In the tradition of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals comes Gustav Niebuhr's compelling history of Abraham Lincoln's decision in 1862 to spare the lives of 265 condemned Sioux men, and the Episcopal bishop who was his moral compass, helping guide the president's conscience.
More than a century ago, during the formative years of the American nation, Protestant churches carried powerful moral authority, giving voice to values such as mercy and compassion, while boldly standing against injustice and immorality. Gustav Niebuhr travels back to this defining period, to explore Abraham Lincoln's decision to spare the lives of 265 Sioux men sentenced to die by a military tribunal in Minnesota for warfare against white settlers—while allowing the hanging of 38 others, the largest single execution on American soil. Popular opinion favored death or expulsion. Only one state leader championed the cause of the Native Americans, Episcopal bishop, Henry Benjamin Whipple.
Though he'd never met an Indian until he was 37 years old, Whipple befriended them before the massacre and understood their plight at the hands of corrupt government officials and businessmen. After their trial, he pleaded with Lincoln to extend mercy and implement true justice. Bringing to life this little known event and this extraordinary man, Niebuhr pays tribute to the once amazing moral force of mainline Protestant churches and the practitioners who guarded America's conscience.
Lincoln's Bishop is illustrated with 16 pages of black-and-white photos.
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It is hard to recall what powerful moral voices Protestant church leaders had in the formative years of the nation. Gustav Niebuhr travels back to the Minnesota frontier of 1862 when Dakota Sioux rose up against pioneering families and slaughtered hundreds. Citizens demanded mass executions and deportations. Into this turmoil stepped Henry Benjamin Whipple, the state's first Episcopal bishop.
Whipple had already loudly decried the crimes and corruption of those managing Indian affairs and warned of calamity. Now he made the case of mercy and a deeper justice, which eventually led to meeting with President Lincoln. Despite being preoccupied with the Civil War, Lincoln was moved to intervene, surprisingly taking the time to review all 303 cases and overturning the death sentence for most of the Indians. Nevertheless, the result was still the largest single execution on American soil.
If not for Whipple's vigorous campaigning, both in state and in Washington, DC, a greater tragedy might well have occurred. His success should haunt us: Where today do we hear these trumpet calls for justice like those given by figures such as Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple?About the Author:
Gustav Niebuhr is associate professor of newspaper and online journalism at Syracuse University and founding director of the Carnegie Religion and Media Program. He worked as a reporter at the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal and was the 2010 winner of the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award for religion reporting. He is the author of Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America.
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