Gustav Niebuhr is Associate Professor in Religion & the Media at Syracuse University. This interview is based on his new book Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, a Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors (June 2014, HarperOne).
JF: What led you to write Lincoln’s Bishop?
GN: I’ve long had a deep interest both in the social reform movements that arose from the Second Great Awakening and also in Abraham Lincoln’s humanity. The two are bridged in the story of Henry Whipple and his meeting with Lincoln during the Dakota War of 1862. A shopkeeper’s son from northern New York, Whipple became Minnesota’s first Episcopal Church bishop in 1859 and discovered a profound empathy with Native Americans; he emerged as a one-man movement demanding reform of federal Indian policy. What makes this clergyman remarkable is he took his lobbying to Washington during a rising by Native Americans in which hundreds of settlers perished. Even as he met with Lincoln, many Minnesotans, from the governor on down, were calling for the Dakota’s extermination. What’s remarkable about Lincoln (in this instance) is he took Whipple seriously–this in the very week that he awaited news of the Battle of Antietam on whose outcome rested on his decision whether to release a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Lincoln’s Bishop?
GN: Whipple’s testimony, driven in part by his religious faith, about corrupt government dealings with the Indians helped offer Lincoln ground for an alternative to accepting the insistence of military and civil authorities that 300 Indian men be hanged for the Dakota War. The eventual outcome largely avoided what might have been an enduring disgrace to the United States and Lincoln’s presidency.
JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln’s Bishop?
GN: Through Whipple’s example, the book shows that movements for social change continued in the North, even as the nation was absorbed by the Civil War. It also discusses how a person’s early relationships may be critical in shaping later, public action. Whipple met Native Americans only in middle age, but as a child he benefited an elderly man, once a captive of Indians in colonial New York. This man described the generosity with which Indians treated him in stories that impressed young Henry Whipple.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
GN: My degrees are in history, but I came to write about it as a journalist. Before I came to Syracuse University, I wrote about religion in America as a national reporter for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times (chronologically, in that order). Very early on, I found news stories about religion were best told if the events at hand were cast in their historic context.
JF: What is your next project?
GN: I’ve been asked to write an introductory book about religion in America. I’m thinking about it.
JF: Thanks, Gustav!
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