Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Will We Learn From History?

Unwillingness to confront Islamic terrorism and call it what it is hit new depths yesterday as both the White House and the State Department put on a comedy performance unequaled since . . . well, since the last time our president said something about it.

Faced with the absolute fact that the Paris attacks were Islamic terrorism and that one of the targets, a Jewish deli, was hit precisely because it was Jewish, the spokespeople for this administration adamantly refused to say the motive was to kill Jews. If you get the chance to listen to the verbal twistings of Josh Earnest, in particular, you will come away amazed and rather sickened by the obfuscation.

Then, to make the comedy routine complete, they later tweeted that of course this was anti-Semitism, and that’s what they have been saying all along. Really? What about the press conferences you just completed, where you refused to say it? They’re still relying on the meme that you can fool some of the people all of the time. Unfortunately, they are right.

Incidentally, in case there is any question at all, the attacker at the deli stated, for the record and prior to being killed himself, that his aim had been to kill some Jews.

Only someone who is ideologically blind can fail to understand what’s really happening. That explains a lot.


Even though he can’t bring himself to identify this terrorism with Islam, he does attempt to make distinctions, nonsensical though they may be:


But he does pride himself on his deep knowledge of religious matters.

Theologican in Chief

He’s not alone, of course. He has a staunch ally:

Radical Christians

How can this absurdity continue? Well, there are a number of factors in play, and they say a lot about our society at this time:

Three Parent Baby

Last week, the administration came up with its “strategy” to tackle world problems. Obama sent out Susan Rice once again to play the fool (remember all her appearances to explain how a video caused Benghazi?). She said that we don’t face “existential” threats like we did back in WWII or the Cold War. The “strategy” then went on to focus on climate change as one of the biggest security threats we must deal with. ISIS? Don’t worry about that.

Well, Hitler wasn’t an “existential” threat to the United States in the 1930s, but he was allowed to strengthen to the point where he became one. Are we going to allow that to happen again?

Back Then

For those who don’t see the resemblance, here’s an illustration that might make it more clear:


Teaching history is what I do. One of the reasons I do it is the hope that we actually will learn from the past and not repeat policies that are foolish, unworkable, and downright dangerous.


Is anyone paying attention?

The First Great Awakening

Throughout American history the nation has experienced renewals of Christian faith. The first time this happened, in the 1730s and 1740s, was not a time of outward spiritual decline; in fact, studies have shown that approximately 70-75% of American colonists attended church regularly. Yet a renewal was necessary.

Historians have decided to call this event the First Great Awakening. Nowadays, we’ve become used to calling such episodes “revivals.” That word, though, has been terribly overworked and is losing meaning. “Awakening,” however, is a term I like better. It implies that people have been asleep spiritually, perhaps living in a dream and thinking it’s reality. Then they come to their senses and realize they have been living a fantasy. Their eyes are opened to the spiritual truths once again.

What had happened is that people began to think that doing all the external things: going to church, being baptized, taking communion, etc., was all that was necessary. They were focused on the outward manifestations of the Christian faith but they were missing the inward change of heart that was essential for real salvation.

William TennantThe Presbyterian father-son team of William and Gilbert Tennant took this to heart themselves and sought to send out more preachers who would emphasize the necessity of repentance and holy living. There was a problem, though. In order to become a minister with all the “right” credentials, one had to get a degree from a college with a ministerial training program. At this time in America, only three such colleges existed: Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary.

Harvard already was under suspicion for drifting away from the orthodox faith and beginning the transition to a Unitarian institution. William and Mary was for Anglicans and wasn’t known for its evangelical fervor. Yale was more suited to the task, but not everyone could afford to go to Yale, or might not be prepared intellectually for its rigor.

Log CollegeTo take up the slack, the Tennants set up what they called Log Colleges. The first was established by William Tennant, which lasted from 1726 until his death in 1746. In this primitive log house, comprised of only about 400 square feet, Tennant would give his students a crash course in Hebrew and Greek and intensive Bible study. Eventually, graduates of this “college” and those modeled after it, would fill the pulpits of the Presbyterian churches in the Middle Colonies and in the South.

This effort laid the groundwork for other men to follow in the Tennants’ footsteps. In future posts, I’ll look at Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, who became advocates of this new approach to evangelism and Christian discipleship.

Log College Marker

The Wisdom of William Penn

William PennOne of the more remarkable men in the history of colonial America has to be William Penn. He was imprisoned in England for his divergent religious views: he was a Quaker. Yet he was granted a huge tract of land in the New World that eventually became the state of Pennsylvania. How does someone go from a member of a persecuted group to a crown-ordained proprietor?

It had to do with his father, Admiral William Penn, who was instrumental in bringing Charles II out of exile and installing him as king in 1662. When the elder Penn died, Charles still owed him plenty, both financially and in gratitude. That’s how the son came to be the recipient of the king’s largesse.

Penn immediately had a vision for a colony that would welcome all to worship God according to their conscience. He didn’t worry about some group of atheists congregating in his colony; they were few and largely silent. So he advertised throughout Europe, promising every persecuted group of Christians that they could come to Pennsylvania and not only worship the way they chose, but also have a say in the government.

Those kinds of promises were unheard of at that time. People flocked to the new colony: not only Quakers, but Mennonites, Moravians, what we now call the Amish, along with standard denominations like Lutherans. Penn would come to his colony now and again, and kept a watch over developments.

He also wrote a Frame of Government that laid out the following principles:

  • Civil government is necessary to keep in check those who refuse to be self-governed
  • Government is established by God to terrify evildoers and to protect those who do right
  • Free government requires the rule of law and having the people themselves be involved in making the laws
  • One of the keys to good government is to have good people running it
  • Liberty without obedience is confusion and obedience without liberty is slavery

I consider those principles to be rock solid.

I’m also drawn to a statement Penn made about how Christians should treat each other. He proclaimed the following:

He that suffers his Difference with his Neighbour about the other World, to carry him beyond the Line of Moderation in this, is the worse for his Opinion, even though it be true. . . .

Since all of all Parties profess to believe in God, Christ, the Spirit, and Scripture, that the Soul is immortal, that there are Eternal Rewards and Punishments, and that the Virtuous shall receive the One, and the Wicked suffer the Other: I say since this is the Common Faith of Christendom, let us all resolve in the Strength of God to live up to what we agree in, before we fall out so miserably about the Rest in which we differ.

Translation, if necessary: We have more that unites us as Christians than things that drive us apart, so let’s work together.

That view transcends all time periods, and is certainly applicable today.

Of Salem & Witchcraft Trials

Perhaps the only thing some people know about Puritan history in America is that they executed presumed witches. Americans typically know nothing about how Puritans gave us our first constitution and bill of rights, but they are always told about the Salem witchcraft trials.

Salem Witchcraft Trials 2

How does one analyze this episode of Puritan history fairly? Of course, most historians automatically denigrate the Puritans for it because they operate on a naturalistic worldview that says belief in witches is a superstition of a bygone era. It merely reveals the harshness of judgment and bigotry that always connects to a people who hold to rigid religious dogmas.

Needless to say, I am not one of the number of those historians. I do believe the supernatural exists and that occult activities are real, albeit perversions of what God intends. I believe there is a real Satan whose adherents, knowingly or unknowingly, are working on his behalf.

So I do start from a different perspective when analyzing what took place at Salem during a few short months in 1692. Do keep in mind that it was a short time period, not a constant, unremitting hunt for witches.

It’s also instructive to know that Puritans were not the only group that looked into the possibility of witchcraft in their communities. One can find this activity throughout Europe at this time. In other words, concern about witches wasn’t a uniquely Puritan thing.

What occurred in 1692 to start this investigation?

TitubaSome young girls in the town were friends to a slave woman, Tituba, in the home of Rev. Samuel Parris. Most accounts refer to her as a black woman from the Caribbean. The actual court documents from her trial, though, call her an Indian. She apparently was born somewhere in South America, then captured and made a slave on Barbados. Eventually, she ended up in Salem.

We are usually told she led the girls into witchcraft, but there is no strong evidence of that either. What is evident is that the girls did go into fits that most people assumed were due to demonic influence in their lives. Tituba apparently did follow some occult procedure for trying to determine what was bewitching the girls. Whatever the truth may be, she became associated, in the minds of the townspeople, with the phenomenon.

As the investigation proceeded, a special court was set up to sift the evidence of satanic activity in the town. As one historian has noted, that was the first mistake. Any “special court” is under some pressure to come up with a good reason for its existence. The girls began to testify that they could see auras, or some type of spectral visions, around those who were witches.

Accepting that type of “evidence” was the second mistake. How does one confirm evidence like that? In this case, it all depended on the truthfulness of the girls.

Eventually, some 200 people were accused and 20 were eventually executed for witchcraft. Whether some were actual witches is highly dubious. By this time, the town had gotten carried away. Some have speculated that one group in the town used the trials as a means of revenge against another group. Again, that is speculative, but possible.

Increase MatherWhat we do know is this: the trials ended almost as abruptly as they began; one reason is that the governor’s wife was accused also. Another significant factor was the intervention of Rev. Increase Mather, a leader in the community who had been absent during the time as he was in England renegotiating the Massachusetts charter.

When Mather returned, he spoke out against the trials. He wrote against them, asserting that the real work of Satan might not be the placing of witches in Salem, but the destruction of the community through false accusations. Mather said that he would rather one witch escape prosecution than have many innocent people unjustly condemned.

Often, the role of this minister is omitted from the tale. Also omitted regularly are the following facts: first, the community, once it had recovered from the witch fever and realized its errors, voted monetary compensation for families who had lost a member due to execution.

Samuel Sewall's RepentanceSecond, one of the judges, Samuel Sewall, made a public confession of how he had allowed himself to be carried away. Sewall was hardly an evil man. Later, he wrote the very first book in America to deal with the issue of slavery. Entitled The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial, it was a Biblical appeal for the abolitionist cause, and considered a key inspiration for the antislavery movement that followed.

Third, one of the girls who leveled the accusations, Ann Putnam, later also confessed publicly that she had been deceived by Satan during that time.

What’s truly significant about the end result of the Salem witchcraft hysteria is the willingness shown by the entire community to try to make amends for what it had done. So, out of a gross error of judgment, they did what they could as Christians to make up for their own sins.

That’s a part of the Salem story that also needs to be told.

Writing Tips from C. S. Lewis

Lewis Letters Volume 3My intensive reading of C. S. Lewis letters is part of another of my sabbatical projects, with a book as the end goal. This has been no drudgery; rather, it has been fascinating to delve into them and see how Lewis responds to his American correspondents.

Often, he writes to children who have read his Narnia books. One of his regular child correspondents was Joan Lancaster, who, for her age, was quite mature and thoughtful. Lewis seemed to take an extra interest in her advancement as a writer. One of his letters to her could easily have been written to an adult writer trying to hone his/her craft. I like the advice he gives:

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure yr. sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “more people died” don’t say “mortality rose.”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”: make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words, (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”: otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

We all could use some timely advice like that—it would be “infinitely” helpful.

Sabbatical Update: Texas

Periodically, I’ve been providing updates on my sabbatical year. Those of you who have kept up with this know I’m working on more than one project. One, though, has kept me moving across the country to different presidential libraries as I examine documents related to spiritual advisers to presidents.

I’ve already gone to Wheaton College–back in August–and researched in the archives of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, since he is the premier spiritual adviser for a number of presidents since WWII. Then I traveled to California and spent time at both the Reagan and Nixon libraries.

This past week I’ve been in Texas, continuing my research at the LBJ and George H. W. Bush libraries. Both of these presidents were close to Graham, and LBJ also had a couple other spiritual advisers I looked into as well.

Let me just give you a few impressions.

The LBJ Library, in Austin, is on the campus of the University of Texas. It is nothing like the Reagan Library (which remains my favorite, not only because of the president himself but also because of the beauty of the place and the immensity and quality of the museum). My first view of it was this:

LBJ Library

I certainly don’t wish to be overly critical. One could say it is majestic, I guess, but to me it appeared like a big block of concrete—massive, forbidding, almost like a fortress. Well, that may be just me. You can come to your own conclusions.

The museum portion had its highlights, but nothing as grand, in my view, as what I experienced at the Reagan Library. There was one “grand” view, however, that was worth noting:


They decided to showcase some of the archives behind the scenes. Going up this staircase, one can get some idea of the enormity of the collection. This is only a portion of it.

While in Austin, I also took in the Texas State History Museum.

TX State History Museum

I’ve heard that everything in Texas is big, or at least purports to be. This museum fits the stereotype, from its three-level staircase in the lobby to its nearly breathtaking view from the top level.

TX Museum-Interior 2

TX Museum-Interior 1

I want to pause here and offer a word of gratitude to the Texas State Trooper who decided to have a little talk with me after I went the wrong way on a one-way street. I didn’t see the sign, told him I was a newcomer (never been in Austin before), and was there to do presidential research. He asked what I was researching and seemed interested when I mentioned Billy Graham. He let me off with a warning. Yes, I am grateful (and will be more alert to one-way street signs in downtown areas in the future).

My next stop was College Station, and the campus of Texas A&M, where the George H. W. Bush Library is located.

Bush Library-Front

This library looked much more inviting. I also didn’t have any encounters with one-way streets. I like College Station.

The lobby was pretty grand.

Bush Library Lobby 2

The exhibits were excellent throughout and catch one’s attention right away.

Bush Portrait

Quotes from Bush are liberally scattered throughout. There were some I particularly liked, such as this one after he went down in the Pacific during WWII:

Bush-God Quote

While there, I decided to get a little work done, so I looked around for a desk I could use. I found one:

Bush Oval Office 3

Please don’t tell anybody.

That’s the travelogue side. Most of my time, of course, was spent poring through papers. I found a lot of fine documents that should help my colleague and me put together what we want to say about these presidents. I came away with a little more grudging admiration for LBJ, not in policy matters (where I disagree with his entire Great Society program), but simply for what he had to go through in a turbulent time. I’m not convinced, however, that his faith was genuine. One’s life must match one’s talk.

As for Bush, my appreciation for him was strengthened. I’ve always considered him to be a decent man, but I’m more convinced than ever that his Christian faith was the real thing. I have policy disagreements with what he did as well, but I want to give some leeway and offer praise for his strong family ethic, which can be seen in the way his sons honor him today.

Bush is now in his nineties and his health is declining. When he passes, the nation will have lost a true Christian gentleman.

I’m not yet sure when and where my next trip will take place, but when it does, another update will be coming your way.

The Dominion of New England: Tyranny Averted

I’ve been periodically presenting glimpses into American history, and have been writing about the Pilgrims and Puritans for quite some time now. There’s a lot to say. I’ve analyzed the Christian roots of the colonies they started (primarily Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, with Rhode Island added in) and have pointed to both the high points and low points of their development.

James IIIn the 1680s, those colonies, along with New York, faced a threat to their original goals. The new king, James II, decided that they were not sufficiently under the thumb of the royal government and decreed a change in their charters. He officially revoked all the charters and reorganized the area into one large colony directly under his control. He called it the Dominion of New England.

This meant that, by his command, the Separatist colony of Plymouth would now lose its uniqueness. Massachusetts Bay would no longer be the “city on a hill” that its founders hoped it would be. Connecticut, which gave us our first constitution, would be melded together with the others and lose its own identity and the government it had created. Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams, and recently granted a new charter, would now have to relinquish it.

Edmund AndrosTo oversee this change, James appointed as governor Sir Edmund Andros, who was now responsible for administrating the entire area, New York included.

Andros’s charge was to implement a number of changes. First, Anglicanism was now to be promoted, thereby putting an end to both Separatism and deviations within the Church of England that the Puritans had put into effect.

Second, all land titles were to be reexamined. It didn’t matter if you had held title to your land for decades; if the king thought someone else would be better suited to have that land, it could be taken from you. Private property was no longer secure.

Third, town meetings—the political lifeblood of the New England communities–were now to be limited to one per year. The aim, obviously, was to eliminate any political discussions that didn’t go in the direction the king desired.

This new arrangement, though, came to a sudden halt when James, who was a closet Catholic, had married a French Catholic to be his queen, and who was now in the process of raising his son—and heir—as a Catholic, ran afoul of the whole Protestant tenor of the country. What followed is what historians call either the Glorious Revolution or the Bloodless Revolution. It’s as if the entire nation rose up and threw out its king; he had squandered all his political capital.

With James no longer on the throne, the colonies reestablished themselves. The new co-monarchs, William and Mary, did examine all charters. They made some changes to the Massachusetts charter, eliminating the rule that only church members could vote and installing a royal governor. But they allowed both Connecticut and Rhode Island to return to their former status.

An interesting sidelight to this episode is what Connecticut did when faced with the loss of its charter. It refused to turn it over, hiding it, instead, inside an oak tree in Hartford. When the Dominion of New England fell by the wayside, the colony retrieved the charter and picked up where it left off.

Charter Oak QuarterThe tree became known as the Charter Oak. As you may know, each state has a quarter dedicated to it, and could choose what image it wanted on the back. If you look at the back side of the quarter that features Connecticut, you will see an image of that Charter Oak. It’s a testimony to the desire for self-government that existed in these early settlers.

The threat of tyrannical government has reared its head many times in American history. This was the first attempt, and it was soundly defeated, though not by the colonists but by the nation itself back in England. The next time the British crown tried to impose a tyranny, though, the colonists were forced to take matters into their own hands and won their independence.