When Preachers Were Rock Stars

On an elegant residential block in Brooklyn Heights stands what once may have been the most famous church in America. Plymouth Church, on Orange Street, was founded in 1847 with just twenty-one members. The New York businessmen who established the church, practicing Congregationalists, wanted it to grow, so they offered the job of minister to Henry Ward Beecher, whose preaching prowess had made Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis one of the largest congregations in that city. Beecher accepted the offer. He would preach at Plymouth Church for the next forty years, eventually to full houses of two thousand worshippers of the Christian God.

In nineteenth-century America, sermons were a widely diffused entertainment medium. People bought print collections of sermons, but the sermon itself was essentially performance art. Sermons were designed to excite, to thrill, to move. Reading sermons in a book therefore gives us little idea of the kind of effect they had on their listeners. In Beecher’s day, the sermon was increasingly ad-libbed. He would bring notes onto the stage, but he treated them as props. He would toss them onto the floor or a table, and hold forth as he strode back and forth before the congregation. Beecher became a legend in his own time. Manhattanites took special ferries, referred to as Beecher’s Boats, across the East River to hear his sermons.

Beecher’s father, Lyman, himself a noted preacher, was a Calvinist, but Henry preached what became known as the Gospel of Love, a theology that might be encapsulated in the question “Is it a sin to feel that I am sinless?” Beecher asked parishioners to receive God’s love through Jesus Christ and taught that this form of religious belief was consistent with the enjoyment of life. Today, this seems a standard form of Christian evangelism, but in the nineteenth century it was revolutionary. The Gospel of Love helped transform popular Protestantism from a religion obsessed with sin and salvation into what is essentially a mode of self-help. Love God and do what you like. The Word will set you free.

Beecher arrived in Brooklyn in the late eighteen-forties, just as the nation was entering the final countdown to the Civil War. The conclusion of the Mexican War revived an issue that was present at the nation’s founding but had lain dormant since: whether slavery could or should be outlawed in the new territories. For the next twelve years, this question burned a hole in American political life. It defeated the democratic process. It was settled only by a war in which more than six hundred thousand died.

Beecher emerged as a leading anti-slavery spokesman, his prominence aided by the fact that Harriet Beecher Stowe—the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the best-selling book of the nineteenth century, which Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said caused the Civil War—was his sister. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 permitted slave catchers to kidnap fugitives in free states and return them, without recourse, to their owners, and Plymouth Church became a stop on the Underground Railroad. Fugitives hid in its basement as they made their way to Canada. In 1856, when a call went out to send arms to “free-soil” settlers who were battling “slave-state” settlers in Kansas, Beecher raised money from his congregation to send rifles. These were known as “Beecher’s Bibles.” More spectacularly, Beecher staged “slave auctions” in his church. He would bring the enslaved persons into the church, and, as they stood there, encourage parishioners to make offerings to purchase their freedom. The congregation was basically competing with slave traders for the “possession” of human beings. Bizarrely, this was widely popular.

The most famous of Beecher’s slave auctions was that of a nine-year-old girl named Sally Maria Diggs, nicknamed Pinky. Pinky was light-complexioned—the man selling her was likely her father, who had already sold the rest of her family to slave traders—and the congregation reportedly went wild when Beecher brought her onstage. About nine hundred dollars was collected, along with a gold ring, which Beecher dramatically placed on Pinky’s finger. It was, he told her, her “freedom ring.”

During the war, Beecher sponsored a regiment for the sons of parishioners, the First Long Island Regiment, known as Beecher’s pets. And, in 1863, the Plymouth Church trustees sent Beecher to England, where he spoke in Liverpool and Manchester, cities with textile industries dependent on cheap Southern cotton. Despite violent heckling, he kept his composure. Whether because of Beecher’s exertions or not, British trade with the Confederate states largely ceased during the Civil War. Lincoln was impressed by the accounts that he heard of Beecher’s speeches, and he reportedly told his Cabinet that, if the American flag were someday raised again over Fort Sumter, Beecher should be the one to do it, because “without Beecher in England there might have been no flag to raise.” And, in the event, when the flag was raised, Beecher was there.

Beecher’s celebrity sold pews, and he was rewarded with a generous salary, which he supplemented by touring and giving talks. And he continued to promote social and political causes, including women’s suffrage, as part of his ministry. After the war, he was said to be the best-known minister in the United States.

Beecher did not preach like a theologian. He mixed his speeches with slang and jokes, and he seems to have had a palette of oratorical styles. He could be understated and matter-of-fact, but he was capable of magniloquence. Here is an excerpt from one of his earliest sermons, pre-Brooklyn, published in a popular collection called “Seven Lectures to Young Men on Various Important Subjects.”

The agony of midnight massacre, the frenzy of the ship’s dungeon, the living death of the middle-passage, the wails of separation, the dismal torpor of hopeless servitude—are these found only in the piracy of the slave trade? They are all among us! Worse assassinations! Worse dragging to a prison-ship! Worse groans ringing from the fetid hold! Worse separation of families! Worse bondage of intemperate men, enslaved by that most inexorable of all taskmasters, sensual habit.

He appears to be referring to masturbation.

If so, he soon dropped this displeasure with pleasure. Photographs make him look like a moony and slightly dissipated undergraduate, rather corpulent when he was older, but his contemporaries described him as good-looking. He was not notably brilliant or even consistent intellectually, but he plainly had a charisma that made up for everything else. Rock stars are not usually consistent or intellectually impressive, either, but they are stars for a reason. And, in nineteenth-century America, a celebrity minister was a kind of rock star.

Beecher therefore always had a female following (it could not have hurt that he preached the Gospel of Love), and rumors of affairs with parishioners date from his time in Indianapolis. In Brooklyn, two women confessed to their husbands that they had carried on affairs with Beecher. (Both husbands, strangely, were close to Beecher personally and professionally.) In 1872, the affair with one of those women, Elizabeth Tilton, became public. This led, three years later, to a lawsuit by the aggrieved husband, Theodore Tilton, who accused Beecher of the tort of “criminal conversation” (a legalistic euphemism). The trial was the most sensational of the century.

As Reconstruction was falling apart in the South, newspaper readers were absorbed by the goings on in Tilton v. Beecher. In the six months leading up to the trial (which itself lasted six months), the Times published a hundred and five articles and thirty-seven editorials about the Beecher affair. People waited overnight in line to get seats at the courthouse. There were scalpers. Many colorful figures had walk-on roles in the story, from the feminists Victoria Woodhull and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the manic Civil War major general Benjamin Butler and the anti-pornography crusader Anthony Comstock.

Multiple cultural trends converged: the crackdown on obscenity, the Gospel of Love, feminism, and above all, perhaps, the doctrine of free love promoted by Woodhull. That doctrine did not mean “love the one you’re with” so much as “be with the one you love.” It was, awkwardly, associated with the movement for women’s suffrage—the movement led by, among others, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. “Free love” did not have the meaning it acquired in the nineteen-sixties. It was designed to make divorce easier for women by giving it philosophical justification. If Beecher had fallen out of love with his wife and in love with Tilton’s, all might be forgiven. The famous trial and the people and events surrounding it are the subjects of Robert Shaplen’s entertaining book “Free Love and Heavenly Sinners,” which has just been reissued.

Shaplen was not a historian. He was a journalist who began his career in 1937 as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1943, he became the Pacific War correspondent for Newsweek, and he landed with the Marines at Leyte, in the Philippines, in 1944, the beginning of a long career reporting from Asia. He was with Mao Zedong in 1946, and he covered Indonesia, Korea, and the French war in Indochina. When the United States entered the war in Vietnam, in 1965, he was one of the best-informed and most experienced journalists on that beat. He published ten books, most of them on Asia. Shaplen had written a few pieces for The New Yorker in the nineteen-forties, including one on the Leyte invasion. In 1952, he became a staff writer, which he remained until his death, in 1988, at the age of seventy-one.

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