History Feed

Cheyenne Autumn

Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sandoz brings her eloquence and attention to detail to the story of the Cheyenne who in 1878 left Oklahoma Territory, where they had been sent, in order to return north, fleeing through soldiers and multiple attacks through a very harsh winter. This is a harrowing story, not for the faint of heart, with much injustice and sadness. There were moments where I questioned whether I could go on, but Sandoz's writing is so beautiful and compelling and she recounts this story with such attention and appreciation for the indigenous people from whom she collected oral accounts.

View all my reviews

Hume: An Intellectual Biography

Hume: An Intellectual BiographyHume: An Intellectual Biography by James A. Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are significant stretches of this book overburdened with details, making it at times a dense read.

However, I did enjoy it. It's best gift is understanding Hume within his intellectual context. At two particular places this was most enjoyable. First in learning more about the philosophical influences upon him, such as Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hutcheson, and others. Second was learning about the differing understandings of British history in the 18th century, in particular how those different understanding approached the concept of liberty. This was relevant to then understanding what approach Hume took in his own History.

The book had a grand conclusion, stating that Hume had achieved the dreams he set for himself as a young man. Would that more biographies could end that way.

View all my reviews

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of FreedomFrederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I expected to marvel at the story of Douglass, but I never quite expected how good a writer Blight would be. He has a beautiful way with structuring paragraphs and sentences.

And it is intellectually a delight. Really capturing Douglass as thinker, including as a theological one.

And I appreciate the approach to Douglass as a Founding Father of the refounding of the Republic during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

I'm not sure I've read an American biography as well written as this one. So besides Douglass's own works, this too surely will enter the canon of American literature.


View all my reviews

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, and Spy

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyBonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I learned so much about Bonhoeffer, about whom I thought I knew a decent amount. But what was best about this book was that it was encouraging, in the strictest sense of the word, in that it gave me courage. Right now, in the midst of our current crises, it was very good to read about how other people of faith grappled with their crisis and faced it with courage and a zest for life.

"He saw it as an act of faith in God to step out in freedom and not to cringe from future possibilities."

And this direct quote from Bonhoeffer, "To renounce a full life and its real joys in order to avoid pain is neither Christian nor human."

And also this quote from him, "It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith."

A reminder that we are inheritors of a proud, courageous legacy.

View all my reviews

The Fetterman Massacre

The Fetterman MassacreThe Fetterman Massacre by Dee Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in the Nebraska Panhandle, the most exciting thing for me was the surprising collection of Native American artifacts that the family which once owned the ranch on which the fossils were discovered, had been given by their Native American friends. And the most surprising of those items was the war club American Horse used to kill Captain Fetterman. I distinctly went "Wow!" when I read the label posted by the club.

Now, this volume tells a different story of Fetterman's end--that he and a partner took their lives rather than being killed by the Lakota and their allies. I Googled and learned that this is a discrepancy between Native and Military versions of the story. Prior to reading this book, I had only read about the massacre and Red Cloud's war from accounts by or sympathetic to the Native perspective.

Last summer I bought this volume from the gift shop at Fort Hartsuff in the Nebraska Sandhills and finally read it while on vacation in the Black Hills this summer. It is a detailed account of the establishment and short life of Fort Phil Kearny and the famous massacre which helped contribute to Red Cloud's victory in his war against the United States and the ultimate disestablishment of the fort. So, if you like histories of the West or of the military, you'll enjoy this volume.

View all my reviews

Breaking White Supremacy

Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social GospelBreaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel by Gary J. Dorrien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dorrien's second volume in his history of the Black Social Gospel is not as strong as the first volume. That is partly because so much in the first volume is a revelation--learning about people, ideas, and movements that one was unlikely to be well acquainted with before. This volume covers more familiar ground.

The opening chapters lay the groundwork of connecting the DuBois generation to the King generation, so those chapters are more like the first volume, with good introductions to Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

I thought that the King chapters dragged on, particularly because I've read better accounts from both historians and religious scholars. These chapters didn't really break any new ground, though they did a better job of interpreting King in light of this long tradition and set up his abiding theological influence.

The final chapter is on the initial development of Black Liberation Theology and then closes with the spotlight on Pauli Murray as a figure on the fringes of the story told throughout the book. Dorrien presents her as a model for what would come in Mainline Christianity--"an all-are-welcome version of the social gospel with a feminist sensibility and a passionate commitment to renewing the civil rights movement." I've been wanting to know more about Murray for a while, and this gave me more, but also deepened my hunger to read more about her.

Dorrien doesn't plan a third volume, but there really could be a third discussing developments in Black Theology since the 1970's.

View all my reviews

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of CrisisThe Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis by Alan Jacobs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Some months ago this book was reviewed in The Christian Century and I put it on my to-read list. Last week looking for some work-related books to order, I saw this on the list and thought "That might be relevant to our moment" so I ordered it and have already finished it.

The book focuses on five thinkers--Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, and Simone Weil--as they imagined what the future should be like after the Second World War. The key idea was that "miseducation had left the ordinary citizens of Western democracies in helpless thrall to the propagandistic machinations of unscrupulous nationalist movements," so they reimagined what education could/should do. A key theme was that they were critical of the technological fixes so fascinated upon by many in the West.

Jacobs is clear at the end that the changes these folks imagined did not occur. In many ways, it is a pessimistic book.

I did find some ideas that might be helpful to our current moment, and I did order one Auden book and one Eliot book that I haven't read. Also, there's one really excellent Bonhoeffer quote in the book.

View all my reviews

The City and Man

The City and ManThe City and Man by Leo Strauss
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A congregant who was a retired political science professor died last year and because he and I had engaged in various philosophical discussions over the years, I was able to select some books from his library. He was a student of Strauss, so there were a handful of Strauss' books to choose from.

This volume is made up of three long essays--one on Aristotle's Politics, one on Plato's Republic, and one on Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. In each essay there are some interesting insights, but overall I found Strauss to be a most infelicitous writer. The final essay was by far the best and the most interesting, making me want to read Thucydides in full (I've only ever read excerpts).

An overarching theme seems to be doing what is practical and realistic in politics.

View all my reviews

A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague YearA Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"A plague is a formidable enemy, and is armed with terrors that every man is not sufficiently fortified to resist or prepared to stand the shock against."

I had actually been contemplating reading this book of Defoe's sometime this year anyway. I had picked up my copy at the church's used book sale last year. A few weeks ago I decided it was timely.

The historical perspective helps to break us out of the fierce urgency of the now, reminding us of what remains the same and also that this too shall pass.

What Defoe describes is far more frightening than what we are currently encountering, at least here in Nebraska. And in this book about the 1665 London plague you encounter all the same issues we are in 2020.

I particularly liked reading his discussions of churches and clergy and how they ministered through the devastation. He is very severe on those ministers who ran away to avoid it all.

There's wisdom here as well, such as "Nobody can account for the possession of fear when it takes hold of the mind."

Also sobering. In the last few days I've read some article predicting we will be better after this crisis. Defoe writes about how the people of London were actually worse because they had been "hardened by the danger they had been in."

And I intend to begin using the phrase he does on the final page of the book, "This calamitous year."

View all my reviews

Benjamin Mays

The first post in this series as I read Gary Dorrien's Breaking White Supremacy, on the history of Black Social Gospel Theology, was about Mordecai Johnson.

Mays

In chapter 3 of the book, entitled "Moral Politics and the Soul of the World" Dorrien features Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman while discussing their interactions and Gandhi and influences upon King.  First Benjamin Mays.

The longtime President of Morehouse College grew up in South Carolina.  He said of this childhood, "The experiences I had in my most impressionable years, hearing and seeing the mob, observing the way my people were treated, noting the way in which they responded to this treatment, never having developed any white friends in the county, and living all my early years in a rented house--all this left me with a feeling of alienation from the country of my birth."  He described growing up in this segregated world that "the wings of ambition were crushed at birth."

Attending Old Mount Zion church where James F. Marshall was pastor, Mays later described Marshall's gospel--"primarily an opiate to enable them to endure and survive the oppressive conditions under which they lived at the hands of the white people in the community."  

Mays determined to pursue an education to have something more out of life.  In college he described feeling at home in the universe.  Inspired by the socialist Eugene Debs, Mays wanted a heroic Jesus, not meek and mild.  In seminary he learned and adopted the latest liberal thinking.  In his dissertation entitled "Pagan Survivals in Christianity," he argued that acknowledging these meant that "Christianity was inevitably bound up with the environmental forces of the Roman world; that it is an evolutionary movement; and must be modified, as all movements are, by its environment."

Dorrien records that Mays was fond of saying that "no person is free who backs away from the truth."

In a landmark early study, Mays criticized the black church for its conservative theology and failure to grapple with social issues.  But this wasn't really their fault as this resulted from oppression.  He did admire it as a "genuinely democratic fellowship."

Mays embraced the black social gospel--"It does not encourage one to wait for justice in the other world.  It does not dissipate itself in mere feeling."  Rather, "It tends to give one poise and balance to struggle for social righteousness here on the earth."

Mays was one of the first scholars to contend that there was a unique theological contribution in the black church where their ideas of God were "chiseled out of the very fabric of the social struggle."

Mays became a leader in the international ecumenical movement, which brought him to India and an important meeting with Gandhi in 1937.  He brought Gandhi's message of nonviolent resistance back to the US and began to write and speak about it.  

He was a part of international efforts of Christians to challenge the rise of Fascism in Europe, but her feared that the movement was too late.  He was discouraged when ecumenical statements of denominations were not embraced by congregations; he wrote "social custom makes cowards of most Christians and I fear the majority of ministers."  He proclaimed that "When the church truly repents, let us not deceive ourselves, it will be a suffering church."

Racism and a problem created by modern Christianity arising from the colonial project of European powers.  He wrote, "It is the modern church that again crucifies the body of Christ on a racial cross."  He authored the Federal Council of the Churches 1946 condemnation of segregation.  

He held out hope for a transformative movement--"If Germany through brutal means can build a kingdom evil in one decade and if Russia, through brutal processes, construct a new order in two decades, we can democratize and Christianize America in one generation."

Dorrien contends that Mays's most important legacy was his mentorship of his student Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dorrien writes that King chose Mays as a model when leadership in the movement was thrust upon him as a young age.

May declared, "I just want to be human and be allowed to walk the earth with dignity."