Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Preaching the Everlasting Shell Game

John Brown carried one of "Beecher's Bibles" at Harper's Ferry, provided by a man greatly responsible for the war that ended the republic.  Upon Beauregard's demand for the surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861 Beecher was to proclaim that "I utterly abhor peace . . . Give me war redder than blood and fiercer than fire." The abolitionists would offer no practical and peaceful solution to slavery, only war to the knife and a million dead. 

Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman

North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission

"Unsurpassed Valor, Courage and Devotion to Liberty"

"The Official Website of the North Carolina WBTS Sesquicentennial"

Preaching the Everlasting Shell Game

"Henry Ward Beecher, the most popular preacher in America, famous for his spellbinding crusades against slavery, liquor, the secret vice and every other evil, committed adultery with at least one woman of his congregation, a woman who happened also to be a Sunday School teacher and the wife of an admiring protégé of Beecher's. 

The offense itself is not so revealing as the spirit of callous exploitation with which it was carried out and the deceit and hypocrisy with which it was covered up. Beecher was warmly defended by the establishment of his day.  Most of the press declared his innocence and his parishioners raised $100,000 for his legal expenses, while those who brought the charges that we now know to be true were hounded.

The powers that be, then as now, rush to the rescue when their most valuable asset, their pretense of superior moral vision, is threatened. Henry's deceit in this episode was not merely a weakness displayed on one painful occasion. It was a way of life to a man whose fame and riches were built on a conveniently abstract, unscrupulously-aggressive, politically irresponsible moralizing. 

In his memoirs, for example, Henry lied about so simple a thing as a college debate. He recounted an occasion in which he had carried the house against a proposal for the colonization of blacks outside the United States.  In fact, he had not participated in the debate in question and the pro-colonization side had won.  Characteristically, he had falsely glorified his own role and distorted the historical record to make his antislavery stand date to a much earlier and more dangerous period than it actually did.

The story of the Beecher's is that of people who proclaimed themselves the champions of freedom and morality and demonized those who disagreed, while all the time keeping their hand in the till and their eye on the main chance.  The chief lesson we can learn is that there is something in the American fabric that guarantees that now and then such people will succeed outrageously.

Today's secular liberals will, of course, dismiss Henry Ward Beecher as simply a typical hypocritical Protestant moralist. Yet he was one of them. He was a leading liberal of his day, a crusader not for souls but for political and  social reform.  He was an establishment figure, not a small-town vigilante.  He spoke from a position of power and respectability from which he safely and irresponsibly rode to the outer limits every fad of his day.

Beecher is not the father of the Moral Majority; he is the father of the smug establishment figures who juggle morality and sybaritic life-styles in an everlasting shell game. 

That strange combination of Puritanism and democracy which wreaked so much havoc in the 19th century, having done its work and reached the natural limits of its expansion, began a retreat into narrower and less dangerous limits after the debacle of Reconstruction. Something very similar is perhaps happening now.  If so, we can hope once again for leaders for whom public life, as for Lee, is an arena for the exercise of private virtue rather than, as for the Beechers, a vehicle for the social mobilization of private greed and discontent." (1982)

(The Enemy Up Close, book review of The Beecher's, Milton Rugoff, 1981; Clyde N. Wilson, Defending Dixie, Essays in Southern History and Culture, FAE Press, 2006, excerpt, pp. 209-210)