Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Compromises at the Constitutional Convention: Principled?

When is compromise right? When is it wrong? When I look at historical compromises, I try to apply this rule:

A compromised principle leads to unrighteousness, but a principled compromise is a step closer to the principle’s ideal.

Let’s take the Constitutional Convention as an example.

The delegates who comprised the convention that led to our current Constitution had to grapple with a number of controversial issues. The two most prominent were how to carry out proper representation and how to incorporate the existence of slavery within the document.

On the issue of representation, states with greater population argued that they should have more say in the making of the laws. After all, they had more people, so it only seemed fair to them.

The smaller states, however, fearing that they would always be outvoted on matters of concern to them that might not concern larger states, called for equal representation in the newly proposed government.

Who had the better argument?

In this case, both were making good points. Both arguments had validity.

Consequently, a compromise was forged that led to setting up two houses in the national legislature (as opposed to one in the Congress established by the Articles of Confederation). The House of Representatives would be allotted a proportional number of members based on each state’s population while the Senate would have two members from each state, thereby providing a chamber where the smaller states had an equal vote.

In my view, this was an acceptable compromise that answered the concerns of both parties. No one sacrificed a principle.

The other thorny issue was whether to count the slaves as part of the population of a state. If all slaves were counted, that would definitely give slave states a higher number of representatives in the House. The Southern states, therefore, favored this position.

Northern states, many of whom had already abolished slavery while others were in the process of doing so, thought that would be unfair. After all, as Gouverneur Morris of New York postulated in the debate,

Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included?

Fair question. What was to be done?

The convention came up with this compromise: count 3/5 of the slave population toward a state’s representation (not all the slaves, as the South desired); allow the Congress, twenty years hence, to pass a law that would prohibit the importation of more slaves into the country.

That latter provision was based on a sincere wish that most of those delegates had: the eventual elimination of slavery in America. They hoped that such a law would dry up the slave population over time.

Incidentally, twenty years later, Congress did pass that law.

Was this an acceptable compromise? People are divided on that. Personally, I would have welcomed a stronger stance against slavery, but I also understand the tenor of the times and the limitations on what that convention needed to accomplish.

The Constitutional Convention couldn’t hope to achieve unanimity on the issue of the continuance of slavery. What it could hope to achieve was to set up a working government that could then deal more fully with the issue.

That was accomplished. The sad fact that Congress, over the next few decades, didn’t come to grips with slavery as it should have is not something that should be laid at the feet of those at the Convention.

In fact, based on what they knew at the time, there was good reason to believe slavery was already on its way out. It was not as profitable as expected.

What changed? How about the invention of the cotton gin seven years later, which made slavery far more profitable?

Let’s not play a blame game that holds people responsible for something that happened seven years in the future. That would be like holding people in 2018 responsible for something that will occur in 2025 that alters the whole perspective of an issue.

We’re not really all that good at knowing what the future holds, given the millions of individual choices of citizens that will be made along the way.

It’s possible, therefore, to consider even that slavery compromise as a principled one, despite the disrepute it has earned over time.

The main lesson here, I believe, is to work toward compromises that move the ball toward what one wants to see eventually. Any step in the right direction should be welcomed.

The Lincoln Tragedy

On this morning, April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died in a house across the street from Ford’s Theater. The pandemonium of the night before still resonated through Washington, DC, and the news would soon spread throughout the country, both North and South.

John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary, recalls hearing these words from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:

The nation mourned, and it wasn’t just the North that did so. Many in the South knew this was a tragedy for them as well. Lincoln had mapped out a policy of forgiveness and reconciliation with the transgressing states. His main hope was a peaceful reunification without rancor. He stated his position eloquently in his Second Inaugural Address.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The portrait painted by some today, that Lincoln was a tyrant who trampled on the Constitution and abused his office, is inaccurate. I won’t go into all the details in this post, but suffice to say that I was one who leaned in that direction early in my career. I don’t believe that now. Why the change? Let’s just say that more historical research proved to me the opposite.

Lincoln was a man who was drawn steadily back to the Christian faith after years of agnosticism. The trial of the Civil War deeply affected him and forced him to turn his eyes Heavenward.

His speeches and letters during that awful war reveal a man who is in the throes of a great spiritual introspection—an introspection that exhibited itself in both his Gettysburg Address and in that Second Inaugural.

The heart of the Second Inaugural—and the heart of Lincoln himself—can be found in this short excerpt:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The loss of Lincoln at that critical point in American history was huge. Reconciliation did not prevail at that time; it took far longer to heal the brokenness and the racial attitudes than it should have.

We still bear those scars today.

On Youth, Foolishness, & Mortality

I was reading in Psalm 39 this morning and this section jumped out at me:

Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.

You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.

Thinking about my mortality has become more prominent lately. Not that I’m in bad health or anticipating an early demise, you understand, but it’s only right that someone my age—I just turned 67—should take that possibility seriously.

I reflect back on what it was like being young, that time in life when you rarely consider the end of days on this earth; after all, one’s entire life lies ahead. What great things one will do!

Teaching the current university-aged generation is also a constant reminder of the passing of the years. I could be their grandfather, which is a fairly new and sometimes startling reminder of how quickly time goes by.

Yesterday, I was teaching them about the 1960s, that woebegone era when youth believed they were charting a new course for civilization that no one had ever thought about before. How silly so many of my generation were:

Each new generation, particularly the members of it that end up in college, always seems to think it’s smarter than the previous one, and the atmosphere in which they thrive is all too often one of promoting radical change, often without real understanding:

Far too many of the current crop of students are ignorant of history, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the nation:

As that last comic intimates, many students are being indoctrinated in the latest trendy social thought more than the basic knowledge and principles they need for life.

This has come to the forefront again recently in the reaction of many students to school shootings. Adults (so-called) are prone to present the students as the wise ones, the ones we need to listen to:

I was young once. I thought I had all the answers. I was wrong. I was immature. Immaturity is a feature of being young and inexperienced. A phrase bandied about (but probably not said in these precise words by anyone in particular) is “Youth is wasted on the young.”

This post is not meant to be a slight on young people. I love my students. It’s just that I know what being young is like. I look back on some of the decisions I made, even as a young Christian, and just shake my head, asking myself, “How could I have been so foolish?”

Psalm 90:12 is a fitting final thought for today:

So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.

May it be.

A Stunning “Paul, Apostle of Christ”

The apostle Paul has come alive to me now in a way he never did before. Yesterday, I saw the new film Paul, Apostle of Christ, and left the theater stunned at the power of cinema when used for God’s glory.

How do I begin to describe what I witnessed? I’ve seen many powerful films with messages from the heart of God, but none I’ve ever seen made me consider so deeply what it was really like for Christians facing intense persecution and the testing of their faith unto death.

Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, takes on the role of Luke, companion of Paul, who risks his own life to visit him in prison as he awaits execution. The Emperor Nero, to cover his own sin of setting fire to Rome, has accused the Christians of the act, and fingered Paul as the chief instigator.

James Faulkner, an actor I thought I’d never seen before, but have since discovered appeared in such dramas as Downton Abbey, is absolutely gripping as Paul. From now on, whenever I’m reading one of Paul’s letters, I will have the image of the Paul offered in this movie.

At the end, as Paul was beheaded and then awoke in eternal life to see all those he had persecuted before his salvation come to greet him, I couldn’t hold back tears. There are no over-the-top performances throughout this film; all are real and genuine.

Combined with an excellent supporting cast, superb cinematography, the truth of key Biblical passages, and a clear explanation of the Gospel, this film is of the highest quality.

Paul, Apostle of Christ, in an earlier time in American history, would be a candidate for many awards. Sadly, I believe the era of Ben Hur and Chariots of Fire may now be ended. Hollywood won’t want to reward, or even acknowledge, this positive portrayal of genuine Christianity.

But that’s okay. I’m convinced that Paul, Apostle of Christ, will be used by God for the ultimate reward—that of leading many people into relationship with Him. Helping sinners recognize their sin, showing them the meaning of repentance, and how the love of God has overcome the breach between God and man is a far greater accomplishment.

While a Best Film Oscar would be nice, faithfully proclaiming God’s truth is the ultimate reward.

A Witness, Not a Testimony

The most fascinating autobiography of the 20th century was Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. I’ve re-read it numerous times, particularly in tandem with the course I teach on him and his writings.

Why did Chambers decide to call his book Witness? His testimony before HUAC was an accounting of what he knew about the underground—but that is all a testimony is. It tells what happened; it provides facts. Chambers saw what he was doing as something more, something deeper. A witness is someone who goes beyond simply providing testimony. He describes it in this way:

A witness, in the sense that I am using the word, is a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences.

With his mouth, a man testifies; with his life, he makes a witness.

The opening section of Witness was slightly unorthodox, but that kind of thing could be expected from Chambers. He chose to begin with his own foreword that he called “A Letter to My Children.” Family was the highest priority for him. That was why he bought Pipe Creek Farm. It was why he sought to shield his children from everything connected to his past for as long as possible. The Hiss Case changed that; now he wanted to leave them a personal witness as a prelude to the rest of the book.

His Time associate Craig Thompson had seen him the day after his first testimony before HUAC. ‘“Boy,’ I said, ‘you’ve sure dropped an A-bomb this time.’ For once he couldn’t even grin. ‘Yes,’ he said heavily, ‘And now I’m going home to see what my children think of me.’” His “Letter” was intended as a guidepost for them:

My children, as long as you live, the shadow of the Hiss Case will brush you. In every pair of eyes that rests on you, you will see pass, like a cloud passing behind a woods in winter, the memory of your father—dissembled in friendly eyes, lurking in unfriendly eyes.

Sometimes you will wonder which is harder to bear: friendly forgiveness or forthright hate. In time, therefore, when the sum of your experience of life gives you authority, you will ask yourselves the question: What was my father?

I will give you an answer: I was a witness.

The foreword is powerful as a concise essay on what to expect in the rest of the book: the two irreconcilable faiths; the commitment of the communists to their cause; the communist vision of man without God; the proper way to break with communism; the need for the West to renew its faith in God or be destroyed.

“There has never been a society or a nation without God,” Chambers instructed. “But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God and died.” The “Letter” ends with a highly personal passage:

My children, when you were little, we used sometimes to go for walks in our pine woods. In the open fields, you would run along by yourselves. But you used instinctively to give me your hands as we entered those woods, where it was darker, lonelier, and in the stillness our voices sounded loud and frightening.

In this book I am again giving you my hands. I am leading you, not through cool pine woods, but up and up a narrow defile between bare and steep rocks from which in shadow things uncoil and slither away. It will be dark. But, in the end, if I have led you aright, you will make out three crosses, from two of which hang thieves. I will have brought you to Golgotha—the place of skulls.

This is the meaning of the journey. Before you understand, I may not be there, my hands may have slipped from yours. It will not matter. For when you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wise.

I was deeply moved by the elegance of the writing the first time I read Witness. That emotional connection with the book has never left me. It’s why I want to introduce students to it. I want them to grasp—as a generation seemingly removed from the grip of the Cold War and the threat of communism—the eternal truths Chambers enunciates.

Just because the outward expression of the conflict, the Cold War, has ended, that doesn’t mean the conflict is over. It’s never over, precisely because the conflict is not simply between two political or economic systems; rather, it’s the age-old conflict of faith in God vs. faith in man. That one never ends.

I highly recommend reading Chambers’s Witness. You also can get a significant part of it in my book, The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom, from which this excerpt is taken.

Oscars Past

I do love movies. I just don’t like watching the Oscars program because of its rather consistent descent into the denigration of Biblical morality and its overall liberal-progressive political stance. So I didn’t watch the self-congratulatory extravaganza Sunday evening.

Of course, I wasn’t alone. This year’s Oscars show got its smallest audience in history. Apparently, a lot of people feel the way I do.

I saw only three of the films that were up for any type of award: Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, and The Greatest Showman. I saw other movies, some quite good, that didn’t make the cut. It seems that most of the ones I see now don’t make that cut.

Yet I do love movies, at least those that tell a good story and tell it well visually in tandem with an intelligent script.

My undergraduate degree wasn’t in history; rather, I was a radio, tv, and film production major. My first job after college was at the Christian Broadcasting Network. Only later did I take a different path, end up with a doctorate in history, and become a professor (which I’ve been now for 28 years).

Last fall, I compiled a list of my favorite movies for some of my students. That list added up to more than 150. Many were Best Picture winners from past years. Here are some of my favorites and the reasons for that evaluation.

The King’s Speech, in 2010, was a sympathetic portrait of George VI of Britain, as he struggled with his inability to speak fluently and coherently as the burden of inspiring his people during WWII fell on his shoulders.

One feels for the king, marvelously acted by Colin Firth as George and Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist.

Naturally, I’m drawn to historical films. This one satisfied.

I’ve read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy twice. The second time was in concert with the appearance of the three movies made from it. I wanted to be as re-familiarized with the plot and the characters before watching director Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s classic.

Jackson did a superb job conveying Tolkien’s world to the screen, so I was pleased when the last of the three, The Return of the King, received the Best Picture nod in 2003.

Some movies combine fiction with historical reality. One that accomplished this in a unique way was 1994’s winner, Forrest Gump. It remains one of my favorites; I’ve seen it so many times I practically have it memorized. So many lines from the dialogue have entered into our everyday speech: “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get”; “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is”; “stupid is as stupid does.”

We even now have the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.

The interspersing of actual historical footage with Tom Hanks participating is masterful movie-making, in my opinion.

And its bittersweet ending makes us all think about what really matters in life.

Another standout for me was Chariots of Fire, the winner in 1981. The most significant aspect of this film, I think, was the respect it showed for Christian faith in the person of Scottish Olympian Eric Liddell, who refused to run on Sunday; a second highlight was its focus on acceptance of a Jewish man at Oxford.

Another outstanding feature of the film was the mood set by the theme music along with the runners moving in slow motion on the beach. In all of my years of watching movies, I can say that this one is at the top in quality points, in my estimation.

The print in this picture is too small to read, I know, so I’ll tell you what it says:

This is the story of two men who run . . . not to run . . . but to prove something to the world.

They will sacrifice anything to achieve their goals . . . except their honor.

For those in the younger generation who have never seen Chariots of Fire, I hope you will take this recommendation and fill in the gap in your cultural life.

Other favorites over the years include Oliver (1968) with some truly great music; Ben Hur (1959), which has achieved a classic status few films can hope to copy; The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), as Alec Guinness comes to grips with how he has inadvertently helped the enemy and redeems himself through self-sacrifice; All the King’s Men (1949), a dramatic representation of a fictional, yet not so fictional, politician based on the career of demagogue Huey Long; The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), as three men returning from WWII must deal with the trauma they faced during the war and find a way to return to normal lives; Casablanca (1943)–Bogart, Bergman, and the rest is history; and Mrs. Miniver (1942) with the wonderful actress Greer Garson showing us how a strong woman faced the privations and challenges of WWII on the home front.

There are others I liked very much, but these will do. I hope this travelogue was entertaining, informative, and maybe even a little inspirational.

Movies have the potential to move us toward God and His ways just as much as they can push people away from Him. I like to celebrate those that have a solid basis in the Christian worldview.

Graham & His Presidents

Historians have a unique experience when they do research into individuals. Even though I have never met most of the people I’ve researched, I come away with the sensation that I know them anyway.

My master’s thesis was on Yale president (and clergyman) Timothy Dwight and American geographer (and clergyman) Jedidiah Morse, the latter being the father of Samuel F. B. Morse of telegraph fame.

My doctoral dissertation was on Noah Webster, the premier educator of early America and the compiler of America’s first dictionary, which bears his name.

Reading everything I can get my hands on that relates to Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and C. S. Lewis has been an ongoing joy.

I can testify the same about Billy Graham, since I’ve not only researched at Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center, but also have looked into his correspondence and relationships with all the post-WWII presidents.

Graham built a reputation as a friend and counselor for many of these presidents, although his first attempt was a little rocky. He received an invitation to speak with Harry Truman in the Oval Office. He prayed with Truman at the end of the meeting. When he and his associates emerged from the White House, reporters wanted him to reenact that prayer. He obliged.

Although Graham was undoubtedly sincere in his action, Truman was incensed that something private would be made into a public spectacle. Graham, young and inexperienced in dealing with the media, learned a valuable lesson that day.

The young evangelist made a connection with a much older man, Dwight Eisenhower, when Truman left office. In one way, it’s rather amazing that Eisenhower, the general who successfully conducted the D-Day invasion, would find a spiritual guide in such a young man. Yet he asked Graham for suggestions of Biblical passages to use in his first inaugural.

As Eisenhower lay in bed at Walter Reed hospital, knowing he was going to die soon, he asked Graham to come see him and tell him one more time how to make sure he was ready to meet the Lord. If not for Graham, Eisenhower might never have made his peace with God.

Graham didn’t know Kennedy that well, but at the latter’s urging, they met after the election and before the inauguration, because Kennedy, as the nation’s first Catholic president, sought to show that the leading evangelical Protestant voice was not opposed to his presidency.

It’s noteworthy that at a time when many Protestants were concerned about having a Catholic for president that Graham accepted the invitation and was willing to stand publicly with Kennedy. He wanted to help heal that division between Christian denominations.

What may not be as well known is that Graham, in November of 1963, had a strong urge to call Kennedy and tell him the Lord had impressed upon him that the upcoming trip to Dallas might be dangerous. He never reached Kennedy; others in the administration put him off. We all know what happened next.

Lyndon Johnson was a profane man with whom one might think Graham would want nothing to do, but that was not the case. The two developed a close friendship, and Graham even got involved to some extent in some of LBJ’s initiatives on racial reconciliation and other policy issues.

Interestingly, LBJ tried to convince Graham to run for president. He demurred, knowing that God had given him a different calling. In my opinion, after reading through quite a bit of material on their relationship, I see LBJ wanting Graham to be close to him because he suffered a deep insecurity about his own spiritual state—an insecurity that he definitely should have had, given his low standard of morality. Perhaps he perceived Graham to be his “security blanket,” spiritually speaking.

In the public mind, Graham is most often associated with Nixon. It’s true that they were very close. It was during Nixon’s presidency that Sunday morning services were arranged at the White House, and Graham spoke at many of them. Although he never officially endorsed any president, there was little doubt that he supported Nixon’s reelection in 1972.

Then came Watergate. When the tapes revealed language from Nixon that Graham had never heard him use in his presence, he was deeply disturbed. On Nixon’s part, because he didn’t want the controversy swirling around him to impugn Graham’s ministry, he conscientiously avoided meeting with Graham once the Watergate investigation went into high gear.

What’s most touching, to me, is that nothing Nixon did pushed Graham away from him. Even in the disgrace of resignation from the presidency, Graham remained his friend and spiritual advisor. He was not seeking power with the high and mighty; he simply wanted to share God’s love with them. He was the friend of presidents even when they were no longer in office and had nothing to offer.

His close brush with a possible taint on his ministry led Graham to rethink his associations with presidents. It’s not that he sought to distance himself spiritually, but he never again wanted to be so public in his relationships with them that the ministry would be discredited.

So when Ford took over from Nixon, while he did speak with the new president on occasions, he deliberately took a step back from a too-public connection.

The same is true of his relationship with Carter. Prior to his presidency, Carter had even shared the stage with Graham in Georgia at one of his crusades.

Yet, the relationship was never very close. Carter considered himself his own spiritual advisor, some would say. He didn’t reach out much to Graham during his tenure in office.

Ronald Reagan and Graham had been friends for a couple of decades before Reagan won the presidency, so the link between them already was firmly established. According to some sources, Reagan was the president Graham was closest to, but, in the wake of Watergate, Graham was intent on keeping their communication as private as possible.

That’s kind of a frustration for a historian like me. Whereas I found a lot of correspondence between Graham and LBJ and Nixon, the Reagan Library yielded far less.

Reagan’s esteem for Graham was shown in his decision to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When I interviewed Reagan’s pastor, Donn Moomaw, back in 2014, he lent me this photo that I downloaded into my own files. I’ll always appreciate his willingness to do that.

George Bush the elder also had a long-standing friendship with Graham, to the point that he invited him to the Bush compound in Maine annually. He wanted his family to hear from Graham on spiritual matters. His initial idea was to ask Graham to speak to them—like a sermon—but Graham instead just opened it up each year to questions, which was a much more personable approach.

It was on one of those occasions that a walk along the beach with George Bush the younger led to his commitment to follow the Lord.

Have I omitted anyone? Oh, yes, there was another one.

This is further evidence that Graham was willing to be a friend to anyone occupying the highest office in the land.

I hope this travelogue through the history of Billy Graham’s relationships and connections with presidents has been worthwhile for those of you who made it through this entire blog.

I thank God for using this man in our nation’s history. May many more rise up and be His spokesmen for truth.