The Lost Soul of the American Presidency by Stephen Knott

The past two years have been enjoyable times for reading political history.  Watching the news and keeping up with current events is another story.  I have enjoyed reading the following political books during this past two years:

Alfalfa Bill: A Life in Politics by Robert L. Dorman.  William Murray was a major political figure in Oklahoma history during the Twentieth Century, and for a time, he made it to the larger stage of American politics.  He vied for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1932, but was beaten by a man named Roosevelt.

A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by John F. Woolverton and James D. Bratt.  I really enjoyed this study of FDR’s religious faith.  He was a complicated figure, and FDR was impacted by God even though we might all find areas of glaring inconsistencies.

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Ms. Goodwin is a well known and popular biographer of political leaders.  In this study, she parallels the lives and crisis of four Presidents:  Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Fascinating and fun history, these men, like them or not, all had amazing stories leading up to and including their times in the White House

1917 Wilson, Lenin, and the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman.  This was a great book, but a disturbing one.  It left me disliking Woodrow Wilson more than ever.  I already disliked Lenin, but this just added fuel to that fire.

The True Flag:  Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire is by Stephen Kinzer.  This account of a literary figure and a political leader was quite good.  I love both men, but try to keep them at a distance.  The story here is not one that is flattering to Roosevelt.

Hamilton: An American Biography by Tony Williams.  Two things I remember about this book:  First, it is a good, brief survey and defense of Alexander Hamilton, the most controversial of our Founding Fathers.  Second, it was the beginning of a social media (Facebook) friendship with the author Tony Williams.  I now have all of his books.

In Defense of Andrew Jackson by Bradley Birzer.  Andrew Jackson has fallen on hard times in American society.  His presence on the $20 bill is soon to disappear, and he is routinely trounced by many.  But this book gives strong reasons why we should not be so quick to dismiss the man.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Company: Studies in Character and Statecraft by Lewis Lehrman.  This book is a interesting look at the personalities, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses of the two men responsible for leading the Allies during World War II:  Franklin Rooselvelt and Winston Churchill.  But it also describes those men, whose names are in every account of the two leaders, who worked alongside FDR and Churchill.

I wrote reviews on this blog for most of the books mentioned above.  Please search for those reviews if you want to know more.

My most recent read on Presidents and politics is also the best book I have read during the past two years on these matters.

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The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline Into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal by Stephen F. Knott is published by the University of Kansas Press.

This book surveys a number of Presidents from the past to the present.  This is not, however, a mere survey of Presidential lives or biographical sketches.  Dr. Knott strongly contends that the model was established by President Washington and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.  A restrained and yet vigorous executive was conceived by Hamilton, and explained largely through his contributions to The Federalist Papers, and was executed through Hamilton’s mentor and boss, President Washington.

In contrast to Washington and Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson pushed and prodded more toward a majoritarian style of leadership.  This entailed pandering to as well as discerning what the majority of the people wanted.  In part, this seems like part and parcel of what I tend to like about the early era of American politics. Wars rage between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians.  These battles enlist historians, political theorists, political scientists, and the American public.  Many people may not realize how often they are reciting a Hamilton mantra or a Jefferson mantra.  The main thrust of our time is toward Knott’s view of Jefferson’s vision.

The main concerns that Knott has is toward a style of leadership begun by Jefferson and then extended in the Presidency of Andrew Jackson and from there expanded even more by Twentieth Century Presidents Wilson, both Roosevelts, and finally President Trump.  In part, it is based on using the Presidency as a means of dealing with personal vendettas. Knott gives praise to some Presidents who normally get less acclaim on the grounds that they were more careful to stick to the most basic duties, the Constitution, and not public opinion.  Some of his choices here include John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, and Gerald Ford.

Part of the fun of this book is cheering and booing as Knott works his way through different styles of leadership.  His praise of Lincoln, while careful, was not satisfactory to me.  And I was really furious at his dealing with Andrew Johnson, but he marshalled enough evidence to make me cry “Uncle” at several points.  I will still credit Johnson with being on the right side of the battle against the Radical Republicans in Congress at the time with acknowledging that Johnson was not ever bit the racist Knott says he was.

The last part of the book focuses on more recent Presidents.  Patterns and expectations devolve upon the holders of that office.  More often than not, those patterns and expectations are derived from the examples of more popularity-based and programs-based Presidents.  All recent Presidents get a score card from their first 100 Days in office.  This goes back to when Franklin Roosevelt took office and he signed a flurry of legislative bills into law.  The time context–deep into the Great Depression–gave momentum to this activity.  But Presidents still get measured in comparison to that standard.

All Presidents have had enemies, and while the Nixon White House was condemned for its “enemies list,” such lists exist in every administration.  Some Presidents, those that Knott is most critical of, went after their personal enemies as well as those who opposed their programs.  President Jefferson famously and nobly said in his inaugural address, “We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans.”  (Remember that Republicans of that time is the party that became the Democrat party in later years.) Shortly after taking office, however, Jefferson privately conveyed his wish to destroy the Federalist Party.  Andrew Jackson was the most vindictive man to hold office.  He entered office convinced that John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay had wickedly delayed him four years in getting there.  In time, he became a bitter foe to John Calhoun and every person in Washington who snubbed Peggy Eaton.  Deep in his psyche, he was loathsome toward the British and the Bank of the United States.

In spite of his spite, Jackson did quite a bit of good, in my opinion, not Knott’s.  I confess to having sympathy with some of Jackson’s rage, having agreement with some of his policies, and having some of the same suspicions as he had.  I also confess to having some sympathy and support for the current President, Donald Trump.  But Knott’s concerns about President Trump’s style, language, work pattern, lack of knowledge of the job, and unpredictability really uncovered some of the same, but not articulated concerns I have.

I know that when the President is criticized in conservative and Republican circles, people respond with “But Hillary.”  Mrs. Clinton was not the only alternative people had in 2016, and I am not talking about the near comic line-up of third party candidates.  The actions that forced us to choose between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton were made in the cold snows of Iowa and New Hampshire and the myriad of primaries and caucuses along the way.  On that November election day in 2016, we were faced with two candidates who were prone to measure political actions by standards other than the Constitution, who were prone to vindictiveness toward enemies, who were quick to use harsh language describing those who disagreed, and who were bound to govern by appealing to their political bases far more than any moral compass.

The Lost Soul of the American Presidency is a history study.  But it is not just a collection of facts or interpretations over the past.  It is a call for some rethinking and debating about what we will do with this office in the future.  Is the soul of the Presidency lost?  Certainly, no one is going to win an election by promising to do less and less and to simply try to carry out the Constitutional mandates rather than election mandates.

The first step will be for us to read this book and others like it.  Agree with Stephen Knott’s assessments or disagree or both.  Political thought, which almost never occurs in the daily news accounts and discussions, will take us down the road to restoring civility and sanity to the process.  Books like this one give me some hope that all is not lost.

The Pastor of Kilsyth by Islay Burns

The Pastor of Kilywyth: The Life and Times of W. H. Burns by Islay Burns is published by The Banner of Truth, one of the best Christian publishers in our time.


I suspect that many well read Christian folks will see the title and author of this book and say, “Never heard of them.”  I was one such reader, having never heard of W. H. Burns, who pastored in Kilsyth (in Scotland) or of his son and biographer Islay Burns.  That is actually a reason for wanting and needing to read this book.  We can all fall for the very inaccurate idea that God has worked through Luther, Calvin, Knox, Edwards, and Kuyper in the past and is working through the big name pastors in the present, but the rest are merely filler for the Kingdom advances.

Having recently finished reading and reviewing A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry Matters in Forgotten Communities by Stephen Witmer, I have been thinking about the small, obscure, unknown, often undesired, and underrated areas of service in God’s Kingdom.  I confess to being in awe of the big names from past and present and astounded by the mighty works of Spurgeon, the Hodges, Kuyper, and others.  Rightly so, but that overlooks the many pastors, leaders, teachers, missionaries, and faithful Christians whose only written biographies are the dates on their tombstones.

There is another hindrance to this book:  Style.  First published in 1860, this book reads like all too many biographies of that time.  Many bore titles like “The Life and Letters of ****.”  The books are short on actual probing into the thoughts, struggles, and conflicts of the subjects, but are strong on their virtues, spiritual attainments, and often wordy letters and sermons.  This doesn’t appeal to the modern reader, nor does it dig much into the person being examined. Some might call it hagiography, which means writing of the lives of the saints.

This style does not suit modern scholarship.  It contains a lack of dimensions of the complexities of a person’s life.  It verges toward flowery and noble language.

But I commend these types of books.  The style may be a challenge for those of us who have been influenced directly and indirectly by the likes of Ernest Hemingway’s prose style, Freud’s psychoanalytical probing, and modernity’s quest to puncture every heroic figure from the past.  The biographers were never seeking to tell the untold secrets of their subjects.  They were writing biographies with pastoral intent.  Their Scriptural touchstone is Hebrews 11.

Cultivate a love of this style of writing.  Cultivate an appreciation of these types of biographies.  Cultivate a hunger for this type of spiritual nourishment.

I should add that the main motivation for me to embrace the book was the words on the dust jacket from Iain Murray:  “One of the best Scottish ministerial biographies.”  Add a second witness:  George Grant, a preferred author, preacher, teacher, who called The Pastor of Kilsyth one of the best book he read this year.

William Hamilton Burns (1779-1859) pastored in the Scottish community of Kilsyth for most of his working life. Islay Burns writes of his father: “He preached the Word; dispensed the sacred supper; warned the careless; comforted the sorrowing; baptized little children; blessed the union of young and loving hearts; visited the sick, the dying, buried the dead; pressed the hand, and whispered words of peace into the ear of mourners, carried to the poor widow and the friendless orphan the charity of the church and his own; slipped in softly in some happy home and gently broke the sad news of the sudden disaster far away; lifted up the fallen one from the ground, and pointed to Him who receiveth the publicans and the sinners….”

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This very aptly constitutes the main and most necessary labors of the typical pastor.  Even if he is also a renowned scholar, even if he is employed elsewhere during the week, even if he has numerous other labors and distractions, these things define ministry.

Scottish church history is still a puzzle to me at points.  I don’t always understand the church structures and polity, the conflicts and divisions, and the customs that were all familiar to the Scots of the past.  This does not prevent the reader from finding many points of similarity between Burns’s day and ours.  However, there is a degree of intensity that recurs in these accounts.  My own spiritual life seems really paltry, weak, and thin compared to what the people in that day and time thought, believed, and said.  Maybe there is an exaggeration in the writing style of that time.  But perhaps there is a greater minimization of Christian living in our time.

So, we need regular workouts with books like this.  It should not be dismissed as quaint history, but be viewed as a plan for our own spiritual exercises.  God’s Kingdom is made up of the obscure, the forgotten, the little known, but what a blessing when one such pastor gets better known some 150 plus years after his life.

And what was said of W. H. Burns be said of many of us: “He was a peculiarly attractive representative of a type of the Christian pastorate which is rapidly becoming obsolete–that is of the quiet, steady, ongoing, conscientiously diligent and calmly earnest country minister, at once the father, the counselor, and the friend of every man, woman, and child within his parochial bounds.”

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A Big Gospel in Small Places by Stephen Witmer

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Born and raised about six miles out from De Kalb, Texas, I have spent most all my days in small places.  De Kalb, back in those prosperous days, had a population of something over 2,000 in the city limits, but most folks lived out of town.  I did spend two years languishing in Little Rock while I attending college at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  During my first year of teaching, I went to Avery, Texas, which was even smaller than De Kalb.

It was while I was in Avery that I read a short novel titled I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven.  That novel tells the story of a dying young, inexperienced Anglican priest who is sent to a remote village in Canada to minister.  That story, with some obvious differences, beautifully resonated with me and my own experiences that year.  The priest in that story learns the culture, fears, habits, and struggling faith of the people he is called to minister to.

For the next sixteen years, I lived and worked in the rural community of Genoa, Arkansas.  I bought ten acres of land and built a log cabin on it.  That home is still the ideal in my heart and memory.  (I dream of getting that house back, but sadly wake up and remember that it burned a few years after I sold it.) Genoa School, where I taught history, was a rural school that still took a day off in November for Deer Day.

Since 2000, we have technically lived in the city limits of Texarkana, Arkansas.  We actually live on a five acre piece of land (call it a farm, if you are imaginative). There are people with cows and horses around us.  People fire guns at all times and no one notices.  We burn brush in our field and hope that the authorities don’t notice.

Since I left my parents’ home in 1976, I have been part of four different small churches.  All four of my past congregations would have fit into one of the larger churches in the area with plenty of seats left over.

The past couple of weeks, I have read Stephen Witmer’s book A Big Gospel in Small Places:  Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters.  This book is published by IVP.

Let me cut and paste the answer to your question: “Who is Stephen Witmer?  Here goes:  Stephen Witmer (PhD, University of Cambridge) is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship, Massachusetts, and is an adjunct professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is also the cofounder of Small Town Summits, an organization that serves rural churches and pastors.  Witmer is the author of Revelation: a 12-Week Study, Jonah: Depths of Grace, and Eternity Changes Everything. He has written for Bible Study Magazine, Reformation 21, The Gospel Coalition, and Desiring God. He lives in Pepperell, Massachusetts,  with his wife, Emma, and their three children.

As you can see from the bio, there are some real substantive reasons for me to dislike Stephen.  First, he is from, not just the North, but New England–Maine and now Massachusetts.  Second, he has an enviable resume and academic accomplishments.  Third, he is still young.

In spite of all that, I must confess to having really enjoyed this book.  I enjoyed it because it brought to light and reinforced a great need in the churches of our day.  Many young pastor-candidates should prayerfully and carefully read this book.

Granted, most people now live in the larger cities and suburbs of America.  Granted that the greater numbers of people, resources, activities, and ministry opportunities are in the larger cities.  The flyover parts of the country are large swaths of darkness from the window of the airplane as it gets beyond the east coast and heads west.

More can be said and noted about small town people.  Happiness for many a youth growing up in the confines of small town America is seeing that city limits sign in the rear view mirror (a reference to the Mac Davis song “Happiness was Lubbock, Texas in My Rearview Mirror”).  The city lures many away.  Most never return.  Some of those who stay don’t have very happy results.

There is a mythological small town America.  Some of us unthinkingly embraced it by thinking that Mayberry, North Carolina really existed.  For me, I embraced it wholeheartedly when watching “The Waltons” on television for years and then watching them again on DVD with my children.

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The Waltons went to church on Sundays, except for the dad.  They had meals together.  Every Thursday night they faced a life-threatening crisis, often tied to the Great Depression and the impending Second World War.  By the hour’s end, they had resolved the problem, finding the answers in faith, family, and traditional values.  As the show concluded, the family members called out “Good nights” to one another.

The problem is that small town America is not Walton’s Mountain from the television show.  While their lives were far from perfect, small town and country people with values rooted in the heartland are warped, struggling, failing sinners.  Some of the sin problems that are endemic in the cities of America are just as bad or worse in small communities.  Farm living and nice friendly neighborhoods do not impart grace.  (To what extent they may restrain sin depends on other factors.)

Most small community pastors are going to live and die in obscurity.  They are going to minister to a small bunch of stumbling and sometimes crazy folks.  They are not going to get rich, build a huge church, or establish a number of viable Christian institutions.  They may not even succeed as pastors (whatever that may mean).

There are enough warnings and exhortations in this book to scare many away who need to be scared away. They are given not as horror stories or “Do Not Enter” signs, but as check lists.  One should never enter the pastorate with unrealistic rosy expectations.  Optimism yes;  extreme idealism, no.

Pastors, students aiming at ministry, and church planters:  Read this book prayerfully and along with others with whom you can discuss it.

But what about the rest of us?  I mean those of us who are not pastors, not aiming to be church leaders, and not residing along the backwoods highways and byways of America?

This book still has lots to say.  First of all, we need to know about the greater challenges facing American Christians.  Millions of people live outside the major population centers.  They are not all “Good Country People” (to borrow from the title of Flannery O’Connor’s ironic story).  Second, the oft repeated idea that the faith was originally and strategically planted in the major cities of the Roman Empire is misleading.  There might be better reasons for planting churches in Dallas, Texas and Little Rock, Arkansas than Old Washington, Arkansas, but any idea that capturing the cities first is THE Biblical strategy is strongly refuted in this book.  Third, many of us live in areas that are not exactly rural or small town, but not exactly at the center of culture and modernity.  My city of Texarkana is a small city.  I live on five acres of land on the edge of the city limits.  I go to a small church.  Most churches are small churches.  Some of the best ones are very small.  So, the book applies here as well.

God’s blessings on this book and author.

A Big Gospel in Small Places