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Tim Challies

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6 years 8 months ago
I am a little bit late to the party with this book. Released in hardcover in 2001 and paperback in 2002, John Adams is regarded as one of David McCullough’s greatest achievements. This is no little praise for a man who had previously won a Pulitzer prize (for his biography of Harry Truman)—a reward he was to receive again for John Adams. The precursor to 2005’s 1776, this is a stirring biography and one of the best I’ve ever read. Like McCullough’s other titles, this book is not hard to read and never bogs down in detail. Instead it is fast-moving and gripping, reading almost like a novel.

I am no scholar and am unequipped to comment on the accuracy of McCullough’s portrait of Adams. I will leave that to the historians. So rather than provide a blow-by-blow account of Adams’s life, let me simply suggest a few of the lessons and observations I drew from this book.

John Adams loved life and sought to truly enjoy it. Even in his final days, when he was ill and suffering from fading eyesight, he continued to enjoy his life. He loved sharing life with others. He was content to live a simple life consumed with hard work and lots of good books. His greatest pleasures were his wife, his books, and his friends. Though his life was often difficult and though he was often the subject of vicious personal attacks, he really seemed to relish life and seemed loathe to waste even a day of it. I was inspired by his desire to enjoy life, even through its tough moments.

Adams loved and respected his wife in a deep and abiding way. His long and frequent separations from her were the greatest trials he faced in life and he really seemed to be only half a man without her. At one point she is described as his “ballast”—a term I can well identify with as my life continues and as the love for my wife continues to grow. Adams loved Abigail more than anyone and his affection was clear throughout their long marriage. Adams lived a life free from scandal—or at least the kind of moral scandal that plagued contemporaries like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. His wife kept him grounded and was his best friend and closest confidante—just the way I would want it in my life.

From this book we can learn the importance of a father’s involvement in the raising of his family. Adams was often called overseas and he served many years away from his family. Later in life at least two of his children became alcoholics and essentially wasted their lives. Though John Quincy went on to fame and became the nation’s sixth President, both Thomas and Charles struggled through life. Reflecting on being a father, Adams seems to have accepted some of the blame for their ways, acknowledging that his long absences from the family deprived them of the father they needed.

I would have enjoyed reading more about Adams’s religious beliefs and practices. McCullough made it clear that Adams claimed to love some kind of deity and that he was a committed church-goer who had respect and affection for many clergymen, but what was less clear was just what he believed about this God. Looking elsewhere it seems reasonably clear that Adams was more deist than Christian, but this did not come through clearly in the book. A little more attention to Adams’s religious beliefs, as important as they were to the rest of his life and to the founding of the nation, would have been welcome.

Like John Adams I find reading to be a source of great pleasure. Reading this book was pleasurable—not just in learning about a man of such importance, but also just in the act of reading. McCullough is a masterful communicator. This book could so easily have been dry and disinteresting, but with his treatment it has become as good a biography as I’ve ever read. It is a must-read for anyone with an interest in American history or with a particular interest in biographies. I can’t recommend it enough.

The book is available in both paperback and hardcover with a $10 difference between them. If you’re going to buy it, I recommend the hardcover. It’s well worth the extra few dollars!

7 years 2 months ago
I began reading Manhunt on the Monday morning of a long weekend. By the end of the day I had accomplished none of the chores and errands I had hoped to scratch off my list, but instead found myself 350 pages into this book. I eventually pried myself away long enough to get some sleep and then promptly finished it up the next morning. Though I am a lover of history, rarely has my attention been held as long and as rapt as with this work of non-fiction.

The details of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination are popular knowledge. John Wilkes Booth, a southern actor who was enraged by the northern victories and the surrender of the Confederate States of America, crept up behind the President while he was watching a play at Ford’s Theater. After fatally shooting Lincoln in the head, Booth leaped to the stage (breaking his leg in the process), gave a cry of triumph, and disappeared into the night. For twelve days he was the most wanted man in America and the nation’s eyes were turned upon multitudes of manhunters as they relentlessly pursued the assassin. A patrol of soldiers eventually tracked him to a farm in Virginia where he was shot and killed. The story of his days on the run serve as the subject for James Swanson’s New York Times bestselling Manhunt.

More than a sketch of Booth’s final days, the book looks also to the rest of the conspirators and to their victims. The plot to kill Lincoln was, after all, to involve killing the Vice President (whose assassin lacked the courage to make an attempt on his life) and the Secretary of State (who was badly injured but survived). Booth hoped that his team would decapitate the Union government and turn northern sentiment against the war.

Perhaps the greatest irony of Booth’s plot is that, though it seemed to succeed, it was ultimately a terrible failure. While he had hoped to be seen as a hero, even much Southern sentiment turned against him for his dishonorable act of taking the life of the President. Booth was reviled and hated and, because he was on the run, was not able to explain or to justify his action. The fame he wanted came only in death. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s death raised his status so he is known today as one of the greatest Americans in history and is routinely declared the greatest President. Booth, for many years regarded as one of history’s greatest scoundrels, eventually saw his reputation change to something of an antihero. He entered folklore as a tragic, romantic assassin. The ideology that drove him to assassinate the President is largely forgotten. By any measure but the most immediate, he was a failure.

The book is a bit melodramatic at times, though it could be well argued that the flowery, almost Victorian prose does match the time period of the subject matter. But this is a small complaint and one hardly worth considering against the joy of reading this book. For months I looked at this book as it sat on the bestseller lists and eventually decided to purchase it. For a few weeks more it sat on my shelf before I decided to read it. And now I am grateful that I did. A great choice for summer reading, Manhunt represents a great effort at making history come to life. I gladly recommend it to anyone.

7 years 3 months ago
I have long been fascinated with Abraham Lincoln. I first encountered him during a family vacation in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Touring the battlefields and the surrounding area we came to that place where he delivered the Gettysburg Address which has rightly gone done in history as one of the greatest English literary accomplishments. A few years later we traveled to Springfield and visited the home where he lived while practicing law. It was there that we found a small book titled Abraham Lincoln: The Man and His Faith. This book traced not only Lincoln’s life but also his Christian faith. Though since his childhood he had lived a life free from serious moral blemish, it seems he did not come to trust in Christ until shortly before his death. And, in fact, it seems that his time spent touring the ravaged fields of Gettysburg served to turn his affections upward to the only One who could bring home from such devastation. But, because the book’s focus was narrow, I have turned to other biographies to provide a more thorough view of his life.

David Herbert Donald’s biography of the man, titled simply Lincoln, gives the life of Lincoln in 700 pages. The author begins by recounting the one time he met President John F. Kennedy. After Donald delivered an address about Lincoln at the White House, Kennedy, surely thinking of how his own administration would be judged, said “No one has a right to grade a President—not even poor James Buchanan—who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.” This book was conceived in that spirit. Donald says “I have asked at every stage of his career what he knew when he had to take critical actions, how he evaluated the evidence before him, and why he reached his decisions. It is, then, a biography written from Lincoln’s point of view, using the information and ideas that were available to him. It seeks to explain rather than to judge.”

The book is based largely on Lincoln’s own words through letters, messages or conversations that were subsequently recorded. Donald depends far more on primary sources than on secondary. And generally I’d say this approach works well. In my experience reflection on good biographies will show they fall into one of two camps. In the first the reader feels as if he has spent time with a scholar whose expertise is the subject of the book. In the second the reader feels as if he has spent time with the subject himself. In the case of Lincoln I’d suggest I felt more of the former than the latter. While Donald let Lincoln speak for himself, somehow it still did not translate to feeling as if Lincoln had been the voice of the book. I offer this less as a criticism and more as an observation as I truly did enjoy this biography. It was thorough without being laborious, detailed without being dense.

With the exception of Jesus, Lincoln may well be the man who has been the subject of the most biographies, and this with good reason. He led a fascinating life that in so many ways epitomizes the American dream, rising from abject poverty to lead the nation. He was raised up to guide the nation through its darkest hour and, while meeting with his share of failure and disappointment, did an admirable job. And no sooner did he succeed than he was gone. His life has been an inspiration for generations. While Lincoln certainly deals honestly with the man’s flaws, in the end it shows him to be a truly great man. It helps us better understand the man who may well be, despite the multitudes of biographies, the least understood of all the Presidents.

7 years 4 months ago
Few recent books have so wide and so deep an impact as Arnold Dallimore’s magisterial biography of George Whitefield. The first volume, stretching from Whitefield’s birth in 1714 to his section visit to American in 1740 was published in 1970 and has since been reprinted six times. The second volume, which stretches from 1740 until Whitefield’s death in 1770, was published ten years later in 1980. It has been reprinted three times. Together the volumes comprise some 1200 pages of detailed biography. Rarely have I had a biography recommended to me by so many and by men of such distinction. Rarely have I benefited more from reading about another man’s life.

I have noticed a strange phenomenon with this biography. Where most books of this one’s scope and impact have been widely and thoroughly reviewed, this one seems to be an exception. As I attempted to write a review I may have found out why this is: it is very difficult to adequately sum up so much content in just a few words. And, as with any biography, it is difficult to measure and summarize the impact of such a book. Instead I am left doing what others have done—writing thoughts on the book that somehow seem disconnected and inadequate. Even Gary Gilley, a reviewer who is rarely lost for words, can write no more than this: “It would be difficult to lavish too much praise on Dallimore’s two volume biography of the famous eighteenth century evangelist George Whitefield. This is the definitive work of Whitefield’s life and ministry, dispelling many misconceptions while showing the true character and impact of this most remarkable man. Along the way the reader also receives valuable insight into the lives of the Wesleys, Jonathan Edwards and the Moravians. This is one of the greatest biographies ever written.”

The Foreword to the first volume is supplied by no one less than Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The Doctor suggests that he waited decades to find a thorough and authoritative biography of Whitefield, a man he regarded as a historical hero. This book, he felt, which appeared on the bi-centenary of Whitefield’s death, achieves the excellence Lloyd-Jones knew had long been missing. Reflecting on the life of the subject he writes “May the reading of this book produce in us the same spirit of utter submission, ready obedience, and unshakeable reliance upon the power of the Holy Spirit that characterized his life and ministry. Whitefield never drew attention to himself but always pointed people to his God and exalted his Lord and Savior. May he, though now dead for nearly 200 years, do the same for countless thousands through the reading of this book!” The intervening years, almost forty of them, have shown this to be the case.

This book’s subtitle, The life and times of the great evangelist of the 18th century revival, is important in understanding the book. Whitefield found himself one of the sparks of the the Great Awakening and the revival of the 18th century. While other men played important roles, Whitefield was the pin at the center of the wheel. His tireless itinerancy took his preaching ministry to almost every corner of the United Kingdom and to almost the whole of the settled portion of the United States. But for illness he would also have extended his ministry to Canada. Perhaps one of this book’s greatest contributions is in helping people separate the life and contributions of George Whitefield from those of John Wesley—a man who Whitefield always loved but who so often opposed him. This biographies shows conclusively that it was Whitefield’s ministry that sparked the awakening.

I was grateful to see that Dallimore deals fairly with Whitefield’s shortcomings in these volumes. This is no hagiography—worship of a saint that is free from difficult examinations of the subject’s failings. Though Dallimore has to confess that he finds surprisingly little fault with the man, he deals frankly and forthrightly with those areas in which Whitefield showed immaturity, poor judgment or poor discernment. He questions Whitefield’s decision to marry and the unusual circumstances surrounding his first rejected proposal of marriage. He does not shy from discussing Whitefield’s role in justifying and even promoting slavery in the colonies. He does not allow the passing of the years or his deep respect for his subject to mislead him or to excuse sin. Experience shows that this quality is surprisingly rare in such biographies.

Eminently readable despite its length and depth, this biography only reinforces my belief that biographies can be among the greatest catalysts to spiritual growth. It is a classic and one that takes its place among my favorite biographies along with such great titles as Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards (my review) and Dallimore’s own Spurgeon (my review). It will prove valuable to pastors or evangelists as they see the example of a man who labored tirelessly for the gospel; it will prove valuable to all Christians as they see the example of a man who labored tirelessly to grow even and ever closer to his Savior. Whitefield is a man who stands as an example to all of us. Dallimore has done us a great service in opening up to us the life of this great man of God.

Together these two volumes represent a financial investment that is not insignificant. Purchased together they are likely to cost at least sixty or seventy dollars. But I can testify, as can a long list of people of far greater wisdom and discernment than I, that they are well worth the investment.

7 years 5 months ago
That the name of William Wilberforce has largely been lost to history seems somehow unfair. Wilberforce was the driving force behind the abolition of slavery within the British Empire. A Member of Parliament for forty-five years, the results of his efforts are still seen and understood in Western society to this day. Though his impact was felt not only at his time, but has extended through history, few people know his name. In Amazing Grace, Eric Metaxas’ new biography of Wilberforce, which was timed to coincide with the release of a film by the same title (which was, in turn, timed to coincide with the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade) he makes the valid comparison to a scientist who discovers the cure for an inoculation against a terrible disease. As the disease is eradicated and passes out of memory, so the scientist’s name is likely to be forgotten. And this is what seems to have happened to Wilberforce. We live in a day where slavery is unthinkable and we can hardly conceive of a time when the best and brightest of society defended it and thought little of pillaging the African continent for their own gain.

Though those of us who remember Wilberforce know him primarily as the leader of the fight to abolish the slave trade, the truth is that he fought to great battles, the first against slavery and the second for the reformation of manners (which is to say a kind of social reform against rampant immorality and vice). While this biography focuses primarily on the first of these battles, the second does receive some attention as well. Life in Wilberforce’s day was brutal, decadent, violent and vulgar. Societal evils were many and horrific: “epidemic alcoholism, child prostitution, child labor, frequent public executions for petty crimes, public dissections and burnings of executed criminals, and unspeakable public cruelty to animals.” All of these were far more visible than slavery. Wilberforce knew that, if society was to be brought into line with the commandments of God, it would need to begin with the reformation of manners and he spent much of his life attempting to ban what was vulgar and unbiblical and to promote what was beautiful and Scriptural, knowing that success in the small things would eventually lead to success in greater things. Wilberforce has rightly been credited with giving the West its social conscience.

Having read this biography, there are at least three great lessons I have drawn from the life of this great Christian. First, I have seen the value of persistence. Wilberforce fought for years and years before seeing any measurable success in his battle to outlaw the slave trade. Had he not persisted, it may have taken many more years and hundreds of thousands of lives for the trade to be abolished. Second, I have seen that there is hope even more the most evil of the many evils in our society. There was a time when very few could have imagined that slavery would ever be banned and yet, in one lifetime, attitudes were changed so that today slavery is almost unimaginable. As we think about the evils that plague contemporary society we can have hope that minds, hearts and attitudes can change. Third, I have seen the value of incremental change for Wilberforce was willing to accept incremental improvements. At one point he supported a bill, passed on a trial basis, that would regulate the number of slaves that were permitted to be transported on a single ship. Previously slaves had been laid in rows on benches, chained on their sides with the front of one pressed against the back of the next. Following the legislation, improvements were made. Though the bill implicitly and explicitly supported the continuance of slavery, Wilberforce saw it as a step in the right direction and was willing to support it. Another time he voted for a bill that required plantation owners to register all of their slaves. While this bill also supported slavery, Wilberforce saw that a registry of slaves would keep plantation owners from adding to their number of slaves by buying them from illegal slave smugglers. Incremental changes may lead to greater and more profound changes.

Some who have read the book have made note of the author’s occasional use of sophomoric humor. Though there are several examples, perhaps the most blatant falls outside of the flow of the book’s text in the Acknowledgments. “I wish first and foremost to thank my typist, yours truly, for quite literally transcribing my thoughts as I thought them, a feat hardly to be explained, and yet quite literally true.” I suppose some find this kind of humor to be funny but in a serious biography it seems a little out of place. Other examples are less obvious and are perhaps more clever than obnoxious: “Wilberforce may have been crazy like a fox, but Fox himself was so often drunk as the proverbial skunk that Wilberforce wisely decided to forego badgering him about becoming involved. Even if Fox had initially assented to lend his name to the cause, it seems rather likely that he may have eventually weaseled out of any real commitment anyway, and it is always possible that, given his affection for dissolute living, he may even have become a mole for the opposition.” If you missed the humor in that paragraph, read it again and you should catch it.

Though the author’s expression can seem a trifle obnoxious at times, this is true more in the early pages than in the majority of the text. The reader who presses on will be richly rewarded, not only with great content but even with some excellent prose, a brief example of which I will provide here. “And thus, history: three men, each named William, each twenty-seven years old, talking at the base of an ancient oak tree on a hill in May: one prime minister, one prime-minister-to-be, and one who would stand from that moment forward at the center of something so big and beyond any single man that a tree whose life had begun several centuries earlier, and would continue for nearly two more, was the humble creature chosen to bear mute witness to the conversation.”

Despite its few problems, and though this may not be among the greatest biographies ever written, it is certainly a good one and is a worthy addition to any library, personal, church or public. It wonderfully describes and analyzes the life of a great Christian man who can and should serve as an inspiration even today. I enjoyed it thoroughly and commend it to you.

7 years 6 months ago
On the face of it, or judging by the title, A Scottish Christian Heritage does not sound like the kind of book many people would enjoy. It sounds like a book that will dwell on a narrow topic and one that will be of interest to only a select group of people. But those of us who appreciate the writing ministry of Iain Murray know that what he writes is always worth reading.

The last few years have seen the publication of several books defending the view that, for a country of its size, Scotland has had an inordinate influence on history and, thus, on the world as we know it today (and I believe the most popular of these has been this title). The Scots are a remarkable people and one that has surely had a great influence on Reformed Christianity. Yet, while this book praises the rich Christian heritage of Scotland, it is not a praise of Scotland as such. “These pages are not principally about books. The theme is rather people and movements; yet the books from those times bring the abiding spiritual lessons to us and prevent the history becoming an exercise in nostalgia.”

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Murray writes brief biographies of several great Scottish Christians—John Knox, Robert Bruce, Thomas Chalmers, John MacDonald and Horatius Bonar. He looks at their lives and then, similar to what John Piper does in his “The Swans are not Silent” series, reflects on their contributions to the church or on lessons we can draw from their lives. He examines their lives thematically, showing where each of them was used by God to lead and strengthen the church.

In the second part he writes about Scottish missionaries, initially discussing the missionary spirit that arose from within Scotland and then pausing to focus on Robert Moffat, the great missionary to South Africa. There are two predominant lessons in this section: first that a missionary spirit arises first in the lives of individual men and women and that its strength will always correspond with the strength of their spiritual stature; and second that a missionary spirit is founded on the basis of biblical truth.

The book’s third part covers church issues and begins with a look at Scottish churches and Christian unity in Scottish church history. Though I am not a preacher, the chapter on “Scottish Preaching” was, strangely enough, probably my favorite. The chapter begins with a discussion of some of the criticisms of Scottish preaching—primarily that it was known for being strong in doctrine but weak in feelings and affections. This leads Murray into a fascinating look at expository preaching and the benefits and drawbacks of this method of preaching. While Murray deserves to be heard on just about any issue he decides to write about, it seems that his encyclopedic knowledge of church history should lead us to listen to what he says on this topic in particular. He concludes that exposition in a consecutive series is a great model, but one that may not fit the abilities of every preacher (with Charles Spurgeon standing as an obvious example of one who felt he would not be able to be effective with this format). Murray deals with both the pros and cons of this model of preaching. This chapter alone made the book seem a treasure to me.

The book’s final two chapters discuss the Scottish view of the eldership and the tragedy that was the Free Church of Scotland and their descent into liberalism.

No chapter in this book is without some application to the contemporary church. In many ways these glimpses at Scotland’s contribution to the church serve as a jumping-off point for the discussion of a variety of issues facing the church today. Through an examination of Scotland’s great preachers and missionaries, and through the discussion of issues faced by this nation’s churches, we get a glimpse of the blessings and failings of the church of our day. The old adage says that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” These words are true, for by looking to the lessons of history, we educate ourselves and prepare ourselves for the trials we face today. In A Scottish Christian Heritage Iain Murray has done a masterful job of informing and edifying the church by drawing lessons from the history of just one small but influential nation. I recommend this book for any Christian, but particularly those in positions of leadership.

7 years 10 months ago
War is terrible. It’s an understatement, I know, and something that is almost too obvious to bother saying. Yet the horrors of war can only really be understood, it seems, by those who have been involved in them. In the annals of warfare, few battles have been more brutal than the battle of Iwo Jima. Those who survived this battle were changed forever. James Bradley’s father was one of those survivors. But he was more. He was one of the six men who have been immortalized in what quickly became the world’s most famous and most reproduced photograph. The image of six men raising a flag over Iwo Jima became a national symbol and a rallying point during what was a long and costly war. The six men who raised this flag were lauded as heroes, but the three who walked off the island were reluctant to accept this fame. John Bradley, James’ father, went on to live a long and productive life, but never spoke of the battle. Though his actions in the battle earned him a Navy Cross, he never considered himself a hero.
Hero. In that misunderstood and corrupted word, I think, lay the final reason for John Bradley’s silence.

Today the word “hero” has been diminished, confused with “celebrity.” But in my father’s generation the word meant something.

Celebrities seek fame. They take actions to get attention. Most often, the actions they take have no particular moral content. Heroes are heroes because they have risked something to help others. Their actions involve courage. Often, those heroes have been indifferent to the public’s attention. But at least, the hero could understand the focus of the emotion. However he valued or devalued his own achievement, it did stand as an accomplishment.

The moment that saddled my father with the label of “hero” contained no action worthy of remembering. When he was shown the photo for the first time, he had no idea what he was looking at. He did not recognize himself or any of the others. The raising of that pole was as forgettable as tying the laces of his boots.

 

Flags of our Fathers traces the lives of the six men who raised that flag over Iwo Jima. It follows them loosely through their early days and zooms in through the days of their military recruitment and training. It zooms in further to moment-by-moment action as they fought in the battle that defined their lives. Three of them would lose their lives before the battle ended. Two others would die younger than would seem right. Only one lived to old age. The fame they found, quite unintentionally, by raising the flag did not bring any of them true or lasting happiness.

This book is, then, a tribute to these six men on one level, but a tribute to all of those who fought in the battle of Iwo Jima on another level. It is the story behind the world’s most famous photographs and a defining piece of American history. But even more so, it is the story of six ordinary men who were called to do extraordinary things, but who found fame through doing something none of them considered at all remarkable.

Flags of our Fathers, while perhaps a little too melodramatic at times, reads almost like a movie script (and, in fact, it has recently been turned into a popular film). It is fast-moving and, quite honestly, just fascinating. It does a great job of mixing the history of events with the history of individuals. It brings out all manner of emotion. It never drags. It is a well-written book and one that is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in the subject matter.

7 years 10 months ago
As I make my way through the biographies of famous Christians of days past, I came across David Livingstone. Interestingly, Livingstone is a man best known not for something he said but for something that was said to him. “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” spoken to him by Henry Morton Stanley, is a phrase that has gone down in history. But for this phrase I suspect few people would remember Livingstone’s name.

Born in Scotland in 1813, Livingstone was converted to Christianity as a young man and, after studying theology and medicine, joined the London Missionary Society, becoming a minister. Though he desired to become a missionary to China, wars prevented him from travelling to that nation and instead he travelled to Africa and ministered to unreached tribes on that continent. This labor, a labor of love, consumed his life. He crossed the continent time and again, seeking to share the gospel, to map the continent, and to stop the slave trade. He sought to plant mission stations and to create opportunities for commerce that would provide industry in Africa that would prove more valuable than slaves. He was among the first Westerners to cross the African continent. He traveled until he was sixty years old when he finally fell ill and died in the wilderness. He received the great honor of being laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.

Livingstone was, in many ways, a flawed and tragic character. His ministry seemed to bear little fruit while he was alive. Though he was highly regarded as a man who loved the natives and sought to protect them from the slave trade, he witnessed few conversions and felt the weight of this apparent lack of success. While young he desired to be married so he could have a wife to share in his labors, and yet when he did marry, he left his family for extended periods of time, lasting even up to four years. And while he was blessed with several children, he barely knew them as his work so often kept him away. Eventually, when his wife was able to travel with him, she succumbed to a disease and died far from civilization. One has to wonder, legitimately I think, whether he ought to have married in the first place. It is painful to read about these extended separations.

Though flawed, Livingstone is an important character, perhaps more so than most people credit him for. He played a crucial role in the final abolition of the African slave trade and in the decision of the British to protect the natives. While this did not happen until after his death, it was a great triumph. David Livingstone: The Truth Behind the Legend by Rob Mackenzie tells Livingstone’s story and tells it well. It is easy to read and yet is deep and absorbing. Really my only complaint is that the book describes an area of the world with which I have no familiarity, and while there are several maps included in the book, I still found it very difficult to determine where Livingstone was and on what part of the continent he labored. A little more attention to geography would have been most helpful. Despite this, I enjoyed the book a great deal and found it made a good introduction to this legendary figure. I recommend it.

7 years 11 months ago
I came to realize not too long ago that, for a man of such importance, I knew shockingly little about Jonathan Edwards. I had some knowledge of the basic outline of his life and teachings, but knew little beyond that. Having heard so many positive reviews of George Marsden’s recent biography of the man, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, I turned to this book to learn more about this giant of the faith. I was richly rewarded. And if ever I have felt inadequate to the task of summarizing a book in just a few short paragraphs, this is the time.

Whether we are aware of it or not, most contemporary Calvinists are deeply indebted to Edwards. His defense of Calvinism in works such as Freedom of the Will have made a deep and lasting impact on Reformed theology. It did not take me long to realize that much of what I believe, much of what I have taught to others and much of what has been passed down to me originated with Edwards. A lifelong student of the Bible, he wrestled with the great doctrines of the Scriptures and expounded them for countless generations of other Christians. Truly his impact can hardly be exaggerated.

I have sometimes found that biographies can become bogged down with examinations of the most minute details of a person’s teaching. When I have been looking for the story of a person’s life I have instead found a thorough examination of the person’s thought and writing. I was pleased to see that, by and large, Marsden does a good job of incorporating Edwards’ teaching into the story of his life, rather than examining them as separate entities. A possible exception to this is in three of the final four chapters where he focuses on Edwards’ major theological treatises, but even here he summarizes them in a brief but satisfying way. He provides the framework of what made Edwards’ teaching unique without becoming bogged down with details. The book strikes that delicate balance between describing and explaining the subject as a father, pastor, revivalist and theologian. The biographer, while clearly holding Edwards in high esteem, seems objective and honest with his subject’s shortcomings and failings.

As I read about Jonathan Edwards, I could not help but draw comparisons to some of the great pastors and theologians who have lived since, but especially of John Piper who, in so many ways, is an Edwards to this generation. Piper has been so profoundly impacted by Edwards and, as I understand it, considers himself a teacher who brings before this generation the great work of men like Owen and Edwards. From what I know of his teaching and his life, he certainly does seem to exemplify the teachings and the ideals of his historical hero. Much of what has come from the mouth and the pen of Piper came first from the pen of Edwards.

Edwards is a towering figure in the history of the church and one whose impact will continue to be felt, I am sure, until the Lord returns. He lived a life that seemed both too difficult and too short. And yet he wasted scarcely a moment, dedicating his life to the great cause of defending and expounding biblical truths. This book surely presents Edwards as he was—a man who, though certainly flawed and sinful, was used greatly by God. Though he may have been brilliant in intellect, what makes Edwards such an important figure is his love for the Lord and his dedication to knowing Him more. These are ideals we can all imitate and all strive towards. Like any good biography of a follower of Christ, this one makes me long to mimic those aspects of the man that set him apart.

Praise for this book has been near-universal. I am glad to add my esteem for it as well. Jonathan Edwards: A Life is a great and stirring biography. It is a masterpiece.

8 years 2 weeks ago
I have only elementary knowledge of American history. This is shameful, really, as in high school and university I took at least two courses on American history and did quite well in them as memory serves. Still, somehow I have forgotten much that I ought to know. Popular history, books written about periods of the past but written in a narrative fashion rather than as dry history, have proven useful in refreshing my memory. Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower reminded me of the first days of the American colonies, and I have followed that with David McCullough’s 1776 which tells the story of what is easily the most pivotal, important year in America’s long and storied history.

Though it takes place during the war for independence, and though it concerns that conflict, 1776 is not a history of the war. Rather, it deals with a small slice of the wider campaign. Yet this year, being so pivotal, mirrors the course of the war, for it began with defeat and retreat, but ended with great victories. Though the American forces managed to avoid full-scale battles, they showed their commitment to the ideals of independence through a series of smaller but still important battles.

The book begins in England near the close of 1775. George III, King of England, stands before Parliament and declares the colonies to be in rebellion. “I need not dwell upon the fatal effects of such a plan. The object is too important, the spirit of the British nation too high, the resources with which God hath blessed her too numerous, to give up so many colonies which she has planted with great industry, nursed with great tenderness, encouraged with many commercial advantages, and protected and defended at much expense of blood and treasure.” And so he committed his forces to furthering the conflict and to crushing the opposition.

The closing pages of the book relay King George’s words at the opening of the next year’s Parliament. “Nothing could have afforded me so much satisfaction as to have been able to inform you … that my unhappy people [in America], recovered from their delusion, had delivered themselves from the oppression of their leaders and returned to their duty. But so daring and desperate is the spirit of those leaders, whose object has always been dominion and power, that they have now openly renounced all allegiance to the Crown, and all political connection with this country … and have presumed to set up their rebellious confederacies for independent states. If their treason be suffered to take root, much mischief must grow from it.” The war was not over and there would be much blood still to shed.

Because of the narrow scope of the book, the narrative does not extend to the close of the war. Do the Americans win the war, or are they driven further and further west until they have to admit defeat? Do the British eventually cut their losses and give up on their colony, or do they own them still? And what happened to George Washington? Did the legend of the man extend past 1776 or were his best days already behind him? While these answers are obvious, I almost wished that the book had continued, at least to summarize the remaining years of the war. But, of course, this would defeat the purpose of writing a book with the limited objective of covering a single year.

1776 is popular history at its best. It is easy to read, yet filled with information. It tells the story of an important period of time in a way that is accessible to those who may not wish to read a scholarly treatment of the same material. It is long enough to be thorough, but short enough to avoid being overwhelming. It is good to see both Mayflower and 1776 on the bestseller lists at the same time. Both deserve the honor; both are worthy of a spot in your library.

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