Doubleday, 2011. 386 pp.
We learn some stories from American history when we are young and hear them repeated often throughout our lives. These stories involve the giants in American life who shaped history in an undeniable way. We seldom hear about many other fascinating stories either because they involved lesser-known figures or because the events didn’t alter the future course of events.
One of the stories we rarely tell is of the assassination of James Garfield, the twentieth President of the United States. Candice Millard remedies our ignorance of these events with her captivated work Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of the President.
Millard’s writing bears the marks of a unique gift–the ability to tell history so that it grips the reader and makes them want to keep turning the pages. In Destiny of the Republic, she uses her storytelling skills to bring us into the world of President Garfield, Charles Guiteau, Alexander Graham Bell, and the emergence of modern medical practices.
She rehearses the personal narratives of President Garfield and Charles Guiteau, the President’s assassin, to help us better understand who they were and what drove them. Through this, we see a picture of the unique gifts Garfield brought to the Presidency and the self-absorption that drove Guiteau to pull the trigger.
Destiny of the Republic does not end with Guiteau shooting the President of the United States in the back because that is far from the end of the Garfield’s story. She narrates the debates taking place in medicine in the 1880’s over the use of antiseptics and the practices of physicians who were not convinced of its usefulness. Through this the reader groans in frustration at the doctors who treated the President with unwashed hands. She also tells us the frantic work Alexander Graham Bell did to invent a device that could help the doctors locate the bullet and of the frustrations he faced in the process.
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
Pastors communicate for a living, and if we do our reading in theology books alone we are going to communicate like people who only read theology books. Reading a gripping narrative like Destiny of the Republic, or Millard’s other historical works The River of Doubt and Hero of the Empire gives us a taste of how we can continue to tell the old, old story in interesting and fresh ways.
Destiny of the Republic also serves as warning about the perils of pride, a malady to which pastors can be especially susceptible. Charles Guiteau was a man filled with pride and ambition. Though it is easy to throw off his actions on his mental illness, the narrative of his life is filled with relationships ruined by his never-ending drive to be famous.
In addition, Destiny of the Republic is filled with wonderful illustrative material for sermons, as is most other good works of history. Garfield’s affair shows us the danger of breaking our marital vows. Guiteau’s pride and presumption shows us how pride can wreck our lives. The physician attending to Garfield refused to listen to other council when he could have saved the President if the advice of other doctors had been heeded. He stands forever as a warning against closing our minds to new ideas and stubbornly refusing to listen to the wisdom of others who are around us.
Pastors and ministry leaders would receive great blessing from a wider program of reading. Our theological studies and ministries benefit from delving into history, literature, and cultural studies. We grow in our vocabulary, storytelling, understanding of human behavior, and gain a wider lens through which we view the world. Destiny of the Republic would be a great place to start.
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