Impeached by David Stewart (Presidential Bio. Series)

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Though this is not a cradle to grave biography of President Andrew Johnson, I’m glad that I chose this volume as my biography of Johnson. Though President Johnson’s home is the closest to where I grew up of any president, he is really not a likable person from what I have read. He consistently came down on the wrong side of history in my opinion, and even if he happened to be on your side, he seemed to be a man so full of pride that it colored everything that he did.

Still, this book by David O. Stewart is outstanding. It is incredibly well written and even riveting at points. As a matter of pure coincidence, I finished reading this book the same day that the Senate failed to convict President Trump after his impeachment. There were some similarities between the two situations. To be transparent, I believe that President Trump was a victim in his impeachment and has generally been on the right side of what I feel would be best for the country. On the other hand, President Trump says many things that rub some people the wrong way. How offended you are by such statements often directly correlates to how much you agree with him. President Johnson, in my opinion, did not really commit any high crimes or misdemeanors either. He was, however, dismantling Lincoln’s accomplishments as much as he could just as Trump has been successfully dismantling many of Obama’s objectives. I’m glad that both impeachments failed to remove a president. The biggest difference, however, is that President Johnson was politically neutered after his trial while it appears that President Trump still has his same standing with both strong supporters and dedicated enemies. The irony of happening to be reading about Johnson’s impeachment while Trump’s impeachment was in process is quite strong as well as enlightening.

Back to President Johnson. It’s hard to believe that Lincoln could have had a worse vice president to take his place than Andrew Johnson. Had Lincoln finished his term, I don’t think there’s any chance that Johnson could have been elected outright. Johnson is from East Tennessee which stayed true to the Union even though the other two-thirds of the state were a majority that led to Tennessee’s secession from the Union. It is, then, bizarre to me that Johnson was so aligned with the South in many ways during his term. As it turns out, in my opinion, he did the South no favors. He contributed to the ugly history of Reconstruction. Had Lincoln lived with his big heart the South would have had a profoundly better Reconstruction than she ended up having with Johnson.

Another thing that Stewart’s book brings out is the never-changing bickering that is American politics. Politics has always been cutthroat in our country. Maybe that is because we have so much going for ourselves that it is well worth fighting for.

I always try to notice where each president falls religiously as I read through these biographies. Johnson seemed to quote the Bible when it was convenient but he did not strike me from what I read here as a man of faith. There’s always a chance that authors dodge this subject, but there were several irreligious comments recorded by him. I’ve never come across information from other sources that make him stand out as one with strong Christian beliefs.

It turns out that this book is not as well known as it deserves to be. It reads like the better presidential biographies for sure.

To read about other presidential biographies, click here.

Team of Rivals by Kearns (Presidential Bio. Series)

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This book easily qualifies as one of the most popular presidential biographies in print. To my mind, it doesn’t rank up there with the Chernow or McCullough, but I can see why it ranks highly. Doris Kearns Goodwin has now written two of these biographies that apparently tackle more than one person (The Bully Pulpit is the other). Though she also writes of William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates, and Edwin Stanton, this is an Abraham Lincoln biography. Since Lincoln has had more written about him than probably any president we have, her angle about his genius showing up in his magnanimously collecting his rivals into his cabinet because he could see their talents is a fresh and well-conceived approach. Lincoln comes out as one of the giants of American history in this book, but that has more to do with who he was than any excessive building up on the author’s part. As for the rivals, they were a mixture of ego and talent.
Then the book is of substantial length, I think she gave sufficient coverage to most aspects of Lincoln’s life. I felt she was fair describing the turbulent Mary Todd Lincoln as well. The Lincolns had plenty of pain and tragedy in their lives while Mary additionally had to endure Lincoln’s untimely death. As you read, you will see Lincoln’s brilliance every step of the way as well as his never-failing graciousness while realizing that his fame rose and fell according to that day’s war reports. Fair or not, Lincoln would not have one of the most impressive monuments on the Mall in Washington D.C. had the war not ended favorably days before his death. On the other hand, Reconstruction would have gone so much smoother had he lived. One thing you might not realize is that the South mourned his death because they too had figured out his heart lacked the guile of the other victors. His extraordinary character keeps his ambitious rivals in line more than once when they were chomping to leave the corral for their own selfish gains too. He was an amazing man.
Kearns highlights Lincoln’s anti-religious statements from his younger days. He didn’t even believe in an afterlife in those days. What Kearns missed is the clear evidence that Lincoln turned to the Lord at least in his presidential days. Fortunately, she gives us many of his statements, even if she doubts he meant them or thought him superstitious, that show a deepening faith. I’m convinced whether Kearns is or not.
Kearns is a good writer. The book is a winner even if The Bully Pulpit is better (the book, not the subjects). Abraham Lincoln, though, strikes me as throwing a softball to biographers. It would take enormous effort to make him dull.

Bonus Review: Though I have read several books on Lincoln in my younger days, one stands out: Great Captain by Honroe Morrow. I think it might be historical fiction but I had read a regular biography just before it and it followed the story right down the line. What a thrilling page-turner. I can’t believe I’d recommend this book when I’m trying to cover major biographies, but you would love for this to be your one exception I believe too.

For more presidential biographies, click here.

The Covenanters–A Beautiful New 2-Volume Release!

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If you are familiar with Church history, then you are likely aware of the spectacular period of Scottish church history beginning at the Reformation and extending throughout the 1600s. Besides some incredible believers and servants of Christ that we can be challenged by, there are all the thrills that any historical reader craves. Religion, palace intrigue, bloodshed, and rousing courage combined to make those costly days to follow Christ.

Banner of Truth dominates the market for this kind of history. They do it right as well. These two volumes by J.K. Hewison would catch your eye on any shelf among other books. The artwork on each volume is the best of any book I’ve seen this year. The binding is durable to last for years to come too. The word “heirloom” comes to mind. (Would make an exceptionally nice gift).

What is between the covers is captivating as well. It would be hard to fail as a writer with that kind of material to work with, but Hewison totally succeeded. He struck the right balance between a truly scholarly work and an enjoyable read. He was fair and didn’t sugarcoat the lives of believers either. Occasionally pictures are even provided.

This book can be used either as a reference to study persons or events or as a fine read with equal parts history and devotion. You will likely have your own favorite episodes as you read. For some reason, Mary, Queen of Scots, grabbed my attention.

If I were forced to only have one title on those magnificent Scottish Christians, this two-volume set would be my choice hands down!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Master Robert Bruce–A Nice New Biography!

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A Banner of Truth biography simply stands out in our day. In one way, you can wonder how they are so popular? They publish as many on people you’ve never heard of as they do on those you have. Let me give you a hint that I’ve picked up on: make a special effort to grab these beautiful biographies of those you don’t know as quickly as those abounding with fame. Take for instance this book on Master Robert Bruce. I’ll confess upfront that I had never heard of this Scottish preacher of yesteryear. I’ll also confess this: a book about an unheard-of pastor like this can sometimes encourage me more than those of the well-known heroes. In the back of my mind, I often think of those heroes as far beyond my league, but in biographies like this one, we get to watch a pastor with all the ups and downs of a ministry be faithful to Christ. That’s a bona fide challenge for me!

Even though this book was first published several years ago, the author, D. C. Macnicol, writes well. His style is not exactly that of modern biographers, but that may be to advantage in this case. The book seems to transport you back to those days. That is not to say the book is hard to read, however, because the writing still flows beautifully.

I love the rawness of the book. There are a few instances in his life that you might wonder if he exactly made the right decision. But that is life and ministry, isn’t it? Events don’t unfold with perfect dimensions and easy answers. Even if you wonder if he could have chosen a different solution at some point, you will never doubt his faithfulness as you read. If he was slightly emotional at times, you will never doubt his fidelity to our Savior. Why the book is so challenging is that we know we will not get through the ministry with perfection, but can our lives be evaluated as faithful?

Let’s not forget the quality binding and beautiful dust jacket that will look so attractive on the shelf that now adorns all modern printings of hardbacks by Banner of Truth. You will enjoy this biography and so would your pastor!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

James Buchanan by Jean Baker

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I’ve noticed for years that James Buchanan has made many lists for being the worst president that the United States has ever had. After reading this biography by Jean H. Baker in the American President Series, I can finally understand why. I enjoy this series especially for some of these lesser-known, and forgive me for saying, less substantial presidents. This book comes in at under 150 pages and it’s exactly what I would want for Buchanan. Though I had a few duds in this series earlier, this is the second in a row that I found very well done. Baker is a good writer. She finally concludes that he is not only a bad president but a traitor, but she fairly handles his life before she springs her conclusions on you at the end. By the time she gets you there, you may agree with her.

James Buchanan had a successful life before reaching the White House. He excelled in his law career and was quite successful as a member first of the House of Representatives and later the Senate. He had some striking similarities to his predecessor, Franklin Pierce, too. They were both extremely loyal to the Democratic Party. They both came from the North: Pierce from New Hampshire and Buchanan from Pennsylvania. Finally, in an almost bizarre similarity, they were both enamored with the South. Baker speculates that Buchanan became enamored with the genteel ways of the Southerners he worked with in Congress. Considering the backgrounds of both Pierce and Buchanan, I’m bewildered at both of their unexpected loyalty to the South because they had no obvious connection. As it turns out, however, though their loyalty was similar, Buchanan made far worse blunders over the South. Had Buchanan been a Southerner, his life would have made, perhaps, perfect sense, but he was not.

As you will see in this biography, his error in Kansas was particularly egregious and hastened the Civil War. Southerners probably revered him for a while over his handling of the Fort Sumter situation, but as President of the United States, it was inexplicable. Again, had he resigned and joined the Confederacy it might’ve made sense, but to stay for the Union and make these leadership decisions brutally slays all logic. To make it worse for him, after he had made a complete ruin of the situation from the North’s point of view, the ineffective countermeasures that he finally put in place lost him the confidence of the South. He ended his career with the confidence of no one! He spent his remaining years trying to prove that his decisions were pro-Union, and even argued at times his decisions were similar to Lincoln’s, but no one believed them. Nor should they. Perhaps he meant well, but he had no foresight nor enough leadership skills for such a critical hour of history.

As is often the case, this book does not give us much to go on to determine Buchanan’s religious views. The author did, however, treat the whispers that our only bachelor president was homosexual with restraint. She fairly admitted there was never any actual evidence of that charge. Not that it proves anything, but there were a few quotes from his life that used Christian language. It was interesting to note that he did join the Presbyterian Church after he left the White House. Apparently, the Presbyterian Church’s position on abolition in the north had held him back in earlier years. After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the discussion of abolition was less critical.

This biography is ideal though Buchanan as president was anything but ideal. He did come across as something of a prideful person as he surrounded himself with people who would just let him talk and agree with him. That probably contributed to his overall failures as well. The only good thing that I can say for him is that at least he did seem like a more likable person than John Tyler. I guess you’d call that scraping the bottom of the barrel to find the compliment! If you are on a journey to read a biography of every president, Baker is the right choice for you here because you wouldn’t want to be too bogged down on Buchanan.

J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir by Ned Stonehouse

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Banner of Truth bolsters their impressive array of Christian biographies with this reprint of Ned Stonehouse’s biography of J. Gresham Machen. While I was aware of Machen’s reputation as a stalwart defender of conservative Christianity, I really didn’t know much about his life. Perhaps my not being a Presbyterian had me more out of the loop on Machen’s impressive career, though I had read some of his works with profit before. Don’t worry if your beliefs don’t exactly line up with that of a reformed Presbyterian, because his contribution to the faith extends to all who hold unwaveringly to the veracity of the Bible and a vibrant personal relationship with Christ.

Stonehouse was a colleague of Machen over the last years of Machen’s life when they served together at Westminster Theological Seminary. Without a doubt, Stonehouse is as sympathetic a biographer as you could have and clearly reveres his subject. I realize that can derail some biographies, but I felt I knew Machen so well by the time I finished this volume and Stonehouse proved to be an excellent biographer. If you find the first few chapters on the Gresham and Machen families a little slow, just hang on because I promise the life of Machen proves enjoyable reading.

I’d be tempted to describe Machen as a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but there was enough spirituality, particularly in his mother, to have greatly strengthened Machen for his extensive ministry. There was enough money in the family, however, for him to get whatever level of education he wanted and he made the most of it. His time in Germany and the wrestling of his faith was extremely interesting as all the learned names of Germany in that generation popped up in the story. When his faith became more settled, he had as much struggle determining his career path. In both these cases, the sympathetic biographer did an outstanding job opening up these facets of Machen’s life. Since many people wrestle with similar issues, this was powerful spiritual reading.

After he got on his feet at Princeton and was ordained to the ministry, World War I came up. That part of his life story though he was neither a soldier nor an actual chaplain was absolutely riveting. It was so unusual and yet it really helped the reader to understand Machen’s character. As a side note, after proving so adept with both the German and the biblical languages, I was amazed to see that he gave some theological lectures in French before he left France!

His ongoing career and his book writing showed an upward career path with outstanding literary accomplishment. The demise of Princeton’s allegiance to orthodoxy could almost serve as a parable of religious corruption. This same battle has played itself out in so many cases and places. You might find this portion of his life as a blueprint for how to stand when everyone around you wants to run away from God and his word. The ultimate step of creating Westminster showed the thoroughness of his dedication. He wisely saw that orthodoxy in missions was as important as orthodoxy at the academy and he fought valiantly on that front as well. His early death in an unexpected place and way was sad history but interesting biography.

This book holds attention throughout. Perhaps all it lacked was an appendix of all his literary works, but it was thorough without ever falling victim to being boring. The book itself is another of those exquisitely produced hardback editions that we so appreciate from Banner. This book was insightful on how to deal with corruption, spiritual on how one man so well lived the Christian life, and interesting as a biography. I must say that I really enjoyed this book!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

The Pastor of Kilsyth by Islay Burns–A Nice Biography

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So you’re never heard of W. H. Burns? Neither had I. Before I began reading this lovely biography, I noticed that the publishers put out an advertising blurb about this being a great biography for our celebrity-driven age. It’s clear what they meant. I can be challenged by a biography of a Christian celebrity to some degree, but not in the sense that I can ever do what they have done or will be what they have been. This biography is of a simple believer who was a pastor whose faithful life though unknown to the world gave off a glory that redounds unto the Lord Jesus Christ. That you and I can do. And that is why this biography is of the stripe that is especially needed today.

W. H. Burns was a pastor from the heralded Scottish orbit of outstanding preachers. That Iain Murray called this one of the best Scottish ministerial biographies we have carries much weight as his own biographies that are so often unassuming still have more impact than so many modern biographies.

Not only will you trace faithful ministry, but this volume can also be placed in your revival literature. God blessed Kilsyth with revival. I don’t know about you, but I always am blessed by that type of reading. Later chapters even give insight on what is needed for revival, though the perspective that revivals come from God is never denied. There are descriptions of how the revivals were carried out as well that can be insightful. The book even ends with four sermons that are imbibed with a revival atmosphere.

Banner of Truth is one of the modern Christian publishers that most takes publishing books seriously. Their hardbacks are of a quality that has surpassed most others and their dust jackets are always attractive. They still produce books that your grandchildren can own. I’m glad not everyone has caved to the idea that digital will own the future. I believe there still is a market and a future for books like this one. This book is a great biography for pastors and Christian families!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Franklin Pierce by Michael Holt (Presidential Bio. Series)

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I must confess that I knew almost nothing about Franklin Pierce before I read this biography written by Michael F. Holt in The American Presidents Series. This book was pitched perfectly. Its length and depth were ideal for this less significant president. As you may be aware, he is in a stretch of Presidents who often fight over being our worst one. This book told me all the broad details of his life that I needed to know and surprisingly succeeded in its few pages to dig into what made Pierce tick. Some volumes in this series are a complete dud, but I’m happy to have found this volume to be my choice for a biography of Pres. Pierce. To my mind, his presidency could fairly be called a failure while Pierce himself would’ve been far more interesting to meet than, say, John Tyler or James Buchanan. Though he was far too caught up into politics to have ever been a visionary, he does come across as sincere.

Franklin Pierce did succeed in his home state of New Hampshire in various offices. He rose through the ranks at an incredible rate and became the political power of his state. He had a near obsession with the Democratic Party that the author well exposes. The more I read about presidents in this era the more I’ve come to believe that they had little chance to succeed. We often think of the country dividing along sectional lines between the North and the South, but there was an equal division between Democrats and a succession of Whigs/Know-Nothings/Republicans. If you survey the election results from these years, you will see that they did not divide along the Mason-Dixon line. Much like our day, some states leaned more toward one party or the other with an occasional flipping. New Hampshire was the most democratic state in the Northeast and Pierce did everything he could to keep it that way. It was, however, true that some of Franklin Pierce’s decisions help solidify our country finally dividing between the North and the South.

What is inexplicable about Pierce was his dedication to the South. To be honest, since he was from the north, it makes no sense to me at all. You might find a few clues in him forging some strong friendships with Southerners and that his interest in the success of the Democratic Party was far more important to him that how the issue of slavery turned out. Historians will always label Pierce as being on the wrong side of that issue. I don’t think he was proslavery, but he was going to protect his friends and acquaintances that stood with him in earlier political battles. Another mistake that he made was not accepting the new direction of the North even in how they viewed Lincoln who followed him. He openly criticized Lincoln at times and also tried to support Jefferson Davis during his trial for treason after the Civil War. Again, it seemed to be nothing other than he would be true to his old friends. That kind of thinking will probably keep your friendships strong, but it may destroy your historical standing.

As with several other presidents, it’s hard to pin down where Pierce was regarding Christianity. The author paints Pierce as the poster child of an 1800s party animal in his youth. While that may have been true, he married a very religious woman. She was no social bug either. Still, he seemed to adore her. He curtailed his drinking and stuck by her through several health crises. There are not a lot of other facts to go on, but the author relates casually that one time Pierce detested working on the Sabbath while he was president. When his wife died shortly after his presidency ended, he started drinking some again. The author insinuates that he married his second wife for money, but they appear to have had a good relationship too though he spent more time alone during those years. He still had his demons and alcoholism finally destroyed his health and ended his life. Though the author never said, I can’t help but wonder if the obvious failings of his presidency though he genuinely meant to do what he thought best led him to discouragement. All in all, he was probably a far better person that he was a president.

 

For others in this series, look here.

Zachary Taylor by Eisenhower (Presidential Bio. Series)

John S. D. Eisenhower, son of President Eisenhower, writes this concise biography on President Zachary Taylor for The American Presidents Series. That series is at its best on the lesser known president’s because it enables you to quickly read a biography and move on to the next president. Our presidents are mostly a mediocre lot from Van Buren to Buchanan besides, perhaps, Polk. On the other hand, if you give equal weight to these presidents pre-presidential careers, Taylor is one of the most interesting. He was the leading general of the Mexican War. It doesn’t hurt that we without question won that war and added vast territory to our nation. To me, Taylor is far more important in our nation’s history as a general than as a president.

Taylor is shown as a soldier’s soldier. This book well relays his exciting moments (plus a few that weren’t so exciting). At times, his strategy wasn’t above questioning either. He caught a few breaks and called a few good ones too. What could never be questioned was his courage. His traits matched his soldier life–loyal, diligent, and willing to face hardships. The author was a soldier as well and was in his wheelhouse in describing this overarching aspect of Taylor’s life.

The author tells us little of Taylor’s religious point of view other than once saying he wasn’t very religious, though he relayed that viewpoint while telling us that he called for a day of prayer! It could be that the fact that all Taylor’s papers were destroyed in the Civil War while in his son’s possession have obscured our fully knowing Taylor’s religious outlook.

I’m so glad I chose this volume as my read on Taylor. Perfectly paced for my needs and genuinely interesting, this book served up Taylor with nice balance, appropriate depth, and fleshed out in an economy of pages. Worth looking this one up!

For more in this series, look here.

Valley Forge by Bob Drury & Tom Clavin

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Valley Forge. Now that’s a subject worthy of its own book. If nothing else, there’s George Washington. Washington attracts great writers you know. Ron Chernow was compelled to give us a life of Washington while David McCullough gave us 1776, so it’s no surprise to me that the bestselling author team of Bob Drury and Tom Clavin were pulled to Valley Forge. Valley Forge made for one of the greatest chapters of Washington’s celebrated life and contributed immensely to his mystique. Drury and Clavin give it the treatment it deserves in this fine book.

The authors struck the right balance in setting up the famous winter in Valley Forge, telling its story, and describing what followed along with its significance. Part 1 tells us of a series of failures that led into the dismal winter. Wait till you read of Brandywine. That this book ends in great victory makes the whole story something of a microcosm of Washington’s amazing life. He had more losses than most any famous general, yet he always preserved to ultimate victory. Defeat never crushed him, the odds never defied him, and he is the poster child of fearlessness in battle. He could rally men that seemed beyond it. All in all, he makes for thrilling reading as this book turns out to be.

It would be unfair, though, to call this only a biography of an episode of Washington’s life. There are all kinds of heroes and villains to be found. For example, you will despise Charles Lee by book’s end. There’s plenty more across the field among the Redcoats too.

The famous winter is great drama as well. The suffering was real—so real that the victories in the following spring seemed unreal. My only complaint with this book is that the authors were perhaps more skeptical of some of the Christian elements than seemed necessary. I know legends always have a potential of growing, but the evidence of Washington’s genuine Christianity is greater than what’s found here.

If you love either Washington or the Revolutionary War, or for that matter any well-written slice of history, you will thoroughly enjoy this book.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.