John Witherspoon’s American Revolution:
Enlightenment and Religion from the Creation of Britain to the Founding of the United States
by gideon mailer
university of north carolina, 440 pages, $45
Were John Witherspoon living today, he would be a regular contributor to First Things. A Scottish Presbyterian divine, learned philosopher, and fervent Evangelical, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, he believed that religious societies—that is, churches—had a public role in nurturing social and political order. He moved with his family to the American colonies in 1768 to become president of the College of New Jersey located in the village of Princeton. Almost at once he was caught up in the debates over dissolving the ties between the colonies and the king and parliament of England.
In this thoroughly researched and sophisticated book, Gideon Mailer cuts against the grain of recent scholarship on Witherspoon to make a compelling case that it was primarily his Evangelical theology, not common sense Scottish moral philosophy, that informed his thinking on religion and public life. This is best illustrated in a powerful sermon preached six weeks before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Titling his sermon “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men,” Witherspoon told his hearers that any attempt to create new forms of civil union was inevitably accompanied by pride and human fallibility. At a time when passions were inflamed and feelings of moral superiority drove the patriots (of whom he was one), Witherspoon offered no smooth words. “What we have to fear, and what we have now to grapple with, is the ignorance, prejudice, partiality and injustice of human nature.” The American patriots were mere men. A demanding but rewarding book.
—Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.
Lincoln in the Bardo
by george saunders
random house, 368 pages, $28
A novel centered on the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, Willie, is not what we might have expected from George Saunders. Since his 1996 debut story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders has established himself as a ruthless (and superlatively funny) satirist, giving voice to down-on-their-luck characters crushed beneath the grotesqueries of profit-driven theme parks and corporations. With Lincoln in the Bardo, he’s taken a leap from the short story to the novel, from the present and near-future to the past, and from downtrodden nobodies to the Great Emancipator. Yet it is a very George Saunders book.
In Saunders’s hands, Lincoln joins the ranks of the nobodies: bereaved, despised by his countrymen, a man of sorrows in a cemetery at night, alone. But not utterly. Unbeknownst to him, Lincoln is surrounded by spirits in the “bardo,” a term Saunders borrows from Tibetan Buddhism to name the transition between life and “whatever comes next.” As in a play, these spirits engage in dialogue that constitutes the bulk of the novel. The cemetery comes to resemble one of Saunders’s dystopian theme parks, an enclosed space where wild sights and desperation run rampant, and where hope, against all odds, remains unquenched.
When a spirit in the bardo passes through another person (living or dead), the former is flooded with the latter’s consciousness. In effect, Saunders has constructed an image of the kind of empathy he has advocated throughout his career—and which his writing puts into practice. In 368 pages we hear 166 voices: men and women, adults and children, slaves, soldiers, criminals, victims. That Saunders brings so many to life, complete with their own rhythms and spelling conventions, is a testament to his abiding concern to imagine, and thus inhabit, the minds of others.
—Bryce A. Taylor is a poet and filmmaker in Houston, Texas.
Theologia Moralis, Volume 1
by st. alphonsus liguori
translated by ryan grant
mediatrix, 640 pages, $35
The loss of Latin as the unifying tongue of the Roman Church has created a void in theological learning among clergy and laity alike. Classics that were once accessible to anyone with a good education are now left unread, untranslated, and forgotten. Knowing that Latin is not likely to become an educational staple anytime soon, an enterprising independent scholar, Ryan Grant, has begun releasing a series of fresh translations of works by some of the Church’s greatest doctors, including the Theologia Moralis of St. Alphonsus Liguori.
Having gone through nine editions in Liguori’s lifetime, the Theologia Moralis was lauded by several popes, and by the saint’s death in 1787 had become the standard handbook of moral theology to which later scholars would repair. It remained such until the mid-twentieth-century upheavals in Catholic theology, from which the Church is still reeling. The first installment of Grant’s new translation covers the first three books of St. Alphonsus’s work, which focus on conscience, law, sin, and the theological virtues. As St. Alphonsus makes clear in the introduction, his aim is to chart a path between laxism and rigorism while assessing the probability of various theological opinions that were dominant during his lifetime.
Grant’s translation is both literal and lucid, allowing an educated novice to learn at the feet of the man Bl. Pope Pius IX declared Doctor zelantissimus (most zealous doctor). Those better versed in theological history and even Latin will also benefit from Grant’s efforts, as they can use his work as a guidepost through St. Alphonsus’s occasionally technical Latin prose. Thanks to Grant for exhuming one of the forgotten masterworks of Catholic theology, which has special relevance today amid widespread confusion over the moral theology of conscience.
—Gabriel Sanchez is assistant editor of The Angelus and co-author of The Principles and Practice of International Aviation Law.