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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Gothic Undercurrents Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1837)

[7240] James E. Cook, Testimony in the Great Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case Illustrated (1875), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-121959].

Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, Henry Ward Beecher was the son of the preacher Lyman Beecher and the brother of the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. He added to the discursive fame of his family by becoming a well-known preacher, orator, and lecturer. Beecher graduated from Amherst in 1834 and attended Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. After two pastorates in Indiana, he moved in 1847 to the newly organized Congregational Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York.

Publicly vocal on contemporary issues, Beecher was a leader in the antislavery movement, a proponent of women’s suffrage, and an advocate of the theory of evolution. He regularly attracted some twenty-five hundred auditors to his Sunday sermons, and he published an early pamphlet, Seven Lectures to Young Men (1844). In 1854, he raised money among his congregation for weapons to be used in the antislavery cause; these rifles came to be called “Beecher’s Bibles.” Beecher became editor of the Independent in 1861 and of the Christian Union in 1870. He visited England in 1863, spreading sympathy for the Union in a series of lectures.

In 1875, one of Beecher’s parishioners (and a popular speaker in his own right), Theodore Tilton, brought a lawsuit against him for adultery with Tilton’s wife–a charge first made by Victoria Woodhull in her newspaper Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. After a long trial, this suit ended with the jury in disagreement; Beecher’s friends claimed that he won. Despite being publicly embarrassed by the trial, Beecher remained influential for the rest of his life. His works include The Life of Jesus, the Christ (1871) and Evolution and Religion(1885).

Teaching Tips

  • Try applying the kind of gothic images Beecher uses to decry prostitution to another current social problem such as factory conditions in underdeveloped countries, child abuse, or the current “epidemic” of obesity in American children. Which of these problems lends itself to a gothic treatment that would likely persuade an audience of its injustice or intolerableness? Which aspects of each problem can be “gothicized,” and which do not seem to work? Think in particular of how the gender and ages of the people involved affect your ability to perform this task.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: According to Beecher, how exactly does the prostitute lure her young men? What exactly are the consequences for men who have a sexual encounter with the prostitute? In what sense are these elements “gothic”?
  2. Context: Consider the gender politics of the sermon. How does Beecher draw on stereotypes and assumptions about women in general in order to make his point about prostitutes in particular? How does he invoke the cult of true womanhood?
  3. Exploration: Why does “The Strange Woman” open with an attack on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and other famous writers? How is this section related to the main argument of the sermon? How would Melville (in “Hawthorne and His Mosses”) disagree with Beecher about the aims and effects of literature?

Selected Archive Items

[7239] Thomas Nast, “Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan!” (1872), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-74994]. 
Print depicting tired woman, with children and drunken man on her back, speaking to winged woman carrying sign reading, “Be saved by free love.” The winged figure represents suffragist and spiritualist Victoria Woodhull.

[7240] James E. Cook, Testimony in the Great Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case Illustrated (1875), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-121959]. 
Cartoon satirizing Henry Ward Beecher’s scandalous court case. Depicts Beecher kissing Mrs. Francis Moulton, who is sitting on his lap.

[9013] Henry Ward Beecher, The Strange Woman (1892), 
from Addresses to Young Men, published by H. Altemus, Philadelphia. 
In this sermon Beecher warns young men against the dangers of female sexuality, which he saw as a force possessing near-supernatural power over an unguarded man’s will.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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