Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (Presidential Bio. Series)

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What a book! Since James Garfield is likely in everyone’s category of lesser known presidents, this book is an unexpected experience. It’s not a typical cradle-to-grave biography, but I felt I knew President Garfield better than some other presidents where I read a full biography. As you may recall, Garfield was shot by an assassin early in his presidency. He really didn’t have any time to take significant action as president, but he was such a fine, genuine man that you will ask the what-if questions. I suspect he would have been one of the better presidents between the legendary Lincoln and the famous Teddy Roosevelt had he had the opportunity to serve out his term.

This book with its subtitle “a tale of madness, medicine, and the murder of a president” focuses on the peculiar aspects of his death. Kudos to Millard for seeing the potential in this fascinating story. Though she has written only a few titles, she is one of the better writers of our day. She can tell a story! She is so good with words and sentences that even the more mundane moments of the story still read easily. To my mind, and why I could easily recommend this as the perfect biography of James A. Garfield, she gives such an exquisite portrait of the man that I could imagine what it would be like if he walked in the room and sat down and started talking. That is the quintessential skill needed to be a biographer.

I don’t know how she did it, but in 300 pages she also brought to life Garfield’s bizarre assassin, Charles Guiteau. The term used for him in his day was “monomaniac”, and yet whatever you might label him today, Millard creates a full-orbed postmortem of his unique pathology. She also exposed Garfield’s failed, egotistical physician, Dr. Bliss. Unfortunately, Dr Bliss denied the scientifically sound teachings of Joseph Lister and denied the idea of germs! And yes, Dr Bliss, ultimately killed President Garfield by incompetence. People of that day could not resist saying, “ignorance is Bliss”. The famous inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, also took a large part in the story. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I assure you there is a captivating story here. The story doesn’t have the raw adventure of Millard’s The River of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt’s trip in the Amazon, but don’t suppose for a moment this work is any less gripping.

Back to Garfield, I think he had the potential to have been an echo of Lincoln. He was born into incredible hardship and poverty as his dad died when he was a young man. His remarkable mother held the family together, invested in young Garfield’s life, and imbibed her Christianity and its ethics into the fabric of his life. The adult Garfield was a man who loved his wife and children, was one who lived above politics in a way few politicians have ever succeeded in doing, was a man who practiced forgiveness, and was one who possessed a personal faith in God. Along the way, he was a Civil War hero and a well-read, educated man despite his background. The story of him being upset by his nomination at the Republican convention for president is the perfect example of the man he was. He was there to nominate another guy and he was truly upset that he would hurt him to the extent that he took no joy at all in his unexpected, dramatic nomination! How many politicians do you know like that? In character and genuineness, Garfield was one of our best presidents. It is truly sad that our country missed the opportunity that lie in a man of his caliber in the White House. It seemed that Americans of that day realized what they had and what they lost. They knew that later generations would probably forget him as has happened, but they also knew that he was one of the better men to have held the office.

The Care of Souls by Senkbeil (Books on Ministry #26)

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This book surprised me. The advertisements for it looked intriguing, but we are blessed to have many wonderful volumes about the work of a pastor. The author, Harold L. Senkbeil, is a long-time Lutheran pastor. Since I am not a Lutheran, I wondered if I might diverge from him on many points. To be sure, he would sometimes talk about the sacraments or baptism in a way that is totally foreign to my thinking, but I loved his book nonetheless. I could easily roll over those sacramental comments because what he had to say about God, His Word, and the ministry struck me directly in the heart. He wrote in so many ways about the pastor I want to be and showed me the way to get there.

He had a knack for working in his life experiences without ever making it about him. He would mention what he learned growing up on a farm many times but I assure you it was never trite nor meaningless. In fact, every facet of farming that he ties to the ministry will be so clear that you will wonder why you hadn’t thought of it before. He gives a wonderful description of what a pastor even is. He will explain both the care and the cure of souls and define a pastoral “habitus” along the way. Even if you’ve never heard the term before, you will be glad to make its acquaintance. There’s an extraordinary chapter on how the word of God is our source for ministry. His description of part of pastoring being the work of diagnosis and a work on the soul covers more in one chapter than some such books do in their entirety. His chapter on treatment of what is diagnosed makes it all practical. Other chapters that tie everything to Christ are extraordinary. He relates theologically how to talk about sin and justification and what shame and guilt are in a way that will minister to your soul as he’s trying to tell you how to help others! Be sure to check out his sexual case study, which again is written for you to help others, in a chapter that is as good as I’ve ever read on that subject.

I have underlined many sentences in my copy. In addition to the wonderful material, the author is an extraordinary, captivating writer. I was unable to read this book fast. In fact, I could never read more than one chapter at a sitting because it would give me so much to dwell on. That means it may take you a few days to read it, but they will be days well spent. This publisher has had a legacy year in writing about pastoring as they’ve already released one of the best volumes on preaching (The Heart of the Preacher) that I have seen in a long time. This book is worthy of the highest possible recommendation!

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.

American History–A New 2-volume set by Thomas Kidd

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Are you like me and have become disgusted with most books today that attempt to teach American history? Do you suppose that most young Americans who are wrapping up their educational years really have no idea of the incredible history of our country? There are some excellent titles floating around on specific incidents in American history, but those that could be used as a textbook are often either lacking or skewed beyond recognition. That’s why I am happy to see this two-volume set come out by Thomas S. Kidd. He has written several historical biographies including those of Christians who have impacted our history. To my mind, he was the perfect person to step up and produce this set.

The balance with which he writes is refreshing for history. He’s never afraid of Christianity, nor does he ever obscure it in our history. On the other hand, he doesn’t make it Christian where it’s not, though he often does describe how Christians have viewed particular historical incidences. For my money, that approach is ideal.

You can always quibble the amount of coverage one event gets compared to another in a book of this type, but he did as well as anyone could do. The visual quality of the work is excellent as well. The pictures are well chosen, attractive, and yet not so prevalent as to give us a skimpy text. Perhaps my only criticism is that this title might have been better presented in a hardback. Rarely do I mention in a review the choice between hardback or paperback, but for some reason, this looks like it should have been a hardback. Still, the covers for each volume in the set are gorgeous.

This set would easily be my choice to recommend for an American history textbook today. I should add, too, that homeschooling parents would do themselves a favor to check out this title for their high school students. Because of where we are today, I believe that if many high school and college students used this set it would be a boon to our society. It’s what we’ve needed for a long time.

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.

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. 

Dr. Benjamin Rush–A New Biography by Unger

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Dr. Benjamin Rush is a Founding Father that I’m happy to finally get to know. Famed historian, Harlow Giles Unger, delivers Rush from his inexplicable obscurity in this fine biography. The subtitle “The Founding Father who healed a wounded nation” is in no way hyperbole. If you love biography, you’re in for some pleasant reading. If you love early American history, you’re going to wonder how you’ve missed Dr. Rush for so long.

What an incredible person was Dr. Rush! He signed the Declaration of Independence, was dear friends with many of the more famous Founders and faced personal danger for favoring independence from Britain. He loved medicine and people and continually damaged his own finances to help the less fortunate. He was “first” in so many categories—humane treatment of wounded soldiers, medical treatment for the poor, prison reform, and psychiatry. He stood up to anyone it took, including Washington, to push these things he felt were right. Every chapter of this biography makes you admire him more.

Beyond just providing great biography, Unger skillfully handled the medical aspects of Rush’s life story. That Unger comes from a long line of doctors was a big help. Rush was involved in a few medical conflicts and was a proponent of “bleeding” patients. This biography will show that though bleeding was a mistaken treatment, it was based on the best medical science available. Rush studied hard and accumulated research that was a great help to later researchers. He was slandered unmercifully, yet never abandoned his medical calling.

Unger also relates Rush’s Christianity. He doesn’t probe it or determine it’s influence on who Rush was, but he doesn’t obscure the fact of it either. The reader can do his or her own analysis. I was fascinated at Rush’s efforts to get to the bottom of Jefferson’s beliefs. It almost amounted to witnessing. Jefferson respected him so much that he opened up to Rush when he usually preferred to keep his religious views to himself. Since Jefferson’s views were not too orthodox, Rush suggested they agree to disagree.

Another nugget of this biography is the relating of how Rush reached out to both Adams and Jefferson to mend their differences and reestablish their friendship. That healing was as profound as his medical work in the young nation. It appears that he was the only man both so respected that he could have pulled this off.

This biography is a treat. If you love early American history, it’s a must-have book. I loved it!

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.

Polk by Walter Borneman (Presidential Bio. Series)

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James Polk was perhaps the finest president in the field of mediocrity that the American presidency traveled through between Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln. I don’t know if that insignificance had to do more with the men (most likely) or the commonplaceness of the times (less likely), or some combination of the two, but Polk, as Walter Borneman’s subtitle suggests, had an impact on both the presidency and the nation. Polk both expanded presidential power and the size of our nation itself.

This biography gives us enough of the pre-story of Polk’s life to really know the man by the time he assumed the presidency. He was ambitious (a common theme in every presidential biography), knew how to play politics, could be politically pragmatic as well as loyal where politically expedient, yet seemed to truly have a set of core principles. He was a protégé of Jackson, also a Tennessean, yet much more refined than his mentor. Their relationship seemed genuine. As is true of at least a few of our presidents, he had a wife who loved and supported him which he reciprocated with love and adoration. This biography fully fleshed out his personality that could be described as more introverted than some and detail oriented.

While the times played into his successes he seized the opportunities that came his way. He has the unusual distinction of accomplishing all his main campaign promises in one four-year term. Further, he kept his promise of only serving one term. Along the way, he was a successful war president of a war that was so victorious that the debate over fighting it is mostly now forgotten. The vast acreage that has been part of America since his day means it probably always will be remembered as something great for our nation. Though he was proslavery, it seems history has been kinder to him than several other presidents in that territory. He really did nothing to stem the tide that would ultimately embroil our nation in Civil War either. Strangely, he even lost all his last elections in Tennessee including two for governor and the one for president out of which he came victorious. I was surprised that the nation was not so perfectly divided by North and South this close to the Civil War, yet geography seemed to have little to do with which states he won.

Perhaps the saddest thing in his biography is how quickly he sickened and died after his presidency ended. He became sick on a victory tour through the states after his term expired and never really had the chance to enjoy his retirement in Tennessee.

As for the biography itself, Borneman was mostly satisfactory. As I read through presidential biographies, I’ve been making a special note of the role religion played in each president’s life. I feel this biography totally failed me in that regard since it’s known from other sources that Mrs. Polk and her Methodism had an impact on her husband. This shortcoming makes me wonder if I should have read the volume by Robert Merry instead (his biography of William McKinley was excellent). On the other hand, Borneman succeeded in making me feel like I both knew and understood James K. Polk. For that reason, I must recommend this biography.

Other Presidential Biographies

Grant by Chernow (Presidential Bio. Series)

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Ron Chernow has struck gold again. After writing his earlier Washington, a book that many of us feel is the best presidential biography ever written, you had to wonder if that earlier success was the biggest competition for this volume. While I would rank Grant a notch below Washington, this biography stands triumphantly beside the author’s earlier work. This book even accomplished one thing the earlier book did not: I knew Washington was great, but Chernow convinced me that Grant was far greater than I ever knew.

There were even a few astonishing similarities between Washington and Grant that may be easily overlooked because of their broad dissimilarities. Both had an annoying parent, both had financial difficulties both before and after their presidencies, both persevered at times with health difficulties, both were loved as a general even more than as a president, and both were revered at their death on a scale that few others could duplicate in American history.

In this work on Grant, Chernow makes Grant so alive that by book’s end, you feel you know him so well that you could anticipate what it would be like if he walked in the room, sat down, and begin talking to you. Though Grant was notoriously one to keep his emotions to himself, he was unable to hide them from Chernow. The portrait is so exquisitely drawn that we have the timbre of Grant’s voice, even if we lack the pitch of one who lived before the days of recordings.

Chernow doesn’t hide Grants faults. His fine trait of seeing people without guile sunk him to naïveté and made him the sucker for countless hucksters. His amazing powers of concentration were at times counterbalanced by his lack of counsel. His drinking blackened his eyes at times throughout his career even if he inwardly hated it and appeared to conquer it several years before he died.

Chernow is not as explicit with Grant’s faith as he was with Washington, but the fault was likely Grant’s. Grant’s life-long trait of holding so much inside robs us of knowing how sincere his Christianity was. We do learn in this book that he was raised in a Methodist home, and though his dad was unscrupulous in the extreme, his mother had a true piety. Grant was never known to use foul language, nor to have any substantiated trouble with women. In fact, he was a gentlemen’s gentleman in that regard. We do know he was a faithful churchgoer, attended revival meetings with D. L. Moody, and had a pastor often around him in his final days. Chernow shares the disputed stories of how sincerely Grant wanted the baptism he received in his final days. Some say he loved the idea while others say he did it to please his wife.

Chernow draws a good picture of Julia Grant as well. She was a homely Southern Belle, more ambitious than her husband, held grudges, got caught up in the glory of the White House, and seemed to have little of the Methodist piety that her husband grew up with. Still, she loved her husband and he loved her. She believed in him when it even didn’t make sense.

This book never lags. With 959 pages of text, it is quite long, but I can’t imagine what could be left out. Grant’s life of struggle before the Civil War had as much drama as a novel and made for great reading. As you would’ve guessed, the portion of the book that covered the Civil War was enthralling – both the writing and the subject were thrilling in this section. The misnomer of Grant the butcher is thoroughly laid to rest. He was an accomplished general, wrongly overshadowed by Robert E. Lee, and was both relentless and fearless in battle. Along the way, you will have a good overview of the Civil War without ever sinking into the dryness that afflicts some historical writing.

When you pick this book up, you are preconditioned to think that Grant’s life after the Civil War is boring, but I still couldn’t put the book down and found it all fascinating. His presidency was far more than the caricature of scandal that has been wrongly attached to it, even if the scandals were real. He wanted to preserve the gains of the Civil War and was sincere. It wasn’t until after his presidency that I soured somewhat on his character as one who was becoming too egocentric and one too easily piqued toward others. But then his determination to care for his wife and write his memoirs brought him back to the Grant I had grown to love.

This book is a tour de force! It could serve as a virtual clinic on how to write historical biography. Chernow, though perhaps not as well-known as the beloved David McCullough (though a play called Hamilton may have changed that observation), must in no way defer to him with this masterpiece. I’m confident that this will be THE biography on Ulysses S. Grant for my lifetime.

This book is so wonderful that it makes you ask: what’s next, Mr. Chernow? If the trend of jumping to the next century and finding the general who lead its most important war and later became president, it must be Eisenhower. Whoever it ends up being, I’ll be in line to get and read it!

 

God Has Spoken In His Son–A Great Theology on Hebrews

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Peter O’Brien is one of the most respected scholars of our day contributing some of the most trusted commentaries we have including an outstanding one on Hebrews in the Pillar Commentary series.  Here he has expanded those studies that would have made the Introduction of his Hebrews commentary too long and especially delved into the theology of Hebrews. Unlike some such volumes that I have seen, he discusses what can actually be found in the text and mines its significance to grasping the unique and powerful Book of Hebrews.

Chapter One addresses God revealing His Son. He sees the clear tie to the Scriptures and even explains how Hebrews uniquely presents scriptural quotations. His reflections were powerful in this study. In chapter two he traces how Hebrews presents Jesus as the perfect High Priest. Jesus is not only superior, but His sacrifice is as well. The next chapter continues that thought to the salvation Jesus provided. He then discussed the people of God receiving this salvation.

He gave a huge chapter on the warning passages that make for fascinating reading no matter if you fully agree or not. Those passages are both unique and central to what Hebrews is giving us and I appreciated him drawing it out so well.

O’Brien continues his outstanding work here and I highly recommend this volume.

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.