Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

Summary: The story of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago juxtaposed with that of a psychopathic murderer, H. H. Holmes, pursuing his sinister seduction of young women within blocks of the fair.

The Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris captured the attention of the world, not the least for the engineering feat that dominated the vista of this world’s fair, the Eiffel Tower. Not to be done, the United States wanted its own fair and settled on a Columbian Exposition beginning in October 1892 and running through the warm months of 1893. A number of cities were in the running. In the end, Chicago won, and with less that two years to go, had to stage the fair. Two men, noted building architect, Daniel T. Burnham and landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted led the effort to turn derelict parkland into a showplace surpassing the Exposition in Paris. Burnham was responsible for the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station, among other architectural wonders. Olmsted was the mind behind Central Park and numerous parks around the country.

Meanwhile, a truly demonic individual had taken up residence in Englewood, within blocks of Jackson Park, the eventual site of the fair. A medical school graduate from the University of Michigan who left unexplained trouble wherever he traveled found a pharmacy where he could assist, and when the husband died, buy the pharmacy from the wife, who was said to have moved to California but was never heard from again. This was the first of a number of disappearances, mostly of women who had been won by the courtly manners, placid blue eyes, and touches of H. H. Holmes, one of many aliases used by Herman Webster Muggett.

Like many of Erik Larson’s works, the story of the visionary genius of Burnham and Olmsted, and the evil genius of Holmes are told side-by-side. Burnham was the exposition’s director, and his first challenge was to assemble the architectural genius of the country to build the various exhibition halls of the fair, subduing personal rivalries and vanities to get them to design aesthetically beautiful but temporary structures. It was his decision to paint all of them white, creating the “White City” that contrasted with the black city of Chicago to the north, casting a vision for the future city. Olmsted, who thought of landscaping projects in terms of years, had to do this in months, much of it after construction equipment from around buildings was removed, creating walkways and the central lagoon pictured below.

By C. D. Arnold (1844-1927); H. D. Higinbotham – The Project Gutenberg EBook of Official Views Of The World’s Columbian Exposition, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Two further factors exacerbated the challenges they faced. One was an economic depression with bank failures and joblessness that threatened attendance. The other was difficult relations with Chicago’s labor unions. Then there was the continuing challenge to erect a comparable structure to Eiffel’s Tower. Various hare-brained schemes were proposed until an engineer by the name of Ferris from Pittsburgh proposed building a huge wheel from which cars would be suspended. As it went up, it looked as if one good wind could knock it over. One of the highlights of the story is the account of a tornadic storm that barely shook it.

While the fair didn’t exceed the Exposition Universelle in attendance, it came close, and might have if not for the Sabbatarians who kept the fair closed on Sunday. In addition to Ferris’s engineering feat, Edison’s incandescent bulbs lit the White City at night, powered by alternating current, a first on a large scale. The fair gave also gave us Cracker Jacks and Shredded Wheat.

Meanwhile Holmes worked his evil in Englewood, erecting his “castle,” a dreary hotel with ground floor businesses, and some very strange features, like an airtight room and a specially designed kiln. Many women disappeared during the exposition, drawn to the newness and freedom of Chicago and inspired by the White City. It is not known how many fell prey to Holmes seductions. Larson focuses in on the deaths of Minnie and Anna Williams, Emeline Cigrand, and his assistant, Benjamin Pitezel and three of his children. Even these may not have come to light were it not for the dogged investigation of a Detective Geyer.

I find fascinating the technique of Larson’s to tell an inspiring story of noble vision next to one of unspeakable evil. Each could well be told separately and have been. To tell these stories together is to remind us that the distance between nobility and evil is never great. Even the fair’s ending points to the hubris of forgetting this reality. During the closing speech, Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. spoke of expecting to live another fifty years. That night, at his home, a disappointed and crazed office seeker, Patrick Eugene Prendergast, assassinated him. Larson weaves these stories together in a way both historically accurate and alternately fascinating and disturbing.

Review: Thirsting For Living Water

Thirsting For Living Water, Michael J. Mantel (Foreword by Richard Stearns). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: How a young executive left a promising position to pursue the adventure in faith of providing both clean drinking water and the living water of Jesus throughout the world.

Michael Mantel thought he had it made. He had married his college sweetheart, found a thriving Christian community, and had risen to a key job in a major company. Then his company awarded a gift to a charitable group digging fresh water wells in Africa, and sent him to observe their work. His life was transformed as he saw the difference access to safe drinking water could make in the life of a village in Senegal.

He agreed with his wife Natalie to walk through a door, taking a leave from his company to work for World Vision in development efforts. After learning the work from funding to community development, he took the position as president and CEO of Living Water International, a ministry that uses an integrated approach of coming alongside people in a country to help with water access, sanitation, and hygiene efforts (WASH) that make a major difference in reducing disease and death from water-borne illnesses and fuel other development efforts. In addition, they are committed to sharing the message of the living water of Christ.

This book narrates a journey from hearing the call to be witnesses, beginning with his Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and reaching the ends of the earth. He describes a downward journey as he loses his father, walks along his wife in fighting cancer, faces tests of faith in growing the business, and goes through Hurricane Harvey and sees God provide for his Houston-based organization amid the pressures of so many needs in his own city.

It’s a story of both understanding his own calling and appreciating the breadth of the church. Through work with a couple Christian academics, he learns about appreciative inquiry, in which one learns how to assess the strengths of a community where development efforts are being undertaken, and how one works with a variety of partners inside and outside a community for its flourishing. Then the work of Living Water International gives him the chance to apply these lessons globally, glimpsing the bigness of God’s vision for the world, learning how God is already at work with churches abroad as well as awakening churches here through engagement in God’s mission. He contend that it is in this work of God’s entire body that the oneness of the church is truly experienced.

The book is filled with inspiring stories, not only of Mike and Natalie, but also of churches both here and around the world. But the aim of the book is to encourage readers to reflect on how God is meeting them in their own story. Each chapter both is a reflection and invites reflection in thought, writing, and discussion with others. It is both an encouraging and dangerous book, particularly if read with a group seeking to discern how they might walk into God’s vision for the world, his great story. Read this one if you dare!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — George L. Fordyce

George Lincoln Fordyce, Photo from The Youngstown Vindicator, June 25, 1931 via Google News Archive

Most of us remember big downtown stores like McKelvey’s and Strouss-Hirshberg’s. There were a number of other stores along Federal Street in the first part of the twentieth century that are now fading memories. Among these were stores in several locations along West Federal Street operated by George Lincoln Fordyce.

Fordyce was born in Scipio, New York, in Cayuga County on September 29, 1860 to John and Louisa Horton. His first job was trapping rabbits. By age 10, he was working at a general store in Scipio. Eventually he moved to Auburn, working at another store and the Cayuga County National Bank.

He moved to Youngstown in 1883 and opened a women’s wear store in the Arms Building at West Federal and Phelps, a building he eventually owned, which became known as the George L. Fordyce Block. He continued to expand his dry goods business, selling women and men’s clothing, linens and fabric by the yard for those making their own clothing. This was about the same as G. M. McKelvey’s got started.

In 1907 he acquired the Osborne store at West Federal and Hazel Streets, moving the stock to his location under the name The Fordyce-Osborne Company. After a huge inventory reduction sale in early 1912 liquidating much of the remaining Osborne inventory, the store operated as the George L. Fordyce Company until his death.

Ad from The Mahoning Dispatch, January 12, 1912 via the Library of Congress

Having reached the ranks of business leaders in downtown Youngstown, he exercised leadership in a number of other Youngstown civic affairs. He served as a director of Dollar Savings and Trust, First National Bank, and Ohio Leather Company. In 1912 and 1913, he was president of the YMCA, the first president of the local Boy Scouts Council and president of the Youngstown Hospital Association for twenty-three years. In this last role, he oversaw the development of both the Northside and Southside hospitals. He also was a member of the building committee for the Reuben McMillan Library.

Fordyce’s continued to be a favorite place to shop because of events like that recounted by Howard Aley in A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Mahoning County and Youngstown, Ohio, from 1921:

“Santa Claus Came to Fordyce’s”

 Evidence that the characters in the Santa Claus scene have undergone change over the years is found in the fact that on December 12th, a number of Santa’s surrogates arrived via the Erie Railroad to prepare the way for the later arrival of the jolly old gentleman himself. Chris Claus, brother of Santa, and “Toofy”, his companion, whose job it was to look after Santa Claus’s mail during the rush hours, came in via railroad because ‘they ran out of snow about 200 miles north of here and were compelled to forsake the reindeer and dog teams.’ Some 200 children met the pair at the railroad station and escorted them to the George L. Fordyce Store where Santa maintained local headquarters until Christmas. There were so many adults in the crowd, pushing and shoving to get their children’s letters into the hands of Santa Claus that the reception committee was lost in the crowd and the ropes that were intended to hold back the crowd proved utterly ineffective. In regard to the effect of the Santa Claus traditon upon children, Superintendent of Schools O. L. Reid said it should be encouraged. ‘Whatever tends to develop or prolong imagination is well worth while’, he told members of the Sunday School Institute at Central Christian Church” (p. 241).

In researching Fordyce, I discovered he was as well known for his love of birds as for his business leadership. When he was fourteen, his doctor told him that a key to maintaining his health was fresh air, and ornithology gave him a pursuit that allowed him plenty of opportunity for fresh air. He was walking the trails of Mill Creek Park long before Lindley Vickers. He was an expert on identifying every species of local birds and led the annual bird censuses for Mahoning County and was a member of the American Ornithologist Union. In 1944, his portrait was hung in Deane Collection of Ornithologists in the Library of Congress, a mark of his status among fellow ornithologists.

He was also a devoted but not competitive golfer. However, in 1929, his daughter Louise was among the top six golfers in the country.

His health declined in his later years, which may have been a factor in the sale of his stock by C. A. Lockhart, the “Father of the Bargain Sale” in 1929. Shortly after, the store closed at its West Federal and Phelps location to re-open at 15 West Federal, where it was operating at the time of his death. Here is an ad from the store on the day after his death, noting that they would close early on the Saturday before the Fourth of July for the funeral service of their founder:

He died 12:05 am on June 25, 1931 at his home at 40 Lincoln Avenue. Dr. William Hudnut of First Presbyterian Church conducted his funeral service and he was buried among many other Youngstown leaders at Oak Hill Cemetery.

I’ve not been able to find any information about how long the business lasted after his passing, but my sense is that it was not long. Some of the institutions, like the YMCA and the library continue to be a vital part of Youngstown. Others, including the business he led for 48 years are memories. He fostered not only commerce but beauty in his love of nature and, particularly, bird-watching. He was among the early Youngstown leaders who recognized that healthy business and civic institutions and natural beauty made Youngstown a great place.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver

Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver, Retold and Illustrated by Ned Bustard. Downers Grove: IVP Kids, 2021.

Summary: A retelling in verse of the story of the life of the real Saint Nicholas and why he is associated with the bearer of gifts that arrive under our trees on Christmas Day.

Now that we are past Thanksgiving, I wanted to tell you about this new gorgeously illustrated children’s book retelling the story of the real Saint Nicholas, in verse reminiscent of Clement Moore’s famous poem. It is one of the first releases in InterVarsity Press’s new IVP Kids line of books, and if this is any indication, this line promises a host of new books for children that are equally a delight for the parents who may read them aloud.

Through the story we are introduced to Nicholas’ birth in Turkey, the early death of his parents and the uncle, an abbot, who raised him in the love of Christ. We learn about a pilgrimage in prayer and solitude to the Holy Land, his imprisonment for his faith under Diocletian, release under Constantine, ministry in Myra, and confrontation with Arius at Nicaea. Finally, we discover the origin of Nicholas’ association with gifts in his loving ministry as bishop and the generous gifts he left three poor sisters on “one very dark night.”

The poem connects this historic Nicholas (who had a little round belly!) with the gentleman who carries gifts every Christmas eve, complete with sleigh and reindeer and assures us that he will continue to do so until the Gift from above returns. The poem moves us away from the commercialized Santa Claus to the real Saint Nicholas and the real meaning of gift giving.

Ned Bustard talking about Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver

Ned Bustard, an accomplished graphic artist who works as the creative director of Square Halo Books both retells and illustrates this story, with a woodcut illustration that goes with each page of verse. One can read aloud the poem in about ten minutes, but no doubt you will spend more time looking at details in the illustrations like the wee mouse who recurs (you might look together for how many times the mouse appears!), the children baptized in a tub, the confrontation with Arius, and the gifts to the three sisters. As a bonus, there is a link to download free coloring pages taken from illustrations in the book on the publisher’s web page for the book!

This is one to buy or order today to have on hand to read aloud with the children you love in the nights leading up to Christmas. It wouldn’t surprise me if this becomes a family favorite!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Died in the Wool

Died in the Wool (Roderick Alleyn #13), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2014 (originally published in 1945).

Summary: New Zealand member of Parliament Flossie Rubrick is found dead, concealed in a bale of wool from her farm, and Alleyn, working in counter-espionage during the war, comes to investigate because of secret research on the farm.

The setting is the highlands of New Zealand during World War 2. After having apparently departed for a session of Parliament, Flossie Rubrick has been missing for three weeks, until found in a bale of wool from Mount Moon, her farm. Roderick Alleyn, engaged in war service in counter-espionage, is sent fifteen months later to investigate because of some secret research being conducted by her husband’s nephew on the farm–a type of aerial magnetic anti-aircraft mine.

Flossie had been an influential force in Parliament. Her driving character did not make her easy to live with, whether it was her generosity to her niece Ursula and her husband’s nephew Fabian, the one doing research, with practical assistance from Flossie’s nephew, Douglas Grace. Flossie could be generous, but drove everyone in her circle hard, including her secretary Terence Lynne and her husband, Arthur, working together researching and formulating her policy proposals. Their work together fostered an attraction, discovered the first time it had found expression when Flossie intruded weeks before her death. She separated them and was cloyingly sweet to Arthur. Then there is Cliff Johns, son of the working manager of the farm. Cliff had become her protege when she discovered his musical talent, until the night before, when Markins, the manservant, discovered him apparently stealing some of her whiskey. Markins himself is not without suspicion, having been sent from a generous wool buyer, Kurata Kan, suspected of ties with the Japanese spy effort.

In other words, there is a whole cast of characters with a motive for murder, and perhaps a larger agenda, something that becomes evident when Fabian, mistaken for Alleyn, nearly suffers the same fate as Flossie. As in other cases, Alleyn interviews everyone, including the whole family circle together in an awkward discussion that reveals varying perceptions of Flossie. Small things–a lost diamond clip, a stub of a candle, smudges on the floor of the wool shed where the murder occurred and the whereabouts of each person when the murder occurred all are important.

In the end, Alleyn sets a trap, with himself as the bait, to catch a murderer and a spy. The trap works but who will be found in it and why?

This is one that builds up at a leisurely pace at first as Alleyn does his interviews–lots of conversation looking at Flossie Rubrick and her murder from every perspective. Then things accelerate and the book turns into a page-turner as we come to the final scenes. Even then, while Alleyn has his hunches, it is the murderer (and spy) who is responsible for the big reveal. All in all, a well-crafted story!

Review: A History of Evangelism in North America

A History of Evangelism in North America, Thomas P. Johnston, editor. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2021.

Summary: An account of the history of evangelism in North America through a compilation of articles on key figures, movements, and organizations from the colonial period to the present.

If one is to give a full account of American church history, it is difficult to do so without discussing the various evangelistic movements and significant evangelists and revivalists who birthed church and parachurch organizations and contributed to their expansion across the country. This work offers an account of those evangelists, those movements and organizations that fueled successive waves of growth and renewal in American Christianity.

This is not a comprehensive history of evangelism in North America compiled by a single author as the title might suggest but rather an edited volume of twenty-two articles covering key figures and movements from the 1700’s to the present. The work begins with Jonathan Edwards offering a much more extensive study of Edward’s preaching than we often get in truncated versions of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Subsequent chapters discuss other early figures: Brainerd’s efforts among native peoples, John Wesley and his use of preaching conferences to multiply his efforts, George Whitefield’s method for effective evangelizing and Francis Asbury and his organization of circuit riders that led to the explosive growth of American Methodism. We also learn about the important role of Bible societies in the spread of the scriptures that accompanied the gradual spread of American literacy.

The revivalist movement of the early 1800’s is represented by Shubal Stearns and the Sandy Creek Association, Cane Ridge as representative of the camp meeting movement, and the revival of 1800 centered around the lawless region of Logan County, Kentucky. The mid-19th century is covered with discussions of the methodical approach to evangelism of J. Wilbur Chapman including prayer, intentional evangelistic effort, outreach strategies, and systematic efforts to render hospitality and contact prospects. By contrast, John Mason Peck’s efforts focused around education of workers, epitomized in his Shurtleff College and Rock Creek Seminary.

The book then jumps to the post World War 1 era covering Henrietta Mears Sunday School movement and her influence on a generation of evangelical leaders including Bill Bright and Billy Graham, who are also subjects of individual chapters. Other chapters include a wonderful summary of the work of Dawson Trotman of the Navigators and Shadrach Meshach Lockridge, one of the foremost black evangelists who ministered at Calvary Baptist Church in San Diego.

The latter part of the twentieth century was marked by a revival among counter-culture youth in the early seventies, with Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel serving as an epicenter of a movement that spontaneously sprang up around the country. There are also chapters on D. James Kennedy and Evangelism Explosion, Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner on church growth, John Piper and evangelism among the “Young-Restless-and-Reformed”. The book concludes with Southern Baptist methodologies and a concluding chapter on Twenty-first century developments.

It was striking to me that there were no chapters either on Charles Finney or D. L. Moody, both of whose methods shaped the “crusade evangelism” of the twentieth century. Billy Sunday is only mentioned as an antecedent of Billy Graham. No women, such as Aimee Semple McPherson or Kathryn Kuhlman are mentioned. While various movements in different church traditions are covered, the flavor is contemporary Southern Baptist, which may account for some of these lacuna.

While this text is framed as a history, the writing and effort to draw practical lessons from different evangelists and movements, which suggests that this text might be used as part of an adult forum on evangelism or as a seminary text as part of a course on evangelism. There are recurring themes of the importance of prayer, confidence in the scriptures and clarity in the message, going out to reach the lost in intentional outreach, the work of the Holy Spirit in conviction, conversion, and empowering of the preacher, and the necessity of making disciples and not just converts.

In an age that prefers presence to proclamation and is squeamish about any of the cognates of “evangel,” this book reminds us that this was not always so, and that many have found faith and passed from death to life through evangelism movements of the past. It reminds us of the transforming power of the gospel. We may need new wineskins, but this book reminds us that the wine is good.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Unexamined Reading Life

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on

Socrates was recorded to have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” We could probably have a long discussion about that statement and some would argue that life is worth living, examined or not. And probably we might think of our reading life in the same way. Reading is worth it, whether examined or not. But might it be that some examination of our reading life might enrich that life and make it worth more?

That seems to be the premise of a post on Book Riot yesterday titled, “How to Audit Your Reading Life” by Kelly Jensen. She contends that “reading audits” free her from reading goals, feeling bad about what she is reading or not reading, and to make good choices about the roughly 2500 books she will be able to read in her life.

She follows five steps in her reading auditing process:

  1. Collect all your reading logs, tools, and notes.
  2. Assess your reading.
  3. Determine your reading life values.
  4. Set some goals.
  5. Determine future audit timeframes.

Her process is very detailed, making me wonder if she is a real auditor or accountant. At very least, I got the sense that she could be. She admits that not everyone might want to go as granular as she does. I suspect that is most of us, but her article has a number of helpful tips and ideas for your own reading audit, however informal or analytical you may choose.

There were a number of valuable takeaways that rang true for me. First is the realization that not only can’t I read everything, I can only read a very small portion of all the books that are out there. The question is whether I’m reading the ones that reflect what is important to me, and the answer to that is unique as each individual.

Looking at what I’ve been reading via Goodreads or my blog posts is valuable (steps 1 and 2). It’s why I started using these tools in the first place–to remember what I’ve read and what I thought about it. But it also reveals my reading patterns–the types of books I read, the publication books, etc. My Goodreads shelves are actually pretty revealing. Lots of biographies and theology and mysteries and history. Not many thrillers or popular fiction or health. Given my age, a few more books on health might be helpful!

I don’t think I’ve ever consciously determined my “reading life values” distinguished from interests. I think my values in the rest of life continue to shape what I read. Jensen suggests identifying in various ways what has brought you joy. Perhaps my version of that is that the pursuit of what I care about in life brings me joy–whether it is the knowledge of God, understanding better how to care for this world, or to learn lessons in life and leadership from others who have led well (or sometimes not so well!). Place matters to me, both where I grew up and where I live. A growing value for me is to read and commend some of Ohio’s great authors from James Thurber to Wil Haygood to Hanif Abdurraqib. I also like stories–whether good fiction or historical narratives, and when I find someone whose writing gives me joy, like Louise Penny, I want to read more of what they have written.

My “Bob on Books 2021 Reading Challenge” was actually a personal attempt to set some reading goals reflecting what I value. I’ve actually met every goal except–you guessed it–the health one! I have a month left–at very least, I ought to check my book stacks and see if there is something on health just waiting in my TBR pile or Kindle. This article sparked my thinking about other kinds of goals. I want to be more intentional about supporting some indie bookstores I care about and our local library, which does great work. I may put something along these lines into my 2022 Reading Challenge.

As to “future audit timeframes,” setting reading goals at the beginning of the year and revisiting them midyear seems to makes sense for me and again at year end seems like a good rhythm, with the year end serving to spark thoughts about directions for the coming year–something writing this post is helping me to do! Like the author, I’m not compulsive about number goals. I set a Goodreads challenge, but always below what I actually read in a year.

I liked the positive framing of this article. The purpose of this kind of audit, however loose or granular your approach, is not to beat yourself up! The focus is not failure but what is working and what you value. As we approach the last month of the year it is a good time to look back on this year’s reading, what worked and what didn’t and start thinking about what some of what you’d like to read for next year (I always leave room for serendipity!). If you are like most readers, you may already have some of these books on your TBR pile–after all, there was some reason you bought them!

I like to think of life as a seamless whole, in which my reading life is congruent with the rest of my life. Sometimes my reading life shapes the rest of my life. And the rest of my life shapes what I read. I don’t know about Socrates, but I can say that an examined reading life certainly makes life richer, and that is of considerable worth.

Review: The Lincoln Highway

The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles. New York: Viking, 2021.

Summary: A westward trip of two bereaved brothers to start a new life is interrupted when two prison friends of the older brother turn up and hi-jack their plans.

I will say straight out that I think this is one of the best road novels I’ve ever read–leaving Kerouac’s On the Road in the metaphorical dust. Towles allows this journey to unfold rather than pursue the frenetic pace of Kerouac. The adolescent characters have dreams toward which they strive, despite the cards dealt them in life, and while not saints, evidence principles and loyalties not evident in Kerouac’s dissolute young adults who still act the like immature adolescents.

The novel opens in June of 1954 with a warden driving Emmett Watson home on early release from Salinas, a juvenile detention center to which he’d been sentenced for the accidental manslaughter of a young man who struck his head when knocked down by Emmett, retaliating for insults to his family. He has returned because his father had died of cancer, his mother had long ago abandoned the family, and he is the only one to care for his precocious, eight-year old brother Billy. Billy has been looked after by a young neighbor woman, Sally, who has spent her life looking after the men in her life and wants something more.

Emmett realizes staying in his small Nebraska town is not a good idea. He has enemies and a cloud over his head and his father’s farm has been seized by the bank. He envisions a new start with Billy, driving away in his powder blue Studebaker to use his construction skills somewhere that is growing. He thinks Texas, but Billy thinks California, where he hopes to find his mother, based on the trail of postcards she’d sent. Billy has mapped out the route that follows the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway that runs close to their home. They hope to make it by the July 4 fireworks in San Francisco. Billy’s mother loved fireworks, having left the day after a local display.

Their plans are interrupted when two fellow inmates from Salinas, Duchess and “Woolly,” show up on Emmett’s doorstep. They had escaped in the trunk of the warden’s car. “Duchess” was the son of a theatrical performer who betrayed him to the authorities to escape arrest. “Woolly” suffers some form of cognitive impairment requiring medication to keep him mellow. They want Emmett and Billy to drive them to New York to retrieve a $150,000 trust fund that has been withheld from Woolly, that they offer to split three ways.

Emmett will have none of it. He and Billy pack their kit bags (Billy with Abacus Abernathe’s compendium of heroic stories that he has read 24 times already). They plan to drop the other two at a bus station, but Duchess, who always seems to have other ideas, creates a diversion at the orphanage he once lived in, then steals the Studebaker, and with Woolly takes off for New York, with $3,000 that Emmett’s father had left him, stowed behind the spare tire.

Emmett and Billy, nearly penniless, decide to pursue them the only way they can, by hopping a freight train, and the race is on to intercept them in New York, to retrieve the Studebaker, and hopefully the money, and then take the Lincoln Highway from coast to coast, fulfilling a dream of Billy’s. They make it to New York with the help and protection of a fellow hobo, Ulysses, who left his wife and son after the war and has been wandering ever since. Billy, reads him the story of Ulysses from Professor Abernathe’s book, and in a series of events, Professor Abernathe and Ulysses meet, discussing whether this Ulysses might be reunited with his wife as was the Ulysses of mythology. This encounter, catalyzed by Billy, was one of the high points of the book, capturing the arc of failure, struggle and hope each character pursues.

While all this happens, Emmett pursues Duchess and his car. But he’s not the only one pursuing. Sally, fed up with waiting for them to call to say they’ve arrived safely, and fed up with her domestic life, takes off in pursuit of them.

All of these characters are striving against thwarted destinies to make something of their lives. Billy wants to find the mother who left him. Emmett wants to use construction skills to make a life in a new place by re-habbing and flipping houses, not unlike what he’d been doing before prison. Sally is tired of doing for other men and wants to do for herself. Duchess envisions owning a restaurant like one in which he worked. And Woolly? It seems he would string together a life of “perfect days” untroubled by the demands of his station in life. The Lincoln Highway goes both east and west. Sometimes you have to go backward to go forward, as in the chapter numbering of this book. Sometimes, to get to California, you have to go through New York, uncertain whether you will make your way back, but continuing to hope.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Judge George Tod

Judge George Tod, by Unknown author – (1909) Twentieth Century History of Sandusky County, Ohio and Representative Citizens, Chicago: Richmond-Arnold Pub. Co., p. 177, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Last week, I wrote about Tod Homestead Cemetery. The cemetery was the result of a bequest of George Tod, a Youngstown industrialist and son of David Tod, who served as a governor of Ohio. The George Tod I’m writing about this week was David’s father and George’s grandfather. He was one of Youngstown’s earliest settlers and gave Brier Hill its name. As a judge on the Supreme Court of Ohio, he escaped impeachment by a single vote, fought in the War of 1812 with the rank of Lt. Colonel, returning to Youngstown as a Common Pleas Judge. He lived out his days on Brier Hill Farm, from which part of the land was eventually allocated for the cemetery.

George Tod was born Dec. 11, 1773, in Suffield, Connecticut to David and Rachel Kent Tod. He graduated from Yale in 1795 and studied law at the Litchfield Law School, the first law school in the United States. He was admitted to the bar in 1797 and married Sarah “Sallie” Isaacs. In 1800, he visited the newly surveyed Western Reserve and brought his family to Youngstown in 1801, settling northwest of the Youngstown settlement, establishing a farm that he called Brier Hill farm for the Briers on its hillsides. David Tod was born there in 1805.

George Tod had already been admitted to the bar and appointed a prosecuting attorney for Trumbull County, of which Youngstown was a part at that time. While serving in this office, he was elected clerk of Youngstown township in 1802. In 1804 he was elected to the Senate of the newly formed state of Ohio, representing Trumbull County until 1806. On May 13, 1806 Governor Edward Tiffin appointed him to the Supreme Court of the State of Ohio. He was then elected to a seven year term in 1807.

His near impeachment came when he and Justice Huntington ruled that a section of a state law defining the duties of justices of the peace and constables in criminal and civil cases to be unconstitutional. Some of the legislature was so angered that they brought impeachment charges against Tod on Dec. 24, 1808. Huntington escaped charges because he had by then been elected governor. Todd argued:

“That if this article of impeachment can be sustained, the tenure of the judicial office, will hereafter depend on the will of the house of representatives and the senate, to be declared on impeachment, ungoverned by any established principles, and resting in their sovereign will, governed by their arbitrary discretion.”

In other words, he was fighting for the power of the constitution over the legislature, and for the principal of judicial review at the state level.

The legislature got its revenge by passing the Sweeping Measures reducing the term of justices to four years. Tod stepped down, getting himself elected to the Senate from Trumbull County. Among other things, he helped lead efforts to repeal the Sweeping Measures. Although by this time he was fighting in the War of 1812, the General Assembly repealed this law in 1812.

He was a genuine war hero. He had been elected Captain of the Second Regiment of the Fourth Division of Trumbull County in 1804. These regiments were incorporated into the Army at the onset of the War of 1812, part of the 19th Regiment of Infantry, commanded by Col. John Miller. He was commissioned as a Major in 1812 and promoted to Lt. Colonel in 1814, recognizing his service. He was commended for his courage during the siege of Ft. Meigs, near Toledo from April 19 to May 9, 1813 and in the Battle of Sackett’s Harbor on May 19 of the same year. Subsequently he was awarded the command of Ft. Malden after the British evacuated it.

After the war, he returned to Youngstown, serving as a judge in the Court of Common Pleas for the Third Circuit which encompassed  Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Huron, Medina, Portage, Richland, Wayne and Trumbull counties. He served two seven-year terms between 1816 and 1830. A fellow judge, Rufus P. Spaulding, gave this description of traveling from Warren to Cleveland with Tod:

“We made the journey on horse-back, and were nearly two days in accomplishing it. I recollect the judge, instead of an overcoat, wore an Indian blanket drawn over his head by means of a hole cut in the center. We came to attend court, and put up at the house of Mr. Merwin, where we met quite a number of lawyers from adjacent counties. At this time the village of Warren, where I lived, was considered altogether ahead of Cleveland in importance, indeed there was very little of Cleveland at that day…The presiding judge was the Hon. George Tod, a well read lawyer and a most courteous gentlemen, the father of our late patriotic governor, David Tod. His kindness of heart was proverbial, and sometimes lawyers would presume on it.”

After his second term, he returned to his legal practice in Youngstown and a term as Prosecuting Attorney for Trumbull County from 1833 to 1835. He died at Brier Hill Farm on April 11, 1841 and was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery.

Brier Hill Farm remained just a farm until after George Tod’s death. It was his son David who realized the value of the block coal beneath the surface that fired the iron, and later, the steel industry, making “Brier Hill” synonymous with blast furnaces rather than crops and livestock. All of this was an unenvisioned future to Judge George Tod. He fought for Ohio and country on the battlefield and courtroom, establishing the rule of law and the precedence of the state’s constitution in the Western Reserve and the newly minted state of Ohio. He was one of Youngstown’s founders, whose contribution in law, land, and children would leave its imprint on Youngstown’s future.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

The Compelling Alternative

Photo by Luis Quintero on

It was a familiar conversation, one I’ve been a part of many times in recent years. How did white evangelical churches become so captive to one political party, welcome patriarchal treatment of women and cover up abuse, become militaristic, nationalistic, anti-science and anti-environment, and racially divided from those who believed as they did but had different colored skin.

There have been a proliferation of critiques, both from other Christians as well as the secular press. What I found myself wondering as I listened to this discussion is why the alternative vision so many of my friends and I pursue has had so little sway among so many that claim the identifier “evangelical.” This is worth serious study, but I have a few very preliminary thoughts–less “answers” than hypotheses.

One is that we have focused more on critique than an alternative compelling vision of pursuing the kingdom. We focus more on:

  • What’s wrong with “making America great again” than on magnifying the greatness of God and God’s global mission of forming a great people of every language, tribe, ethnicity, and nation.
  • Criticizing patriarchy rather than casting vision for what marriages of mutual service shaped by Christ are like and what churches might be like where women and men use all of the gifts of God to serve the people of God in shared leadership.
  • We join the chorus of #MeToo discussing abuse in the church and rightly so. However, I rarely hear about redeemed, chaste, and flourishing sexuality–mostly what I hear is silence.
  • We speak against the racism of “white” evangelicalism but still have a long ways to go in partnership with believers of color, learning even to submit to their leadership and repenting of white Messiahship.
  • We denounce political captivity to one party, but offer little more than political captivity to another. Rarely do we recognize that the church is its own polis, a people of the Third Way speaking prophetically without being entangled with any party, turning neither to the left nor the right.
  • We deride the anti-science attitudes of others but fail to convey the doxological wonder of exploring the incredible world God has made, sometimes falling into a greater confidence in science than in God.

As I keep pondering this, I wonder if it is more than a matter of who has the better way? Might it be that we are both wrong? I wonder if we are looking at a mirror image of each other, and that we all have abandoned the core values that made evangelicalism such a vibrant movement within Christianity over the last couple centuries, not only in the U.S., but globally. David Bebbington has articulated this as a quadrilateral of core values:

  1. Bible-centered. We affirm the inspiration, trustworthiness, and authority of the Bible. My sense is that there is very little Bible in much of evangelicalism–often only in misapplied proof texts rather than attentive listening to and meditating upon and even memorizing scripture. In particular, one challenge for us is to read scripture together with people of color and believers from other parts of the world who may not have the same blinders we have.
  2. Cross-centered. The cross challenges all our pretensions to power and influence–from gender relations to politics. The cross gives us all pause to recognize that we are sinners, and that this recognition is good news, because in the cross, the curse of sin is reversed, real pardon is possible. We believe “the ground is level at the foot of the cross,” that all of us meet without distinctions of race, gender, socioeconomic status, or anything else that separates people. There is no “othering” and certainly no fear-mongering that infers the inferiority of others. We are all both base sinners and the redeemed of God.
  3. Conversion-centered. The cross shows us we need something more than personal and social betterment. We are dying people who need new life, and our hope is in Christ’s death and resurrection. Period. That both moves us to be converted and seek that of others. What I notice is how little we speak of these things. Have we so lost confidence in the transforming power of the gospel that we have turned to meagre earthly things like politics, or efforts to control other people?
  4. Activism. Evangelicals were distinguished by gospel energized activism that effected abolition of slavery, the building of hospitals, the earliest social agencies, and the founding of educational institutions, among other social goods. I wonder if much of our activism, whether of the right or left is co-opted by political connections or shaped by what is in favor in our political tribe rather than energized by the Jubilee proclamation of Jesus in Luke 4:18-19.

I wonder if white evangelicals of the left and right are both apostate. Have we both renounced our birthright in Christ, which is what is truly compelling? Are we both worshiping idols, just different ones? I wonder if we might begin with common confession that we have turned from our first love, a common repentance. Might that be the beginning of the revival we urgently need, both within the people of God and spreading to a deeply divided and struggling nation? Right now, we are only amplifying the divisions that exist among us when, as reconciliation people, we ought to be healing them. Might the beginning be to admit our unfitness for the work, and how desperately we need God to heal us before we can begin to bring healing?