing to the moderate middle, stranded awkwardly
between the generations. He had enough education and confidence to question old orthodoxies and social conventions, but not enough to repudiate them completely or to craft his own conclusions. In his own words, he had “strength enough to row out, but not enough to fight the tide to get back to shore.” Most of the time he simply trod water, waiting for a wave of conviction to wash him ashore.
By training and temperament he was a natural recruit for the Antislavery Society. Privately he referred to himself as an abolitionist. But taking a stand for immediate abolition would have been a public betrayal of his father. Instead Henry avoided official debate on the topic. His literary magazine reviewed Garrison’s Thoughts on Colonization unfavorably. He declined to add his name to the Antislavery Society’s roles. When the faculty forcibly shut down the society, he did not protest.
Many years later, when public opinion had shifted, Henry would forget all this, recalling that he took the side of immediate emancipation against colonization in the Athenian club debates. But that was simply rewriting history.
Commencement was the high point of the year for both town and gown. Not long after dawn on August 27, 1834, peddlers and farmers with wares to sell began to stake out spots on the green. As the morning air grew heavy and hot, the road outside the Congregational Church (now College Hall) filled with carriages of every type, from lowly oxcarts to elegant four-in-hands. By 9 a.m. the pews were overflowing, and perspiring young men jammed the back of the church. On the front platform the trustees and visiting dignitaries sat in stiff formality, and a choir perched in the center gallery.
President Humphrey introduced the first student speaker. Another speaker followed, then another and another. On and on the young orators droned, but Henry was not among them. Graduation speakers were selected by academic standing, and of 39 students graduating, he was one of only 13 who had no role in the Commencement exercises. Undoubtedly his pride was stung, but he hid his feelings with humor. He later liked to say that the only time he stood next to the head of his class was when they were all arranged in a circle.
Besides, Henry had a bolder vision. A few days after the festivities, the proud new graduate rolled up his sheepskin and lit out for the West, to seek his fortune in the frontier town of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Photo of Debby Applegate: Frank Ward; Other images: Amherst College Archives & Special Collections