American Christianity suffered from clergy scandals long before the televangelist disgraces of the 1980s. The most popular pastor of his time, Henry Ward Beecher, created “the scandal of the century” in 1870, and to this day no one knows the full story.

Beecher, pastor of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, was a witty, dynamic, larger-than-life political activist, promoting heartfelt causes like racial equality and woman suffrage. Though theologically liberal, he became the best known preacher in America.

But his speaking engagements and church duties kept him away from home, and he grew distant from his wife, Eunice. Beecher was an imposing man with broad shoulders, flowing hair, and grayish-blue eyes full of expression. He exuded vitality and charm, especially with women. Rumors began surfacing about his involvements, and when Elizabeth Tilton came into his life the rumors rose to the surface like gaseous bubbles.

“Libby’s” husband, journalist Theodore Tilton, traveled widely, and she was lonely. She approached Beecher for counseling and soon became his closest confidante. In 1870 Libby confessed that she and Beecher had become intimate. Beecher denied all but kissing Libby and giving her emotional support, and the situation simmered for years.

It burst on the public on January 11, 1875, when Tilton sued Beecher for alienating his wife’s affections. Eunice stood by her husband, but she aged instantly, her hair turning white. The trial dragged on, becoming the talk of the nation. In the end the jury was deadlocked. While Beecher’s supporters gave him the benefit of the doubt, the New York Times spoke for most when it editorialized on July 3, 1875: “Sensible men throughout the country will in their hearts be compelled to acknowledge that Mr. Beecher’s management of his private affairs has been entirely unworthy of his name, position, and sacred calling.”

Beecher himself admitted as much to attorneys who once apologized for disturbing him on Sunday. “We have it on good authority,” he said, “that it is lawful to pull an ass out of the pit on the Sabbath. Well, there never was a bigger ass, or a deeper pit.”

Anyone who desires to be a church official wants to be something worthwhile. That’s why officials must have a good reputation and be faithful in marriage. They must be self-controlled, sensible, well-behaved, friendly to strangers, and able to teach. (1 Timothy 3:1-2)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Jan. 11.

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