Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Noah Webster & the Wisdom of Earlier Ages

Noah WebsterI spent a number of years researching Noah Webster, who became the subject of my doctoral dissertation. He’s known primarily for two things: his Speller, which taught Americans to read and write correctly; his dictionary, a monumental effort of about twenty years of his life, and which defined terms in the context of his Biblical worldview.

Webster started out his career as a devotee of the Enlightenment, that movement of the eighteenth century that gave far more credit to human reason than human reason should allow. But he came to the end of his faith in human reasoning that sought to separate itself from God’s revelation. In 1808, he experienced a solid Christian conversion that affected all his works from then on. All his educational efforts were henceforth directed to pointing men to the One to whom they all must answer someday.

His conversion also provided a more Biblical concept of government and education. As he wrote to one of his personal correspondents in 1836,

An attempt to conduct the affairs of a free government with wisdom and impartiality, and to preserve the just rights of all classes of citizens, without the guidance of Divine precepts, will certainly end in disappointment. God is the supreme moral Governor of the world He has made, and as He Himself governs with perfect rectitude, He requires His rational creatures to govern themselves in like manner. If men will not submit to be controlled by His laws, He will punish them by the evils resulting from their own disobedience.

Any system of education, therefore, which limits instruction to the arts and sciences, and rejects the aids of religion in forming the characters of citizens, is essentially defective.

In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government ought to be instructed.… No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.

When I was taking doctoral courses in history, more than once my professors hinted at the idea that we, in our day, are naturally more knowledgeable and possess more wisdom than those in earlier, more primitive, ages. Well, when I read comments such as Webster’s above, I just kind of smile inwardly at the arrogance of our learned elite today. No, there are some things that earlier generations understood much better than we do now.

WebsterIf you would like to delve deeper into Noah Webster, his thoughts, and his times, I recommend my doctoral dissertation, which is now in book form. The latest version is found at the Barnes & Noble website: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/defining-noah-webster-k-alan-snyder/1005377905?ean=9781591600558

A lot of time and effort went into this book, and I can say I’m pleased with the result. I believe it has stood the test of time and offers some real insights into a man who devoted the last half of his life to promoting God’s truths.

The Preacher & the Presidents

Preacher & PresidentsIn preparation for my upcoming year of sabbatical when I will be doing some research at presidential libraries, I’ve been reading as much as I can about those who were spiritual advisors to presidents. The obvious first choice for study is Billy Graham. Recently, I finished a book that provided some really excellent and even profound insights into Graham’s relationships with presidents from Truman to George W. Bush. Elegantly written by journalists Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House is a treasure chest of information about how Graham saw his role as pastor to presidents and how presidents utilized him in their administrations.

I learned more about Graham than I expected. Personally, I’ve followed Graham’s evangelistic career since the mid-1960s. I remember vividly the telecasts of some of his crusades while I was still in high school, as well as reading his early autobiography. He played a significant part in my budding faith at that time.

Later, I branched out into other avenues for growing in my spiritual walk, but he was always there in the background. In the 1980s, when Graham went to China for the first time, a couple I knew at the church I was attending was connected with that endeavor. They turned to me to write a paper on the value of a market economy and freedom. That paper then went with Graham to China as part of his mission to the Chinese leaders. I felt quite honored to take part in that, even in a small way.

Graham-ReaganReading the book, I came away with a deeper appreciation for just how influential Graham has been in American society throughout his long ministry. His connections with presidents were often instrumental in forwarding the Gospel, particularly in many communist nations. That occurred primarily during Reagan’s tenure. Reagan was a great supporter of Graham’s ministry; he had known him personally since the early 1950s. One comment in the book intrigued me: Graham described Reagan “as the president he was closest to—and the one he would have liked to have known better. Nancy Reagan said her husband’s relationship with Graham deepened when he became president. ‘Their relationship was beyond political,’ she said in 2006. ‘Billy would keep in touch with Ronnie on all levels.'”

There were pitfalls along the way for Graham as he learned how to handle his fame and influence with presidents. His closeness to Richard Nixon also tied him to Watergate, even though he was in no way involved in that scandal. It taught him to be more cautious in future dealings, yet he never shied away from offering pastoral counseling and comfort to any president—and any other person—who sought him out.

Over this next year, I’ll not only visit presidential libraries, but I’ll travel to Wheaton College to examine Billy Graham’s papers. I also hope to make a trek, along with a colleague on this project, to North Carolina to interview Graham family members and associates. While it would be wonderful to get to see Billy Graham and talk with him, that probably won’t happen. His age and infirmities make that unlikely.

Graham’s ministry has ended now, for all practical purposes. He knows he doesn’t have much more time on this earth, but that doesn’t bother him. He has the assurance of an eternity with the One he has served faithfully all these years. It will be a pleasant experience to spend time this year getting to “know” him better.

John Jay: Christian Statesman

John Jay 1How about a little wisdom from one of America’s Founders today? Most people are not too familiar with John Jay, but he was central to almost every major event of the Founding. Jay served in the Continental Congress, was one of the principal leaders in the debates leading to Independence, was elected president of Congress at one point, and was appointed one of the peace commissioners who negotiated the end of the American Revolution.

Afterwards, he, along with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, authored some of the Federalist Papers, which today are still the best source for knowing how the Founders understood the nation’s new Constitution. Then, after Washington was inaugurated, he was chosen to be the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Later, Jay resigned from that position because he was elected governor of New York. As governor, he saw the fulfillment of one of his lifelong goals: he signed a law leading to the eventual abolition of slavery in that state.

When Jay finally retired from public service, he became president of the American Bible Society. His Christian faith was the bedrock of his life. This is seen in a number of his writings. For instance, in a letter to Rev. Jedidiah Morse, he opined,

Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.

Notice he considered America to be founded as a Christian nation—not artificially by legislative fiat, but as a matter of choice. The only way a nation can be truly Christian is if the people voluntarily consider Christianity to be the framework for their thinking, their culture, and their laws.

In that same letter to Morse, he commented on the Bible and how it fits into history:

It is to be regretted, but so I believe the fact to be, that except the Bible there is not a true history in the world. Whatever may be the virtue, discernment, and industry of the writers, I am persuaded that truth and error (though in different degrees) will imperceptibly become and remain mixed and blended until they shall be separated forever by the great and last refining fire.

As a historian, I can vouch for that. All histories are a mixture of truth and error, no matter how conscientious we may be. God’s Word, though, can be relied on as absolute truth.

Finally, here is Jay’s perception of the validity of Christianity:

I have long been of opinion that the evidence of the truth of Christianity requires only to be carefully examined to produce conviction in candid minds.

In other words, a clearheaded examination of the claims of the Christian faith should lead anyone with an open heart to the conclusion that it, and only it, is the true explanation of the condition of mankind, the nature of God, and the way to salvation.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a majority of our elected leaders had the same views and character as John Jay? Well, that’s up to us. As Jay said, it is the duty, the privilege, and the interest of the voters to select Christians for their leaders. If we don’t have those kinds of leaders, the fault lies with us.

The Witness of Whittaker Chambers

Chambers at DeskEvery other year, I have the opportunity to teach a course I call “The Witness of Whittaker Chambers.” I’m teaching it again this semester. Chambers is not well known to most of our generation, but he was to an earlier one. Product of a dysfunctional family, devoid of any Christian upbringing, hit hard by life and seeking answers to the crises of the world after WWI, he turned to communism as the solution. Eventually, he became part of an underground cell that worked to place communists in key positions in the American government and pass secrets on to his master, Stalin.

Chambers finally came to realize the horror he was supporting and broke away. He then had to come to grips with the God he never knew. When he made the conscious decision to turn to God, his worldview was revolutionized. In his bestselling autobiography, Witness, he explained what happened when the transformation took place:

WitnessWhat I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.

He now saw things in a new light and realized the connection between the spiritual and the political:

External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. . . . Hence every sincere break with Communism is a religious experience.

His masterful autobiography is filled with memorable quotes. One of my favorites is this one:

There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

Perhaps it’s time we heeded these wise words uttered more than sixty years ago. His insights are more apropos today than they were when they were written. Will we ever learn?

Chambers was not too optimistic about our society’s openness to the truth. In one of his essays in Time magazine, “Ghosts on the Roof,” he commented through the imagery of the Muse of History,

I never permit my foreknowledge to interfere with human folly, if only because I never expect human folly to learn much from history.

While I tend to agree, in the main, with that sentiment, I still hold out hope for a solid remnant who will cling to truth and make a difference in our culture. Those who know the One who is the Truth have both a deep responsibility for spreading the message and a reason for hope, not only in the next world, but also in this one. We need to be faithful to the task to which we have been called.

Lewis: The Importance of History

History CloudWhy is it important to study history? In an essay entitled “Learning in War-Time,” C. S. Lewis provides this insight:

We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

People have a tendency to look around them and think what they see currently is ultimate reality, when, in fact, it may be only a temporary trend. Knowing history allows them to understand that what we’re experiencing now may be fleeting. He continues,

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

If all you know about your culture and government policies is what the mainstream media is telling you, you are of all people possibly the most uninformed. You are a slave to whatever you’re told because you haven’t taken the time to find out things for yourself. Knowing history helps set one free. That’s why Lewis also commented in another essay, “De Descriptione Temporum,”

To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians.

Thank you, Prof. Lewis, for your praise of my profession. May I live up to your high expectations.

The Sabbatical Year

I received a tremendous blessing recently: Southeastern University awarded me a sabbatical for the upcoming academic year. Once the current spring semester ends in May, I will have until the beginning of the fall semester in August 2015 to research and write. In tandem with a colleague in the college of religion, I will have the opportunity to delve into the subject of spiritual advisers to presidents. Our goal is to begin with a couple of articles on the topic, then, hopefully, into the authorship of a series of books, each one dealing with a specific president.

My task, as the historian, is to gather as much evidence as possible on those who had the ear of presidents and offered them spiritual advice. We will try to answer questions such as “How much influence did these individuals have on the presidents?” “Were they primarily pastoral in their dealings or did they in any way interact on policy issues?” “What is the proper role of a spiritual adviser?” “What are the pitfalls of being so close to political power?” “Did these spiritual advisers remain true to their calling or become too political?” “Were they respected advisers or merely being used by politicians?”

We can’t do all presidents, at least not for the moment. We’ve decided to concentrate on presidents after WWII. That seems a propitious place to begin for a couple of reasons: the public is more familiar with them; we have one huge example of a spiritual adviser during this era who touched the lives of every president—Billy Graham.

Reagan LibraryThe research cannot all be done via books, articles, and internet searches. Personal papers are essential to get to the heart of the matter; therefore, I will need to travel to a number of presidential libraries. My favorite, naturally, will be the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. I’ve been there twice before for research and rejoice at the opportunity to return. I’m also going to look into the possibility of visiting the Reagan Ranch while I’m out that way. I know this is supposed to be academic research, but I trust I’ll be forgiven for actually enjoying what I do.

While I’m in California, I’ll also need to go to the Nixon Library, which is not too far from Reagan’s. Other presidential libraries on the itinerary for the year are Eisenhower’s in Kansas and three in Texas: Lyndon Johnson’s, George H. W. Bush’s and George W. Bush’s. We’ve chosen to start with those particular presidents because Graham was closest to them.

Billy GrahamIt would be difficult to exaggerate the role Billy Graham played in the lives of those presidents. As I’ve begun my reading on his ministry and influence, I’ve been amazed at the access he had to them. So I’ll also need to examine Graham’s personal papers, which are housed at Wheaton College in Illinois. My colleague and I also entertain the hope of interviewing some of Graham’s children and associates in North Carolina.

This may sound like books just on Billy Graham’s relationship to the various presidents, but it won’t be. He’s merely a fine starting point. There are other spiritual advisers who will need our close attention as well. By the time we’re finished, we hope to have a well-rounded portrait for each of the presidents listed above. If all goes well with those, who knows, perhaps we can continue the series with others. I can overcome my own personal feelings about such men as Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy to continue this valuable research with them also. Personally, I’d eventually like to delve further back and deal with Abraham Lincoln and others who have evidence of Christian faith in their lives.

The next step is to get the funding to accomplish all the travel necessary to complete the research. We are in the process of applying for a grant, having identified a number of private foundations that typically fund research of this type. Prayer for success on this front is always appreciated. I pledge to keep regular readers up to date with progress reports from time to time.

How do I adequately express my excitement over the prospect of being able to devote my life over the next year to this project? Well, maybe I’ve already done that with this blog today. Thanks be to God for His many blessings.

Thoughts on Presidents’ Day

So, it’s Presidents’ Day. It didn’t used to exist. In my younger years, we had instead separate days to honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln specifically, on their respective February birthdays. I’m not even all that sure what the current Presidents’ Day is supposed to focus on. People from my generation probably still consider it a commemoration of Washington and Lincoln, but what about the new generation? Is the intent to honor anyone and everyone who ever served as president? Frankly, I would have a hard time getting excited about praising the achievements of James Buchanan, as just one example.

I would prefer to go back to what we did previously. Most Americans have a sense that there is a world of difference in quality between Washington and Lincoln on one side and Buchanan and Franklin Pierce on the other. As a historian, my extensive reading in American history has provided me with a firmer basis than most on the merits of the various presidents. My esteem for Washington and Lincoln has only grown after reading and studying them more closely.

George WashingtonGeorge Washington was the indispensable man for our young nation. He held an army together when the attempt at independence suffered from one defeat after another. He modeled servant leadership by resigning his commission at the end of the war to return to private life. At one point, when pressed by some to become America’s king, he resoundingly rejected the offer. That’s not what we’ve been fighting for, he replied.

His steadiness as president got us through a tumultuous first decade under our new Constitution. Captaining the ship of state past the shoals of influence from the French Revolution and the fracturing of the political leaders into two parties, he was the one man all could look to for assurance and guidance. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the titular heads of the emerging parties, both pleaded with him to run for a second term. They knew his stature was sorely needed to keep the nation on track and avoid a disastrous split.

Washington’s Farewell Address was wise, particularly the inclusion of the significance of religious faith as the cornerstone of our society and government. Without that, he said, we would have no firm basis for morality. Education, he counseled, was not the answer; only religious belief would suffice. And for Washington and his generation, he wasn’t talking about some vague concept of God, but Christianity.

Abraham LincolnI’ve changed my views on Abraham Lincoln over the years. Whereas I once was ambivalent about him, with a hint of concern that he might have been at least a mini-tyrant, I have now shifted over to an ardent admirer of his heart, his logic, and his quest for a meaningful Christian faith. His path to faith was filled with cynicism, agnosticism, and fatalism. Yet, from what I surmise in all my reading, the struggle in his own soul over the loss of two of his children, over the institution of slavery, and over the future of the Union, reshaped his original skepticism. The nearly overwhelming burden of the Civil War drove him back to the God of his childhood. His speeches and personal letters both reveal a deep and growing confidence in the truth of the Christian faith.

He came along at a pivotal moment, much as Washington did. I tend to think that no one of his generation could have led with the same degree of humility and ultimate wisdom as he did. As the war neared its end, his mind and heart were fixed on the issue of reconciliation. He sought to heal the nation of its self-inflicted wounds. His assassination was one of the most tragic events in American history, yet it left us with the legacy of a man we ought to admire for his character and leadership.

Legends have grown up around both men. No, Washington never chopped down that cherry tree. There are a multitude of sayings attributed to Lincoln that he never really said. Of course, he himself warned us about that:

Lincoln Quotes on Internet

Yes, his wisdom continues to reach out to us.

Incidentally, another president born in February was Ronald Reagan. Regular readers of this blog already know what I think of him. I have a proposal: instead of this amorphous Presidents’ Day that is too vague to be meaningful, how about we have three separate commemorations for arguably the three best presidents in American history: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. All three days could be valuable for teaching the new generations what genuine character in government looks like.