I'm just as concerned about history written from a "Christian" perspective.
Eager to uncover the depths of America's Christian roots, some Christian writers have embraced the Founding Fathers' references to God without acknowledging that the god of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams is one most orthodox Christians would not recognize. Similarly, Christian writers of history have sometimes failed to distinguish between civil religion and casual Christianity, on the one hand, and biblical Christianity on the other. Thus some of the same people who resist casual Christianity in contemporary America endorse it in historic America.
The Unorthodox Mr. Roosevelt
One example should suffice. "Theodore Roosevelt stood foursquare on the legacy of biblical orthodoxy," writes George Grant in his 1997 book Carry a Big Stick: The Uncommon Heroism of Theodore Roosevelt. But late 19th- and early 20th-century American nationalists merely ransacked the Bible for verses that could justify various political causes. Grant's claim is false; Teddy Roosevelt had little use for "biblical orthodoxy," and to spin Roosevelt as an orthodox Christian is to get him wrong.
American Christians should want to avoid wrong historical conclusions, even when that means giving up cherished ideas about their nation's past. Historians and history teachers will inevitably bring their personal commitments to the archives and into the classroom, but it is fundamentally corrupting to turn to the past to merely vindicate preconceived judgments. If a Christian wants to applaud Roosevelt's manly patriotism, that is a matter of fair choice. But Christian students of history should avoid casting Roosevelt's nationalism in strictly favorable—or Christian—terms.
To be fair, the expansionist movement Roosevelt promoted did some good: illiterate peoples in America's colonies learned to read, people without medicine gained the advantage of Western technology, and Christianity did "uplift" many of the colonized. But Roosevelt's brand of nationalism also made him a late 19th-century warmonger and led to a vicious conflict in the Philippines—a conflict protested by, among others, the devoutly Christian William Jennings Bryan. One long-term consequence of America's military presence in the Philippines is the United States' involvement in the massive and still growing market for East Asian girls and young women—a skin trade in which the U.S. military is still entangled and which in many cases amounts to modern-day slavery.
George Grant claims that Teddy Roosevelt "led the world into a remarkable epoch of peace," but to say that is to do an injustice not only to the plain historical record but also to Roosevelt himself. Roosevelt approved of war. He reveled in battle. For him, conflict weeded out weak people who stood in the way of progress.
It isn't that Roosevelt should be painted mainly in a bad light. He was an extraordinary and, in many ways, wonderful man; he was larger than life and is one of the most significant personalities in American history. But, like everyone, Roosevelt was a sinner, and his actions helped to set off a series of events that, for good and bad, affect us still.
Christian writers who spin history in simplistic terms to boost their favored political, cultural, or theological causes are doing nothing better than politically motivated writers who do the same. The antidote to secularist historical revisionism isn't Christian revisionism but simply trying to get the past right, insofar as that is possible. Scholarly incompetence with a Christian face on it is still incompetence, and one who fabricates myths in the name of saving Christian kids from secularism isn't doing anyone a service.
Through History's Eyes
So if it is wrong for Christians to deliberately put their own spin on history, then what is there for the Christian student of history to do? For one thing, Christian interpreters of history can strive to cultivate within themselves a capacity for discernment. Of course, all students of history should do this, but Christians in particular must lead the way. To discern is to test something to see whether it is what it claims to be; it's to be perceptive, keen, and intellectually sharp; it's to be prudent, even-handed, and cautious in coming to judgment; as Westmont College philosopher Robert Wennberg has suggested, it's to be judicious in how one speaks of the dead; and, even as one acknowledges that there is much that cannot be known, it's to be determined to get things right.
The Bible clearly has a lot to say in praise of such qualities, even though the present sound-bite culture can hardly stand them. Nowadays, it seems that it is enough to say that Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and a slaveholder, was a bald-faced hypocrite, period, and that Christopher Columbus was a wanton purveyor of destruction and genocide—end of story. An inattentive population can hardly stand conclusions more complex, and more accurate, than these. (The same was true a century ago, when Jefferson and Columbus were sometimes described in almost godlike terms.) But time and again, the Scriptures admonish believers to be wise in their approach both to spiritual and worldly matters, cautious in judgment, prudent in how they conduct relationships, and discerning.
The writer of the Book of Hebrews says that the "Word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (KJV). I think this description also can stand as an ideal to be pursued by every Christian who reads, writes, teaches, and thinks about history. "Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves," the Scriptures say. "Be quick to hear and slow to speak." "With what judgment you judge, you shall be judged."
In the preface to his fine 1995 biography of Abraham Lincoln, David Herbert Donald writes that he asked "at every stage of [Lincoln's] career what he knew when he had to take critical actions, how he evaluated the evidence before him, and why he reached his decisions. [This book] is then a biography written from Lincoln's point of view, using the information and ideas that were available to him."
Donald aspired not to impose himself on Lincoln but to be imposed upon by his subject. This is a commendable act of humility. The precise extent to which Donald succeeded is debatable, but his attempt is encouraging, for it illustrates an attitude toward history that is, I think, fundamentally Christian.
The History Lover's Golden Rule
In a time when European travelers were exploring the New World, and knowledge of the universe was expanding rapidly, a Church of England priest named George Herbert wrote a poem titled "The Agony" (1633). In the poem, Herbert doffs his cap with admiration at recent scientific and geographic discoveries, and he compliments mankind's capacity for uncovering knowledge. Yet despite these great advances, Herbert wrote, there remained "two vast, spacious things" the depths of which had never been truly sounded—namely, "Sin and Love."
Since I first read Herbert's poem—I was a new graduate student in history at the time—I have thought that in it he suggests, however curtly, an attitude toward history that I as a Christian should take. I should keep ever before me the truth that all have sinned, and that because I am part of the human community of sinners, I can't presume myself to be superior to others—either those now living or those who have gone before. I also saw that, my own combative temperament notwithstanding, I am obliged to practice charity toward all men and women, the living and the dead.
With Herbert, Christians know that sin pervades everyone—even history scholars.
If we were among the brutish conquistadors who won New Spain in the 16th century, we may well have acted as they did. If we were Plains Indians in the late 19th century, we may have taken the lives of the children of American settlers too. And if we were the friends of a family whose child was lost to Native Americans, we probably would have been glad to read in the newspaper that somewhere in the Midwest, a few days before, a group of Indian men, women, and children had been gunned down in their tents.
It shouldn't surprise us when sin rears its ubiquitous head in history: Thomas Jefferson, architect of freedom and slaveholder; Henry Ford, great businessman and anti-Semite; Aimee Semple McPherson, committed evangelist and scandalous icon. There's nothing to be surprised about.
The world is warped, sin blemishes every human being, and even one's most earnest effort to be and do one's best is itself tainted by the Fall. Because Christian readers, writers, or teachers of history know that sin infects everything, they are able to exercise charity, compassion, and understanding toward historical figures who made vast errors.
Jesus said that his disciples should do to others as they would want others to do to them, and 50 or 100 years from now, what would we want historians to do with us?
Certainly we would want them to try to understand us on our own terms. We don't want them to make myths of us, to pretend that we were faultless, but we hope that they won't focus solely on our shortcomings. We hope that they won't force us into their mold, but that they will try to shape their history by fully understanding our mold. We hope that they will not put into our mouths political and cultural agendas with which we are not concerned. We would want them to treat us fairly.
In short, we hope that they will keep in mind, as Christians must always remember, that all men and women will finally be judged by One who himself has no judge. The ultimate archives are kept in heaven, and there are no forgeries there.
Preston Jones, a contributing editor for Books & Culture and a book reviewer for the (Canada) National Post and Ottawa Citizen, teaches history at Logos Academy in Dallas.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See today's related article by Tim Stafford, "Whatever Happened to Christian History?"
Not only does our magazine's Web site have a special history section and a weekly history column, but our sister publication Books & Culture has another history section. In fact, another of our sister publications, Christian History, is devoted to the subject (and is planning a special issue on historiography).
Jones has published in Touchstone, re:generation quarterly, and myriad other publications, but one of his best works was "More Scandals of the Evangelical Mind" for the June/July 1998 issue of First Things.
Other articles by Preston Jones for Christianity Today and our sister publication Books & Culture include:
The Last Frontier? | "'If you see a moose, make sure you don't get between it and its calf.' This postprandial advice was offered to me by my mother-in-law, who knows something about moose … " (B&C, Jul/Aug 2000)
Aliens, A-Bombs, and Mastodons | Travels in Nevada and Colorado (B&C, Jan/Feb 2000)
California Haze | A review of Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future, An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, and Eyewitness To the American West (B&C, Sept/Oct 1999)
Lord of the Pets (B&C, Sept/Oct 1998)
My Farrakhan Obsession (B&C, Mar/Apr. 1998)
A Canadian with an Attitude | A profile of Canadian evangelicals that contrasts them with their counterparts in the American South. (CT, Apr. 7, 1997)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.