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Pages of providence

Forty new history books worth reading—and 10 (from among thousands) to skip

Pages of providence

Declaration of Independence (left) and Hitler (John Trumbull/ Universal History Archive/Getty Images (left) and Berliner Verlag/Archiv/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

Based on 27 years of letters from WORLD readers, history books are our favorite genre—so this year’s fall reading list highlights recent history books aimed at general readers and students. I’ll start with good news about overall American history books and follow that with a look at books about specific historical periods from conservative, liberal, academic, and Christian publishers.

GOOD NEWS this year is that readers searching for an overall nonleftist American history book now have three good choices. Along with my old suggestion, Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s A Patriot’s History of the United States (Sentinel, 2004), I can now recommend Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (Encounter, 2019). McClay offers a coherent narrative that neither minimizes American accomplishments nor chops up the story with bows to every liberal pressure group.

Still, my overall favorite for smart high-school-age students or college survey courses is Thomas Kidd’s American History (two volumes, B&H Academic, 2019). Baylor history professor Kidd, who was WORLD’s religion correspondent from 2012 to 2014, recognizes the diverse parts of the American mosaic but doesn’t pander to some and put down others. He recognizes the Christian base of the American experience but doesn’t pretend to more knowledge than we have about God’s providential action.

In publishing, as in politics, sometimes it’s OK to go negative. The subtitle of Mary Grabar’s Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation Against America (Regnery History, 2019) justifies its tough tone: Zinn’s screed has sold more than 2.5 million copies thanks to prompting by Hollywood celebrities and left-wing professors. Graber shows that Christopher Columbus was not a genocidal maniac, Native Americans did not have a utopian community, the United States was not a conspiracy to rob the poor and protect the rich, and the Viet Cong and Black Panthers were not community and civil rights leaders merely desiring local self-rule.

Another useful newcomer is Steven Waldman’s Sacred Liberty (HarperOne, 2019), an overview of religious liberty and prejudice in American history. For example, antagonism toward Catholics was so oppressive in the 1840s that the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, a group of Irish Catholic soldiers, deserted during the Mexican-American War and fought alongside the Mexicans: Twenty-seven were hanged. Also sad: During the 1860s a Christian congressman, John Bingham, fought hard for passage of the 14th Amendment, saying the civil rights it created represented “the spirit of Christianity”—and the Supreme Court used that amendment in 1973 to create a right to abortion. 

NOW LET’S JUMP to readable books that focus on specific historical episodes while avoiding pedantry. Publishing houses, like other media outlets, have dueling worldviews. Regnery, the Fox News of publishing, has a conservative perspective. Some of its books, like Dean Reuter’s The Hidden Nazi (2019), are poorly written, but others, like After the Fall: The Remarkable Comeback of Richard Nixon by Kasey Pipes (2019), move well.

Regnery, like Fox, relishes stories with a sexual background like Star Spangled Scandal: Sex, Murder, and the Trial That Changed America (2019). Author Chris DeRose focuses on the trial of Congressman Dan Sickles, who found his wife committing adultery with the son of national anthem writer Francis Scott Key. Regnery is willing to poke at the pantheon of liberal presidents: Lew Paper’s In the Cauldron: Terror, Tension, and the American Ambassador’s Struggle to Avoid Pearl Harbor, scheduled for Nov. 5 publication, contends that war with Japan was not necessary.

Regnery rightly honors the largely forgotten: Clint Johnson’s Tin Cans & Greyhounds (2019) tells how sailors on the fast escort and attack ships known as destroyers risked death by water and fire—cannons, bombs, torpedoes—as they took on giant battleships during World Wars I and II. John M. Pafford’s The Accidental President (2019) tells more about Chester Arthur than most readers would find interesting—but Arthur did show courage in vetoing the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Regnery books are often action-oriented, and Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy (2012) is an excellent example of the genre. Author Ronald Utt narrates heroic action without covering up mistakes and sins. He points out the incompetence of President James Madison that led to the British army’s capture of Washington and its burning of the Capitol and other public buildings.

Books from Encounter, the publisher of McClay’s Land of Hope, tend to emphasize ideas over action. Greg Weiner’s Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln & the Politics of Prudence (2019) shows that “prudence” is not timid or fearful: It represents “a moral commitment to the limits of individual reason.” Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln both had the good judgment to distinguish between ordinary moments and genuine crises: The former demands patience and flexibility, the latter “bold action and unbending tenacity.”

Sentinel, the publisher of A Patriot’s History, also put out Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s Our Lost Declaration (2019), another lively answer to Howard Zinn. Lee obviously loves the Declaration of Independence but does not pretend that all its signers, including its primary author, were saints. Although Thomas Jefferson’s rhetorical opposition to slavery did not survive the editing process, Lee is still depressed that “Jefferson could write about the equal rights of man while his fellow human beings—wholly owned by himself and his family—worked without pay back at Monticello. Think what a shining example Jefferson might have set had he freed his slaves.”

Now let’s move to the liberal (and much bigger) publishing world. Basic Books publishes some good books, such as its recent looks at two chief justices. Richard Brookhiser’s John Marshall (2018) shows how the Supreme Court went from a backwater to a raging torrent, and Joan Biskupic’s The Chief (2019) illuminates John Roberts’ desire to depoliticize the court and have the Supremes sing more melodically. Douglas Egerton’s Heirs of an Honored Name (2019) shows what happened to the descendants of John and John Quincy Adams. But Basic puts out many books like Darren Dochuk’s Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (2019), a 672-page critique of fundamentalists and Big Oil that could be supplementary reading in a Zinn course.

St. Martin’s Press, part of Macmillan, also leans leftward. Jack Kelly’s The Edge of Anarchy (2019), a liberal history of the 1894 Pullman strike and its aftermath, may gain some readers—but they won’t learn much. Bradley Hart’s Hitler’s American Friends (2018) is better, showing how some senators, business executives, and others shamefully worked alongside the Bund and the Silver Legion. The MSNBC of publishing is Bold Type Books: That’s the new name for Nation Books. Recent titles include The Case Against Free Speech, War Against All Puerto Ricans, and Ask Me About My Uterus, but I couldn’t find Bold Type history books worth recommending.

UNIVERSITY PRESSES often try to be as trendy as their commercial counterparts. For example, the Oxford University Press has recently published Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s The Oxford Illustrated History of the World (2019), a pretty book with large color pictures. It’s the first big history I’ve seen organized along climate determinist lines, complete with sections and chapters titled “Children of the Ice,” “Into a Warming World,” “The Climatic Reversal,” and “Accelerating Change in a Warming World.” 

Some Oxford publications reflect the liberal tendency to minimize or mock the Christian base of the United States and honor atheists. Christopher Grasso’s Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War (2018) shows that five “freethought” newspapers in 1834 had circulation in the thousands, and the number of “skeptics” evidently surged during the next two decades. Kate Bowler’s Blessed (2018 paperback) is a history of Christians who have gone shallower by adopting a prosperity gospel.

But Christianity has survived, and Fundamentalist U by Adam Laats (2018) gives a critical but useful account of six mainstays of Christian higher education: Biola, Bob Jones, Gordon, Liberty, Moody, and Wheaton. Elizabeth Varon’s Armies of Deliverance (2019) fluently shows how the United States survived as Union leaders turned the Civil War into “a crusade to deliver the Southern masses from slaveholder domination.”

Oxford makes its major contribution with European history. Tobias Straumann takes us into 1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler (2019). Philip Morgan’s Hitler’s Collaborators (2018) examines the way officials in France made their peace with the initially triumphant Nazis, although it meant enabling mass murder. Helen Berry’s Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings (2019) is a well-written history of the London Foundling Hospital, established in 1741 as a way to save the lives of infants born after crisis pregnancies. Two-thirds of them died anyway: Many were victims of that era’s lack of antibiotics.

Some books from Ivy League university presses are readable and reasonable. Heather Curtis’ Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid (Harvard, 2018) spotlights the Christian Herald, a weekly newspaper that peaked with a circulation of more than 200,000 in 1910. Its longtime head, Louis Klopsch, emphasized colorful news coverage and adventure stories rather than doctrinal disputes. Curtis emphasizes Klopsch’s “heartrending narratives and images to evoke sympathy for distant sufferers,” which led subscribers to donate millions of dollars for overseas relief. The Herald also ran the Bowery Mission in New York City. 

Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, 2018) quotes early 19th-century British writers complaining that liberalism—proud, selfish, licentious, favoring “unbounded gratification of their passions”—was the opposite of liberality. By the late 19th century, the widely used term liberal could mean tolerant, theologically Unitarian or freethinking, or politically secularist: One publication in 1883, the Kansas Liberal, thought the word liberal was overused and changed its name to Lucifer, the Light Bearer. In the 20th century, liberals maintained their emphasis on individual rights but often sought government support in their drive to curtail the influence of churches and corporations.

I liked Samuel Goldman’s God’s Country (University of Pennsylvania, 2018), a well-written history of Christian Zionism in America. I wasn’t impressed by Christopher Tyerman’s The World of the Crusades (Yale, 2019): It’s a big and beautiful book with lots of pictures of jewelry, paintings, buildings, and more, but it doesn’t go deep. I’ve come to admire the University of Nebraska Press, which doesn’t run away from heartland history and concerns: It published in September a new edition of Paul Dickson’s The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime

SOME TRADITIONAL Christian publishers don’t do much in history. After years of reading overstatements from both left and right concerning America’s founding, I enjoyed the calm and thorough analysis of Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? (Thomas Nelson, 2019). Those who read minds and extrapolate diaries may still fight over questions of sincerity and personal faithfulness, but Hall clearly shows what’s most important: that Christian ideas profoundly influenced the Founders, and through them all of us.

Jeremiah Johnston’s Unimaginable: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity (Bethany House, 2017) shows how polytheism was a corruption of original monotheism, and Christianity righted understanding for a while. Johnston points out the racism of philosophers Hume, Voltaire, and Kant and charts the path through Darwin and Nietzsche that led to “Hitler’s Hell on Earth” and other evils.

Eerdmans put out Elisabeth Braw’s God’s Spies: The Stasi’s Cold War Espionage Campaign Inside the Church (2019), which shows how East Germany recruited a huge stable of clergy spies. Baker Academic published W. Brian Shelton’s scholarly Quest for the Historical Apostles (2018), which examines what happened to Jesus’ key followers.

A new kid on the block, Lexham Press, has impressed me. Timothy Padgett’s Swords & Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973 (2018) readably tracks twists and turns: In crisis after crisis, end-times prophets appeared with explanations of how “the Rapture of the Church Must Be Very Near” or “Swastika Marches Over Europe … When Will Ezek. 38-39 be fulfilled?” Others asked, “When England and France sign a pact with Mussolini, will the Ten Kingdom Federation be complete?” and “Does Mussolini’s declared purpose to revive the Roman Empire fulfill Daniel’s prophecy?”

European Christians often saw liberalism fostering Unbelief and Revolution, as the title of Dutch Christian Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer’s main work (Lexham Classics, 2018, trans. Harry Van Dyke) informs us in no uncertain terms. Van Prinsterer (1801-1876) rightly criticized the Howard Zinns of his day, describing how for them “history became a false witness [that] became yet another powerful means of pressing public opinion into the harness of the revolutionary school. History became a pantheon lined with revolutionary paragons, an arsenal filled with revolutionary weapons for murdering the truth.”

VAN PRINSTERER saw that we, fallen humans, start with murdering the truth: Then we murder each other. What happened to Holland? During World War II the French populace generally protected Jews more than the Dutch did. Lipika Pelham’s Jerusalem on the Amstel (Hurst, 2019) notes, “The Anne Frank story has somehow helped to counteract the fact that the Netherlands had the highest percentage of Jews deported and killed in western Europe”: Seventy-eight percent of Dutch Jews ended up in the death camps, compared with 25 percent of French Jews.

That was a sad ending to what began in the 1500s as Jews of Portuguese and Spanish ancestry, kicked out of those countries, made their way to Amsterdam: There, in safety, they enriched the Netherlands and themselves. By the 20th century Jews were integrated into Dutch society, only to be betrayed and murdered. But betrayal is an equal opportunity employer around the world: Helen Zia’s Last Boat Out of Shanghai (Ballantine, 2019) accurately shows what happened as Communists in 1949 won the Chinese civil war.

David Roll’s George Marshall (Dutton Caliber, 2019) is a long but readable biography of Washington’s most valuable player during the 1940s. Rafael Medoff’s The Jews Should Keep Quiet (University of Nebraska, 2019) explains why anti-immigration bias allowed Adolf Hitler to kill 6 million rather than 5 million. Alex Kershaw’s Avenue of Spies (Broadway, 2015) tells of an American doctor who stayed in Paris during WWII and joined the resistance to Hitler. Paul Janeczko’s Secret Soldiers: How the U.S. Twenty-Third Special Troops Fooled the Nazis (Candlewick, 2019) shows how the Army tricked Hitler into expecting D-Day not where it happened, and later fooled German generals by using sonic deceptions and other devices.

Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands by Dan Jones (Viking, 2019) is a smooth read. David Hall’s The Puritans (Princeton, due out in November) is dense but worthwhile. So is Christopher Clark’s Time and Power (Princeton, 2019), which examines how visions of history influenced German politics for three centuries, from the Thirty Years’ War to the formation of the Third Reich that was to last for 1,000 years but ended up in rubble after only 12. That’s history: Man proposes, God disposes.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.