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Melcher Award Given to "The Most Famous Man in America"

On April 22, the Unitarian Universalist Association awarded the 2006 Frederic G. Melcher Book Award to author Debby Applegate, for her book, The Most Famous Man in America: A Biography of Henry Ward Beecher.

Beecher, a renowned minister who mixed faith, moral values, and Republican Party politics in his sermons, drew throngs of worshippers to his enormous Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York. His reputation was irrevocably tarnished in 1872, when an alleged affair between him and a friend's wife, Elizabeth Tilton, garnered massive media attention across the country.

Beecher's story is full of contradictions, a life dedicated to raising the American character to its highest standards and tarnished by human weakness and moral turpitude.

"Thank you so much for this tremendous honor," Applegate said, after accepting the award. "I am deeply honored and deeply shocked."

Applegate, who learned six days earlier she'd won the Pulitzer Prize for her book, said it was ironic she should win the UUA's award. Her subject's father, the famous Calvinist minister Lyman Beecher, had dedicated his life to eradicating Unitarianism from Boston, a feat he predicted would take just two years, roots and all.

The annual Frederic G. Melcher Book Award, established in 1964, honors the book published within the last calendar year judged to be the most significant contribution to religious liberalism.

Rev. Phyllis O'Connell, a member of the committee that selected "The Most Famous Man in America," said Applegate's book tackles one of the most radical periods in America's religious history, when the country transitioned from Puritan orthodoxy to the liberalism of Hosea Ballou, William Ellery Channing and other theological visionaries.

"Henry Ward Beecher is one of the great preachers of the American experience and a rich source still for American religious thought," O'Connell said, reading from the award citation. "Only when we understand what happened to American theology during his lifetime, and the leading role he played in it, will we understand the challenging religious situation in which we now live.

"Scandals involving trusted popular religious leaders may seem commonplace now, in the era of Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggart. But more than 130 years ago, Henry Ward Beecher, whom President Abraham Lincoln once called 'the most famous man in America,' found himself in the public spotlight, attempting to reconcile his public religious piety with his private hypocrisy."

Rev. William Sinkford, president of the UUA, said he'd begun reading Applegate's book a second time. "I am thrilled this book was selected," Sinkford said, before introducing O'Connell during the awards presentation at First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The story intimately explores the history of religion in this country, that to not understand it would be a big flaw.

When news of an alleged affair between Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton became public in 1872, the scandal generated more headlines than the entire Civil War did just a dozen years earlier, Applegate said.

But in the decades before the scandal, Beecher had long been a household name, one of the principal ministers who moved the country away from ideas of pre-destination and an angry God, to a more Jesus-centered spirituality with free-will and a benevolent and all-loving God. He was a major player in the early Republican Party and championed such controversial issues as abolition and women's suffrage.

He was a gifted orator, and his sermons attracted 3,000-plus worshippers at his enormous Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, NY, giving rise to the notion of the celebrity minister, a trend that continues to thrive today. Beecher also made a handsome living traveling around the country delivering lectures and sermons.

But the scandal relegated Beecher to footnote status in American history, now known primarily as the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Applegate said she sees a parallel between the Beecher-Tilton affair and today's scandal-plagued religious and political leaders. Our leaders' great flaws, Applegate said, are often drawn from the same well that fosters their grace, that ability to touch many people on an emotional level.

Applegate said the contract she first signed to write the book, back in 1998, called for the biography to be completed in 18 months, coinciding with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The months passed into years. When the book was finally published last year, right as the Ted Haggard and Mark Foley scandals emerged, she was surprised to see how relevant it was to the day's news.

"I didn't write this to be a sensationalized examination of hypocrisy," Applegate said. "Whenever we outsource our virtues to our religious leaders, expecting them to be our standard-bearers, we're certainly bound to be disappointed our flaws also come from the same sources as our greatest strengths."

The citation for Debby Applegate reads:

Melcher Book Award

April 22, 2007

Debby Applegate—Brilliant writer and historian of America’s transformational nineteenth century, whose gracefully layered narratives lure us ever further into the substance and suspense of your stories:

Your biography of Henry Ward Beecher is a shining achievement that not only introduces us in a fresh way The Most Famous Man in America but also illumines the end of Puritan dominance, the second American revolution—known as the Unitarian controversy, the struggles for an end to slavery, the right of American women to vote, the settlement of the American frontier, and the powerful rise of industry.

We come to the end of your book with awareness of the intimate connections that drew together religious leaders, politicians, and industrialists in their efforts to shape the young nation; of the painful transition from the orthodoxy of Jonathan Edwards, Timothy Dwight, and Lyman Beecher to the liberalism of Ebenezer Gay, Charles Chauncey, Jonathan Mayhew, Hosea Ballou, and William Ellery Channing; and of those old theological tensions in early New England religion that still craze American religious and political life.  In Beecher himself, you help us to appreciate the extraordinary hunger for captivating religious oratory that still drives American religious and civil society.

Unitarian Universalists especially appreciate your full treatment of the path from faith in a God of judgment to faith in a God of love and the warning that Beecher’s career offers about taking too superficially that stirring vision from the letters of John that “God is love.”

On a visit to Chicago in 1962, Karl Barth advised Americans to rely less on European theology and to take more seriously the theological wisdom that continues to spring from the American experience.  As The Most Famous Man in America shows, Henry Ward Beecher is one of the great preachers of the American experience and a rich source still for American religious thought.   Only when we understand what happened to American theology during his lifetime, and the leading role that he played in it, will we understand the challenging religious situation in which we now live.  Thank you, Debby Applegate, for your contribution to that effort.  We are proud to announce that you are the recipient of the Frederick G. Melcher Book Award for the year 2006.  Congratulations and thank you for The Most Famous Man in America.

For more information contact info@uua.org.

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Last updated on Tuesday, April 3, 2012.

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Debby Applegate, Author of The Most Famous Man in America: A Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, Winner of the Melcher Book Award


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Debby Applegate reads from her book at the Melcher ceremony.

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