The Best Public Speaker in America

By on August 28, 2006

He was the son of a fire and brimstone New England preacher, the brother of the writer of one of our greatest Southern novels, a friend to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mark Twain, and the defendant in one of the biggest sex scandals in American history.

The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate is a recent biography of Henry Ward Beecher, and it is a fabulous book.

His father was Lyman Beecher, one of the great Puritan ministers of the early 19th century. His sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And Henry was the minister of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn.His contemporaries attempted to describe his magic: “He knocked down the stifling solemnity endemic to churches in that era, with a cheerful irreverence that sent shock waves through America. He was like no minister anyone had ever seen. He was bold and funny, a natural actor who made his ideas come alive.”

“He spoke plainly and with an air of candid personal confession that made him seem at once endearingly sensitive, admirably virile, and completely trustworthy.”

“He was always natural, always himself, always giving forth his own interior condition, honestly and frankly. His sermons were filled with funny, poignant stories about his personal fortunes and foibles, inviting everyone to identify with him.”

“He was almost shockingly casual in the pulpit. If a name or date slipped his mind, he asked one of the people near him.”

“He was theatrical, using his whole body to communicate the whole range of human emotion, with dramatic gestures and subtle facial expressions. Audiences were startled by his imitation of a sailor taking a pinch of chewing tobacco and wiping his hands on his pants, of a fisherman casting, or a young girl flirting.”

“He wrote his sermons at the last minute on Sunday morning. ‘Some men like their bread cold,’ he said. “I like mine hot.’

“Abraham Lincoln emancipated men’s bodies; Henry Ward Beecher emancipated their minds. He was phenomenal in his ability to make people love him.”

People often said that if you read the texts of his speeches and sermons they didn’t seem all that special. But when you went to hear him speak, something magical happened between, beneath, and around the words.

Is this what we mean when we use the phrase presentation skills?  I think so.  Expertise and logic are necessary, but not sufficient.  Henry had charisma.

Can we get some of that?



Sims Wyeth is a speech coach in Montclair, NJ specializing in presentation skills and public speaking training in order to give accomplished people the knowledge and skill they need to become accomplished speakers. Learn more public speaking tips at


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