Summer 2021’s History Readings

Summer 2021 was supposed to be the best ever. I would be temporarily reprieved from my minor teaching jobs. I had been working out since the Fall of 2020 and was in the best physical shape ever. I have a son in North Carolina who would give me an excuse for getting close to the Outer Banks. I was mentally thinking myself stronger, fitter, and in better mental condition than ever.

Then reality hit. Following a great routine checkup, I willingly got around to getting an unpleasant colonoscopy. Survived the pre-procedure purging and slept soundly through the procedure itself. I got the not so troubling news that I had a large, but benign polyp in my colon that would require surgery. But what better place to recover from a surgery than the sand and surf?

Then everything else unplanned by me (although not outside of God’s wise decrees) happened. A couple of days in the hospital turned to being nearly a month. A minor surgery turned into two surgeries. A quick recovery turned into days in ICU, several on a ventilator, a plethora of tubes pouring meds into my body, and a team of doctors trying to figure how to keep my blood pressure from dropping too much while medicating my now broken body. Being more full of life than ever in the spring, I almost died before summer came. Thankfully, I could not grasp how sick I was.

That tan from the Southern sun was replaced by a nice set of incisions. My workout schedule was replaced by physical therapists working to get me up on my feet, brushing my teeth while standing, and using a walker to get down the hall. (Thanks to Samantha Tefteller and Jim Spain for their life-restoring work on my broken body.) My increasingly Emersonian self-reliance was replaced by calling for help to get attend get to the bathroom.

God was working to break down and build up my body, but even more so, He was reminding me of my total need for Him and His grace. My faith plunged lower than my blood pressure. God sustained me.

Such are my confessions of both failure and progress for the summer. But since this blog is primarily about books, to that I will attend. I am quite thankful for getting to enjoy quite a few history reads over the summer. I have already posted reviews on many of these books and will be posting reviews on a few others, but I will recap some of the experiences.

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History Readings During the Summer of 2021

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The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Eric Larson

This was the first book I got seriously into reading after my surgery. Went for a week or three without reading anything. But this book was just right for the occasion. I love histories of World War II, biographical accounts featuring Winston Churchill, and the story of the Blitz.

I honestly didn’t think Britain was going to survive while reading this book. Incredibly difficult times. Erik Larson’s style is such that I would like to read more of his books.

Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier by Daniel Drury and Tom Clavin

When I first got this book, I questioned the wisdom of it. It was sent to me as a review book, so I was not out any money, but would I actually be interested in taking the time to read it?

Boy, was I surprised. This turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, adventurous, and educational history books I had read in a long time. I loved Daniel Boone as a kid (back when he was played on television by Fess Parker), but on reading this book, I discovered that I love Daniel Boone as an adult.

Calhoun : American Heretic by Robert Elder (2021, Hardcover)

Calhoun: American Heretic by Robert Elder

I have mixed views about this book. On the one hand, it filled in enormous gaps in my mind concerning the life and political battles that John C. Calhoun was involved in. I have long known a few bits and pieces about his life and have often taught students about the great triumvirate of Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay. Yet I had not read a biography of the man.

The reservation about this book is evident from the title. Elder brands him a heretic to the American system. Calhoun’s colleagues and many statesmen in the years that followed certainly didn’t see him that way. And many who have praised and respected him did not agree with him. Calhoun as a political thinker was lost in this book. There was way too much catering with efforts to win popularity with the current trends in Calhoun-hating America.

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God’s Cold Warrior The Life and Faith of: John Foster Dulles by John D. Wilsey

This book is the latest contribution in a series about religious, political, and literary people that focuses on how their faith (or lack thereof) directed their lives. I have quite a few of the selections from this series and wish I had them all. Published by Eerdmans, this series is called the Library of Religious Biography.

In past book reviews, I reviewed the really interesting biography that D. G. Hart did of H. L. Mencken, an interesting man of great literary skill but with hostility toward Christianity. About a year ago, I reviewed the volume on Franklin D. Roosevelt, which I found totally fascinating.

This book, however, was quite disappointing. Part of the problem was the subject–John Foster Dulles. Dulles grew up in a Presbyterian household that included church going and Bible reading. His father was a pastor. But the Dulles family fell on the wrong side of the great Presbyterian war of the early 20th Century between theological liberals and conservatives, with a huge batch of moderates in between. If only Dulles had read J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism and embraced the message.

Much of the book covers pleasantly interesting details about Dulles’ enjoyment of the outdoors, his vacations to the island he came to own, and his family dynamics. He was an imperfect man, of course, but was a good husband and father. And he was a serious scholar and public servant who mastered the field of foreign affairs. Dwight Eisenhower appointed Dulles as Secretary of State. Until his untimely death, he served in that capacity and came to be known for a policy called “Brinkmanship.”

The best known part of Dulles’s life was his time in the Eisenhower Administration. His religious views, while lacking orthodox gravity, did provide a moral foundation from which to oppose Communism in general and the Soviet Union and other aggressive Communist states in particular.

This is what is most interesting to me about Dulles. But this short biography only devoted a small portion of the last chapter or two to this part of Dulles’s life. I would have preferred fewer camping stories and more foreign policy crises. I would have benefited from more Cold War coverage, even if that had doubled the size of the book.

Consolation prize for this unfavorable review: This $22 book is being sold for $5.63 on Amazon. That is for a new copy. It is well worth getting for that bargain price.

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The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, The Battle of Tours, and the Birth of Europe by Ed West

This book is a cheaply priced, short paperback. It is a narrative history pieced together with lots of secondary sources and little or no scholarly depth or originality.

However, this book is a fun and useful read. It is written in the way that history teachers, primarily in the junior high and high school settings, should teach. This history is story. It is enjoyable and informative. I figure the information could be gleaned from Wikipedia or an encyclopedia, but it would not be told in such a delightful way.

The author, who is British, has written several other volumes, primarily on British history. The breezy style, with a few quirky asides, would bar this book from most college reading lists. But for a high schooler, this would be a fine read.

George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father by David O. Stewart

I liked this book enough to go and purchase several other books by David Stewart. I have read quite a few books where Washington was either the subject or a subject. But this one filled in a niche that I didn’t even recognize clearly.

I had usually assumed that Washington had some unique military skills, which mainly hinged on survival techniques rather than winning battles. I knew that he had served in various political assemblies, albeit as a quiet rather than an oratorical force. What I had not realized is that he was a first class political operator. That may sound a bit crass or self-serving, but you can’t be a statesman if you are not in office and are not getting your agenda accomplished.

Washington’s political skills were honed on his early political and military experiences in Virginia. During the War for Independence, he was as much a politician as he was a general. He would not have survived otherwise. When he became President, he battled some severely debilitating health issues and threatening political ones. He survived. He did more than that: He triumphed.

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Fort Laramie and the Pageant of the West, 1834-1890 by LeRoy R. Hafen and Francis Marion Young

Steven Carr graciously sent me this book to help me during my recovery. I have tried to minimize my readings on Western history in America. The reason is that I like too many topics already and I know that I would get consumed with the the American West. I have, despite my best efforts, ended up reading at least a couple of books every year that focus on the frontier. This book and the Daniel Boone book are two of the more recent ventures.

The fun part of this book is that while it is not directly a primary history source (as opposed to secondary sources), it is very close. The feel of the book’s narrative is refreshing because it is not encumbered by some of the style, prejudices, and academic concerns of today.

Fort Laramie was right in the center of much that happened in the settling of the Old West, and that story is amply told here.

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The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity by Stephen Davies

This book, like another listed later on, was assigned to a reading group, hosted by Michael Douma. I was able to join the group for part of the discussion via Zoom, but I was in the hospital at the time. And I wisely kept my mouth shut.

This book is a really fine analysis of the events, people, ideas, and inventions that created the modern world. It was not an easy read, but it was one that had me wanting to start the book over once I finished it. Time has not allowed me to do that. This is a great read for a college level study on the Modern World.

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President Without a Party: The Life of John Tyler by Christopher Leahy

This is a much needed fine biography of a President who none would list as one of the greats, but who should be noted as good to very good. While we had no raging wars or domestic cataclysms during his nearly four years in office, the political tensions were high.

Tyler had few allies, many challenges, and limited success in his administration. But he had some solid character and unbending convictions. He was a man of his times, bearing the faults of his times, but he was the kind of man we need more of in politics.

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Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History by John Dickson

Although the chatty personal style that pops up in this book was irritating, I still liked the book. Although the author makes a few wrong judgments (in my opinion) about who are the bullies and who are the saints, I still liked the book. Although the last few chapters really went astray of the purpose of the book, I still liked it.

I was informed, entertained, convicted, and made curious. In fact, I think I bought around five books that I first learned of while reading this one.

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Operation Pedestal: The Fleet That Battled to Malta, 1942 by Max Hastings

A review is still forthcoming on this outstanding World War II study. Hastings is in the top echelon of military historians. I have a large number of his books and am intent on reading them all.

This story is incredible. I am convinced that the little island of Malta was crucial to the long term victory of the Allies. But its survival was a hit and miss operation. The large fleet that battled its way to the island to bring much needed supplies is a really gripping story of untold bravery, good and bad leadership, and the fortunes and horrors of war.

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The Revolution of Peter the Great by James Cracraft

At one time in my life, I considered going to graduate school and focusing on Russian history. A college class on Russian history, followed up by a trip to the Soviet Union in 1978 spurred that interest for a season or two. But I knew my interests were more firmly in American history and the opportunities for either pursuing the higher education and employment were limited. So, I opted to drive a school bus for a decade or more.

I still venture into Russian history every now and then. This rather brief word, recommended by Amanda Wood Aucoin, proved to be a really fine read. The subject is broad and the object is not a biography of Czar Peter. Rather, it focuses on how his rule and influence changed the culture and landscape of Russia.

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The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium by John Strickland

With the need to read more on early Church History because of a class I am now teaching, I picked this book back up and started reading it with increasing intensity. The author and perspective is Orthodox, so parts of it were not agreeable or were simply informative. Overall, this is a good survey with lots of application for us as we seek to reclaim Christendom.

And for the life of me, I still cannot grasp all of what went on in the controversy over the Filioque clause.

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Revolutionary Prophecies: The Founders and America’s Future, edited by Robert M. S. McDonald and Peter S. Onuf

I read this collection of scholarly essays for a study group hosted by Michael Douma. Then I missed the Zoom meeting of the study group. I found the essays quite challenging. These topics are in the category of heavy lifting that serious history students need to read, but I am forever asking how the information could be translated into junior highese.

The contents are a continual reminder of the issues and concerns that are usually left out in basic discussions on the Founding Era.

Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II by Sean McMeekin

I reckon that Stalin’s War will be the last history read for the summer of 2021. Fall will actually have begun before I finish this book. This book is heavy, long, and incredibly detailed. And I am loving it.

I have never recovered from a deep love of studying World War II, nor do I wish to. I must confess, as I did above, that the sheer immensity and horror of the war makes me wonder if it all could have happened. Add to that the evil of men like Stalin and Lavrenty Beria, both of whom rival Hitler and the Nazis in their evil actions.

More important is the way that this book recasts many of the issues related to the war. Stalin did not mastermind the war, but he certainly was far from being a mere victim of Nazi aggression.

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John Tyler–President Without a Party

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President Without a Party : The Life of John Tyler by Christopher J. Leahy is published by Louisiana State University Press.

Presidents are often remembered by only a few words or sentences. Some of the bigger names, such as Washington and Lincoln, may get more notice, but for quite a few of the 46 title holders, most are scarcely remembered or connected to just an event or two.

John Tyler is often listed among the lesser known, less respected, and less honorable men who have held the office. At best, he is known for being the first Vice President to step up to the higher office due to the death of the President. Since Tyler’s day, that has happened 8 times. It is now a given. The Vice President is pegged as being a heart-beat away from the Presidency. The choice of a VP hinges, supposedly, on that person’s fitness to step in at a moments notice.

But the process began with John Tyler. He was not one of the major political figures of his day when he was chosen by the Whip Party to be the Vice Presidential candidate alongside of General Harrison, but he was an experienced politician, a Senator, and a former Democrat who had fallen away from the party over differences with the boogyman of the time, Andrew Jackson.

There were concerns over Harrison because he was entering office at age 68! (Thanks to the plethora of modern medical miracles, we have now had 3 different Presidents and many candidates who were well into their 70s.) The unexpected and sudden illness and death of President Harrison so soon (one month) after taking office was unexpected.

Very simple solution for what to do next: The Constitution says “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President….”

Everyone now knows what that means, but when Vice President Tyler stepped into the job, howls and cries went up about it. For it was here where Tyler took a principled and determined stand against a body of detractors. After all, it was going to be 3 years and 11 months before a duly elected President would take office.

Tyler insisted that he was the President. He was not a substitute, a fill-in, or a “sort-of, but not really” Chief Executive. And he insisted on using the title President. In fact, he often ignored mail or comments that were directed to him that avoided the term.

Much of the problem hinged on the fact that Tyler unhinged the Whig agenda, which was largely the vision of a failed Presidential hopeful, Henry Clay. Tyler was not really a Whig. He was not an advocate of the party. He was still very much a conservative, old-line Virginia Democrat. There are people around today who are in the two major political parties, but not of them. Senator Mitt Romney doesn’t really fit in with most of the Republican Party today, and Senator Joe Manchin isn’t in line with his more liberal Democrat colleagues. Senator Bernie Sanders is an interesting case because he has twice run for the Democrat nomination and he caucuses with the Democrats, but he is, by party identification, a Socialist.

A two party system will have quite a few odd fits. And I favor it over a multi-party system, but that is another story. But rarely does one of the odd fits get to the White House. (Donald Trump is one of the exceptions.)

The problem with Tyler was that he never embraced any such notion as “to get along, go along” (attributed, I think, to Sam Rayburn). He had his own views, most of which were quite firm and fixed. And he had no intention of being a rubber stamp. John Tyler, having been raised by a man of strict Jeffersonian principles, was a man of strong, usually unbending character.

Two problems, and no doubt more, hindered his success as a leader. First, he was often, as the book points out, slow and indecisive. The time between his taking a position and acting on it was often long and confusing. Second, and this was the biggest problem and the theme of the book, was the fact that Tyler had no firm political base.

The Democrat Party was still the party of Andrew Jackson, who was still living at the time. The Whig Party had several luminaries in it such as Speaker of the House Henry Clay and Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Clay and Tyler entered into a no-holds barred, no disqualifications, nearly four year long cage match. The fact that Tyler was able to thwart the very skillful Clay quite often was no little feat.

Daniel Webster earned some of the well deserved praise that he is often accorded because of his actions during the Tyler administration. Most of Harrison’s cabinet flew the coop. Tyler was viewed as a sinking ship, a political albatross. More than that, Tyler was not going to have a cabinet-run administration. Webster stayed. Webster was loyal without being a sycophant. In time, he disagreed with Tyler over the Texas issue and found occasion to step down, but that was long after Tyler was able to stand his ground on being the President.

One thing that amazed me from this book was the details showing how extremely difficult that job of being President was. There was no war. It was not the modern age. The bigger issues of the ante-bellum United States were bubbling, but not boiling. Yet, Tyler had to work and work hard. He labored to build coalitions, cultivate allies, block opponents, dodge bullets, oversee foreign affairs, and balance a number of spinning economic plates.

Along with the political struggles the book covers, there is the personal life of Tyler. He was a gifted and aspiring politician who served in a number of offices, but not the man we would have voted as “most likely to succeed,” at the time. He was a plantation owning southern farmer with all of the baggage, meaning debt and slavery, associated with those times. He was a too often absent father and husband, who dearly loved the family that was often left without his presence due to his political obligation.

One of the great sorrows of his life was the death of his first wife, which occurred during his time in the White House. One of the most interesting, even amusing, parts of his life was his pursuing and marrying a woman who was less than half his age. The second Mrs. Tyler, a real beauty and a catch, bore him a number of children. (He had quite a few from his first marriage as well.) It is laughable to think of the prim and proper Tyler chasing his young sweetheart around the room during their courtship. Everything about the subsequent marriage indicates that this couple was truly in love until the death of John Tyler did them part.

Tyler really wanted to get the opportunity to run on his own for office and serve another term. The Whigs had repudiated him, and the Democrats were not willing to embrace him again. He toyed with the idea of a coalition of Democrats and others who thought like he did, but the movement never coalesced. After he went back to Virginia, he still nurtured hopes for a political comeback and still weighed in on political issues. His last political service was a short-lived stint as a member of the Confederate Congress. His death prevented him from doing further services for the Confederate States.

One final note: I am a Texas by birth, so I have strong reasons for liking the President who used a variety of political means to see to it that the United States was able to join itself to Texas.

This is a long-overdue and great biography of a man who might not be relegated to the list of great leaders, but who should be granted the status of good to very good.

The Age of Paradise: Christendom–the First Thousand Years

The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium - VOLUME ONE Paradise and Utopia: The Rise and Fall of What the West Once Was by John Strickland

The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium by John Strickland is published by Ancient Faith Publishing. It is part one of a three part history that Dr. Strickland is writing. The second volume, Paradise and Utopia: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation is also available. Both can purchased HERE at a discount!

Necessity trumps need. I needed to read this book a year ago. In fact, I did read the opening portion and was most impressed by it. But I suffer from Book-Stacks-itis. The common name is “Too Many Books.” So, The Age of Paradise had to wait patiently on the shelves for a more convenient time.

Then came the necessity. I am beginning a class for some home schooling students on the Early Church and Medieval Period of history. I have a perilous stack of required readings for myself and the students, but I have an even more perilous stack of helpful and interesting extra readings for myself. At the top of that list was this book.

This is a serious detailed study of Church History during the first thousand years of the Faith. Note well that the author is an Orthodox priest, so his perspective is Christian, as opposed to non-Christian or modernistic nihilistic, and Orthodox, as opposed to Protestant or Catholic.

I am all for intramural battles amongst Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox followers of Christ. There is much to debate and many gut punches to deliver, as well as strong right and left hooks. God grant that our spiritual and academic sparring will result in sanctified iron sharpening iron.

There is also the place for Christians in all traditions to sit down, shut up, and learn from those who differ from us. Most of our more Western Church Histories exclude or minimize Eastern Orthodoxy. Philip Jenkins’s remarkable book The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died is a remarkable supplement to our deficits.

John Strickland’s series is another fine supplement. This was a very intellectually and spiritually challenging work. While there were familiar stories in it for any of us who have read church history, there are angles and details that I had never heard before. Plus, Strickland has a strong focus on the ways in which Christianity was a culture building movement. It–the Faith–was not just saving souls, but was turning the world and life view of the times upside down and inside out.

Below are a few (and many more could be added) that show some of the delights of this book:

“The conversion of the world was a process that engaged the world in its entirety. Culture was part of the world, and it was called to bear the saving faith wherever the Church planted herself. Culture was therefore as much a means of evangelization as an object of it. “

“The world Christendom revealed to pagans was beautiful, and few there were who did not want to become part of it.”

“Unlike Christian lawmakers in a nihilistic modern Christendom, the Emperor Justinian was not shy about legislating morality. “

“The most powerful liturgical action there was the placing of ‘crowns of martyrdom ‘ on their heads, symbolizing the sacrificial love their marriage requires. ”

Another aspect of this book is its discussion of the different theological emphases of the East and the West. Here in the West, Augustine is the Big A-Man. His thinking has a strong dominance in both Protestant and Catholic groups. But Strickland, in the Orthodox tradition, discounts Augustine’s theology as being pessimistic. We would expand that pessimism to Luther, Calvin, and the rest of our (speaking to my Reformed chums) heroes. The emphasis on the Fall, sin, the cross, and Jesus dying for us is the Gospel. The Eastern emphasis is more on the Resurrection and the effects of salvation. I confess to cringing every time I read the word “deification” as applied to us and our salvation. I was reminded of one of many reasons why I am not Orthodox. (Other reasons include not being able to grow a long enough beard and not wanting to be even more out of step with other plain folks here in the Bible Belt South.)

It’s easy enough to find wording used and terms omitted in Orthodox theology to make a hasty conclusion that “these folks ain’t Christians.” Do I believe that there are people in the Orthodox Church who are not believers? Yes, and I would have great concerns over the claim that Vladimir Putin is a devoutly Orthodox Christian (with further doubts about the Presbyterianism of Donald Trump and the devout Catholicism of President Biden). I believe that the most solidly Reformed, Bible-centered, Evangelical group in the U.S.A. (which I have yet to find) would and could have unbelievers in the midst.

There is a place for seriously listening to the Orthodox discussion of doctrine set within a historical narrative and considering. So, along with wincing, I discovered the need to do some learning.

A final aspect of the book is fifth and sixth chapters that deal with some rough and tumble theological battles between the East and West and between Constantinople and Rome. The filoque controversy left me dizzy and light-headed. This was not a “let’s talk over coffee” discourse between a couple of pastors. “Them’s fighten’ words” was the pattern, or perhaps it was the pattern for those who omitted the fighting words.

Related to this was some pure ugly in regard to the Papacy and Papal Succession. Admittedly, this is Calvinist fodder, especially when we are thinking ahead to that great yearly celebration of Reformation Day. Trying to be charitable, I would have a hard time adhering to Catholicism after relearning some of the awful things done to and by those who were or aspired to be the Vicar of Christ.

History is almost always ugly up close. All traditions have those who bore the name of Christ-follower, but who did terrible things–in that very name.

But for the Christian, history is never concluded with the up close and ugly. The picture is far above us and far more all encompassing than our glimpses into a few chapters of a book. Christian culture, the Age of Paradise, the Kingdom of Heaven all advances in spite of the counter-moves or the opposition from without.

This is a book about victories. As Herbert Schlossberg emphasized in Idols for Destruction, Christianity is a series of victories, disguised as defeats.

This book is a fine read for the person who loves history and is a believer. It is a great resource for the history teacher and a useful book for the theologian/pastor. I really liked this volume and look forward to reading the next one.