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Books: Men of independence

Books | America's greatness is not its government, but its citizens

Issue: "Palau: Renaissance Man," Jan. 24, 1998

The most extraordinary fact about American history is not that it produced independence for men but that it produced men of independence. It is not that it made men free but that it made free men. American history is not so much the story of a great government marked by liberty and prosperity as it is the story of a purposeful people marked by courage and principle. Our heritage is set apart by a kind of striking singularity. It is populated by individual innovators, entrepreneurs, trail blazers, and pioneers. We are a remarkable community of remarkable people boldly standing against the tide, defying the odds, and breaking the mold. As a result, reading the biographies of American heroes-such as Cotton Mather, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Henry Laurens, Dolly Madison, Robert E. Lee, Booker T. Washington, Herman Melville, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Caroline Gordon-is a distinctly inspiring enterprise. These two new biographies are evidence of that fact. Asahel Nettleton: Life and Labors is actually a recent revision of a century-old biography of one of the greatest evangelists and theologians during a vital period in American church history. Asahel Nettleton (1783-1843) was raised in the vibrant spiritual community of New England congregationalism that had been so profoundly revived during the Great Awakening. When he was a young student at Yale, this rich heritage was further enhanced when he was introduced to the writings of Jonathan Edwards. Immediately after graduating, he began his life's work as an itinerant evangelist, serving small congregations throughout Connecticut and New York. The fruit of his labors became immediately evident. For some 30 years he was remarkably used in accord with God's good providence to provoke one of the richest, deepest, and most substantial sustained revivals in our nation's history. But in addition to being an effective evangelist and a model of Christian holiness, Mr. Nettleton was a profound thinker and theologian. His opposition to the innovative doctrines and practices of Charles Finney proved to be a watershed in American ecclesiology, drawing a clear distinction between the principles of revival and revivalism. Indeed, the issues he raised more than 100 years ago are even more relevant today than they were then, making his biography a treasure trove of inspiration and wisdom. Sgt. York: His Life, Legend, and Legacy is a long overdue examination of the untold story of Alvin York (1887-1964). Born and raised in the isolated backwoods of Tennessee, he was suddenly thrust upon the world's stage when he singlehandedly defeated a German machine-gun placement and captured more than 130 Axis soldiers. He came home from the First World War to discover that he had achieved celebrity status as America's greatest war hero: He was greeted by a massive ticker- tape parade in New York, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and was the subject of a Hollywood film with Gary Cooper in the starring role. But as amazing as his battle heroism was, his greatest achievements came after he returned home. Rejecting all commercial and endorsement offers, he settled down to a life of good deeds, philanthropy, and church leadership. He founded the American Legion, established a Bible college, and selflessly invested in his neighbors for the rest of his life. Biographer John Perry has done an excellent job revealing this quintessential American hero, portraying for us once again the spirit that makes our national heritage so rich and so provocative.

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