Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Most Famous Man in America

The title refers to Henry Ward Beecher, famed founder preacher of Brooklyn's Plymouth Church (where former Park Street pastor David Fisher now serves). The son of the illustrious Lyman Beecher (among the last of the genuine New England Puritans) and brother of Edward Beecher (another former pastor of Park Street), Henry Ward Beecher was his day's Billy Graham in terms of preaching renown and name recognition, Bill Clinton in terms of scandal, and basically all over the map theologically. Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln gave Beecher credit for keeping England from siding with the South during the Civil War. Mark Twain and Walt Whitman both counted themselves as admirers. Debby Applegate's Pultizer prize winning biography of Beecher (www.henrywardbeecher.com) surveys his life, successes and failures, and concludes that the gospel of unconditional love that so pervades Christianity (to the exclusion of judgment and sin) is in large part Beecher's legacy---so successful in fact that it eclipses the man himself. He was an orator for the ages, with many of his words still in circulation:
"The power of hiding ourselves from one another is mercifully given, for men are wild beasts, and would devour one another but for this protection."
What struck me about the book was the power that personality has over theology. So much of what has been passed down to us to believe through the ages results from the particular passions of those who fashioned it. This is both good and bad, of course, for reasons that Beecher himself fully recognized even as he was doing it.