Monday, January 31, 2011

Ulysses S. Grant

New York City, New York – Visited May 2001

My favorite Grant photo
Reader's note:  In doing posts on the Civil War I will include both Union and Confederate figures.  I would appeal that these posts be read as human interest stories, not as commentary on that difficult period in American history and the slavery that required such a tragic war to be fought for its eradication.

Back in the fall I gave Robert E. Lee prime position as my first Civil War soldier posted in the blog. There are a lot more to come, but it only seems fair to go Union and bring in Ulysses S. Grant. At the end of the war U. S. Grant was the most popular figure in the Northern States, and that includes Abraham Lincoln. He was the military savior of the country, the man who finally whipped Bobby Lee and brought a victorious end to the cataclysmic national nightmare of the Civil War.

Like so many great historical figures, U. S. Grant was a compellingly contradictory figure. He seemed uniquely designed to lead men into battle, but besides being an expert horseman, showed little else in character or talent that would seem to confer greatness.

Ulysses Hiram Grant was born into a working class family in 1822. He showed enough early promise to earn what became an undistinguished education at West Point, graduating in the lower half of his class. It is at the Military Academy that his name was mistakenly changed from Ulysses H. to Ulysses S. Grant, though there was never a name associated with the S. His first true success in his military career came with two citations for bravery in the Mexican-American War in 1846-48. He was married in the 1840’s to Julia Dent and the two ultimately raised four children together. The 1850’s found Grant retired from the military and generally unsuccessful at anything he tried in its place – except for drinking, for which he apparently had a knack.

Grant statue in Vicksburg
Grant was drafted back into the Army at the start of the Civil War in 1861, and quickly rose to the rank of general due to some solid military victories at a time where nobody else in the Union army could claim success. Eventually President Lincoln, fed up with ineptitude or failure of his established military leaders, brought Grant from the Western theater to Washington to oversee the entire Union Army. Grant’s strategic genius recognized that the war was not about territory, but about victory and defeat. He knew that to win the war he had to defeat Robert E. Lee and put his army out of commission. So in 1864 through the first part of 1865 General Grant simply made the effort to fight as often and as aggressively as possible, using his superior numbers in men and equipment to wear down the Confederate Army. Ultimately this strategy worked, resulting the effective end of the war with the surrender of Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, VA. Grant’s success against the South where others had failed may best be summed up in this quote: “In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins.”

Composing his memoirs

Grant was a logical draftee for the presidential nomination after the disastrous postwar term of Andrew Johnson. However his two terms as president revealed that his political skills didn’t match his military ones. While he was never implicated, his presidency was marked by scandal in his administration. Though Grant is often numbered with the least effective presidents, one has to see his administration in objective light. He took over a country reeling financially from war, divided politically, geographically and racially, and sought to lead it through turbulent times. Choosing not to run of a third term in 1874, Grant retired with the intent on traveling and enjoying the life his public service had earned him. However he lost all of his money through financial mismanagement by his advisors, and was diagnosed with throat cancer. The last few years of his shortened life were spent trying to complete and publish his memoirs to provide income to his family. Completed literally days before his death in July 23, 1885 at the age of 63, the memoir became a best seller, securing his family’s future and earning a place as one of the great historic autobiographies in literature.

The funeral for Ulysses Grant was at the time the largest in American history. The procession through New York City was seven miles long. Both Union and Confederate commanders served as pallbearers. Grant was laid to rest in a prime spot overlooking the Hudson River. Twelve years later a massive tomb (still the largest in the country) was dedicated with over a million people attending to pay their respects.

Buddies at the tomb - Mick Burke, Paul Dooley,
Alf Lohman, Al Montello
Ulysses and Julia Grant

My venture to the tomb occurred with four friends when we took a weekend to New York. During the early part of the century the neighborhoods around the tomb had deteriorated and the structure itself had fallen into disrepair. But the National Park Service took it over and refurbished it, and it is now well worth the subway ride up from Manhattan to see it.

USG:  "I know only two tunes: one of them is "Yankee Doodle," and the other isn't."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

John Calvin

Geneva Switzerland – Visited May 2007

Portrait of John Calvin by Titian

I thought I’d start off 2011 with a personal hero – John Calvin – the generally acknowledged father of the Reformed Christian tradition. Calvin was born July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France. His vocational direction was the opposite of his theological predecessor, Martin Luther. Luther was intended by his father to be a lawyer, but instead committed himself to the priesthood. Calvin was intended by his father for the priesthood but wound up pursuing the law. As a young man John Calvin came under the influence of the humanistic Renaissance thinking of his time. His vocational desire was (really to the end of his life) to live the life of a scholar and writer. But God’s plans worked out in him not in the contemplative world of the university, but in the turbulent and at times dangerous world of pastoral ministry in a divided city.

Calvin's Pulpit at St. Pierre - Geneva
Calvin experienced an ‘unexpected conversion’ around age 24, which led him slowly but convincingly away from humanism to a Biblical worldview. He found himself numbered with the heretics in a France hostile to the Reformation and eventually found his way to the city of Geneva, Switzerland. His intent was to find a place to study and write. But the spiritual leader of the city, William Farel, persuaded Calvin to stay in Geneva and pastor the church. So in 1536 John Calvin began his pastorate – only to be rudely interrupted eighteen months later when he was kicked out of the city by a government unhappy with his efforts. While he was exiled in Strasbourg, the scholar in him found expression, and the man found a wife. However, in his absence Geneva went down the tank and the city pleaded for Calvin to return. So in 1541 John Calvin resumed his pastoral ministry in Geneva, where he remained the rest of his life.

Statue of Calvin at the Reformation
Wall in Geneva
The church in Geneva was notable because of its overlapping influence and jurisdiction in the affairs of the city. It was the goal to make Geneva a Protestant city where church and state existed in cooperative promotion of Gospel truth and life. And to an extent under Calvin that was achieved. John Knox, the Scottish Reformer who fled to Geneva to avoid persecution, called Calvin’s Geneva ‘the most perfect school of Christ’. And as experiment in Christian government it was a remarkable endeavor. But the experiment was not without challenges in the form of continual controversies over doctrine and practice and, sadly the persecution of Anabaptist believers whose practices and doctrine raised suspicion about their participation as citizens in the city.

My wife Jill doing her killer Calvin imitation

In the center of it all was the tirelessly prolific John Calvin. Over the course of a quarter century in ministry Calvin preached an average of five times per week. In addition, he wrote commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible, numerous other theological works and ministry letters that total eleven volumes. And this does not include his magnum opus, what we know as the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which Calvin first published in 1536 and continued to expand and revise until 1559. It is Calvin’s prodigious theological outworking of Reformed theology that is ultimately his greatest legacy.

Calvin’s life and ministry ended in 1564 with him, predictably, hard at work writing and pastoring his people. Upon hearing of his death, Pope Pious IV, his greatest enemy, reluctantly had to admire, ‘If I had such servants my dominion would extend from sea to sea’. Reflecting on his imminent departure Calvin feared that he might be venerated and therefore requested to be buried in an unmarked grave in the city cemetery.  However…. If you go to Geneva to the city cemetery you will find a grave that has been marked for generations as the final resting place of the Great Reformer. Who’s to say it isn’t. 

With my brother John at the reputed final resting place of J.C.

For some great thoughts from John Piper on Calvin's legacy check out What's intriguing about John Calvin.  My favorite John Calvin quote, from the beginning of the Institutes.

Calvin as we've come to know and love him

“Our Wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself”