Five history books I read in 2017 that I might recommend to non-historians who want to read a little history

1. Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line, by Heather Hendershot

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I hear a lot of people talk about how American conservatism used to be different. Hendershot shows how and why.

2. Village Atheist: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, by Leigh Eric Schmidt

This is a book of weird characters you won't soon forget. Also, it turns out you can learn a lot about American religiosity from the people who are against it.

3. Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, by William G. McLoughlin

If you've asked yourself "but what is an evangelical?" this year, reading about one of the most famous evangelists could provide some (complicating) perspective. This is an older book that really holds up.

4. All the President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

A rollicking narrative about how the press held a president accountable. Oddly relevant to our present political moment.

5. A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe

There was a lot more liver in 20th-century casseroles than you would expect. This book shows how historical forces influence the food on the table--and how history is, invisibly, at work in our everyday lives.

All 51 books I finished in 2017: 

A Torch Kept Lit, by William F. Buckley Jr.
Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life, by Christopher Lane
March: Book Two, by John Lewis
Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, by Kathryn Lofton
Entertaining Judgement: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, by Greg Garrett
Selected Letters of P.T. Barnum, by P.T. Barnum
The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu
Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line, by Heather Hendershot
The Churching of America, 1776-2005, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark
Struggles and Triumphs: or, Forty Years’ Recollections, by P.T. Barnum
The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, by Janet M. Davis
Billy Sunday the Baseball Evangelist, by Craig A. Bishop
Exiles from Eden: Religion and Academic Vocation in America, by Mark Schwehn
The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, by N.T. Wright
To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, by Bethany Moreton
Village Atheist: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, by Leigh Eric Schmidt
Billy Sunday Was His Real Name, by William G. McLoughlin
Preacher: Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism, by Roger A. Bruns
All the President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
The Trial and Death of Socrates, by Plato
American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, by Michael Kazin
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, by H.W. Brands
Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Odeipus at Colonus, by Sophocles
The Remarkable “Ma” Sunday, by Opal Overmyer
Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P. T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity, by Eric D. Lehman
In Rare Form: A Pictorial History of Baseball Evangelist Billy Sunday, by W.A. Firstenberger
The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan, by Timothy Stanley
The Comedians, by Kliph Nestoroff
Nixon’s White House Wars, by Pat Buchanan
Analects, by Confucius
Basic Writings, by Xunzi
A Whale Hunt, by Robert Sullivan
Basic Writings, by Zhuangzi
Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle
Genesis, trans. by Robert Alter
Roosevelt and Wilke, by Warren Moscow
In the Center of the Fire: A Memoir of the Occult, by James Wasserman
The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat, by Bob Woodward
Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, by Studs Terkel
My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman
Confessions, by Augustine
The Sabbath, by Abraham Heschel
The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli
The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism, by Garth M. Rosell
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
The Business Turn in American Religious History, ed. Amanda Porterfield, Darren Grem and John Corrigan
The Word and Its Witness: The Spiritualization of American Realism, by Gregory S. Jackson
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, by John McPhee
A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe
The Real Cool Killers, by Chester Himes

Sam Hose's Christian America

Sam Hose was burned to death in Georgia on a Sunday.

First he was chained to a pine tree at a place called Old Troutman Field, outside the city of Newnan, which is about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. Then his ears were cut off. Then he was stabbed several times, blood spurting to cheers from the gathered crowd. Then his fingers were cut off, severed at the joints.

His genitals were also cut off.

Then he was set on fire.

"Now he was twisting around the tree," wrote one man who was there. "Now biting at the bark of the pine, jumping and springing and twisting and fighting for every inch of his life."

The local paper reported that Hose tried to pull himself up out of the fire with his fingerless hands. The chain that held him snapped, and he fell to the ground. His body was again hacked at with knives, but he wasn't dead, so Sam Hose was pushed back into the fire.

Some more kerosene was poured on.

He died after about 20 minutes. It was 2:50 p.m. on April 23, 1899. It was a Sunday.

Sam Hose was one of 27 people lynched in Georgia that year. His lynching was one of the 458 that occurred in the state between the end of Reconstruction and 1930.

His last words, as reported by a local paper at the time, were, "Oh, my God. Oh, Jesus!" because this was America, a Christian country.

Because this was America, a Christian country, the Sunday crowd that killed Sam Hose was coming from church. More than 500 came from nearby Newnan. Hundreds came from Palmetto, a city slightly to the north. Word of the in-progress lynching reached Atlanta right as people were leaving their morning worship services. According to historian Philip Dray, the news sparked "a mad rush of worshippers to the train station seeking the swiftest possible passage" to the lynching.

The railroad company was so overwhelmed by the demand it arranged an unscheduled run on the Atlanta to West Point line, with six passenger cars at 1 p.m. The seats were all immediately filled. People who had just come from church were so desperate to get on board they climbed through the windows and clung to the sides of the train. The company arranged for a second train, this one with 10 cars. Those were completely filled too.

"Both trains," writes Dray, "sped south at full throttle."

Conservative estimates say about 1,500 people were on those trains. Others put the figure as high as 4,000, which is the number reported at the time.

Sam Hose was dead already when the people arrived. "Oh," someone in the crowd was reported to say. "He died too quick."

The crowd wasn't going to leave with nothing, though, so they took souvenirs. The chain that was used in the burning was hacked up, the links passed out. The pine tree was cut down and chunks of the charred wood were taken too. Sam Hose's body was divided and distributed like communion.

Meeting the two trains when they got back to the city, an Atlanta reporter wrote that "the excursionists returning tonight were loaded down with ghastly reminders of the affair . . . pieces of flesh and pieces of wood placed at the negro's feet . . . . Persons were seen walking through the streets carrying bones in their hands."

One can find, today, pretty much every day, Christians concerned about how America is not a Christian country anymore. Things have changed, times have changed, and America isn't like it used to be. They don't mean things like this, though. They're not thinking about the "Christian America" that was Sam Hose's America.

All that talk, however, of that imagined idyllic past when Biblical morality was given due deference and Christians had a respected place in the public square is haunted by the Sunday when churchgoers came back from a place called Old Troutman Field with bits of Sam Hose's chopped-up body.

It's one thing to say that America should be Christian. It's another thing to say it should be Christian like is was, like it used to be.

When it actually was like it used to be, there were no stores open to sell the kerosene to burn Sam Hose because businesses were closed on Sundays. But a shop keeper was found to give kerosene to the crowd at no cost.

When it actually was like it used to be, there was a Sunday in Georgia where Christians went to church in the morning and in the evening went to the public square to sell bits of Sam Hose's burned liver for 25 cents each.

It may well be that religious liberty is threatened in America today. That's not a good reason, though, to get nostalgic for the past that was Sam Hose's Christian America.