Book review: Lincoln’s Bishop

by Gustav Niebuhr


In 1862, war broke out between the Dakota Sioux Indians and the white settlers in Minnesota, where I currently live.  Niebuhr’s new book digs below the surface to tell the story, from a 19th-century Christian bishop’s perspective.

Niebuhr writes like a journalist, and he spent nearly the first half of the book setting the stage and introducing the major players (President Lincoln, Chief Little Crow, and Bishop Whipple). There were times I struggled to maintain interest, even in light of the mistreatment of Indians. But then hostilities escalated to warfare between the Sioux and the white settlers, and the story grabbed me by the guts. Indian tactics were gruesome, and half the state of Minnesota fled in terror. Tales of horrific massacre grew like gossip. Niebuhr presents both sides of the story, which is far from clear and hardly guiltless on either side. When the dust settled, 303 Indian warriors stood ready to be hanged, and public opinion was ready to lynch any others who remained.

Enter Bishop Whipple, an Episcopal minister who took the side of the Indians. But what could Whipple accomplish against strong public opinion? How could he capture the ear of a distant President (Lincoln) whose attention was more strongly focused on civil war? What would be the fate of the 303 Indians, and hundreds of others who coexisted peacefully or–even more astounding–risked their lives to save white men, women and children during the war?

This is a story of out-of-control greed, human limits when backed against a wall, and the ugliness that results … plus one man’s determination to apply Christian principles where humanity could only fail. Highly recommended.

HarperOne, © 2014, 210 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06-209768-2

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