Mother Tongue by Leonard Sweet

Is Mother Tongue a biography? Family memoir? Devotional meditation? Whatever the category, Mother Tongue is an inspiring remembrance of an amazing woman and an honest and engrossing recollection of Leonard Sweet’s mid-20th century growing-up years in a poor family led by his indomitable and devout mother, Mabel Boggs Sweet.

It is also a fascinating look inside the subculture of Holiness Churches of that era of which Ms. Mabel was an ordained, and then defrocked, minister. What made the story all the more compelling for me were the contrasts between the Len Sweet that I have come to know via his books, podcasts, and essays (and even a shared meal many years ago). Dr. Sweet is a sophisticated, urbane, scholar of American culture, college president, professor, semiotician (look it up!), and creative communicator extraordinaire. Although, I had inferred something of Sweet’s roots from passing allusions in his books and podcasts, I would never have guessed how humble his beginnings were, nor how saturated his formative years were in the Holiness stream of American Christianity.

Despite, however, Leonard Sweet’s impressive credentials and cosmopolitan persona, the singular trait that has always come through in his writing and speaking is his conviction that Jesus Christ is, as He claimed, the way, the truth, and the life. And, now, after reading this, his loving and respectful — although not entirely uncritical — portrait of Mabel Sweet, I know who planted and watered the seeds of Christian faith in Len Sweet.

Mabel Sweet’s life was in many ways a difficult life. I suspect that I’m not the only fellow follower of Christ who has read this book and wondered what might have been if she had been born in a different time and into different circumstances. But, in the end, most of us will join Len Sweet in thanking God that Mabel Sweet persevered and left the rich legacy that she did.

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