Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Snyderian Truisms #4 & #5

Virginia FarmSome of my truisms are generated in the classroom. They aren’t always things I’ve sat down and considered beforehand; at times, they pop out unexpectedly. For instance, a number of years ago, I was teaching about the founding of Jamestown and was relating the fact that the first ships that arrived had no women in them. The investors in the company who sent over the ships were primarily interested in trade, so they concentrated on setting up a trading post in the New World.

I then talked about the disadvantages of that type of settlement. All men, and no women, is not ideal. In my attempt to inject humor into my teaching, I made a couple of comments that resonated well with the students. They not only laughed about them, but they kind of took on a life of their own, with students continually referring back to them. I meant them as tongue-in-cheek, but they really were statements of reality. Thus were born Snyderian truisms #4 and #5:

You need women to have families.

Men, without women, would be uncivilized.

The Virginia Company ultimately realized they needed to send women to the colony to make it more settled. The nuclear family was the cornerstone of society, so women were needed to bring stability. Men also seem to have this tendency to let things deteriorate without the domestic touch of women. As I tell students, compare a young man’s dorm room with a young woman’s. Which one, on the whole, is neater? This points to the fact that there are distinct differences between men and women. God made those differences on purpose. Marriage is how those distinctives come together to form a compatible and complementary whole.

At the time, I considered those truisms to be unassailable. They were part of the panoply of self-evident truths that didn’t require defense. Unfortunately, since then they are no longer accepted by everyone. I didn’t count on the wholesale redefinition of marriage and family. While I always had a concern for the spiritual demise of our civilization, I had held to the hope that it wouldn’t deteriorate so quickly. Yet we now see the wreckage all around us.

Salt & LightThere are times when the most basic facts of life need to be reemphasized. We are now at that stage with respect to the nature of men and women and the Biblical definition of family. As the culture slips away from its moorings, those who stand firm on God’s truths will stand out more starkly. We need to be that light in the moral darkness that now predominates. We are the ones who can help preserve what is worth preserving. Never has the need for salt and light been greater. Are we up to the task?

Snyderian Truism #3

Some of my “truisms” come from personal experience in the classroom. As I embark upon my twenty-fifth year of teaching at the college level, I can attest to the accuracy of Snyderian Truism #3, which states,

Ignorance can be corrected, but apathy makes learning impossible.

IgnoranceThe word “ignorance” sometimes gets an undeserved image. To be ignorant is not to be immoral or foolish or stupid or anything necessarily negative with respect to character. It simply means to be uninformed. I have no problem with the task of helping the uninformed come up to speed with the knowledge they need. Isn’t that the basic goal of teaching?

With respect to the average college student’s grasp of American history, ignorance is nearly epidemic. Most of the students I have in my survey courses have little or no real knowledge of what has occurred in the past. Their understanding of American history is spotty at best, non-existent at times. What they think they know has been filtered through a public education system that has its own agenda, concentrating on the latest trendy topics. The history they’ve received is stuffed with the grievances of minorities, the unfairness of American capitalism, and/or some variant of radical environmentalism.

They know little of the sacrifices made for the current generation, the Biblical principles upon which the culture was based, the concept of the rule of law, or the strides made to correct abuses of the past. They lack context: they don’t know to compare America with other nations throughout history and see some of the stark differences. Consequently, they develop virtually no appreciation for what has preceded their limited time on this earth. For most, history doesn’t go back much further than what they remember personally.

I’ve had more than one student, after taking one of my survey courses, tell me they had no knowledge of almost everything I taught them. A few have even said that I presented the history in a way that contradicted what they learned previously. I distinctly recall one student saying, “Everything you said was good, I was taught was bad, and everything you said was bad, I was taught was good.” Yet all I did was present my interpretation of history based on the most reliable primary sources. I seek accuracy above all.

ApathySo ignorance is not the real problem. It’s apathy that diminishes learning. Ignorance is not a character issue, but apathy is all about character. Although I do my best to make learning enjoyable and interesting, with some students, no matter what I do, there is no desire to learn. One phenomenon I’ve witnessed is that if you have too many apathetic students in a course, their attitude spreads to others and a heavy, oppressive spirit seems to dominate in the classroom.

That’s why I make this truism known to them very early in the course. I want them to ponder the implications of their lack of initiative. I hope it will at least challenge them to make an honest effort. There’s nothing better, perhaps, than to hear students tell me later that, for the first time, they actually wanted to learn history—that my challenge to them and my approach to teaching converted their apathy into an active interest in the subject.

God never promised that ministry would be easy. Neither did He promise that everyone would appreciate what we do. Yet it’s all worthwhile when He uses us to reach into the hearts and minds of others. I thank the Lord for this opportunity He has given me.

Reclaiming the Liberty Bequeathed to Us

Don’t forget the real reason you have the day off today, and keep in mind that the liberty won in that struggle from 1774-1783 was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, few reasonable people at the time predicted victory over the mightiest empire on earth. What was won should not be taken for granted; liberty can be taken away before we realize it. Just look at what has occurred in our nation since inauguration day 2009. Christian character—humility, fortitude, integrity—are essential if we are to reclaim what the Founders once obtained for us.

 Declaration Closeup

Booker T. Washington: Model Christian & American

Up from SlaveryDuring this Independence Week, I think it highly appropriate to mention I recently finished reading Booker T. Washington’ s fascinating autobiography Up From Slavery. As with the Coolidge biography I noted on Monday, I had given a thumbs-up to Washington’s personal reflections in an earlier blog. Now, having completed reading his thoughts on life and how God wants us to live it, I can enthusiastically endorse it unconditionally.

Washington was an impressive man. His devotion to the principle of self-government and his emphasis on character building permeate his philosophy of life. He rejoiced that he and his students at the Tuskegee Institute Booker T. Washington Quotehad to endure hard times. He noted repeatedly that it is in those hard times when we learn the greatest lessons. Rather than an easy road, he preferred to tackle problems, knowing the struggle itself would make him a better man.

His Christian faith also comes across clearly. Another historian has commented that Washington was not a devout Christian. One of the reasons I read his autobiography was to get some inkling of whether that assessment was accurate. In his own words, Washington declares,

While a great deal of stress is laid upon the industrial side of the work at Tuskegee, we do not neglect or overlook in any degree the religious and spiritual side. The school is strictly undenominational, but it is thoroughly Christian, and the spiritual training of the students is not neglected. Our preaching service, prayer-meetings, Sunday-school, Christian Endeavour Society, Young Men’s Christian Association, and various missionary organizations, testify to this.

He also had good words to say about his fellow Christians:

In my efforts to get money I have often been surprised at the patience and deep interest of the ministers, who are besieged on every hand and at all hours of the day for help. If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of the Christian life, the Christlike work which the Church of all denominations in America has done during the last thirty-five years for the elevation of the black man would have made me a Christian.

Then there’s the testimony of his attitude toward those who might be considered enemies:

Booker T. Washington Quote 2It is now long ago that I . . . resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race. . . . I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.

He explained how he was led to conduct himself:

When I first came to Tuskegee, I determined that I would make it my home, that I would take as much pride in the right actions of the people of the town as any white man could do, and that I would, at the same time, deplore the wrong-doing of the people as much as any white man. I determined never to say anything in a public address in the North that I would not be willing to say in the South. I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him, and that this is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done.

If you were to read Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, I think you might come to the same conclusion I did: here is a model of a Christian man whose attitude and principles should be emphasized in our society once again. Booker T. Washington is one of the true heroes of American history.

 

Today Is Independence Day

John AdamsSome might be confused by the title of my blog today, but it’s true that independence for the fledgling United States was declared on July 2, 1776. That’s the day the Continental Congress voted decisively to separate from Great Britain. John Adams, in writing to his wife Abigail, exulted that July 2 would be the great day of liberty celebrated by future generations. He was correct as to the day we ought to celebrate, but July 4 became the focal point of remembrance due to the Congress’s approval of the wording of the Declaration of Independence on that day. No problem: we can honor both days.

One story about July 2 stands out above the rest—the trek made by Delaware delegate Caesar Rodney to arrive in Philadelphia in time to cast his vote for independence. Rodney had returned to Dover to help put down a Loyalist riot, obliged by his rank as a brigadier general of the Delaware militia. Back in Philadelphia, meanwhile, the remaining two Delaware delegates were split on the matter of independence. Thomas McKean, the delegate favoring independence, got word to Rodney that he needed to be at the Congress by the next day to break the tie.

Caesar RodneyRodney saddled up and rode the 80 miles throughout the night in a thunderstorm, arriving on the 2nd in time to cast the deciding vote for his state. That’s dramatic enough, yet the full story is that Rodney suffered from a face cancer that made him very ill. His exploit was not just remarkable because of the fact that it was an overnight ride, but astonishing as well, considering his physical condition at the time. I think what we can take away from this historical account is the depth of commitment the majority of these delegates had to the weighty issue of independence.

Although Rodney’s vote lost him his seat in the Delware legislature shortly afterward, once his constituents realized the significance of the war effort, he was elected president of Delaware, serving in that capacity for three years during the independence struggle. Rodney died in 1784, only a year after the Treaty of Paris officially recognized the new United States. He had done his part and should be remembered and honored on this day.

Coolidge: Humor, Humility, & Faith

CoolidgeA few weeks ago, I gave an endorsement to Amity Shlaes’s biography of Calvin Coolidge, even though I had only read half the book at that time. I’ve now completed it, and my endorsement not only holds but is greater than before. She presents Coolidge from all angles, inspecting both strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and disappointments.

Along the way, she gives many insights into the character of the man himself. He took office as president upon the death of Warren Harding. While waiting to make the White House his home, he was staying at the Willard Hotel in Washington. One incident during that interregnum showcases not only Coolidge’s character, but also how different security was for a president in the 1920s. Shlaes recounts,

Calvin CoolidgeOne early morning in the Willard bedroom, a sound woke Coolidge. A strange young man had broken in and was going through his clothing. In the morning light, Coolidge could see that the burglar had taken a wallet, a chain, and a charm. “I wish you wouldn’t take that,” Coolidge said. “I don’t mean the watch and chain, only the charm. Read what is engraved on the back of it.” The burglar read the back: “Presented to Calvin Coolidge . . . by the Massachusetts General Court.”—and stopped in dead shock. He was robbing the president. It emerged that the burglar was a hotel guest who had found himself short of cash to return home. Coolidge gave the burglar $32, what he called a “loan,” and helped him to navigate around the Secret Service as he departed.

I love that story, hard as it is to believe it could actually have happened. Certainly nowadays it couldn’t. But it reveals a soft side to Coolidge and a willingness to reach out to someone in need, even someone who was in the process of robbing him.

Tragedy hit the Coolidge family about a year after he ascended to the presidency. His son, Calvin Jr., died suddenly from a blister he had gotten from playing tennis. It was a bewildering episode, since no one suspected a blister could lead to death. The Coolidges were devastated. Yet God uses the trials in our lives to get our attention. As Shlaes relates,

Protecting the space that faith enjoyed in American culture, the realm of the spiritual, seemed to him [Coolidge] especially important. In those early days after Calvin’s death he had refused many appointments, but had agreed to talk to a group of Boy Scouts in a telephone hookup. “It is hard to see how a great man can be an atheist,” Coolidge had told the boys. “We need to feel that behind us is intelligence and love.” Now he was preparing a speech for the dedication of a statue of a Methodist bishop, Francis Asbury. In that speech he wanted to make clear his conviction that government’s power, since the days of Jonathan Edwards, had derived from religion, and not the other way around.

Those are just two snippets from the book. It abounds with others. I highly recommend it.

The Pillars of Christianity

When I was working on my master’s and doctoral degrees in history, I distinctly recall an attitude that some of my professors had toward the American colonial and revolutionary eras—they conveyed to us, their students, the idea that the leaders of those eras were just so backward when compared to the more enlightened age we live in now. I didn’t accept that attitude then; I don’t accept it now.

Yes, we have progressed technologically in ways our Founders would find astonishing. Technology, though, is hardly a substitute for principle. Neither can we be considered more advanced if we have dismissed the Biblical framework that gives us a proper understanding of the place of man in God’s creation. That Biblical framework offers us, as well, a greater comprehension of the role civil government should play in the overall society. Personally, I believe a lot of those early Americans have a lot to teach us still.

When I was writing my master’s thesis, I researched the lives and writings of two prominent Americans of the Founding Era: Timothy Dwight and Jedidiah Morse. Most people today have no idea who they were. Dwight served ably for many years as president of Yale, ensuring it retained its Christian foundations. Morse, a pastor, also was famous as the Father of American Geography; he wrote the first American textbook on the subject, which was the first to include key geographical features of North America. His fame was eventually superseded by that of his son, Samuel F. B. Morse, who invented the telegraph.

Jedidiah MorseJedidiah Morse gave a sermon in 1799 that includes one of the best quotes I’ve ever read on the relationship of Christianity and civil government. A lot of quotes from this era, both genuine and spurious, have made their way to the internet, but I’ve never seen this one make the rounds. I’d like to offer it now for your consideration. Here’s what Morse would have us remember:

Our dangers are of two kinds, those which affect our religion, and those which affect our government. They are, however, so closely allied that they cannot, with propriety, be separated. The foundations which support the interests of Christianity, are also necessary to support a free and equal government like our own. . . .

To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom, and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoy. In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation, either through unbelief, or the corruption of its doctrines, or the neglect of its institutions; in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom, and approximate the miseries of complete despotism. . . .

Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government, and all the blessings which flow from them, must fall with them.

When I read those words, I am impressed by the wisdom behind them. Religious beliefs always provide the context of what a people accept as appropriate in society. Christianity, in particular, lends itself to genuine liberty. When Christianity recedes into the background, liberty recedes also. Morse’s words are a warning to a people who, in their pride, abandon Biblical principles and replace them with man-centered, humanistic ideas. If the blessings of our republican forms of government seem to be disappearing, we would do well to ponder what Morse says—the reason is that we are attempting to overthrow the “pillars of Christianity.”

We have a lot to learn from those who have preceded us. It’s not too late to take their warnings seriously and make a course correction. It will take humility on our part, however. Are we up to the challenge?