An Encouragement to All Who Teach

As a professor for nearly thirty years, my aim has been to instill solid Biblical principles and sound historical teaching based on original sources and insightful secondary works, with the ultimate goal that students would be able to see for themselves how those principles and sources reveal truth.

The trendy phrase is “to develop critical thinking.”

Professors/teachers sometimes wonder how successful this endeavor has been, especially when teaching a class that few of the students seem to care about or when mired in all that grading.

Despite discouragements along the way, I’ve never doubted God’s call on my life for any serious length of time. And then there are those encouragements that pop up unannounced, like the e-mail I received from a recent Southeastern history major who graduated and is now teaching high school at a classical academy.

With his permission, I’m going to share what he is experiencing.

He began by commenting that my blogs this past week on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were “wonderful.” That was the first encouragement, but it was only the beginning.

He just finished teaching an American history/literature class based on a Socratic method of questioning. He then related that he began the course with a thoughtful quote from the book I use in my American history survey courses, Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. He used it to spur their thinking; it became the cornerstone of everything they studied during the semester. Here’s the quote he used:

American history raises three fundamental questions. First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them?…

The Second question provides the key to the first. In the process of nation-building, can ideals and altruism—the desire to build the perfect community—be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition, without which no dynamic society can be built at all?…

Thirdly, the Americans originally aimed to build an other-worldly “City on a Hill,” but found themselves designing a republic of the people, to be modeled for the entire planet. Have they made good their audacious claims? Have they indeed proved exemplars for humanity? And will they continue to be so in the new millennium?

Is that typical fare for a typical high school? I doubt it. My former student was up to the challenge of helping these students think through American history with that as the backdrop.

What he described next stirred my heart:

My class spent a full two hours dissecting this quote in an attempt to mine its meaning and see what kind of answers we could put forth. To say the least, the students’ answers were antiquated and bereft of any deep historical knowledge.

So, for the rest of the year I used Paul Johnson’s work as a supplementary guide to my lectures, and tried my best to emphasize the principles you taught me in undergrad about self-government, constitutionalism, the need for citizens of a democratic-republic to adhere to moral/religious principles, etc.

I had students read and discuss the Mayflower Compact, Plymouth Plantation, the Declaration, the Federalist Papers, Jefferson’s anti-federalist essays, the Constitution, Democracy in America (which we spent two weeks on), the Lincoln-Douglass debates, Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative Life of a Slave, Walden, and much more.

Note two things here: first, the principles he saw as important; second, the original sources he used to explore those principles.

But he didn’t stop there with just the first part of American history; he went on to examine the philosophies that arose to undercut those founding principles:

Along with all these great works of American literature and political philosophy, I also spent a substantial amount of time teaching students about Marxism, communism, the eugenics movement (including Margaret Sanger’s contributions), and the advent of progressive welfare politics.

My students were horrified and amazed that although they had heard many times about the 11 million people killed by Hitler’s regime, they had never heard about the 19 million (or more) killed by Stalin’s regime, the 40 million (or more) killed by Mao’s regime, and the 200,000 (or more) killed by Pol Pot’s regime.

They were even more surprised to learn that “Nazism” stood for “National Socialism.” Our all-too-brief lesson on Whittaker Chambers and the Hiss Case was also a big hit with the students. Although most of my lectures focused on the overall narrative of American political/social history, I couldn’t help going off on these very important tangents.

What a joy it was to learn that these students were being exposed to facts, ideas, and principles that weren’t the focus of their thinking prior to his class. What did the students actually learn? What did they take to heart?

Yesterday was our very last class of the year, and I asked students to discuss Paul Johnson’s questions again to see if they could arrive at different answers based on what we learned this year. Their responses were absolutely fascinating.

They pointed out (without any prompting from me) that the ideals of human rights, the dignity of the individual, the fallen nature of man, private property, and self-government were principles that truly made the U.S. a “city on a hill.”

They also pointed out that nearly all of the many failures and injustices that our country has perpetrated were violations or rejections of these founding principles. I then asked the class “where do these ‘rights’ come from? What gives us the impression that all human beings possess intrinsic dignity? What grounds these American ideals?”

The answer to his question?

One of my very intelligent students pulled out the Declaration of Independence and read the opening words aloud with an emphasis on “our Creator.” It was a very fulfilling moment for me, and a confirmation of how important these lessons are.

The final encouragement—a personal one—concluded his e-mail when he wrote, “I just thought you would like to know that your lessons did not fall on deaf ears, and are already being reproduced in the minds of my own students. Thank you for your commitment to Christ-centered scholarship and education.”

For all you teachers reading this, please know that what you do is significant. Even when you don’t see immediate results, you don’t know what’s going on inside your students. I had no doubts about this former student; I knew he was solid. But there are others you may never hear from who have been impacted by what you have said and, even more important, how you lived your Christian faith before their eyes.

Be encouraged today.

Our Historical Memory . . . Or Lack Thereof

It was 241 years ago today that the Continental Congress approved the wording of the Declaration of Independence. Although Thomas Jefferson drafted the document, there was a committee that was responsible for sending it to the floor of the Congress. Two of those committee members were John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

Jefferson later said that he didn’t write anything original, that he was merely putting into words the consensus of the era concerning rights that come from God and the necessity of forming a new government.

The preamble tells us that there is a Law of Nature (a phrase traced back historically to the book of Romans in the Bible) and that our Creator granted men certain rights that government cannot take away.

The final paragraph included an appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world” for the rightness of their motives in making the move to independence and ends with these stirring words:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, & our sacred honour.

They meant it. Many suffered for this action. They knew they were now prime targets, seen as traitors to the Crown.

What remains of our historical memory?

Point out this ignorance to some of our educators and what response might you get?

I remember very well the day in class when I found out that some of my students couldn’t write cursive. I was stunned. The loss of that skill is another blow against historical knowledge:

The Fourth of July became a major celebration for the first time on its fiftieth anniversary in 1826. Since Jefferson and Adams were still alive, they were invited to the celebrations, but both begged off due to their health. The nation was then startled a few days later by the news that both had died on the Fourth of July, exactly fifty years after their historic participation in the framing of the Declaration.

Odd as it may seem to some, that news sparked unity in the nation, as if God held off their deaths for that specific day to highlight the significance of American independence.

Unity. What a nice concept.

Are we worse off now than ever? As a historian, I know there have been worse times in some ways—the Civil War, the Great Depression. We came through those, but what about today?

Our problem may be worse today with the rapid decline in our culture’s Biblical worldview. As you go about your celebrations today, pray for God’s mercy on our nation.

Yesterday Was Independence Day

Yesterday, July 2, was the 241st anniversary of America’s independence. July 2? Is this historian displaying some historical ignorance here? Not at all. The actual vote for independence in the Continental Congress took place on July 2, not July 4. The 4th is celebrated for the acceptance of the official document, the Declaration of Independence, which is the rationale for what they did on July 2.

Many people today don’t know this fact because we have decided, for some reason, to focus on the Declaration itself.

John Adams, who was there on July 2 to vote in favor of independence, wrote to his wife on July 3, telling her what he hoped for the future of the new nation:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Festival.

It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever.

Although he couldn’t see into the future with respect to which day we ended up celebrating, he was remarkably on target for what takes place on that day. He concluded his thoughts with these sobering words:

You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is worth more than all the means.

Again, he was correct. It was a costly decision to declare independence, but I agree with him that the end has been worth the toil, blood, and treasure expended.

These days, I’m not sure how many people, particularly in the younger generation, have any concept of what this movement toward liberty cost the Founders. I’m sure many have their facts confused.

Let’s strive to overcome the ignorance whenever we can. I’m grateful that the Lord gives me that opportunity every semester in the classroom.

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.

Reaffirming a Right and Proper Independence

Declaration of Independence Read in BostonJuly 2, 1776—The Continental Congress declares the independence of the United States of America.

July 4, 1776—The final wording of the Declaration of Independence is agreed upon by the Congress.

July 8, 1776—The newly printed Declaration of Independence is read publicly in cities and towns across the new nation.

It took another seven years of toil and agony to realize that Declaration’s premise: the United States, with inalienable rights given by God, took its place among the other nations of the world without British disagreement.

Some of our first steps were stumbling—the Articles of Confederation, making the new government work under the Constitution, setting precedents for the future—yet we managed to establish that government and even make the first transition to the predominance of a different political party in 1800 without bloodshed. We were on our way.

I’ve always been an apologist for America in what I hope is the right and proper way, not ignoring the blemishes and sins, yet seeing the overall picture as positive. I attribute most of that success to a basic Biblical worldview that continued to hold sway even until the onset of the twentieth century. After that, we began to suffer from some serious theological/philosophical drift, and we’ve paid the penalty for doing so. Yet, despite that drift, there remains a Biblical thread running through our culture. Some would like to erase it; others have taken up the gauntlet to protect and advance it. Our future hangs in the balance.

Unfortunately, our once sturdy sense of independence (from government, not God) has reversed itself to an alarming degree:

In Dependence

Let’s take this day to contemplate what the Founders sought to achieve and dedicate ourselves to the re-establishment of the right and proper kind of independence that depends on God alone.

Declaration of Independence-Color

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

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.