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Stephen Mansfield
Larry McCormack/Genesis
Stephen Mansfield

History makers

Q&A | One famous Western leader suffered from severe depression, another was a devout evangelical Christian, and a third is just plain mystifying, says pastor turned biographer Stephen Mansfield

Stephen Mansfield is a pastor turned biographer of Winston Churchill, William Wilberforce, Booker T. Washington, George Whitefield, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Abraham Lincoln, and others. Probably Mansfield’s best-known biography is The Faith of George W. Bush. His most recent books are Killing Jesus, an account of the trial and execution of Christ, and Mansfield’s Book of Manly Men, which exhorts men not to be wimps.

To talk about so many fascinating people we’ll have to go fast. Let’s start with your first book, on Winston Churchill: He publicly exuded feisty confidence, but you learned … How much he suffered. He had horribly dark depressions. One of his children committed suicide, and two drank themselves to death. His father and many of his countrymen hated him. Even when he was prime minister, he didn’t want to stay in a room with a balcony on it because he was afraid the depression might hit him and he might throw himself off. 

Was he so convincing when he said, “We’ll fight on the beaches … we’ll never surrender,” because he fought against the devils in his own life? Because he mined the valleys, he had something to offer the West at a time of crisis.

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How about George Whitefield? I call that book the Forgotten Founding Father, because he led religious revivals from Georgia all the way up to what is now Maine, and unified the colonies. He preached liberty both political and religious, specifically warning in his sermons that King George was “spying out their liberties.” He printed magazines, started orphanages, started schools. He was a biblical worldview reformer at a time when people wouldn’t have used that phrase.

William Wilberforce was forgotten for a time but is now better known, which is good because he faced tremendous opposition as he tried to end slavery two centuries ago. Wilberforce took a beating in every possible way to do what he did. We should remember that, be-cause in our own generation we may have to take similar beatings. Even some of the folks that he teamed with would later reverse themselves and be against his own views. We do the righteous thing, but we’ve got to count the price. 

Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery is one of the great books of America, but he doesn’t get much attention these days. Tell us a bit about him. Washington, born a slave, taught himself to read. He saw that newly freed slaves sometimes went and spent all their money on clothes or what he called goo-ga’s, stuff that just helped people feel rich or better about themselves. He said, “No, let’s become people of value.” Whatever students majored in, he wanted them all to know a trade. They might major in history, but they’d learn how to lay bricks. Ultimately Washington gets overshadowed by the battle for civil rights, but his message is one that African-Americans are advancing today.

In Up from Slavery, doesn’t he arrive at Tuskegee, where he would build his famous institute, and wax sarcastic about an African-American who had learned French but was sitting in a trash-strewn cabin? Some slave masters thought it entertaining to have an intelligent slave to talk to about French literature—but those slaves didn’t know anything about basic health, didn’t know that trash was an issue, or that living with the animals might bring disease. Washington said, Listen, I don’t care how insulting it sounds, we’re going to teach people how to brush their teeth, shower, deal with diseases, speak English, and paint a wall. They’re going to know how to do that stuff if they don’t know anything else. It was necessary.

Your first big seller was The Faith of George W. Bush. Didn’t it take him a while in life to get going? As a young man he was drinking hard, resenting his father’s success, and growing up in his father’s shadow. He was not well discipled or well instructed in theology, which is why we heard some of the statements he made in office, but you had a serious evangelical Christian as president of the United States. George W. Bush represents the better nature of the religious right, better than anybody else on the public stage at that time.

You could bookend The Faith of George W. Bush with another book you wrote, The Faith of Barack Obama. Barack Obama is as faith-based as George W. Bush—just a different kind of faith. What Obama is doing in office is based on a theology that he has absorbed from a range of people from Jeremiah Wright to Joshua DuBois to some of the evangelicals around him today. He is a very liberal Christian, and to not understand that is to not understand what’s pulsating at the heart of his administration. 

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