As a follow-up to my “Choosing the Best History Books” post, I asked a few friends and historian colleagues to suggest books for a summer reading list. These could be in religious history or not; I told them I was looking for books that are “readable but also intellectually challenging.” Here are their choices, with a brief explanation of each:
Jonathan Den Hartog, Samford University
John Turner, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (2020). This just-released book marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of Plymouth, a story that looms large in our national memory. Turner widens our understanding of these devout settlers to think about the world they helped build. [I endorsed this book for Yale Press, saying “This highly important book will become the new standard work on the Plymouth Colony.” – TK]
Two Revolutionary War books by David Hackett Fischer: Paul Revere’s Ride (1994) and Washington’s Crossing (2004). Both books delve into significant moments to tell detailed stories about the many participants and in the process shed light on significant American patterns of politics.
Joanne Freeman, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War (2018). Teaching a class on the Civil War this semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about both the causes of the war and its ongoing effects. This lively book shows that fights in Congress occasionally went from mere squabbles to fisticuffs and even duels.
Barry Hankins, Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, The Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars (2010). Although much has been written about the 1920s, this is an extremely accessible introduction, including several laugh-out-loud lines.
Grant Wacker, One Soul at a Time: The Story of Billy Graham (2019). Grant Wacker is a masterful writer, and here he delivers a thoughtful biography of one of the most significant preachers of the 20th century. [See the Themelios review.]
Ron Johnson, Texas State (and soon to be at Baylor)
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). This book is one of the best-written, accessible narratives a formerly enslaved person of the 19th century. In short order, the reader receives a great deal of firsthand information about one of the most famous people in U.S. history—along with his complex view of early American Christianity. [See Justin Taylor’s post on Douglass, “One of the Most Haunting Paragraphs I Have Read.“]
Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004). If there was only one book someone could read about the Haitian Revolution, I recommend this one. The writing is clear and accessible, offering the reader a broad knowledge of slavery, revolution, and the evolution of Black empowerment within an enlightened Atlantic world. Many U.S. readers will draw connections with the American Revolution without prodding from the author.
Emily Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (2015). This book describes in brilliant detail and analysis how early 19th-century American missionaries interacted with foreign locations, including India, Liberia, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, North America, and Singapore, to provide a new perspective on how Americans thought of their young nation’s role in a world of empires.
David Oshinsky, Polio: An American Story (2005). In the midst of a pandemic, the superbly written book informs and reminds readers of the dedication that scientists and scholars possess in terms of doggedly researching and pursuing knowledge that changes the lives of people.
Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1997). This engaging book, featuring the often overlooked civil-rights figure Fannie Lou Hamer, illustrates from a relatively balanced perspective the ways—not unlike today—in which people of the same faith can move in divergent ways when faced with major historical questions.
Andrea Turpin, Baylor University
James M. Ault Jr., Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church (2004). Nonfiction that reads like a novel, this book sympathetically narrates the lives of members of a small 1980s fundamentalist church—and how, by the end, the secular participant-observer author converts to Christianity, albeit Christianity of a different kind.
Michelle Lee-Barnewall, Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate (2016). A great example of how to bring history to bear on theology, the first half of the book recounts how Americans’ changing beliefs about gender roles since the 1800s have led both sides to frame the current debate in terms of authority and equality, while the second half then critiques the assumptions both sides bring to the issue by putting the relevant biblical passages in their cultural context to reveal how scriptural authors were more concerned with questions such as inclusion, unity, and community holiness. [See TGC’s review.]
Melton McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South (1987). Southern historian McLaurin vividly recounts his experiences growing up in the tiny segregated village of Wade, North Carolina—and how deeper personal encounters with individual African Americans eventually made him question the town’s ways of life.
Adam Laats, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (2018). As a sympathetic outsider to the institutions he studies, Laats pairs depth of research and analysis with a commitment to rigorous fairness to his subjects as he recounts the history of fundamentalist and evangelical American colleges—with a great eye for story and flair for turn of phrase. [See Justin Taylor’s post on Laats, “Three Reasons to Read a New Book on Fundamentalism.”]
Nancy Koester, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life (2014). Koester’s highly readable biography pays particular attention to the development of the spiritual life of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—the single most popular book written in the 19th century—and the relationship of her faith to her anti-slavery activism and other writings, all the while portraying Stowe as a very human, and hence relatable, woman. [See TGC’s review.]
[Some book links provided here are part of the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.]