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.

Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at Christian History

Want a good way to build up your faith? Read church history. Want a good way to create doubts and depression? Read church history.

Our only hope is in God. Great men are great sinners. Great movements contain fissures and cracks and fault lines that threaten to topple the whole edifice. Good documents can lead to bad applications. The best of motives can turn events upside down and inside out. The only hope is in God.

God works through history. But our salvation is not provable or stabilized by history. There are enough lovely events, selfless people, and acts of grace to fill volumes, but under the same banner, touting the same doctrines, and proclaiming the same Christ, one can find filth, dung, and vileness.

The application is simple: Imitate the good and eschew the bad. How can you know which is which?

Read Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History by John Dickson. This book is published by Zondervan and is available both in hardback format and in a digital format.

Bullies and Saints is a history written for the non-academic reader. This would not be the main book to pick for a college or seminary course. For such as that, one would want to consult works such as Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity or some of the older works, such as that of Williston Walker. Also, this book is not comprehensive. It is episodic.

Instead of being a comprehensive history of the Church, this book is written as an enjoyable stroll through the story of the Faith. Of course, being that the book is highlighting some of the colossal failures of Christianity, some of the ‘enjoyment’ is not pleasant. See my opening paragraphs.

Most of the cast of characters and events are those we would expect. High on the list of dark days for the Faith are those people and events related to the Crusades. Somewhat out of chronological order, the Crusades were where this book begins the story. I must confess that these opening chapters of the book were less than satisfying. I know that there was much done from the calling through the execution of the Crusades that was a travesty of Christian theology and practice. Even if viewed as political actions, the Crusades were failures. And on a military scale, in spite of some victories, these wars of Christians against Muslims were not great successes for the European powers.

My disappointment was in Dickson’s failure to reference or make use of Rodney Stark’s revisionist studies of the Crusades. And Stark is not alone. One thing that these more recent studies have affirmed is that Christians were not just bullies in terms of treatment of Muslims, but were the bullied. There were plenty of efforts of Muslim forces over the centuries to expand their empires and beliefs beyond the modern day Middle East and into mainland Europe. “They did it too” does not justify atrocities, but the conflicts between Islamic nations and Christendom (past and present) have been a long-term and recurring feature of history.

The early years of Christianity provide some of the most thrilling portions of the story. In short, in historical accounts, martyrdom is beautiful. The zeal, the willingness to die, and the efforts to defend apologetically the Faith provide some of the best chapters of the Christian story. This lends aid to the idea that the Faith is best when it is the minority position that lacks the power or even the tolerance of the State.

The Christianization of the Roman Empire, beginning with Constantine and going on through later Emperors, is often viewed negatively–for good reasons. Christendom is a difficult story to work through. Too often the modern age, with its secular, nihilistic biases, condemn every breath that any Christian ever took. But there were always bullies and saints, and sometimes the saints were able to do what they did because the bullies bullied their opponents.

One of the best portions of this book is the chapter that deals with the Inquisition. Again, there is no whitewashing of the Inquisition, but that term is bandied about as though every tenth person in Europe was stretched out on a rack by the Church Gestapo. The numbers and extent of the Inquisition have been greatly exaggerated and overblown. This is not weird history being touted as the views you never heard from your teachers. If Dickson did one thing right, it was digging through the best scholarship around.

Speaking of Dickson’s own scholarship and use of sources, I ordered possibly as many as five books based on his references and use of them in this book. There are five to ten more that I would like to order. There are quite a few that, thankfully, I already own. These are mainly secondary sources. I say that because hundreds of footnotes are referencing primary source materials.

I applauded and even gave standing ovations to portions of Bullies and Saints. At other times, I withheld judgment (usually with a frown), while I shook my head in disagreement over some portions. That is fine. That is good. That is what reading history is all about.

From acts of charity and mission works to misuses of doctrine and power, there are numerous events in this book that can be lifted and applied to current situations. I don’t think history supplies “the answer” to how we should deal with a secular state, declining morals, persecution of the Faith, and Christians in politics. I think history gives perspectives, and I think the more perspectives one has, the better the judgments that we can make.

On the Reading of Saint Augustine

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Augustine is often listed among the four great teachers of the Early Church. R. C. Sproul counted Augustine in his top five theologians list. He is quoted often, read sometimes, referenced frequently, and highly esteemed in Christian circles. Augustine is a common denominator theologian for both Catholics and Protestants. Admittedly, they like him for different reasons. Augustine is a big favorite among Reformed folk because of his advocacy and expositions regarding predestination and election. Calvin and Luther were both fan boys. The Augustinian Order in Medieval Catholicism contained quite a few adherents to the man and to his theology.

My prior experience dealing with Augustine has been mainly through studies in Church History. Any study of church history will deal with Augustine and his writings. As is common among many college educated people of our time, I was never required or encouraged or coerced into reading Augustine in undergraduate school or graduate school. Despite his pivotal role in being a part of history and defining a school of history, I don’t think any professor of mine mentioned him, except for Henry Wood. Mr. Wood began his classes with a couple of lectures on views of history, which reached its pinnacle in his discussion of Augustine’s City of God.

None of my education courses referenced Augustine even though he wrote a valuable treatise on education. I learned nothing of him in literature classes even though he largely created the genre of autobiography. I did not read him in any graduate course, nor did I have occasion to teach much about him in my public school experience.

Then came Classical Christian Education. Several years into the program, I had a class of 5 girls. We were studying Medieval history and literature. I assigned The City of God. We struggled and persevered all the way through it. I later used On Christian Teaching (also titled On Christian Doctrine) with my teachers one year and at least once in a rhetoric class.

I used portions of Augustine’s Confessions, This coming year, I will be using and teaching Confessions to a junior high Omnibus class. Along with that, I will add that I probably own 2 dozen or more biographies and studies regarding Augustine, and I have quite a few editions of his works, including those from the Church Fathers series.

That being said, I still aspire to merely enrolling as a student of the man, rather than thinking that I am accomplished. Given the miles on life’s odometer and given my interest in 127 other people and areas of study, I don’t expect to reach the highest peaks of understanding. But I do delight in the thought of learning more.

New City Press ( has undertaken nothing less than effecting a whole renaissance of Augustine’s writings and influence. Multiple volumes, available in hardback, paperback, and probably e-book editions, are available now in new translations. The set is a bit costly. If I were a beginning scholar or pastor, I would be angling for both the books and the shelf space to house them. As it is, I am happy to own just a couple of volumes–one in paperback and one in hardback.

Augustine Set 44 volumes

One of my recent readings was Homilies on the First Epistle of John. Having a long-time love affair with 1 John and needing to read Augustine, this was a good matchup. At 173 pages, the book is very readable and accessible for those who might be unable to tackle City of God right now.

I want to give several comments and observations on how to read and use this study.

  1. This is not a commentary on 1 John. If I were preaching through John’s letter, I would read this book first for a general sense, and then I would use it for supplemental help along the way. Augustine does exegete passages, but he is not doing so systematically.
  2. Augustine is dealing with issues connected to his hearers. One of the main concerns was the Donatists. The New City Press editions have some footnotes to explain certain references that are unfamiliar to most of us.
  3. Augustine is all over the Bible! Even though he is preaching through 1 John, he is quoting and applying a number of Bible verses. You don’t read an Augustine sermon without getting a boatload of Scripture passages.
  4. Augustine seems to ramble. Many of us who have preached sermons know this fault. If you are looking for a clear outline, don’t look here. There is a certain free flowing, stream-of-consciousness-like technique to Augustine. It would be interesting to know what his “notes, or outline, or manuscript” looked like. One suspects that he had very little material that he carried “into the pulpit.” It is very much Augustine Unplugged in concert here.
  5. Augustine drives his points home, repeats his themes, and loads his sermons with applications. He may be known in our time as a theologian, philosopher, and deep thinker, but he was not giving academic lectures. He was seeking to move the hearts of his listeners.

Sad to report, this series of messages ends abruptly and incompletely just as he get to the fifth chapter.

Having now read this book, I look forward to soon tackling Augustine’s Homilies on the Gospel of John.

One of many fine quotes from the book we have read and reviewed:

“If a person loves his brother, the Spirit of God is abiding in him. Let him look, let him probe himself before God’s eyes. Let him see if there is in him a love of peace and unity, a love of the Church spread throughout the earth. Let him be attentive to loving not only the brother who is before him and upon whom he is intent, for there are many brothers of ours of whom we do not see, and we are joined to them in the unity of the Spirit. “

Saint Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John

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What About Evil? A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory

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What About Evil: A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory by Scott Christensen is published by P&R Publishing.

“Strangely, God never addresses Job’s pain and suffering in his grand monologue; instead, he recounts numerous instances of his own glorious acts in creation. Why? Because Job needed to see that there was something vastly larger than himself and the pain that circumscribed his own miniscule world. He needed to situate his pain within the larger realm of the ‘theater of God’s glory. ‘” Scott Christensen

What About Evil: A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory by Scott Christensen is published by P&R Publishing.

This book came back in the winter, perhaps even before Christmas. I was duty bound to read and review it, but I was still working on re-reading another volume from P&R (The Mystery of the Trinity by Vern Poythress). The Christensen book suffered from a not uncommon fate for books in my house: It got lost in the stacks. Something new was always arriving. Something urgent was always getting attention. Shorter books, easier books, and more appealing books were constantly keeping this book hidden away.

And consider the title: Who really finds themselves in our day and time wanting to read about EVIL during morning devotions? I am not one for fluffy feel-good theology, but there are some topics, whether weighty, or troublesome, or controversial that I would prefer to avoid. (I also shy away from the books that remind me of how I fall short as a husband and father.)

Then May happened. May of 2021 was like all of the worst of 2020 (pandemic, election, school shutdown, job loss, etc.) being outdone and surpassed in a 23 day descent into the abyss. In short, I went into the hospital for what was to be a relatively minor surgery. I expected to be home in a day or two, to be able to avoid all chores I disliked, and to be able to lie around and read to my heart’s content. Then everything in my life turned south. In short, I ended up spending 23 days in the hospital, mostly connected to all sorts of tubes in ICU, had low blood pressure problems, suffered hallucinations, spent a few days on a ventilator (which I don’t remember), may have had pneumonia, had a second surgery to correct some internal bleeding from the first one, and got a diagnosis of congestive heart failure.

After finally getting home in June (and I did have one 3 days return to the hospital in early July), I slowly resumed my morning reading patterns. My mind was not always able to focus clearly, nor were my eyes. Emotionally and spiritually, I was still in ICU.

But I picked up What About Evil? and started reading. And everyday for several weeks I would read 10 to 20 pages or a whole chapter. At some point, something in the book triggered an extreme emotional and spiritual jolt. I was brought to the point of “having to,” “being forced to,” and wanting to give thanks to God for all I had been through. I was not just thankful for God sparing my life (He did, for one night my diastolic number on my blood pressure was a single digit), nor was I just thankful for the good doctors and nurses God provided (and the physical therapists!), nor was I just thankful for being out of the hospital, nor was just thankful for the rapid healing I was experiencing. I was thankful that God had been pleased to send this series of calamities on me. It was a soul somersault. I am not saying that I don’t still question or lament all of this, but I was bowed down before the sovereignty of God.

Here is what I wrote on the day I experienced this:

As I began reading and thinking about this book today, for the first time, I was able to say, Thank you, God, for the illness and ordeal of the past month. ” Not “Thank you for the healing I am experiencing. ” Nor “Thank you for the spiritual insights and reminders of your grace. ” Nor “Thank you for the many who prayed for, visited, or ministered to me. ” I am thankful for all that! But for the first time, I can say, “Thank you for the ordeal, sickness, complications, pain, and struggles. ” Calvinist that I am, I figured I would give thanks for all this in time, but with a bit of forced piety. Meaning, I do this because I have to. But it seems as though God has given me a glimpse of His Sovereign Glory. Only a glimpse. But I repeat, “Thank you, God, for all of this. ”

This book is not a self-help or devotional study. It is deep theology. The question it tackles is a hard one that faithful Christians struggle with and have disagreed over. It is a defining point of Christian doctrine. And the book itself is 471 pages of text examining the issues.

I will have to rate this book as one of the top theological books not just for 2021, but for my whole life of reading theology (going back to 1974). This was not a game changer, for I have long adhered to the Reformed views of God’s Sovereignty. But this was confirmation. I realize that not everyone who might read this book will find it a companion volume to particular troubles they are having like I did. It can be read during the best of times for a seminary student, during a fruitful pastorate for a preacher, or for some good theological meat for a theology reader.

Concerning the topic of evil itself and how Christensen deals with it, this is one of the biggest challenges in apologetics, theology, and practical Christian living that Christians face. It is a point of contact with unbelievers since no one can rationally argue that evil does not exist. But it is also a point of contention since unbelievers are often hostile toward God over the issue. (It sometimes leads to the odd atheist who proclaims that God doesn’t exist and hates Him!)

Sometimes, some Christians feel like they need to come to God’s rescue. “If God is all powerful,” the unbeliever asks, “then why doesn’t He prevent evil? Why did He allow it to enter into His creation in the first place?” The most satisfying answer that many Christians have found is the Free Will Defense. People, beginning with Adam and Eve, had to have freedom to choose. God would not have made us puppets who were programmed to love Him since love has to spring forth from an emotional choice-based reservoir. In love, God let us decide to love Him. That meant that many rejected His love and the rest of us have strayed (by divine permission) all too often.

I am not trying to make a caricature or mockery of this view. It is a serious attempt to deal with a hard issue. While some find it comforting or convincing, I have never found it so. Nor do I find it compatible with Scripture (based on my understanding).

What Christensen posits is God’s Greater Glory in His purposing, planning, predestining, and controlling evil in His universe. The ultimate end, the eschatological outcome, of all the miseries of this life and world are far more offset by the greater, complete and all glorifying work of God in redemption and judgment.

Does this explanation make everything fall in place and easy to accept? No, but it does put the trust in God and in reliance of what is revealed. I don’t like falling into the “my Bible verses beat your Bible verses” kind of debate, but I was convincing (or reconvinced) that the Scriptural weight falls in the direction that Christensen advocates.

Prepare to wrestle when you pick this book up. Even if you are already in the author’s camp, it is a workout to think through these issues. But the pleasing part of this book is how attractive and readable the arguments are. For example, Christensen has a whole chapter devoted to how in literature “Everyone Loves a Good Ending.” As a literature teacher, I was swept away by this discussion. Then to see how this internal mind-set echoes what Scripture teaches is amazing.

I never feel that I have cheered loudly enough for some books. I read a lot of books and enjoy most of them. But this one is different. It is better, more important, and more influential than the others. If I were rich, I would be sending all of you copies of the book, but for now, I can only highly recommend it.

Here are a few choice quotes that I sent to family and friends while I was working through this book:

“Job’s miserable comforters made many true statements about sin, righteousness, justice, and God; yet they were painfully wrong when they tried to speak on God’s behalf, presuming to understand why He was bringing such affliction on their suffering friend. Nor can we demand that God explain Himself. Job sought for God to explain Himself for the evil He providentially oversaw in Job’s life, and the answer he got back was stark and humbling. The essence of it was this: I AM GOD AND YOU ARE NOT. “

“When we consider God’s sovereignty over the forest, few people object. But when we consider his sovereign control over the individual trees, people start to squirm in their seats, especially if those trees include the leaves, branches, trunk, and roots of their individual lives. The fact is, human actions are not exempt from the providence of God but represent the particular emphasis of Scripture. God’s fixed decree includes the future actions of individuals. Human choices are determined by God.”

“We are not conditioned to expect good to emerge out of the murky mass of evil. But God designed evil so that something remarkably white and wonderful would emanate from its black depths. As William Cowper penned, ‘Behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face. ‘” Scott Christensen, What About Evil? A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory

The Magna Carta of Humanity by Os Guinness

The Magna Carta of Humanity

The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and The Future of Freedom by Os Guinness is published by InterVarsity Press.

Some books we acquire because of who the author is. Such is the case with Os Guinness. For many years, he has been writing books that are combinations of cultural commentaries with Christian critiques and answers.

It all began with The Dust of Death: The Sixties Counter-culture and How It Changed America Forever. The 1960s were a redefining period of American history. I find it amazing that America survived during that period and the decade that followed. Guinness wrote this account, which is still in print, to examine that time period.

The Call: Finding and Fulfilling God’s Purposes for Your Life was first published in 1997. I did not pick it up and read it until many years later. There is a 20th anniversary edition of the book that came out in 2018. In my experience, this is my favorite Guinness book. Each chapter is a great meditation on finding purpose and direction for the Christian. And, Guinness, in all his writings, amply quotes from a wide variety of sources, both Christian and other.

This book is a great one for teens and younger believers to read. I think it would be great for a group study.

Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion is a book about Christian apologetics. I remember loving it the summer that I read it. I need to read it again…and again! Often, my experience has been in reading books where an advocate of one school of apologetics makes the case for his approach and critiques the other school. I reckon that all of that is needful. But I have often found myself discouraged by the rancor that exists between presuppositionalists and evidentialists, between Van Tillians and Clarkians, and between advocates of various church positions. Then there is the snobbery that is found among some, including, sadly Dooyeweerdians and Neo-Orthodox, and the dismissals that attend those who profess Christianity, but see no need to convert anyone.

While good and great men and women of God have written and argued in ways that reflect my concern, I often did not find enough basic stuff to instruct believers on how to live and speak persuasively on the faith. This book does not, to the best of my recollection, deal with the intramural debates.

Other Guinness book titles include Time for Truth, Unspeakable, A Free People’s Suicide, The Global Public Square, Last Call for Liberty, and Carpe Diem Redeemed. I have most, but not all, and have read many, but not all, of his books.

The Magna Carta of Humanity is Guinness’s most recent book. It is a classic and predictable work. He surveys the social, political, and theological landscape and finds much that is wanting in our day. He calls again and again for spiritual and theological renewal. The focus is not on the church or family primarily, although both are seen as central. This is not a rewrite of the Republican party platform with a few Bible verses, nor is it an acceptance of the social justice, or “Woke” concerns, or current mantras of the religious left.

As such, I reckon every school of thought will want to mentally add a chapter on to this book either prescribing particular Bible teachings, conservative or liberal applications, and endorsements for other ministries. (I don’t mean to imply that liberals–whether theologically so or politically so–will find much of comfort in the book.)

In large part, Guinness has written a book that is highlighting the writings of the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. I was not familiar with either Rabbi Sacks or his writings. He is described as a “British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author, peer and public figure. He died in 2020.

This book is dedicated to Rabbi Sacks. Much of it is a commentary on Sacks’s book Covenant and Conversation: Exodus: The Book of Redemption.

Perhaps many of us have not read Exodus with enough political focus. After all, we are often subtly instructed not the read any of the Bible with a political lens. But Exodus is a story that is inescapably political from beginning–with an oppressive baby killing government–to the end–with a law for God’s people that reflects God’s moral order for the nations.

I read some of Gary North’s fine books on Exodus years ago. It was part of his economic commentary on the Bible. And politics and economics are overlapping topics. Just today, I finished reading an outstanding essay on how preachers and writers in colonial America used the Exodus narrative to describe the plight that the colonies were in during the American War for Independence. That essay can be found in another IVP book, titled Every LIne, Leaf, and Letter: Evangelicals and the Bible from the 1730s to the Present.

Every Leaf, Line, and Letter

Sacks and Guinness contend that the Exodus story should be the defining model for a revolution. To bring about a real, good, and positive change, eschew French, Russian, and Chinese models, and anything advocated by Marxists pat and present, and look to Exodus.

God is at war continually with tyrants. Wimpy pastors who tremble at the political winds are not at all in good standing. Every state and social order adheres to a law code. And all law codes are founded on religious presuppositions. We are always seeing Egypt warring against the Hebrews. Change the names as needed to fit the era, and yet the battles remain the same.

Much of this book is, as expected, standard and recurring Guinness talk and advocacy. He didn’t abandon what 20 other books promoted and repeats his best themes and working bullet points. What preacher or teacher doesn’t do the same?

This leads to part of what is a bit confusing or cluttering about this book. Guinness repeatedly contrasts the American War for Independence (okay, for this occasion, let’s call it the American Revolution) with the French Revolution. That is a great theme. That is a good reason why we all need to study history. Read the historical accounts of the Frenchies and read the fiction as well. Concerning fiction, I am thinking of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities (which I have written about previously and compared to Augustine’s two cities) and Baron Orczy’s Scarlet Pimperness. Concerning history, read Otto Scott’s Robespierre or Simon Schama’s Citizens. And there is an older work titled The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution written by Friedrich Gentz with a preface by John Quincy Adams. And I simply must mention Unbelief and Revolution by Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer.

The dust jacket on the book reflects this conflict: At the top is seen a portion of the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. At the bottom is seen (upside down), Lady Liberty in the French Revolution. At the end of almost every chapter, Guinness repeats the words: “America cannot permanently endure half 1776 and half 1789.”

This recurring message, the history lessons in the book, the warnings of our forefathers, are all useful reminders of the need for vigilance and reawakening.

But alongside this theme is the workings of Sacks’s ideas. So, the dust jacket also includes the image of Moses with the Ten Commandments off to the side. The calling attention to Sacks’s ideas and books is useful. I was not aware of him or his writings. But the clutter I mentioned earlier comes from Guinness hopping from a discussion of the Exodus Revolution to the American or French events and/or to current events.

Maybe he should have written a shorter book in praise of and commenting on Rabbi Sacks. Whether another shorter book on the American and French historical experiences should have been written is another story. If Guinness had written both, I would have been interested.

We are used to older people talking on and on. In many cases, when the older person is wise and learned, he or she is worth listening to even if there are repetitions or ramblings. I have heard and read the thoughts of people who may have passed their high bars of succinctness.

I reckon I can imply that Os Guinness is old, because I am old and he is older. But old Guinness, like wine, not the beer his family created, ages well.

This is a needed book. It is worth the few confusing portions to read. It is yet another call for our day and time.

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George Washington–Political Achiever

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George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father by David O. Stewart is published by Dutton Books. Click HERE to learn more about the author and the book.

Of the buying and reading of books about George Washington, there is no end. I have at least a couple of shelves that are devoted solely to the man. Add to that all of the books about the War for Independence, the Constitution, the early years of the Republic, and the Presidency, and I am guessing that the numbers go up in the hundreds.

But I was immediately attracted to David Stewart’s biographical study of Washington due to its subtitle. I have typically thought of Washington as primarily a soldier and farmer who, nevertheless, proved to be a successful politician. The history of military men who reached the Presidency is an interesting story in itself. Washington, Jackson, Eisenhower, and some of the post Civil War President Generals were successful at transitioning their military skills and experiences into political leadership. Theodore Roosevelt was a politician who took advantage of the Spanish-American War to upgrade his resume and fulfill some of his bucket-list agenda. William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor were both in office for too short periods to be ranked. Grant is usually the poster boy for the great general who makes a lousy political leader. (Maybe Ron Chernow’s biography has offset that.)

As it turns out, Washington was not a Johnny-come-lately when he took the oath of office to be President. He spent quite a few years in Virginia serving in the legislative branch. He was active both in trying to win elections and in trying to affect and influence legislation. He was not, in other words, purely a Virginia farmer who got called away to military service.

At the same time as Washington was doing political service, he was actively looking for and finding opportunities to serve in the various frontier campaigns under the British army. One has to realize that young Washington would never have been dreaming of being President or of leading an army that was opposing the British.

He was, in contrast, honing his skills in battle, military leadership, and the politics of military leadership. And, as this book strongly emphasizes, Washington’s political and military skills needed honing. He made more than a few blunders, and he was (surprise! surprise!) prone to equivocate, minimize, and reinterpret failures and blunders. He worked to get on the good side of those who were in charge. That sounds a bit self-serving for the Father of Our Country, but it is a necessary skill for people who are climbing the ladder of success.

And, Washington was a grand and capable actor, which was best demonstrated when he donned his old military uniform at the meeting of the Continental Congress gathering that chose him for leading the Continental Army.

Washington, as Stewart points out, won four key elections in his life unanimously. An occasional three point basketball shot may be lucky, but four in a row says much more about the player than luck. Washington was unanimously chosen to lead the Continental army. Some years later, he was the unanimous choice to preside over the Constitutional Convention. Then he set an unbroken record for being unanimously chosen by the electoral college twice as President. (It is interesting to speculate what might have occurred if Washington had sought a third term, for his fan base had declined and criticisms had increased.)

Some of Washington’s greatest political triumphs occurred not in the legislative assemblies where he had been a member and not in the Presidency. They occurred during his time as a military commander. Six years in the field with an always under-supplied and under-manned army did not yield Washington many great victories. Indeed, it can be argued that his success was usually found in avoiding annihilation of his army and the Patriot cause. Then there was a great victory–Saratoga–but it was not Washington’s leadership there.

Horatio Gates receives the honors for that victory, even though it can be better attributed to a then honorable Benedict Arnold. A simple proposition followed that great victory: If Washington can’t win a battle, but Gates wins not only a battle, but captures a whole army, then….

There are plenty of details in the military battles and army movements that Washington experienced that allow armchair strategists today and observers at the time to question the man and his methods. And ambition was a driving force in many a heart of the soldiers in that war. Intrigues and cabals between men in uniform and men in the halls of government not only questioned Washington’s leadership, but took stealthy steps toward removing him.

Washington survived and trumped his opponents on the American side with a skill that may have been often lacking when confronting his British military opponents. He had to cajole and plead and maneuver his way through the political labyrinth to both keep his position and procure goods.

Valley Forge was not just a miserably cold place where his army struggled to survive. It was also where he was able to keep his political enemies unbalanced and hold on to his power.

Washington’s presidency witnessed many more political battles lost and won. Washington learned, to his disgust, that going down to Congress to talk out a plan was not productive. He learned well how to work with congressional leaders from his distant perch. It is interesting that James Madison, quirky mercurial Little Jemmy, was a key Washington ally for many years.

Perhaps his greatest triumph and one that has rarely been equaled and never exceeded was his balancing act of having both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in his cabinet. They were, perhaps, the two most brilliant political thinkers of their time (and most times since then), but they were diametrically opposed to one another in terms of political philosophies. People still identify themselves as Jeffersonians or Hamiltonians. (Jefferson awaits his revival of interest based on a musical.)

Another fact about Washington’s presidency is his health. The demands of the office, what we would call stressors today, were many. Washington, although far younger than our last two Presidents, was often suffering from a variety of health problems. The years in the fields of battle and other factors made him an old and sick man. But he persevered. No doubt, he looked forward to the end of his first term when he could go home to Mount Vernon. But he basically got roped in and “guilted” into serving an additional term.

Eight years were enough. In his short time as an ex-President, he did face one time when it looked as though he might have to wear a military uniform again. John Adams, Washington’s lack luster successor, did achieve one thing–he kept the US out of war with France. That kept Washington from being coerced into leading an army.

I could name a dozen or more great and delightful books on Washington the man, the general, and the President. But one would do well to either start with this fine work or, like me, supplement his or her knowledge of Washington by reading it.

This is a fine, readable, and informative study of a great leader during perilous times. It is also a reminder that our own times resemble a softball game with out of shape amateurs manning the pitching mound and the bases.

The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel and the Battle of Tours

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The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, the Battle of Tours, and the Birth of Empire by Ed West is published by Sharpe Books. Ed West’s books and ideas can be found on his website: Ed West — Journalist and author . Among other attributes of this are its brevity (100 pages) and very cheap price (5.99).

I hate when I hear people “compliment” a history teacher or author when they say, “He/she makes history interesting.” This always sounds like history is a painful subject, forced on poor captive students, and desperately in need of of a makeover, a recasting, or a transformation from what it is to what it needs to be.

Granted, there are plenty of poor history teachers and rare is the history textbook that becomes the page-turner keeping students up too late at night. But bad teachers and poorly written texts are not confined to history. And students are not uniformly a group of neutral tabula rasas awaiting anxiously to be absorbing knowledge. Students, in many cases, are bored with almost everything. The “teach me by entertaining me” mindset is a different story.

Also, there are analytical, in-depth, highly scholarly accounts of history that are simply above the average reader. And they are above even the above average reader who is not a specialist in a particular area. Authors, particularly scholarly ones, assume a certain knowledge from their expected reading audience. If she is writing for non-historians who want to read a juicy biography, she writes a certain type of book. But if she is written to refute the claims of three other historians in their technical and critical biographies, she is assuming that the reader already has lots of knowledge of the subject. That is to be expected. All subjects can be examined at the more shallowed, wadable ends of the pool or be dived into on the deep end.

All of that is to say, Ed West’s little book doesn’t make history interesting. Instead, he does a fine job of tell a story that is already intrinsically and inescapably interesting, fun, and compelling. If you want to fit the book into a bigger picture, a meta-narrative, you can for it deals with an event that can be called “the Birth of Europe.”

Those serious, somber, scholarly types who prefer a more analytical and in-depth look at the rise of Europe would do well to read Stephen Davies’ book The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity, which I reviewed in a previous post.

The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity

Births are not easy, painless events. I say that as a personal witness to four of them. The metaphor of a birth is not an apt way to describe anything easy either. The fate of the world was hinging on two major worldviews, world orders, and philosophy/religions. The prevailing power of the age in which this book is set was the Muslim religion. While much of history bemoans (rightly so) European efforts during the Crusades to defeat Muslims (and Jews) in the Holy Land, that was just one chapter in a long history of struggles between the Christian West and the Muslim East. (And I know that both of those labels are inadequate.)

Islamic forces had long since captured what we call the Middle East. North Africa was also under their sway, and Spain had been taken by them as well. Europe, in contrast, was a hodgepodge of smaller, less powerful, but emerging nation-states. Judging from the look of the times, one would have speculated that Islam would become the ruling ideology and political force of the following ages. Europe would have been a weak holdout at best or a number of vassal states under Islamic domination.

But Charles Martel and the forces aligned with him changed all of that. France had been under the “rule” of wimpy, inadequate kings, but the real powers were exercised behind the throne by the Mayors of the Palace. As Muslim forces advanced by conquest and raids into the Frankish Kingdom, Charles Martel led the resistance.

The climatic battle, the one often regarded as a turning point in world or at least European history, took place somewhere in west-central France. Outnumbered by the Muslim forces, Charles’ heavy massed infantry not only held the battlefield but administered a sound defeat to the Muslim armies.

With the never ending debates and revisions and rewriting of history, some more recent historians have questioned the centrality of the Battle of Tours. Carry on with such explorations, but many of us profit from the less detailed historical records with the more catchy bullet points as markers. So, we can be allowed to persist in calling this victory of European Christendom over Islamic expansion as the “Birth of Europe.”

The events in this book are usually covered rather matter of factly in a paragraph or two in the textbooks. And I don’t mean to completely dismiss the role of such learning tools. But the richer story, which West tells, is one that the history teacher needs to learn and learn to tell. Or, since the book is short and inexpensive, it could be assigned to a class. The historical events are the background to a grand piece of literature called The Song of Roland, ably translated by Dorothy Sayers, so anyone teaching that poem should read this account.

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For me, I was looking for a short book to read in between two rather lengthy ones. So, I picked this book up, little knowing that it would be a really enjoyable read.

I feel compelled to add that for the more serious reader, Ed West has the habit of inserting a few bits of humor along with way. I confess to having the same tendency. Plus–horror of horrors–he has based the book on a number of other books, all of which are secondary sources. I confess to having the same tendency. And finally, he includes a bibliography that only lists the names of the authors and titles of their books. How can we read a book that sites a secondary source and then doesn’t tell us that it was published in London in 1984? Actually, I didn’t have any problem with that, and in typical Ben House-fashion, I found several titles that I wish I had.

To repeat, Ed West failed to make history interesting. Instead, he aptly told a story that is more than merely interesting, but is rather fantastic. I think we might say it has had an impact on our lives as well.

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The History Spectrum

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“I am a history teacher,” I usually tell people when they ask. And they, most often those who are professionals (and in recent weeks usually doctors), respond with telling me how they enjoy watching the history channel. Occasionally, one will mention a book that he read or intends to read that is about history.

It is a bit disconcerting. I would never think to answer the doctor by telling him that I watched “House” on television in such a way as to imply that I am as grounded in his profession as he is in mine. Maybe it is all part of the liberal arts inferiority complex that some of us have to deal with. We know what useful things doctors, dentists, chemists, lawyers, and accountants do. But people who talk of history , literature, and the arts can seem to be a bit of societal fluff.

At the same time, we who teach history and other academic subjects should not be so smug and elitist as to think that the non-academic cannot benefit from and enjoy the same kinds of things that we label as work. And maybe there is truth to what I have often said (possibly in jest) which is that I became a history teacher because I didn’t want to have to work for a living.

Most non-professional history fans, enthusiasts, and buffs enjoy a particular kind of history book. Or they consume hours of endless World War II documentaries on cable television. The Bill O’Reilly “Killing” series, which I am skeptical of, is said to be one of the best selling history series ever. And plenty of other news celebrities write books on history. I myself recently read Bret Baier’s Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire. I picked up another of his “Three Days” histories shortly after that.

Dr. Michael Douma, who is both one of the most serious academic historians and least serious Facebook friends, wrote a fine article describing “Dad History.” This has reference to the often best selling histories and biographies that many men (and probably women as well) enjoy reading and read simply for enjoyment. (Men are often skeptical of fiction.)

One of my recent readings was Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. What a story of adventures! And it is history! I have read few books as fun, terrifying, and gripping as this story. The idea of Boone being a legend, a near mythic character, and a proto-type o western heroes is all true and laid out in this book.

The range of historical studies goes far beyond those books that show up in our local book franchises or that get best seller status. The more serious “tools of the trade” will almost never be seen at a Books-A-Million or Barnes & Noble. Thanks to on-line venues, they are much more easily found.

I recently read a book and have been reading a book that illustrate some of the spectrum of what historians and history students (I am one of the latter) read. If there is a depth and seriousness to our calling, it must be cultivated in the types of books I am going to mention below.

Fort Laramie and the Pageant of the West, 1834-1890 by LeRoy R. Hafen and Francis Marion Young came out in 1938 and is being kept in print by the University of Nebraska Press.

This book deals with a narrow portion of a relatively short period of time in a subsection of American history. The story is part of the Western Movement, particularly that part concerning events and places beyond the Mississippi River. Keep in mind that all of American history up to 1890 was the Western Movement.

Located in the eastern part of Wyoming, Fort Laramie is still a national historical sight. It was one of the pivotal locations in the processes where trappers and traders, farmers and soldiers, Indians and agents, and missionaries and Mormons passed through in route to new lands and hopes for wealth or struggles for survival.

This book is clearly not the work of a modern historian. He or she would have sifted through the material, woven a unified narrative, analyzed the data in comparison to other events, set the story in the greater historical context, and produced an academically satisfying work.

Instead, the authors of this work did lots of archiving and compiling. The book has lots of details that include the numbers of wagons, the names of both obscure and famous travelers, the food items and supplies delivered or consumed, and more. But the narrative story, the adventure we might say, still emerges in the midst of the details.

What is refreshing is that the bulk of the information is not pasteurized, sanitized, or analyzed for the reader. Horrible events (perpetrated both by whites and Indians) are told. Attitudes are reflected. Historical figures are named. But judgments are left out. There is no attempt here to expand upon or refute the Turner Thesis or to condemn what would now be unacceptable.

Lots and lots of facts, anecdotes, trivia, and minor details fill the book. But it is not just a sourcebook for factual content. It is a story and that story is easily seen as being pivotal to the western movement, the growth of the nation, the plight of the Indians, and the changing roles of the government as the nation settled the areas beyond the MIssissippi.

And it is a fun book. Consider this snippet:
“Sir George Gore’s favorite author was Shakespeare, which Jim Bridger ‘reckin’d was too highfalutin’ for him; moreover,  he remarked,  ‘thet he rather calcerlated that that big Dutchman,  Mr. Full-stuff (Falstaff), was a leetle too fond of lager beer, ‘ and thought it would have been better for the old man if he had ‘stuck to bourbon whiskey straight. ‘”

Those who settled the West were, in the best senses of the word, characters.

Thanks to Steven Carr, a serious student and teacher of American history, for both calling my attention to this book and for putting one into my possession.

Far different and far more difficult on the history spectrum is The Wealth Explosion :The Nature and Origins of Modernity by Stephen Davies. This work is published by Edward Everett Root Publishers in London.

This book was proved to me by the aforementioned Michael Douma. I was invited to read it and then join in a discussion with some real scholars who also read the book. (Alas! My most recent hospital venture prevented me from finishing the book and messed up my efforts to join in on the discussion via Zoom.)

This is the type of book that one might pull from the nightstand, start, get sleepy, put away, and never pick up again. Despite the use of the word “explosion” in the title, this book is not one for those who enjoy the rough and tumble, the wars and tribulations, and the trials and tribulations of history.

But, after hearing parts of the group discussion and after my own–as yet incomplete–reading from the book, I recognize that it is an important work. Whereas Fort Laramie focused on a narrow part of American history, this book is examining an incredibly wide swath of world history, particularly from the 1700s on.

I often contrast narrative histories with analytical histories. This one is analytical. It not only gets under the hood, but it dismantles the engine to examine how the parts work.

This is a book that makes me want to study it and hear lecture discussions on it piece by piece. One reading is not enough. This is historical calculus, not historical multiplication tables. Get the point?

Would non-historians want to read the book? No, not for fun, but I can see the advantages for academic or scholarly people working through it. But this is mainly for the historians.

Granted, when I teach, I prefer to build the case for Modernity and wealth on a few preferred foundations. Following the work of Christopher Dawson from the past and Rodney Stark from the present, I would structure the modern world in the positive sense on the influence of Christian thought. And I would throw in enough of Adam Smith, the American Founding Fathers, Edmund Burke, and or Northern Europeans to solidify my biases.

I don’t think I am all wrong, but my explanations would suffer from not being broad and deep enough. Davies’ book takes me past my stream and forces me to go both up river and down river to see how much I am missing.

Stephen Davies seems to have historical superpowers. He analyzes and describes events in Asia, Europe, and America, past and present, with broad sweeping generalizations and specific details. This is a world history text, but one that supplements the books that give us the maps and timelines.

This is the book that I need to read several times. And if the book itself is not daunting enough, at the end of each chapter, Davies includes a section for further reading that is incredibly wide-ranging and comprehensive.

Fine books described above. Very different. Very representative of what we history folks really have to contend with. We only make it look easy and fun for your benefit.

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