Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Rockefeller the Christian?

A couple days ago, I posted about Booker T. Washington—the fruit of the preparation I’m doing for a course called “The Emergence of Modern America, 1877-1917.” I hope I showed in that post that he is someone to be admired for his character.

Another figure from that time period who needs his reputation reexamined is John D. Rockefeller. Historians typically castigate this man for supposedly destroying other companies by buying them out. Another presumably evil thing he did was to negotiate with the railroads for special rates for shipping his product: Standard oil.

I won’t try to do a total overhaul of those interpretations today, but I will offer these rejoinders:

First, Rockefeller was a very efficient oil producer; many other companies were sloppily run and doomed to failure. Many people that he bought out were actually saved by the transaction. He paid them a good market price for their equipment and sometimes even hired the best of their managers and employees.

He’s accused of creating a monopoly, which would be bad for consumers because monopolies can charge whatever they wish. Well, Rockefeller so lowered the price of oil to all Americans that they all could afford it, thereby lighting their homes in a significantly cheaper way than by candles.

What about the special rates with the railroads? Unfair? If someone gives you far more business than another person, what’s morally wrong with providing them, in return, a better rate? Isn’t that how business operates all the time? Buy in quantity and you get a lower price. Ever heard of Sam’s Club?

Rockefeller, to the surprise of many, was a devoted Baptist who tithed from his millions to his church and to missionary endeavors. And when journalists hoped to find an extravagant lifestyle that they could expose, they ran into the proverbial brick wall. Rockefeller liked nothing more than quiet times at home and going to church with his family.

Everyone talks about how much money Andrew Carnegie gave away. That’s fine, but Rockefeller gave away even more, and he was more focused on Christian charities. He even gave the funds necessary to ensure the establishment of Spelman College, the historically black women’s college that is named after his wife’s family.

I found some very fascinating Rockefeller quotes in my research. Here’s one that shows his goal for becoming rich:

He noted that anyone who concentrates solely on getting rich is missing the mark:

And how about this one from arguably the richest man in America at that time?

Although a Baptist, Rockefeller saw all Christians as his brothers and sisters:

And I’ll end with this:

So did Rockefeller never make a misstep? Am I whitewashing him because of my personal agenda? There are some things to critique, but I think they are minor in comparison with what he accomplished. He deserves more credit than many historians are willing to acknowledge.

Reclaiming Booker T. Washington

What occupies professors when they are on summer vacation? I imagine some may think we do nothing. Those would not be the professors I know; we stay busy.

For instance, I’ve been working diligently on a new upper-level history course for the fall semester: American history from 1877-1917. For me, though, that’s hardly “work”—it’s an enjoyable experience putting my thoughts together and giving them life through my PowerPoint presentations.

I’m the type of historian who concentrates quite a bit on the people of an era, less so on statistics, graphs, etc. My primary interest is character and how that affects the cause-and-effect flow of history.

I also have a tendency to provide alternative views on those people, views that don’t fit into the prevailing interpretations. Take Booker T. Washington as an example. One of the books I’m using in the course is Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery. It’s a heartfelt account of one man who overcame tremendous disadvantages and made a positive impact on many lives through the establishment of the Tuskegee Institute.

Today, Washington is often criticized as an “Uncle Tom.” First of all, that’s a slam on the fictional Uncle Tom as presented by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel. Tom was a Christ-like man to be admired.

Washington also should be admired for his tenacity, his desire to help ex-slaves, and his Christian character.

I like to include key quotes from significant historical figures. Washington is very quotable.

Here’s one that can be applied to him personally:

Washington’s selflessness shines in these two comments:

Washington knew, from personal experience, what it meant to be discriminated against, but he also received tremendous support from many in the white community throughout his life. He lived by this motto:

That’s the perspective we need in our cultural and political wars today. It came from Washington’s Christian faith.

Here’s a very short quote, but it says a lot:

It’s amazing how just three words can communicate a vital truth.

Booker T. Washington’s life is a testimony to character, and it should be an inspiration for the current generation.

I like teaching history; it has a lot to offer us if one approaches it with a right attitude, and not with the proverbial chip on the shoulder.

History should never be used to advance a preconceived agenda, but it can be used to remind us of the significance of individuals and the impact they can make. Booker T. Washington is one such individual.

Chambers: Why the Christians Are Right & the Heathen Are Wrong

Here’s the scenario: the culture is in decline due to a loss of Biblical principles; beliefs based on those principles that used to hold the society together are attacked as bigoted, narrow, and intolerant; the government is increasingly dysfunctional and policies, despite the best efforts of honest and caring representatives, move further away from Biblical norms.

What’s someone to do about this, especially when one feels called by God (to some, that’s a rather presumptive and/or arrogant statement right there) to warn of the decline and the loss of a proper perspective on life?

One can choose to rail against this decline. After all, it is Biblical to warn sinners of the error of their ways. Purely on the governmental side, one can continually point out the false ideologies, hypocrisies, and evil deeds of our generation.

Pointing out the problems is something that must be done. However, there is a limit; after a while, if all one does is constantly harp on the negatives, one runs the risk of being a Johnny-one-note that people begin to ignore.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to notice the down side of some conservative commentary. While the commentary is most often true, depicting accurately the perfidy, the dishonesty, and the radical agenda of progressivism, one gets tired of hearing nothing but angst.

I’ve also noticed that some of those commentators are far more shallow in their thinking than I at first realized. They have certain talking points they repeat, and that’s all the farther they go. The repetitive nature of that approach makes it easy to tune them out.

As regular readers of my blog know, I’ve gained a lot of understanding through the words of Whittaker Chambers in his wonderful/tragic autobiography Witness.

Once Chambers left the communist underground and got a position writing for Time magazine, he eagerly used his position to try to point out the communist threat he knew from personal experience. He was so committed to warning about it that people got tired of hearing his warnings. He was kept from writing anything on the subject.

That seemed like a defeat. As Chambers relates,

My tacit exclusion from writing Communist news at first exasperated me, for I saw no one around me (except the Communists, of course) who knew anything at all about the subject.

He could have protested this treatment. He could have caused a ruckus and further divided the staff over his actions. But he kept calm and came to a new realization about tactics:

But gradually I welcomed the ban. I began to see that the kind of sniping that I had been doing was shallow and largely profitless; anybody could do that.

That last sentence is all too true. Anyone with an axe to grind or an ability to channel anger can do that. There are multitudes of those kinds of people. Chambers tried a new approach, one that more fully reflected the Christian spirit he was developing at that time in his life:

It seemed to me that I had a more important task to do, one that was peculiarly mine. It was not to attack Communism frontally. It was to clarify on the basis of the news, the religious and moral position that made Communism evil.

I had been trying to make a negative point. Now I had to state the positive position, and it was a much more formidable task than attack.

It’s deceptively easy to mount attacks. What Chambers now understood was that he had to do the harder job: help readers grasp the underlying Christian viewpoint of what constituted “good” and contrast that with the evil in communism.

It meant explaining simply and readably for millions the reasons why the great secular faith of this age is wrong and the religious faith of the ages is right; why, in the words of the Song of Roland, the Christians are right and the heathen are wrong.

This affected Chambers’s character in a positive way as well:

This change in my mood and my work reflected a deepening within myself.

The challenge before those of us who might take on the mantle of cultural warrior is perhaps to learn how to conduct the battle in a different manner. We need to leave the tactic of shallow anger and dull repetition and move on to deeper reflections on the nature of God, man, and His principles, and thereby help others gain a greater understanding of the battlefield.

That has always been my intent in this blog—hence its title, Pondering Principles: Reflections on God . . . Man . . . Life. My commitment to that goal is refreshed today.

Declaring Rights in Virginia in 1776

The year 1776 is auspicious for the United States because that’s when we became the United States. Most of our attention in commemorating that event centers on the Declaration of Independence, and rightly so. I’ll have something to say about that document in a post next month.

Another document, which was at Thomas Jefferson’s elbow when writing the Declaration, came out of his home state of Virginia a month earlier, but far too many of our citizens are ignorant of it.

George Mason, along with other key leaders in Virginia who were fashioning the new government there in anticipation of independence, created the Virginia Declaration of Rights as a bold statement of the limits of civil government.

This Declaration made clear the following concepts:

  • Inherent rights (meaning those given by God) cannot be surrendered to the government.
  • Government derives its power from the people, who set its limits.
  • Oppressive government may be altered or abolished.
  • The branches of government must be separated to avoid tyranny.
  • The society operates on due process of law.
  • There will be no excessive bail or fines and no cruel or unusual punishments meted out by government (wording later to be included in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution).
  • No general search warrants were to be allowed (there must be specific cause for a search—anything else is an invasion of a person’s property).
  • Freedom of the press should not be restrained.
  • A militia of the people is a guarantor of liberty.

Sections 15 and 16 of this Declaration are worth quoting in full. Principles and character are the subject of section 15:

That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

Notice how the Founding generation focused on the significance of the character of its citizens. The consensus at the time was that a free government would fail without fundamental principles and without a people willing to exhibit those key character traits mentioned in the document.

Then there is section 16:

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.

This is a clarion call for recognizing that civil government cannot dictate what an individual is required to believe. That’s between each individual and God. We should be free to follow our consciences. This statement comes fifteen years before the same concept was applied nationally in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Another interesting aspect of this section is how it ends: it calls for Christian forbearance, love, and charity for all. The inclusion of the word “Christian” is another testimony to the consensus of the era. The Founders saw Christian faith as the bedrock of society even as they allowed everyone to have their own liberty of conscience.

In my view, Biblical principles are the foundation of everything that is good in the governmental institutions established in America. That’s why I labor to reintroduce them to this current generation. Ignorance of that fact and rejection of those principles are the reasons we are witnessing the slow decay of our culture and the various dysfunctions of our governments.

D-Day, Reagan, & Honor

Thirteen years ago yesterday, June 5, Ronald Reagan died. It was one day before the 60th anniversary of D-Day. It was fitting that the media was forced to cover the life and accomplishments of Reagan at the same time as it was focused on the anniversary.

Reagan and D-Day go together. Two of his most famous speeches occurred on the 40th anniversary in 1984, during his presidency. First was “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech at the top of the cliffs that the special Ranger unit had to climb to take out strategic guns. The loss of life in that engagement was horrific. Reagan spoke to many of the survivors of that day.

In his second speech, he told the story of D-Day soldier Peter Zanatta, who had wanted to return to Normandy for the anniversary but who died before he could fulfill that desire. His daughter, Lisa, wrote a letter to Reagan about her father and Reagan was deeply moved by the letter. He made sure she was there for the commemoration.

In his speech, he honored both the father and the daughter:

Lisa Zanatta Henn began her story by quoting her father, who promised that he would return to Normandy. She ended with a promise to her father, who died 8 years ago of cancer: “I’m going there, Dad, and I’ll see the beaches and the barricades and the monuments. I’ll see the graves, and I’ll put flowers there just like you wanted to do. I’ll feel all the things you made me feel through your stories and your eyes. I’ll never forget what you went through, Dad, nor will I let anyone else forget. And, Dad, I’ll always be proud.”

Through the words of his loving daughter, who is here with us today, a D-day veteran has shown us the meaning of this day far better than any President can. It is enough for us to say about Private Zanatta and all the men of honor and courage who fought beside him four decades ago: We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free.

If you have never seen the video of that portion of his speech, I urge you to watch it. Not only does it honor the Zanatta family, but it also reveals a president worthy of respect, one who does honor to the office he upholds—something that has been all too rare in recent years.

On this D-Day anniversary, let’s remember all those who not only did lay down their lives, but also those who survived but were willing to do the same.

A Tribute to My Fellow Travelers

It’s time to wrap up my tales from the England trip. I would like to do so by first acknowledging Dr. Linda Linzey, the English literature professor who organized it all and who was a personable and professional colleague with whom it was a delight to undertake this study abroad together.

Second, I want to note that all six young women who participated in this whirlwind tour of England were all that a professor could want—interested, inquisitive, and patient. Patience was a particularly positive trait exhibited by the three ladies in my car. I had helpful navigators (supplementing a sometimes strange GPS) who also kept me from getting too drowsy by engaging in good conversation (when they weren’t napping).

So I’m going to make today’s post a tribute to all of these women who didn’t make me feel like the odd man out, even though I was. Here are some of our group shots (in chronological order).

First, as we were ready to enter Dover Castle:

At Canterbury, the obligatory telephone box photo:

A favorite of the three who graced my car:

Another obligatory picture for all UK visitors, albeit less serious than usual:

At the table in the Bath Pump Room awaiting afternoon tea:

At Oxford, enjoying the Magdalen College atmosphere:

I sneaked in a picture of my carload taking their own pictures of the nature preserve at the Kilns:

With Walter Hooper:

High atop the hill in the Dove Cottage garden:

A third obligatory photo—on Hadrian’s Wall:

Intermission at a superb Vivaldi-Bach-Handel concert in St. Martin’s in the Field church in London:

And finally, waiting for our tour of Parliament:

Look at all those Oxford sweatshirts. I regret not getting one for myself.

They were two weeks to remember—and I always will.

This Historian’s Dream Museums

One of my favorite Washington, DC, museums is the National Portrait Gallery. I’m the kind of historian who is more attracted to the study of individuals and their contributions than I am to tables, graphs, and statistics. The subjects of my books—Noah Webster, Ronald Reagan, Whittaker Chambers, C. S. Lewis, the congressmen who argued for Bill Clinton’s impeachment—are testimonies to that historical bent.

Now I can add London’s National Portrait Gallery to my favorites list. Since the focus of my studies is primarily American history, with Britain as a secondary interest, I appreciated the opportunity to take time in this museum to learn more about the key figures in British history.

What I learned here, as well as in a number of other historic sites during my two-week England stint, will enhance my teaching in courses such as American Colonial History, the American Revolution, and, of course, C. S. Lewis. I always want to increase my depth of understanding and pass that on to students.

Another place that I visited for the first time was the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The collection was eclectic, but it showcased a significant amount of medieval art.

Even the reproductions were rather impressive:

Might I add that it also had the best cafe/afternoon tea of any museum I saw? And the interior courtyard was picturesque as well:

This trip marked my second time at the British Museum, but the first time hardly counted compared to this one. We were able to spend about four hours perusing its holdings.

Unlike my last visit twenty years ago, there were long lines and a security tent one had to go through before entering. Yes, times have changed.

The main attraction for many is the famous Rosetta Stone, which with its Egyptian hieroglyphics at the top and Greek writing underneath, allowed scholars for the first time to translate hieroglyphics.

The crowd around the Rosetta Stone was so dense it took multiple attempts before I could get a decent photo, and even this one is not as good as I wanted.

The museum’s Egyptian area is extensive:

As is its Greek section, which now houses actual sections of the Athenian Parthenon that were falling into ruin:

If you look closely, in little nooks and crannies, you might find a few philosophers along the way:

As with the historic sites I noted in yesterday’s post, these museums were a historian’s dream.

I’m now near the end of my series of posts about my England trip. There will be one more on Monday.