What We’ve Been Reading

Quarterly Recommendations from the Editors

Going forward we are introducing a new, quarterly feature here at American Reformer: quarterly reading recommendations from the editorial staff, and sometimes other friends and contributors. This is not particularly innovative, but we thought you, dear reader, should know what we’re thinking about. We value accountability and transparency like that. Below you will find brief summaries from and thoughts on books Ben Dunson (contributing editor), Terry Gant (managing editor), and myself (editor-in-chief) have been consuming over the past few months–Ben wrote the most because he reads the most.

We hope you enjoy it. Happy New Year!

Timon Cline, Editor-in-Chief:

At this point, everyone knows I’m an unapologetic New England supremacist. True to form, I want to highlight a few on brand books I’ve been reading during the last quarter of 2023. First up, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past by Margaret Bendroth. I’ve never seen anyone cite this one, but they should. Bendroth, in a sense passionately and in another sense dispassionately, tracks the nineteenth-century Congregationalist clinging to their historic identity amidst its decline. At American Reformer, we are obviously interested in restoring an American Protestant consciousness. Bendroth’s book is instructive. Learning from failure is key. Ultimately, however, the demise of Congregationalism is a story of market forces and one eclipsed today by interest in neo-evangelicalism. But again, Bendroth wants to tell the story about Congregationalism’s culture and, indeed, nation-shaping influence. She defies the typical and tired narratives of the mainline as stodgy and irrationally formalist, and that this was the source of a self-inflicted death. Instead, she presents lessons, venerable lessons, on the use of history—as the nineteenth century mainline did—to instill self-confidence and rootedness, if only for a time. There’s something to emulate here. Congregationalists, from New England to the Midwest, maintained an intense sense of obligation to the past and thereby an acute consciousness of Providence, and, by extension, a preference for order and stability that was not artificial but historic and organic. History and repetition of historical narratives kept the Congregationalist mainline going amidst radical and violent social change and religious competition. They kept telling stories about themselves and calling members to live up to more ancient and venerable standards, an inheritance. More than their own vitality, this practice and sensibility supplied national confidence and, contra mainstream and convenient narratives, did not diminish piety. These are, at least, some of the ingredients of the mainline in its heyday, and one’s we should readopt, if critically.

Sticking with the New England theme are two other entries. First, Stacy Shiff’s new biography of Samuel Adams, The Revolutionary. I am on a quest to read all the biographies of one of our most forgotten and caricatured founders, as well as his collected writings—I’m about halfway done with the latter. By Ira Stoll’s count, only nine books have been written on the lesser Adams cousin, excepting Schiff’s and Stoll’s but including one by the maltster’s own ancestor. Schiff’s take is not particularly innovative, but it is sympathetic and, in my estimate, fair, albeit she is heavy on accusing Adams of outright and cynical fabrication in his press propaganda whereas I would characterize such efforts more nobly. Moreover, Stoll is truer to Adams and his milieu in his emphasis on the man’s piety and religious motivations. These are constant themes in his book, and rightly so. Schiff does not ignore them but occupies a more contemporary mindset by situating them as one among many influences, and, perhaps, more often a polemical convenience rather than earnest conviction. That is to say, the eighteenth-century New England social imaginary is not sufficiently tapped by the new biography. That said, Schiff is an absolutely brilliant storyteller, and her prose should be mimicked by all historians. More people would read history were it told in the same style.

Second, and sticking with the Adams family, Household Gods, from Sara Georgini. It’s a religious biography of the clan stretching from John and Abigail to Henry and Brooks Adams—on Henry, see chapter four of Michael Knox Beran’s WASPS. I’m about a quarter of the way through so the jury is still out, but the approach is engaging if pessimistic. Of course, our second president was, by all accounts, less orthodox than his cousin and so it is no surprise to discover where Unitarian roads lead a century after the death of the patriarch. And yet, for all their heterodoxy and eventual apathy, Georgini describes the Peacefield Adams’s as inhabiting a “cosmopolitan Christianity,” which is to say that, as with most Americans of the nineteenth century, Christianity supplied the “cultural framework.” Everything else was layered on top or adjusted to fit within said framework, even neo-classicism and late-century skepticism.

Lastly, and departing from the New England theme only in the explicit and obvious sense, I have just begun The Rise and Fall of the Papacy by Patrick Craig Truglia and published by the little-known Uncut Mountain Press. A full review is forthcoming, so I won’t spoil it here—content, content, content! —but Truglia writes from an Eastern Orthodox perspective and, surveying the first eleven centuries of church history, especially the ecumenical councils, argues for the late aberration of papal supremacy. He further contests the conventional, western (i.e., Roman) narrative of the Great Schism. This seems, thus far, to be an excellent resource for Protestants who, on this front, are closer to the East than the West.

Terry Gant, Managing Editor:

I am currently finishing up Notes From Underground by Dostoyevsky. I teach this book and it is always a sleeper hit for my high school students. Notes is the long-lost ancestor of modern dystopian literature and a particularly interesting book for men who regard modern society with suspicion or antipathy. Though the censors in Tsarist Russia stripped most of the overt Christian references from the book, Christ is conspicuous by his absence, and I find myself hoping that the protagonist will find Jesus before the end, even though I know how it ends. This is a book ahead of its time and it anticipates a great deal of the social trends of our modern day. It is also a very good entry point to Dostoyevsky and Russian literature in general. If you have ever wanted to try to get into that genre, this book is not very daunting as it is only novella length and a very interesting fiction story mixed with philosophy and psychological exploration of a unique character.

Next up I am going to read the almost unknown contemporary fiction book, Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorpe. This is the book upon which Die Hard was based and it preceded the movie. Curious to see if they line up. I am reading this as a prep for my podcast Script v. Manuscript in which my co-host and I compare books to their film counterparts.

I am still in the middle of Executive Power in Great States by Jacques Necker. Necker was a Swiss protestant brought in to fix the finances of the French Government under Louis XV and XVI. They chose a protestant to do it because the reputation of protestants in France at the time was that they were financially literate and thrifty. Necker was mostly successful, but he made too many enemies and got himself ousted. His political writings are rather extensive. This particular work is a close look at what executive power should entail. Post-revolution, Necker was annoyed at how the legislative branch of France took all the power from the executive and, in his opinion, this led to significant dysfunction. It is a very interesting read on governmental structure from a source that was generally friendly toward English and American understandings of the executive branch but was also heavily influenced by French and Swiss political thought. The edition I am using is published by Liberty Fund and is really great.

Ben C. Dunson, Founding and Contributing Editor:

In 2023 I read many biographies, including Andrew Robert’s Napoleon (as well as Robert’s The Last King of America, an outstanding biography of George III which will be of great interest to anyone wanting to expand their knowledge of America’s founding). I wanted to learn more about the era of the Napoleonic Wars in general and have usually found biographies to be the most enjoyable way of diving into a broader subject. I was not disappointed: Napoleon’s entire life is fascinating, his obscure origins in Corsica, his rise to the pinnacle of European power, his exile on the island of Elba, his escape and subsequent downfall at the battle of Waterloo, and his final exile and death on the remote island of St. Helena. Immediately prior to reading Roberts’ biography I finally got around to reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. That too was enjoyable, even if my endurance flagged from time to time. One thing that anyone who has read War and Peace is likely to remember is Tolstoy’s running polemic against the “Great Man” theory of history (popularized by the nineteenth-century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle). Tolstoy (in both the fictional sections and the historiographical asides) took great pains to try to show that it is the fateful factors outside of human control, rather than the will of important men, that determines how world events will unfold. There is certainly some truth in this: something as simple as a single order of battle not delivered can shape the destiny of nations for centuries. But some men, by sheer force of will, really do exercise outsized influence on the course of human affairs. Napoleon is one of them, and it was not just with regard to his military successes. In fact, one of the most enduring legacies of Napoleon is his ability to consolidate the French Revolution. He had an instinctive understanding of which aspects of the Revolution would prove to be enduringly popular among the masses, and which would not. He knew that trying to remove religion completely from public life was a dead-end, just as he understood the unpopularity of trying to create an entirely new calendar and ten-day week, both of which the French Revolutionaries attempted. But he also knew that the people would never countenance going back to the days of the Ancien Régime of the old monarchy. He adeptly elevated those aspects of the French Revolution that the majority of people supported, while abandoning those that proved to make life unpleasant for the common man. Could someone do something like that today? Elon Musk comes to mind. Despite the claims of leftists who gnash their teeth at the fact that their political enemies are able to speak freely online, Musk is most certainly not right-wing or socially conservative. He is instead an old school, classical liberal who recognizes that the tenets of classical liberalism (maximal human freedom in all areas of life) are most likely to be maintained if the excesses are removed. Thus, he supports law-and-order, colorblindness regarding race, and is opposed to contemporary woke insanity, among other things. For better or for worse, his influence and wide popularity could enable him to do for contemporary liberalism what Napoleon did for the French Revolution.

Reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Ulysses S. Grant prompted me to turn to Grant’s own memoirs. I found Grant to be an extremely sympathetic figure and was fascinated by his rise in such a short period of time from near total failure to the highest realms of power in the world. It thus seemed appropriate that I would then read a biography of Robert E. Lee. Lee (published in 1961) is a one-volume abridgment by Richard Harwell of Douglas Southall Freeman’s Pulitzer-Prize winning four-volume R.E. Lee (published in 1934). Lee is enduringly popular, though it has unsurprisingly been attacked in recent years for painting too sympathetic a portrait of Lee. Allen Guelzo’s 2021 biography is purportedly more even-handed, but to start out my study of Lee I decided a sympathetic portrait would be preferred. There is nothing more annoying that a biography written by an author who clearly loathes his subject. As with Roberts’ Napoleon I was not disappointed. Freeman’s book reveals a man who was in nearly every way the opposite of Grant: disciplined, aristocratic, successful in nearly everything he attempted (until the end of the Civil War). There is much that can be said about Lee’s life, but what was most striking to me was Freeman’s quotation (p. 93) from an 1856 letter of Lee’s where he addresses slavery:

“In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. . . . Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day.”

Apart from a very small minority of radical abolitionists, such views were mainstream even in the North at the outset of the Civil War. Slavery was recognized to be an unjust institution, but the precise way to end it without creating huge problems for society and the slaves themselves proved perplexing to most people. It is unfathomable to many today how anything other than instant and total abolition could be argued for, but as many men (including men like John Witherspoon) understood, freeing the slaves without (among other things) educating them and giving them vocational skills would have sent them out into a hostile world without the ability to even take care of themselves and their families. The study of history reveals men to be much more complex than we often wish were the case, and is a good reminder that what seems obvious to us only does so because we’re on the other side of monumental historical changes. I agree with the words Grant himself wrote in his memoirs:

“I would like to see truthful history written. Such history will do full credit to the courage, endurance and soldierly ability of the American citizen, no matter what section of the country he hailed from, or in what ranks he fought.”

When studying history many would prefer mythical symbols of absolute righteousness, to be deployed solely to score points in contemporary political battles. Truthful history reveals much more complex (and flawed) individuals, men just like ourselves. Freeman’s Lee, Chernow’s Grant, and Grant’s Memoirs, all in different ways, do “full credit to the courage, endurance and soldierly ability” of these giants of America’s past.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

One thought on “What We’ve Been Reading

  1. Thank you for these suggestions and descriptions. I have read only Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I look forward to reading Lee and Grant. I agree biography is easiest to approach a historical figure. The desire for myth over complicated heros and villains is our default. I’m at the age where I am now preferring truth, unvarnished and blunt. Recently heard of American Reformer. Looking forward to exploring your writings.

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