Book Review: Christopher Gehrz’s Religious Biography of Charles Lindbergh

Christopher Gehrz, Charles Lindbergh: A Religious Biography of America’s Most Infamous Pilot, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021, 265 pages.

Christopher Gehrz - Charles LindberghCharles Lindbergh is simultaneously the most fascinating and the most frustrating individual I have ever encountered. Since December 2019, I have been cataloging the Missouri Historical Society’s collection of over 2000 objects that Lindbergh donated following his May 1927 New York to Paris flight. The collection ranges from artifacts carried on that flight to the hundreds of medals and awards he received, personal effects, artwork, two aircraft, jewelry, and the random gifts people and governments sent him or gave him and his wife, Anne, on their travels. In studying the material culture owned by and given to Lindbergh, I have learned a lot about him. Perhaps I have learned too much.

I imagine Christopher Gehrz, professor of history at Bethel University in Lindbergh’s home state of Minnesota, might also say he has learned too much about Lindbergh in the course of writing the latest biography on the aviator. There have been many biographies written about Lindbergh since the pilot, outspoken isolationist, and conservationist died in 1974, with A. Scott Berg’s 1998 biography widely considered to be the standard text on Lindbergh’s life.

A lot has come out of the woodwork on Lindbergh since 1998, most prominently the discovery of his multiple extramarital affairs and the children he had with three German women. Over the past twenty years, historians have also unpacked Lindbergh’s legacy in light of his views on eugenics and race, as well as his anti-Semitic remarks made during his isolationist America First speeches in the run-up to World War II.

Despite the numerous books that have been written about Lindbergh over the years, one aspect of his life has been woefully overlooked, until now. Gehrz’s biography is the first to analyze Lindbergh’s life, writings, and actions through a religious lens. Perhaps you might not think religious or spiritual when you think of Charles Lindbergh (if you even think of him at all – increasing numbers of people I run across have never even heard of him). That would be fair, since Lindbergh was not an orthodox Christian. He did not believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, yet he was fascinated by Jesus and thought deeply about his own spirituality. Lindbergh’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1953 book The Spirit of St. Louis drips with religious imagery, as do some of his other later writings.

Gehrz’s biography investigates Lindbergh’s beliefs and writings on Jesus, religion, spirituality, the afterlife, and how Lindbergh’s beliefs influenced his actions. Through intense archival research and analysis of published works, Gehrz unpacks Lindbergh’s spiritual complexity. Since Lindbergh’s spirituality flourished in his later years (he was only 25 when he made his famous flight), the foundational part of Gehrz’s argument rests upon the period of Lindbergh’s life spanning the 1930s until his death. The book begins by looking at the religious elements in the lives of Lindbergh’s parents and grandparents, shining a light on the rather unorthodox beliefs in which he grew up.

This book is perhaps best suited for those who already know the fundamental stories of Lindbergh’s life: his 1927 flight, his marriage to Anne Morrow, the 1932 kidnapping and murder of their son, dubbed the “crime of the century,” and Lindbergh’s involvement in the isolationist America First committee from 1940-41. Gehrz touches on Lindbergh’s early life and the 1927 flight, but he does not dwell on those periods as that is not the point of the book. Instead he briefly tells those stories through a religious lens. It is quite the literary feat to pull this narrative style off. I am fascinated and impressed by Gehrz’s skills as a writer. He tells a familiar story in a brand new way.

Gehrz looks at his subject openly and honestly.  When I sat down to read this book, I honestly expected it to be a hate-fest, but it isn’t. He simply tells the story of Lindbergh’s spiritual side in a “matter-of-fact” way, which I believe is how history should be written. Gehrz also tells this story in a very readable way. The book flows very well, and it is exceptionally well written. The biography is very focused, which makes it digestible in a way a broader biography might not be. I actually found the book to be quite the page-turner.

One of my few complaints with this tale of Lindbergh’s spirituality is one omission: there is no discussion of Lindbergh’s involvement in freemasonry. Lindbergh was a 32nd degree freemason in the Scottish Rite. He attained that level in a masonic temple in St. Louis, Missouri, when he was working as an airmail pilot prior to his transatlantic flight. I have cataloged a few artifacts given to him by that masonic group as well as others across the nation. My frustration in researching those objects was how little I could find about Lindbergh’s masonic past. About all I could find were references to it in newspapers at the time. I assume Gehrz does not mention it because either he was not aware or because there is no additional information about that part of Lindbergh’s life. There appears to be little to no related primary sources, apart from the gold masonic gifts held in the Missouri Historical Society collection. (Shameless self promotion: a coworker and I wrote a blog post about objects in the collection connected to secret societies, including a few masonic pieces: https://mohistory.org/blog/secret-societies/.)

If Gehrz had come across information related to Lindbergh’s masonic involvement, he probably would have included it. It is possible that Lindbergh never had anything to do with freemasonry after he left St. Louis. Maybe we will never know.  

One of Gehrz’s best contributions to the Lindbergh story is his analysis of Lindbergh’s journal entries from the run-up to World War II. Lindbergh published these journals in an edited form in 1970, but Gehrz dug into the original journals housed at Yale. What Lindbergh omitted from their published form says a lot.

Perhaps the most offensive thing Gehrz uncovers in his book is a journal entry from November 5, 1940 where Lindbergh, in recounting a conversation he had with friends, questions the validity of universal franchise, specifically arguing that African Americans should not be allowed to vote. In the same entry, Lindbergh discussed “the Jewish problem,” hoping to solve that “problem” without resorting to the violent racism seen in Nazi Germany (page 135).

One cannot help but be disappointed and angry with Lindbergh at such statements. Many have accused Lindbergh of being a Nazi sympathizer, which I think goes a stretch too far and misses a lot of the nuance of Lindbergh’s actions in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Nevertheless, Lindbergh, at least at this point in his life, held racist views of other human beings who are created in the image of God. He never publicly repented of such beliefs.

Gehrz’s honesty with the reader is refreshing. Rather than a distant biographer, Gehrz reminds us of his presence without inserting himself needlessly. The following is my favorite paragraph of the whole book because it perfectly encapsulates how I have felt about Lindbergh over the past twenty months of studying him (page 138):

It can’t be you! If not as intensely as his youngest child, that’s still how most of us feel when we come to this chapter in the story of Charles Lindbergh. If we have any appreciation for his historic achievements, any admiration for his courage and modesty, any compassion for the tragedies he endured, or if we simply nod along with the honest questions he asked about God, science, and mortality, we don’t want to accept that he believed what he said about Jews.

Even so, it is hard not to be a little sympathetic towards Lindbergh. The man was treated as if he were the Messiah. Gehrz has a chapter entitled “The New Christ,” where he discusses the religious language used to embrace Lindbergh following his 1927 flight. An entire monograph could be written about the reasons why Americans and Europeans embraced Lindbergh with the enthusiasm they did. Gehrz argues that the media and public created a version of Lindbergh that fit what they wanted: “Lindy.” Gehrz writes,

For all the public scrutiny that would soon make Charles Lindbergh more protective of his privacy, no one was interested in uncovering the more complicated story of their hero’s upbringing, influences, and beliefs. Whether politicians or pastors, reporters or their readers, Americans wanted a type, not a person: Lindy, not Lindbergh. (page 64)  

The media pressure on Lindbergh was intense. How is any mortal man supposed to live up to the Messiah image the public created? Add to that the kidnapping and murder of his firstborn son a few years later, which he perhaps rightly blamed on press publicity. None of this excuses his racism and lack of compassion for those he deemed lesser than himself, but it is clear that America set Lindbergh up to fail. For that I cannot help but pity him, even if I find some of his beliefs to be offensive and sinful.

The saddest part of Lindbergh’s story, however, is how it ends. Based upon Gehrz’s research and narrative of Lindbergh’s final days, I see no evidence that Lindbergh ever let go of his arrogance and pride and acknowledged Jesus as Lord and Savior. Maybe he had some sort of deathbed conversion as he died of cancer at his home on Maui, but based upon the witness of those who spent those last days with him, it does not sound like it.

In that regard, let Charles Lindbergh be a warning to us all. Lindbergh knew that scientific achievement falls far short in its attempts to explain the meaning of life, but his example also shows us that unsanctified human reason also falls short. Christopher Gehrz’s biography does an excellent job of exploring that aspect of Lindbergh’s life.

Bryan Morey

https://www.eerdmans.com/Products/7621/charles-lindbergh.aspx

Yesterday’s Seven Thousand Years

My grandfather THOMAS MUNRO, SR ASH 1914-1919
Near the end of the Long, long road CONSTANTINOPLE January 1919 my grandfather is 5th from the right. He told me stories of the Turks (whom he hated with a passion) and visited Haggia Sophia and the ruins of city. He also had contact with Greek and Armenian refugees and he said the tales they told were heart-breaking and horrific.
Thomas Munro, Sr. in Salonika Greece APRIL 1917. He had written to my grandmother that now that the USA was in the war the Allies would surely win. He aid it was just a matter of time six months? a year? two years. He didn’t know for sure but all of the men felt hope they might now survive the war. He used to say he survived 2nd Ypres but would not have survived 5th or 6th Ypres.
The 1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders arrive to come to the rescue of France and Belgium.
This photo has the same sources

When people say “New York” they mean “New York City” when they want to talk about the state they say “New York State.” As an exile from New York, I don’t consider myself a New Yorker and never considered myself a New Yorker. I was never accepted as a New Yorker. My family just passed through New York via Montreal, Canada, and Ellis Island. They never really were New Yorkers or even “Yankees”.

And you know what they say: being born in a garage doesn’t make you a car. I wouldn’t mind visiting it again (I haven’t been there since 2005) but I have no burning desire to return and no family and few friends to greet me.

Cianalas is the Highland word for it -that place you are connected to by heritage where joy and sadness mingle.

But it is quite true. You can’t go home again. The greatest distance between two points is time. New York, Glasgow, Argyll, Inverness, Glenties, Ferindonald represent lost worlds to me. So is Seattle, Washington where we lived for seven years.

There is some warmth of memories in all of those places places where my family lived for over one thousand years but I know them well enough to know they all belong to the past and are not likely to have any place in my future and the future of my children.

They are now part of Yesterday’s Seven Thousand Years.

We may sing of them and memory remembers the ghost of a tune and the ghost of a kiss and the Silent Ones.

But the Silent Ones greet forever as they greet no more.

Gars ye tae greet,aye. “But the broken heart it kens no second spring again thought the waeful heart cease not from its greeting.” (grieving; lamenting -that’s Scots dialect)

But then I am speaking only to myself.

“The world is hard and cruel. We are here none knows why, and we go none knows whither. We must be very humble. We must see the beauty of quietness. We must go through life so inconspicuously that Fate does not notice us. And let us seek the love of simple, ignorant people. Their ignorance is better than all our knowledge. Let us be silent, content in our little corner, meek and gentle like them. That is the wisdom of life.” (The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham)

Of course, the 1890 Highlands is a vanished world and so is pre-1914 Glasgow and so is Brooklyn, USA 1927-1957.

I grew up hearing about Ebbets Field ( I was there in 1955 in utero) and my cousins and sisters went there. I used to be very happy to return to New York but that is because my grandmother and mother and father lived there (plus a few college friends). But since they have passed on -it has been over 20 years so there is no homestead, no property, no address and no welcoming face at any door. The phone numbers still remembered are disconnected.

It is sad when you know your mother’s email and phone number and you know no matter how long you wait there will never be a return message or call.

Phone numbers disconnected and ideas for conversations that would never take place. I used to call my mother long distance at least once a week and she would see “this is costing money” and I told her it was cheaper than a cocaine habit and in any case I know each day is a gift. I told her I would call her now for a modest amount. The time is coming, I said to her, that no matter how much I would spend the door would still be locked and the phone disconnected.

Life and love are just a brief moment in time. My mother used to say that. I half believed it. Now I have learned it.

I thought winter would never come but winter came and the snow is general.

Even on Labor Day. Especially on a holiday. Thank God for my beloved wife! Thank God for our children and the new generation to come!

GOLDEN HOURS ON ANGEL WINGS

It is September 2021 and hard to believe that I have no lesson plans to prepare and not classes to go to! (I retired from teaching June 9, 2021.

I wrote (true believe it or not) a 1200 page memoir for my children and grandchildren. I have a few recorded audo clips of my mother, father and grandfather but I wish I had many more! My father used to read poetry aloud to us in English, Scots, in Gaelic, in Latin, in French, In Russian, In Spanish, in Italian and ancient Greek. He was a notable language and literature enthusiast and he would modestly discribe himself as a dilettante or enthusiast though it would be unfair to say he never had any real commitment to scholarship and knowledge. In my entire life I never met a professor who was as well read as my father who could discuss and quote at length Homer, Vergil, Burns, Byron and Shakespeare, Whitman Garcia Lorca, Antonio Machado, Cervantes, Rodrigo Caro. He was well-read in history and biography but his true passions were opera, classical drama and the great authors of fiction.

So I have many of my fathers’s books with annotations and dates but I have few recordings. In my youth cameras and phones and recorders were not ubiquitous. So I met many famous people and artists but I have few photographs (though sometimes I have authorgraps of them such as E. G. Marshall, Bill Tabbbert, Kenneth McKellar, Rita Moreno, Pat Moynihan) . So my chief ambition is to make recordings of my favorite stories and poems to share with my children and grandchildren when I have left the land of the living. I have probably been intensely aware of man’s fate and man’s mortality for many years. I have been close to death at least on two occasions and I have seen the dead. Now as I pass 65 years I become aware of the shortness of my days. No man is master of the line of his life. So I have before me a dozen days (surely) or a hundred or a thousand but can I say ten thousand days of health and mental clarity? Perhaps if I am very lucky but the truth is somewhere between 100 and 10,000. I have term life insurance until I am 77 but I hope we never collect! But then again the insurance is not for me.

And so my YOUTUBE CHANNEL is really for others especially friends and family. I don’t expect many to show much interest in an old man’s poems and memories and stories but PERHAPS my children and grandchildren will find them of some intellectual -and sentimental interest.

GOLDEN HOURS ON ANGEL WINGS. I plan to do one or two 10-15 minute recordings a week. Here is the very first.