Henry Ward Beecher: An American Portrait

by Paxton Hibben. New York: George H. Doran Co. 1927. 8vo. xiv+353 pp. Illus. $5,00.
MB. HIBBEN has based this study of a prominent American upon thorough, extensive, and discriminating research. He has investigated not only the documents bearing upon Beecher himself, but also, and very widely, the history of the middle nineteenth century, social, political, and religious. The result is a remarkable and brilliant character portrayal, certain to offend and distress Beecher’s numerous friends and admirers, to delight his critics, and to perplex and dishearten the unprejudiced reader who would like to retain as good an opinion of human nature as he can.
The portrait is human, undeniably. We have a sensitive, emotional, rather indolent, selfindulgent, yet ambitious temperament, swept hither and thither by all sorts of cross tides and conflicting currents of circumstance, preserving no essential unity except that of a persistent desire for success, distinctly preferring the good, but inextricably and again and again mixed up with the bad, and displaying an appalling ingenuity in blending, confusing, and misrepresenting the two.
Oh, yes, the creature, whether historical or not, is profoundly human, in his struggles, in his efforts, in his weaknesses, and in his success. Most of all is he human in the great climax of the Tilton Trial, the central tragic scene, which the unregenerate world will chiefly associate with his name. And here Mr. Hibben, while professing not to commit himself any more than the jury did, certainly leaves upon the reader’s mind the strong impression that Beecher was fatally and hopelessly guilty, with a guilt that involves not only the crime of direct adultery, but, as he was situated, the far worse stain of a prolonged, deliberate, elaborate, hypocritical pretense of a virtue that did not exist.
For what makes Beecher’s guilt, if he was guilty, far worse than that of an ordinary man is the greatness of his position. He had millions of followers; he held them in the hollow of his hand, swept them by his mighty power of speech whither he would, and then, if Mr. Hibben is right, betrayed them, and Judas’s betrayal was not much more cruel.
Mr. Hibben’s study is further deepened by the constant suggestion of the religious evolution that Beecher embodied. His father, Lyman, was the essence of the strictest Calvinism. But in Henry’s age, in his life, and in his mind, Calvinism, the religion of Hell, was melted, transformed, dissolved utterly away, and with it went naturally the original divine personality and office of Christ, as atoning for all sin and achieving redemption, since, if Hell was impossible, atonement was unnecessary. In place of these austere doctrines came a religion of love, of fluid self-adjustment, self-congratulation, self-contentment. All was well with the world; the evolution of Darwin meant a beatific progress by which all humanity would in the end sing itself through the portals of Plymouth Church, under the benevolent gaze of its all-understanding pastor, into an undying, complete, well-ordered bliss, which should satisfy the longings of all the well disposed and the benign intentions of Deity.
To many persons this evolution of religion will no doubt seem a great advance. Yet when one sees the advance supremely illustrated in Beecher, as portrayed by Mr. Hibben, — Beecher the idol of millions of average Americans and in many respects the type of them, — one wonders.