Wheaton College undergraduates attend chapel services three times a week during the academic year.  Typically, the entire student body meets together in our beautiful Edman Chapel, but once each term students gather in smaller groups within their home departments–biology majors with biology majors, philosophy majors with philosophy majors, etc.  Today was the appointed day for departmental chapels, and it was my privilege to be the featured speaker in the chapel service hosted by the Department of History.

The title of my talk to our majors was “Thinking Historically About Vocation.”  At the beginning of the year my History Department colleagues and I decided that we needed to do a better job of helping our students think about life after graduation and the range of career paths they might follow.  Toward that end, we plan to bring back a number of History alums to campus for a series of panel discussions about possible vocational paths.

Before we launch that initiative, however, I thought it was important to help our students think about vocation at a more foundational level.  Before asking “What is my specific vocation or calling in life?” I want them to ask, “How, as a Christian, ought I to understand the concept of calling?”

In preparing my remarks, I relied heavily on a work that I would recommend to anyone wanting to think Christianly and historically about vocation.   The book is Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, edited by the late William C. Placher.  Placher was a long-time philosopher and theologian at Wabash College, and Callings is an an anthology of fifty-seven selections from prominent Christian thinkers of the past two millennia from the first-century bishop Ignatius of Antioch to the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth.


In her marvelous little book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Christian historian Margaret Bendroth observes that most modern-day Christians are “stranded in the present.” Dismissing what the Apostles’ Creed refers to as “the communion of saints”–the fellowship of believers across the ages–we cut ourselves off from the hard-won insight of believers across the centuries and rely instead on the trendy and popular musings of the moment.

Callings assaults such arrogance head on. (And it is a form of arrogance, if we’re honest about it; C. S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery.”) As we read systematically through the selections, we join a conversation that began long before we came on the scene and will continue long after we are gone.  In doing so, we discover that intelligent, devout believers have differed dramatically over the centuries about a concept we tend to take for granted.

Placher identifies four broad periods in history in which “calling” has had different meanings.  The first was the Early Church Period, say 100-500 A.D.  During these years it was far from easy to be a Christian.  Most Christians were in the minority in their communities.  It was common for followers of Jesus to come to faith as adults, and their decision to profess faith often came at great personal cost, sometimes meaning a break with family, sometimes leading to persecution.  During this period, when individuals wrestled with calling, they were confronting the basic question of whether to profess faith and, if they did so, how open to be in their declaration.  One of my favorites selections from this period is an excerpt from Augustine’s Confessions, written around the close of the fourth century.

During the Middle Ages, 500-1500, Christian writing on calling changed significantly.  In those areas around the world where Christians were to be found, they were usually in the majority in their communities.  Christianity was pretty much the dominant religion wherever it existed at all.  Most Christians lived under the authority of the Church and were surrounded by other believers.  As a result, when Christian writers reflected on the concept of calling, they rarely had in mind the question of whether to become a Christian.  They were much more preoccupied with the question, “What kind of Christian should I be?” Specifically, now the decision at the heart of finding one’s calling was whether to pursue a “religious” life.  During these centuries, to have a calling meant to serve in the priesthood or a monastic order, becoming a priest, monk, or nun.  Not coincidentally, individuals who wrote on calling tended to belong to monastic orders themselves, such as the Italian Dominican Thomas Aquinas or the German monk Thomas a’ Kempis.

As Placher notes, it’s unlikely that either of these periods offers a perspective on calling that feels right to us.  If you’re like me, when you think about calling you’re probably not thinking about whether God might be leading you to join a monastic order, as would have been the case during the Middle Ages.  At the same time, you probably do have in mind something more specific than the general call to faith in Jesus as Lord, as calling was typically understood during the Early Church Period.  Don’t we typically think of something between these extremes–a general sense that God is summoning us to do a certain something with our lives, and that doing that something will give our lives greater meaning, purpose, and fulfillment?

This understanding of calling dates to the third period that Placher identifies, namely the four a half centuries or so during and after the Protestant Reformation, say from the early 1500s to the late 1800s.  Two crucial things were happening during these years that transformed thinking about calling.  First, early reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin began to push back against the Catholic teaching that only priests, monks, and nuns were pursuing a calling from God.  Any task undertaken as unto the Lord is “reckoned very precious in God’s sight,” Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Second, much of the western world was undergoing a period of increasing commercialization and economic sophistication that historians call the Market Revolution.  When Calvin wrote in the 1530s, he still inhabited a world of severely limited options.  He could take for granted that almost all females would labor as wives and mothers, while almost all males would inherit the occupations of their fathers.  The son of a peasant farmer would be a peasant farmer; the son of a craftsman would be a craftsman.  In contrast to Christian writers in earlier centuries, both Calvin and Luther tended to equate “calling” with “occupation.”  Neither, however, offered advice to Christians about how to figure out the occupation to which God was calling them, because neither really expected their readers to have much choice in the matter.  Their goal was to teach Christians that, whatever kind of work they had inherited as their lot, they could quite literally think of it as a calling fraught with religious significance.

Over time, thanks in large part to the economic changes swirling around them, the heirs of Luther and Calvin began modify or elaborate on their teaching.  They began to distinguish between “general calling” (the calling to faith in Christ) and “particular calling,” the calling to a specific walk of life or job.  More significant, they began to offer advice for discerning the latter.  English Puritans like William Perkins (writing at the close of the sixteenth century) and Richard Baxter (writing in the latter half of the seventeenth century) pinpointed a series of criteria for identifying an appropriate “particular” calling.  Any line of work we would pursue, they taught,  a) must be something we can practice with integrity and conformity to Biblical principles;  b) should in some way serve the common good; c) should express the desires of our heart; and d) should mesh with our particular abilities or skill set.  These criteria would not point the Christian to one and only one possible line of work, but they would be helpful in narrowing down the range of acceptable particular callings.

The fourth and final period that Placher identifies is what he calls the “Post-Christian” era of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In this period it has no longer been a given that Christians are in the majority in the communities where they reside.  (In this sense our world resembles the Early Church Period.)   During these years a number of Christian writers have consciously tried to return the focus of “calling” to the divine summons to live a life of obedience to Christ and to take the focus away from paid work.  A key writer in this vein is the late Karl Barth, whose writing on the topic is one of my favorites.  Barth argued that the early Reformers were right in insisting that the Catholic definition of calling during the Middle Ages was far too narrow.  In seeking to redress this, however, they committed their own error by equating the concept of calling so exclusively with work.  According to Barth, the divine calling applies to the totality of our existence, cutting diagonally across every dimension of our lives.

The selections in Callings will not lead you to simple answers about the concept of Christian vocation.  Like any fruitful conversation with the past, however, it will help you to discern your own position more precisely and think about it more perceptively.  As Placher put it,

The past does not always have the right answers, but its answers are often at least different from those of the present, and the differences cause us to question our own previously unexamined assumptions. . . . After traveling in other countries, we come back to our own with new questions. But the past too is a different country, and, voyaging in it, we gain richer perspectives on our own time.


Thanksgiving is six weeks away, and it occurred to me that many of you may be looking for some good Thanksgiving-related reading in advance of the holiday.  There are many books that you can choose from, but two in particular come immediately to my mind.  The first–if you’ll forgive me for saying so–is my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

First ThanksgivingThe book came out in the fall of 2013 from Intervarsity Press, and it was a labor of love.  For years I had been gradually developing a new sense of vocation.  I believe that academic historians write too much for each other, leaving the public to learn about the past from pastors, talk-show hosts, rap musicians, and other public celebrities.  As a Christian historian, I have come to believe that part of my calling is to be a historian for Christians outside the Academy.  If you are a Christian who is interested in American history, I want to be in conversation with you about what it means to think Christianly and historically about the American past.  That is why I started this blog two years ago, and that is why, about seven years ago, I began my research on the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving.

I didn’t write The First Thanksgiving primarily because I was enamored with the story and wanted to re-tell it accurately (although I hoped to do so).  Rather, it gradually dawned on me that this familiar story provided the perfect framework for exploring what it means, from a Christian perspective, to remember the past faithfully.  The story of the First Thanksgiving is central to how we, as Americans, remember our origins. The subsequent development of the Thanksgiving holiday speaks volumes about how we have defined our identity across the centuries. As Christians, our challenge is to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5), including our thinking about our national heritage.  Thanksgiving is a good place to start.

Go over to, however, and you’ll find a lot more buzz about a different Thanksgiving title.  In what I can only attribute to God’s determination to keep me humble, the month after The First Thanksgiving was released, Rush Limbaugh came out with a book on the same topic: Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.  The book follows a middle-school history teacher named Rush Revere and his time-traveling, talking horse named Liberty.  The pair go back to visit the Pilgrims in 1620 and 1621 and discover that they all would have voted Republican and opposed Obamacare.

Rush RevereRush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims has been reviewed more than 4,200 times on, and 95% of reviewers give the work four or five stars.  They praise it as a “factually correct,” “unbiased,” “true history” that will help to combat the “liberal propaganda that the children are being fed today.”  Last Autumn such giddy enthusiasm propelled the book temporarily to #2 on Amazon’s ranking of books, and even a year after its release it still sits comfortably in Amazon’s top 100, coming in at #38 as I write this.  (My book is not far behind, standing at #57,589.  I don’t know precisely how many titles Amazon claims to rank, but the total is well above 12 million–probably much higher.)

I have previously posted two extended essays on Limbaugh’s take on the Pilgrims (see here and here), so I am not going to cover that ground again.  Suffice it to say that the book is pretty much a train wreck.  I consider myself a political conservative, and so I take no pleasure in saying that, but the book has little redeeming value as a work of history, even for children.  For Christian readers, the book should be positively offensive.  In Rush’s revisionist re-telling, the First Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Pilgrim’s gratitude to God for bringing them through a deadly winter and blessing them with a bountiful harvest.  In fact, it had little religious dimension at all.  The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag were instead celebrating how God had delivered them from the futility of socialism and alerted them to the benefits of free enterprise.

As a historian, I think no good cause is ever served by distorting the past, whether intentionally or accidentally.  And as a Christian historian, I am grieved that the Pilgrims’ timeless example of perseverance and heavenly hope amidst unspeakable hardship has been obscured, their faith in God overshadowed by their purported faith in the free market.

If you listen to Limbaugh’s radio program (I’ll confess that I do occasionally), you know that he encourages his readers to buy his books in order to counteract the lies and half-truths that supposedly mar American history as it is taught in the public schools.  With regard to the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving, I have no doubt that the real story is rarely told.  But if you’re hoping to find a more accurate re-telling from a time-traveling talking horse, prepare to be disappointed.


When I began this blog, I promised to deliver essays that explored the intersection of Christian faith, the life of the mind, and the study of the past. This post will seem a little removed from that, but hang in there, and I think you’ll see a connection.

I had heard my younger daughter speak fondly of George Herbert before, but I knew almost nothing about him when I took my seat on the stage at Wheaton’s convocation this past August. “Convocation” is what we call the opening chapel service of the academic year. Wheaton has required chapel services three times a week, but the convocation is considerably more formal than these. The college’s two hundred or so faculty file into the chapel wearing caps and gowns, and it’s a stirring experience. The entire school is gathered under one roof—which I think is neat in and of itself—and the students and faculty sing an opening hymn while the chapel’s massive pipe organ makes the pews vibrate. Sometimes the relentless daily demands of my job cause me to lose sight of the eternal significance of my calling as a teacher. Never during convocation. When the organ is blasting away, and I look out on the student body for the first time since the summer’s hiatus, I regularly feel both delight and fear. I feel anew the wonder that God has called me to labor in this place, and I sense again—as if for the first time—the weight of responsibility that is part of the calling.

As moving as convocation can be, I rarely remember much about the speaker’s message. Perhaps I’m too caught up in my own reverie, or maybe I’m too self-conscious sitting up on the stage in medieval regalia that’s hot and itchy. But this year’s convocation was different. The speaker was Dr. Phillip Ryken, the president of Wheaton College. Dr. Ryken speaks about once a month in chapel during the academic year, and he typically addresses a single over-arching theme from autumn through spring. This year he will be bringing a series of messages on the theme “When Trouble Comes,” and he chose to introduce the series during convocation. (You can download Ryken’s message here.)

It took about ten seconds for him to get my attention.

“It was the spring semester of the academic year, and I was in trouble,” Dr. Ryken began.  “Over the course of long weeks that stretched into months, I fell deeper into discouragement, until eventually I wondered whether I had the will to live.  I’m talking about me–not somebody else–and I’m talking about last semester.”  A hush fell across the chapel.  For the next several minutes our president shared briefly about the personal, family, and job-related circumstances that had  brought him to a lower point, spiritually and psychologically, than he had ever known.

Discouragement does not begin to convey the state of mind that Dr. Ryken related.  Depression comes closer, but I think that despair more truly captures the darkness that enveloped him. My own family has been touched multiple times by something akin to what he was describing. My pulse quickened as Dr. Ryken began to share honestly about his struggles. Then my heart began to ache. Then I began to feel the rush of encouragement that comes when God reminds us that we are not alone.

In describing what his trial felt like, Ryken borrowed two lines from a poem that he had come to identify with. The author was George Herbert. The lines that had literally become Ryken’s testimony were these: “I live to show His power, who once did bring my joys to weep, and now my griefs to sing.”

These words impressed me deeply, and through blurry eyes I scrawled the phrase “griefs to sing” on my program and determined to locate the entire poem as soon as I could. When I got back to my office, a quick Google search took me to Herbert’s poem “Joseph’s Coat,” published in 1633. That same day I entered the entire poem into my commonplace book. I’ve shared it since with several family members and students, and I want to share it with you in a moment.

George Herbert (1599-1633) from a 1674 painting by Robert White

George Herbert (1599-1633) from a 1674 painting by Robert White

But first, a little context. George Herbert (1593-1633) was born into a powerful English family. His father held the aristocratic title “Lord of Cherbury” and sat in Parliament. The son, who was educated at Cambridge and became a favorite of James I, seemed destined to a life of wealth, prestige, and political prominence before he decided to take orders as an Anglican priest in his mid-thirties. For three years he labored as a country parson in a tiny parish southwest of London, before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine. “Joseph’s Coat” is part of a collection of poems by Herbert that was published shortly after his death.

The poem begins with a set of seemingly contradictory statements:

Wounded I sing, tormented I indite,
Thrown down, I fall into a bed and rest:
Sorrow hath chang’d its note: such is his will,
Who changeth all things, as him pleaseth best.

The image here, as I understand it, is one of opposites. The writer has been dealing with a great trial of some sort, a trial so severe that he speaks of being “wounded,” “tormented,” and “thrown down.” And yet this great pain has been leavened with joy. It is a divine gift, Herbert understands, attributable only to the one who “changeth all things, as him pleaseth best.” It is a joy so powerful and life-giving that Herbert can now sing despite his wounds, compose poetry (this is the meaning of “indite”) amid his torment, and find peace and rest while being thrown down.

Herbert continues, referring to God,

For well he knows, if but one grief and smart
Among my many had his full career,
Sure it would carry with it ev’n my heart,
And both would runne until they found a biere
To fetch the body; both being due to grief.
But he hath spoil’d the race; and given to anguish
One of Joyes coats, ticing it with relief
To linger in me, and together languish.

Herbert reveals that “many” griefs have weighed him down, and he is convinced that if even one of these had been given full sway he could never have survived the assault. (Is there a veiled allusion here to the attraction of suicide?) Undiluted, Herbert’s grief would have been unbearable. Absent the mercy of God, it would have triumphed, prompting body and soul to long for death, literally propelling both to run toward the grave. (A biere was a wooden platform that the dead were placed on before burial.) And yet God in his mercy did intervene. But He hath spoiled the race—this is probably my favorite phrase in the poem. God sends joy as a balm to the writer’s anguish.

I find it significant that Herbert does not write that his anguish disappears. This is about a million miles away from happy-clappy-your-best-life-now theology. The joy that Herbert writes about brings relief and revives hope. But nowhere does Herbert suggest that God has completely eliminated his suffering. In a sense, God has done something more amazing. He has empowered him to live victoriously in the midst of his trial.

Which brings us to Herbert’s concluding declaration:

I live to show his power, who once did bring
My joyes to weep, and now my griefs to sing.

I review these words regularly, and I am praying that Herbert’s declaration will also become the testimony of someone very dear to me. Herbert’s words encourage me greatly, for they testify to “the God who does wonders” (Psalm 77:14). In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged.” As followers of Christ, Bonhoeffer writes, we are to “meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.”

Unfortunately, as Margaret Bendroth notes in her wonderful little book, The Spiritual Discipline of Remembering, most of us live “stranded in the present.”  (You can read my review here.)  We may refer to the “communion of the saints” when we recite the Apostles’ Creed, but we shut ourselves off almost entirely from the Church across the ages. George Herbert penned “Joseph’s Coat” nearly four centuries ago. I went into a national chain Christian bookstore recently, and apart from a couple of books by C. S. Lewis, I didn’t find a single work more than twenty years old.

Yes, we are stranded in the present, and our lives are poorer for it.

St. Andrew's Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire, where George Herbert served as rector.

St. Andrew’s Church in Bemerton, Wiltshire, where George Herbert served as rector.


Well, I gave them another try—Civil War re-enactments, that is. I know I said recently that I’d seen more than enough. The few re-enactments that I have attended trouble the historian in me. It’s not that they’re wholly bad. There are things that this kind of “living history” can teach us fairly well. Imagination is always essential when we try to understand the past. No matter how much factual evidence we have about the Civil War—and there’s a great deal of it—the diaries and letters and official reports and newspaper accounts remain lifeless if we lack imagination. It’s imagination that breathes life into these faint reflections of another time. It’s imagination that causes the past to “come alive.”

This is where I think Civil War re-enactments can be valuable. Walking among the camps, watching soldiers joking and playing cards, listening to a lecture on Civil War medical instruments, watching a demonstration of Civil War cannon, enjoying the strains of popular nineteenth-century songs—all of these experiences can fuel our imaginations. At their best, they allow us to see the past “as through a glass, darkly.” Whatever their inaccuracies—and they are always inaccurate—we walk away with the sense that we have walked for a moment in the shoes of those who came before us.

I see potential value in re-enactments right up to the point that they try to re-create battle. That’s where I want to get off. As I wrote previously, the re-enactments that I have witnessed transform war from a hellish thing into a hobby. They make battle into an entertaining spectacle, a pageant to be admired. And when they do that, they teach what isn’t true. They obscure what Americans actually learned about war between 1861 and 1865. Instead, they unwittingly re-create the naïve fascination that prompted civilians to flock to the First Battle of Bull Run for the pleasure of watching Americans kill Americans.

So if I hold such a view, why in the world would I attend another re-enactment? Three reasons, I guess. The first was a desire for fairness.  When I posted my previous piece on re-enactments, I was unaware that there was going to be a major re-enactment this past weekend almost literally in my own backyard–at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, only about twenty minutes from my home. Perhaps this one would be different, I thought.  Curiosity was also a factor.  I noticed that the schedule included a presentation by a well-known Lincoln impersonator. I was interested to see what this incarnation of our nation’s sixteenth president might have to say about the war’s causes. Finally, to be completely candid, my Tennessee Vols had just lost for the tenth year in a row to the Florida Gators, and I wanted to get out of the house and take my mind off of the humiliation.

Cantigny is a 500-acre public park on the former estate of the late Robert McCormick, the long-time editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune during the first half of the last century. McCormick’s mansion has been preserved and is open for tours, and there is also a world-class museum on site dedicated to the history of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division. (McCormick was an officer in the First Division during WWI.) The grounds are beautiful, open, and extensive, and they offer an ideal locale for a variety of public events, including craft fairs, concerts, and weddings. Last weekend they became home to the Union and Confederate armies.

The weather on Saturday was unusually raw for early October. It was wet, windy, and cold, and the crowd looked like it was ready for a Bears game more than a historical demonstration. True to the other re-enactments that I have attended, the main event of the day was a mock battle. I took my place in the crowd, and we waited with anticipation for the entertainment to begin. In front of me was an elementary age kid—maybe nine or ten years old—wearing a blue Union forage cap at a jaunty angle and wielding a toy pistol. When half a dozen cannon opened fire to signal the beginning of the battle, the boy shouted his approval while his dad strained to record the scene on his camera phone. Looking at the faces around me and their expressions of delight, it struck me that we might have been watching a Fourth of July parade, or perhaps a group of jugglers at the county fair. I don’t think our reactions would have been any different.

Confederate Infantry at the Battle of Wheaton, Illinois October 2014

Confederate Infantry at the Battle of Wheaton, Illinois October 2014

Soon the Confederate infantry began a determined advance on the Union position, and as the lines converged, the whistling Yankee minie balls began to find their mark. I have heard from a few re-enactors who assure me that their units never pretend to recreate a battle. I’ll take their word for it, but I’ve yet to see such restraint. In this particular demonstration, the soldiers on both sides were dropping like flies.


Cantigny2Only a few feet from us, a Union volley tore through the charging gray line, and when the smoke had cleared there was a clump of Confederate casualties writhing in death throes as we snapped pictures furiously. When one of the mortally wounded Rebs tried to crawl away before finally collapsing, my little Union friend whipped out his toy pistol and did his best to finish him off. Similar scenes were occurring elsewhere, and soon the field was littered with corpses. At this point, the announcer thanked us for coming, we applauded, and the dead began to rise. I don’t think that final part was historically accurate.

cantigny4You already know what I think of this, so I won’t belabor the point. I’ll simply say that nothing I saw Saturday changed my mind about these mock battles. It’s not just that they fail completely to capture what battle was really like. That goes without saying. All efforts at historical recreation always fall short, yet they can still have value. But these efforts to recreate battle aren’t just inaccurate. They’re pernicious. They utterly obscure the horrors of war. Nothing good comes from making war an entertaining spectacle.

Let me put my cards on the table. As a history teacher, there are two things that I always want my students to learn about war. The first, to quote William Tecumseh Sherman, is that “war is a hellish thing.” The second (lest you think I am a pacifist), is that war, though unspeakably horrific, is sometimes necessary and just.  As a culture, if we stress only the first truth without also teaching the last, we leave ourselves spiritually and psychologically unprepared to wage war should war be thrust upon us.  But if we stress only the latter, without also teaching the former, we may be training the rising generation to take war lightly.

As a college educator, I’m particularly determined to avoid this second alternative.  In the absence of a military draft, our armed forces rely disproportionately on young men and women who have no education beyond high school.  In his book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco writes,

Perhaps the deepest divide in our country today runs between those for whom war is a relentless threat and those for whom it’s an occasional television show. At our most prestigious colleges, the former is now the most underrepresented minority group.

In other words, should the U.S. have to send troops into combat in some distant part of the world, proportionately few of my students will ever be directly affected.  War to them is a comfortably remote abstraction.  I think that’s dangerous.

But as much as I want my students to confront war’s horrific dimension, it is equally important that they wrestle with the question of when war might be justified.  There is a long tradition in Christian teaching—coming down from St. Augustine through Thomas Aquinas—that war between nations can be morally defensible. “Just war” doctrine says that, in a fallen world, one fallen nation may use deadly force against another as a last resort to promote long-term peace and avert grave injustice. How this applies to the American Civil War is a difficult, difficult question that I’m not remotely ready to answer. But there is one implication of just war theory that is undeniable: war is not intrinsically just. This means that if we want to judge the morality of any particular war–say, the Civil War, for example–we need to think long and hard about the circumstances that led to it. It is both artificial—and I think harmful—to study any war without also studying its causes.

This leads me to my other chief concern about Civil War re-enactments. The ones that I have attended make almost no effort to address the reasons why these men are supposedly shooting one another. We are evidently supposed to admire them for their courage without reference to the cause for which they were fighting. But courage, like war, is not intrinsically noble.  Courage, according to Webster’s, is “the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous.”  Strictly speaking, bank robbers may have courage.  Murderers and terrorists may have courage.  Courage is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and it is noble only to the degree that the end we seek is morally just.  In other cases, it’s a tragic waste.

Mary and Abraham Lincoln, circa 2014

Mary and Abraham Lincoln, circa 2014

And so I went with interest following the battle to listen to “Abraham Lincoln” share with us about the Civil War.  Maybe a tenth of those who had watched the battle did the same.  We were actually treated to a conversation with both Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, played by nationally known impersonators Michael Krebs and Debra Ann Miller.  Krebs’ performance was really quite good; in his appearance and delivery, he was more impressive than any Lincoln impersonator I have ever seen.

But I listened carefully to what their presentation might say about the causes of the war and there just wasn’t very much.  The Lincolns engaged in playful banter, Abraham cracking jokes and Mary alternately scolding her husband and and laughing with him.  There were references to President Lincoln’s supposed first love, Ann Rutledge, who died before Lincoln could declare his affection, as well as tearful allusions to the wartime death of their son Willie.  But apart from a brief reference to soldiers who died “on the altar of freedom,” there was almost nothing that might be construed as trying to explain what the war was about.

I understand why Civil War re-enactments don’t try to offer a definitive answer to the question, “What caused the Civil War?”  The re-enactors may very well disagree among themselves, and the audience may also be divided (if not indifferent).  Fair enough.  And yet when we teach about war as if it can be understood apart from its causes, we cross a dangerous line.  It may seem simply good manners to praise both sides as equally courageous and honorable.  If we’re not very careful, however, we will also be presenting the two sides as morally equivalent–and that honors neither side.


Fall has arrived in the Midwest. The leaves are beginning to show orange and red, the temperature is supposed to dip into the thirties tonight, and my recent trip to southern California already seems like a dream. I spent the latter half of last week in Malibu, where an organization called the Conference on Faith and History convened for its 2014 biennial meeting. The Conference on Faith and History is a national organization of Christian historians that has been in existence for nearly half a century. About three hundred participants gathered for this year’s meeting. The program was amazing, the fellowship was great, and I had a blast.

Almost everyone I tell about the location of the meeting chuckles and winks. The assumption is that the CFH intentionally seeks out beach-front locales for its meetings, as if we were all looking for a place where we could put on Speedos and sip drinks with little umbrellas in them. Nothing could be further from the truth. In past years, I’ve attended CFH gatherings in such non-Malibu-like sites as Huntington, Indiana, Shawnee, Oklahoma, and Holland, Michigan. The CFH always holds its national meetings on Christian college campuses, and it just so happened that this year’s host school was Pepperdine University. Not that I’m complaining.

Have you ever been to Pepperdine? It is perched on high ground overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the vistas from the heart of campus are just ridiculously gorgeous. How anyone gets any work done there I can’t imagine. In an odd way, it was comforting to come back to the Chicagoland area, knowing that I could look forward to weather that will drive everyone indoors for the next eight months. What a blessing. . . .

The view from the rear of the student center at Pepperdine University

The view from the rear of the student center at Pepperdine University

But enough about the weather. My time at the conference sent my thoughts repeatedly to an extended passage in my commonplace book from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve shared a portion of it before in a different post, but I thought I would return to it now and explain why I find it so meaningful. To do so requires a bit of personal context. I hope you’ll bear with me.

Thirty-two years (thirty-two years!) have passed since I embarked on an academic career. When I began graduate school at Vanderbilt University in the autumn of 1982, I thought that God might be calling me to become a Christian professor on a public university campus. I had not reached that conclusion easily. Throughout my senior year at the University of Tennessee I wrestled with several career options. With no certain sense of direction, I tried to keep my options open and did everything I could to put off making a decision. By December I had applied to thirteen different graduate or professional schools encompassing four different kinds of study. The options on the table were law, business, law and business, and history. I didn’t have peace about any of them.

From hindsight, that began to change when I was home over Christmas break, thanks to an unexpected visit from a near stranger. I recognized the white-haired man on our front porch as an usher in the fairly large Southern Baptist church that I had grown up in. I didn’t know him by name, however, and I doubt that we had ever more than smiled at one another in passing. I had given my testimony in a Sunday night service right after Christmas, and this gentleman explained that he had felt impressed to pass along a book to me that someone had given him.

The book that he placed in my hands was a book on Christian discipleship: The Upstream Christian in a Downstream World, by Charles W. Dunn. I took the book back to school with me that winter and read it against the backdrop of my ongoing struggle to figure out what in the world God wanted me to do with my life. Although it contained a great deal of wisdom, what struck me most was not the author’s counsel but rather his own life story. Charles Dunn was a professor of political science at Clemson University, and he filled his book with summaries of countless conversations over the years with college students about the claims of Christ. Gradually, I became more and more excited about the possibility of imitating Dunn’s example, and when Vanderbilt offered me the opportunity to pursue graduate study in history entirely on their dime, I decided to enroll and pursue a Ph.D.

Graduate school was harder than anything I had ever attempted, but it was also marvelously rewarding, and almost from the first I felt a sense of affirmation about the path that I had chosen. That sense of confidence was reinforced when, six years later, I was offered a marvelous job at a world-class research university immediately upon finishing my graduate study. My wife and I moved to the Pacific Northwest, determined to invest in the lives of students at the University of Washington.

I arrived at UW confident that God had called me to be a Christian history professor, but with only the slightest idea of what that meant. I took for granted that what would make me a Christian history professor would be what I did outside of the classroom. I would look for ways to witness to unbelieving students when they visited my office, and my wife and I would lead a Bible study for college students at our church. But when I was in the classroom, what I taught and how I taught wouldn’t differ that much from my unbelieving colleagues. I would just be nicer.

Had you asked me during those years, I would have insisted that I was doing my best to love God with my mind. I was pretty sure that I was imitating the apostle Paul in “pressing toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). But I was not thinking “Christianly” about my profession, nor did I have the remotest idea of what it might mean to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5).

My evangelical upbringing had taught me that, whatever my specific career path, all that truly mattered was personal integrity and evangelism. And so for years—it embarrasses me now to admit this—I defined faithfulness in my calling with little reference to the actual content of my teaching and scholarship. Yes, I would teach a Sunday School class, and yes, I would look for opportunities to witness, but otherwise I would simply jump on the academic treadmill. By not thinking deeply about the institution in which I labored, I found it relatively easy to be content in that labor. But while I was focused narrowly on personal piety and evangelism—good things both—I was also happily serving a university which rested on a worldview that was the antithesis of what I professed to believe.

I’m not pretending for a moment that I have it all figured out now, but I do think that God helped me over time to think more deeply about the foundations of the secular multiversity of which I was a part. I slowly began to realize that the classroom is never a neutral space, and that I had been teaching in a way that made me unwittingly complicit in the university’s secularizing mission. Whatever I might be doing or saying outside of the classroom, inside of the classroom I was implicitly teaching my students to make sense of their world without reference to the Author of all wisdom and knowledge.

As I came to grips with this insight, I was forced to wrestle with my calling in a way that I never had before. And as I tried—really for the first time—to think “Christianly” about my vocation, I began to experience what the late Harry Blamires (one of C.S. Lewis’s last students) called “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.” Before this, I had never really felt alone as a Christian in the secular Academy for one simple reason: I wasn’t thinking like one. But now that was changing, and the result was a growing sense of alienation.

This is where the Conference on Faith and History came in. I knew that I didn’t understand how to pursue my vocation as a Christian historian faithfully, but I also didn’t know what to do differently. I needed to learn from those who shared my vocation and were farther down the road than I was. Some of this I could gain by reading books and articles on the subject, but that was not enough. Looking back, I think I was sort of like the Ethiopian court official that we read about in the New Testament (Acts 8:26-40), the one who Phillip the Apostle encountered on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Like him, I needed a living, side-by-side conversation, and when I attended my first CFH convention I found that. The fellowship that I encountered in the Conference on Faith and History encouraged me deeply. Even more important was the ongoing conversation about calling that I was invited to join. It continues to bless me immeasurably, and I will always be grateful.

RNS-DIETRICH-BONHOEFFERAnd so it is that throughout last week’s conference my mind kept returning to passages in my commonplace book from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, as you probably know, was a German theologian and pastor who was an open critic of Nazi rule from the moment that Adolph Hitler rose to power. Because the established Protestant churches were under the control of the Gestapo, for several years Bonhoeffer secretly trained young pastors in an underground seminary. In 1938 he penned Life Together, an extended meditation on Christian community that grew out of this experience.

Life Together III first read Life Together the fall that I arrived at Wheaton College after twenty-two years at the University of Washington. It impressed me deeply. Bonhoeffer began by quoting Psalm 133:1. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” The rest of the book proclaims two truths: First, as Christians we desperately need the blessing of Christian community.  Second, we must never, ever take it for granted when we are blessed to experience it.

Here is how Bonhoeffer explains the first point:

God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.

Here I read Bonhoeffer articulating both the longing I had felt at UW and the blessing that I had felt in my interaction with the Conference on Faith and History. I’ve been wrestling with the concept of vocation for nearly twenty years, and there’s only one thing I’m absolutely certain of: we need to work out our understandings of our calling in community. We need to be in conversation with other believers about what it means to follow God faithfully in the particular circumstances in which He has placed us.

Bonhoeffer also writes movingly about the preciousness of Christian community. The book’s third sentence sounds the theme: “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.” Surely he must have reflected on that truth countless times in the years to come, including the two years that he spent in a succession of prisons before his execution in April 1945.

I have meditated on the passage below frequently since coming to Wheaton. It helps put into words my gratitude for the Conference on Faith and History, but it also provides a framework for thinking about the opportunity that God has granted me here at Wheaton. I need to hear regularly both the reminder and the warning that it contains:

It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.


I may have watched my last Civil-War reenactment. We’ll see.

It’s not like giving up re-enactments will leave a gaping void in my life. I only saw my first one a year ago. By that time I’d been teaching and writing on the American Civil War for over a quarter of a century, so it may seem strange that I waited so long. Candidly, I was always skeptical. The American poet Walt Whitman, who observed the carnage of the Civil War firsthand, once famously observed that “the real war will never get in the books.” I was sure that he was right, and if a writer with the sensitivity and talent of a Whitman despaired of capturing the war’s horrific essence, I held out little hope for a bunch of middle-aged men playing pretend. I’m sure that sounds harsh, but that is how I viewed the matter.

When I changed my mind and finally decided to attend a re-enactment, it was due to a combination of things: a book that I was using in a course that I was teaching here at Wheaton, the encouragement of several of my students, and a low-cost opportunity to check out a re-enactment close to my home.

The book that influenced me was Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. The book, which earned Horwitz a Pulitzer Prize, is one of those rare works that seems to appeal equally to academic specialists and general readers. The author, a New-York-born journalist with a decade of experience as a foreign correspondent in places like Bosnia, Iraq, and Northern Ireland, hit upon the idea of writing about an equally “foreign” locale much closer to home: the American South.

confederates in the attic

As Horwitz tells the story, the idea came to him after he and his wife settled down in rural Virginia. One early morning they were awakened by Civil War re-enactors marching across a field near their house. (They were serving as extras in a historical documentary being filmed nearby.) Reporter that he is, Horwitz instinctively went to investigate, and in no time he had accepted an invitation to join the re-enactors on an upcoming camp-out. It was while he was sleeping out on the cold hard ground with these strangers, talking with them about why they were devoting their time and resources to such a hobby, that he hit upon the idea of spending a year or so traveling across the South, talking with people about how they remembered the Civil War and what it meant to them.

As Horwitz is quick to point out, Confederates in the Attic is not based on a scientific sampling of southern views about the war. Instead, the author intentionally sought out individuals to whom memory of the Civil War seemed hugely important. This led to countless conversations with “hard-core” re-enactors, but also with members of various heritage associations (the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, for example), historical societies, and even the Ku Klux Klan. (Be forwarned: the people he quotes are often earthy, and the language can be pretty salty at times.)

Horwitz is a wonderful writer, and the encounters he relates are invariably entertaining. As a historian, what I value most about the book is how it drives home two critical points. The first concerns the absolutely fundamental distinction between history and the past. The past is dead and gone. History is the remembered past, and that’s a very different thing. Second, the history that informs how people live and think is rarely the history buried in academic tomes or lovingly preserved in historical archives. The history that makes the most difference in the world is the memory of the past that common folks carry around between their ears.  Those memories often have almost nothing to do with the insights that professional historians spend their lives painstakingly producing. Indeed, if Horwitz is correct, they often have little to do with the actual past at all.

I assigned Confederates in the Attic to my class on the American Civil War last fall, and when a major Civil-War reenactment was held less than a half-hour away within days of our discussing the book, I felt that I had to attend when some of my students invited me to accompany them. Since that time I’ve attended two more re-enactments in the Chicago area.  I’d say that three is about my limit.

Tony Horwitz approached Civil War reenactments as a reporter and was propelled by the reporters’ standard questions: who was doing what and why?    I approached them not as a reporter but as a teacher, and so my questions were different:  What do these staged historical dramas teach the crowds who come out to watch them?  What, if anything, might they be expected to learn about the American Civil War from observing the spectacle?  In sum, how do Civil-War re-enactments rate as teaching tools?

To be honest, I’m still wrestling with an answer.  What follows, then, is tentative, and I welcome your pushing back if I seem to be off-base.  At any rate, here is how I think I would rate the educational value of the reenactments that I observed: Up until the shooting starts they’re not too bad.  Once the mock battle begins, I have a lot of concerns.  Let me explain.

Lombard Reenactment 3The re-enactments I attended all followed pretty much the same script.  Typically, the re-enactors (portraying both soldiers and civilians) show up on a Friday evening and set up camp, and then the formal re-enactment occurs on the following Saturday and Sunday.  Visitors can learn about the Civil War in a variety of ways.  They can tour the Union and Confederate camps, watching “soldiers” in authentic costume cook authentic meals over authentic campfires.  There’s also ample opportunity to talk with the re-enactors, who usually seem eager to answer questions about their uniforms and equipment.  At intervals throughout the day there are also likely to be a range of more formal demonstrations, teaching visitors about close-order drill, the care of the wounded, or the workings of Civil-War cannon, among other things.  (There’s usually also lots of opportunities to buy stuff.  All of the re-enactments that I attended were a cross between a history exhibit and a flea market.)

Lombard Reenactment 1So far, so good.  Historical imagination is essential whenever we study the past, and the “living history” on display in the camps will help make it easier for many visitors to imagine certain aspects of the war.  We can read explanations of Civil-War artillery over and over, for example, but there is no substitute for watching a live gun crew demonstrate the steps required to load and fire a Napoleon twelve-pounder.  We might also gain a better sense of Civil War uniforms by seeing them on a flesh-and-blood model, instead of on a mannequin in a museum.  (The down-side is that we’ll come away badly misunderstanding the age and size of Civil War soldiers.  The typical soldier in the Civil War was in his early twenties, stood about 5’7″, and weighed in at around 135 pounds.  The re-enactors that I observed got the height part more or less right, but they were often a good deal older and a great deal heavier than the Yankees and Rebels of the 1860s.)

Lombard Reenactment 4

If this were the sum of the re-enactment demonstrations, I think I’d be OK with them.  They aren’t accurate in every detail, but on balance I would say that the positives outweighed the negatives.  But of course this isn’t everything.  There’s always at least one mock battle every day of the re-enactment, sometimes two, and the mock battles trouble me–they trouble me a lot.  As I said, I’m still working through this, but I’m inclined to think that they’re a huge mistake.

Lombard reenactment 6

“War is a hellish thing,” Union General William Tecumseh Sherman once famously reminded a gathering of Union veterans, not that they needed to be reminded.  Many in the audience were missing limbs, others were visibly scarred, countless others were permanently maimed in ways that a physical examination would never show.  I remembered Sherman’s words as I watched my first mock battle.  “This isn’t hell,” I thought to myself.  “it’s a hobby.”

“Lighten up,’ I can hear some of you thinking.  “After all, until they start using live ammunition, who really thinks that a mock battle can adequately convey the horrors of war?”  It can’t possibly, and that’s entirely my point.  As a medium for teaching about war, the mock battle fails miserably.  For my part, I say let re-enactors demonstrate how weapons are fired to their hearts’ content.  Fire a cannon, and let the audience imagine what it would be like on the third day at Gettysburg to hear 150 such guns shake the earth at once.  Have a company line up should to shoulder and fire their rifles in unison, and so help the audience to imagine the sheet of flame that poured forth from behind the stone wall at Fredericksburg.  Just don’t let the re-enactors go through the grotesque charade of pretending to shoot at each other in a battle devoid of terror, agony, and blood.

Lombard reenactment 9My thoughts began to run in this direction during my first reenactment.  I was seated on the ground among a large audience of onlookers, many of whom  had brought blankets and lawn chairs and looked for all the world like families at a youth league soccer match.  For some time, the soldiers’ imaginary aim was apparently dreadful, for literally no one was falling on either side.  (I guess after getting all dressed up and traveling a considerable distance to take part, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t want to get killed right away.  Being “dead”  must be pretty boring, after all.)  Eventually, at the appointed time, the aim on both sides began to improve, and Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs began to be hit with distressing frequency.  Most fell quietly (and the middle-aged guys, at least, tended to fall pretty gently), but at one point in the show a Confederate soldier took an imaginary bullet and screamed out in mock pain before breathing his last.  The audience laughed, and I began to wonder.

lombard reenactment 12My misgivings increased when I attended my second re-enactment.  This was at a different venue, and it was a considerably larger affair.  The crowd was enormous.  (The local historical society that sponsored the event estimated the attendance for the weekend at over five thousand.)  The parks and recreation department had brought in sports bleachers for the occasion, and they lined one side of the battlefield.  Behind them stood a row of food trucks trumpeting the virtues of pork barbeque, kettle corn, Hawaiian shaved ice and pickles on a stick.  (I still don’t get that last one.  It must be a Midwestern thing.)

Then as I took my place in the bleachers, surrounded by pickle-eating, kettle-corn-chomping spectators impatient for the battle to begin, I had one of those isolating moments that a historian living in a present-tense society will have from time to time.  “Doesn’t this remind anyone here of the prelude to the first battle of Bull Run?” I screamed silently.  “Are we intentionally being ironic here?”

Innocence is almost always a casualty of war.  The loss of innocence can take many forms, visiting different people at different times in different ways.  For northerners during the Civil War, the first widespread loss of innocence came on July 21st, 1861.  The country faced a crisis of authority–no one doubted that–but the politicians and generals spoke in soothing tones, and those “in the know” predicted that the crisis would be resolved soon.  As soon as the North showed those truculent southerners that they meant business, the Rebs would give up all talk of independence.  Farm boys had rushed to enlist so as not to miss the one brief, glorious battle, while civilians in the vicinity flocked to Manassas Junction in order to witness the spectacle.  Indeed, the cream of Washington society turned out on that sleepy Sunday, as the impending battle was the worst kept secret in the nation’s capital.  They came down in their carriages–the ladies in their summer frocks and their escorts in their Sunday best.  By one estimate their number included six U. S. Senators and ten or more members of the House of Representatives.

Here I’ll let the late Bruce Catton pick up the story, quoting from his marvelous centennial history of the Civil War:

These holiday-makers were there, in substantial numbers, because it never occurred to the authorities to keep them from coming.  They were there because curiosity and the strange notion that war was an exciting pageant had led them to suppose that it might be stimulating to watch (from a safe seat in the gallery) while young men killed one another.  They were there, in short, because America did not yet know what it was all about.

But on that day at Bull Run, America began to learn.  The casualties were staggering.  They would appear modest in comparison with the war’s later battles, but there were at least 3,500 soldiers killed and wounded during the seven-hour conflict, enough to make it by far the bloodiest battle in American history to that point.  To the mesmerized onlookers, the fighting was far enough away to seem endurable, until late in the afternoon when the Union line began to waver.  But then the Yankee soldiers began slowly withdrawing from the field, and their civilian admirers watched nervously as the Confederate lines approached nearer.  What began as a strategic withdrawal soon became a full-blown retreat, then the full-blown retreat became an every-man-for-himself rout, as panic-stricken soldiers raced across what moments earlier had been a picnic ground for politicians and their families.

By the middle of the Civil War few Americans were still deceived enough to view the conflict as “an exciting pageant,” and spectacles like what happened at Bull Run would be seldom repeated.  Although there are some things we can learn from watching Civil-War re-enactments, when it comes to striving to understand the experience of battle, there is no substitute for reading the thoughts and feelings of the soldiers themselves.

I am not a military historian by training, but I did have to read a great deal of soldiers’ letters and diaries when I was doing research for my book Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2006).  Lincolnites and Rebels is the story of Knoxville, Tennessee during the war.  I chose to study Knoxville for two main reasons: it was almost perfectly divided between Confederate and Union sympathizers, and the town experienced military occupation by either the Union or Confederate army for all but three days of the war.  I wanted to think through some of the moral issues related to loyalty under military occupation, and Knoxville seemed like the ideal place.

Lincolnites and Rebels

But Knoxville was also the site of a major, but little studied Civil War battle.  In November of 1863, while the town was occupied by a Union army of 12,000 men under the command of Major General Ambrose Burnside, 15,000 Confederates under General James Longstreet conducted a sixteen-day siege of the town.  The siege of Knoxville culminated in a failed Confederate assault of the Union lines on November 29th, with most of the fighting focused on a supposedly vulnerable point in the Union defenses called Fort Sanders.

The bulk of the fighting at the Battle of Fort Sanders lasted a scant twenty minutes.  Longstreet’s orders required that his troops charge across an open field booby-trapped with telegraph wire and sharpened sticks, cross a deep ditch, and scale a twelve-foot-high earthen wall.  The result was wholesale slaughter. During the flag of truce that followed, many of Fort Sanders’ defenders mounted the parapet to survey the carnage they had so recently helped to create.

"Attack on Knoxville," taken from an original sketch by Thomas Nast, 1865

“Attack on Knoxville,” taken from an original sketch by Thomas Nast, 1865

“Such another sight I never wish to see,” a Union captain confessed to his diary. It was “like living murder sculptured by Perfection’s Artist,” a Michigan sergeant wrote to his brother. It was a “sad scene of slaughter,” a soldier in the Fifty-First New York recalled. “At every footstep we trod in pools of blood.” Ohio artilleryman John Watkins described the sight in numbing detail to a friend back home. “As soon as the firing was stopped I went up and got onto the parapet to look at them,” he explained, “and such a sight I never saw before. . . . The ditch in places was almost full of them[,] piled one on top of the other, and such groaning I never heard. The dead were lying in all imaginable shapes[,] the wounded on top of them and dead on top of them again, and the ground was strewn with them all along their route up to the fort.”

In his subsequent report on the battle, General Longstreet would reduce this vision of horror to a bloodless enumeration: Confederate losses, he informed Richmond, were 129 killed, 458 wounded, and 226 missing. That comes to 813 total casualties in roughly twenty minutes of fighting, or one casualty every second and a half.

I don’t share all this because I am reflexively anti-war or a pacifist by principle.  My grandfather served in the army in WWI.  My father served in the navy in WWII.  And if you happen to follow me on the highway, you’ll notice a decal in my rear window identifying me as the “Proud Parent of a U. S. Marine.”  I share this because I am a historian and a teacher, and I don’t believe you can teach truly about war while covering up its horrors.

Let me know what you think.


The essay below first appeared as a “daily update” from  I thought it was worth calling to your attention.  The author, whom I don’t know personally, is an associate editor at the Gospel Coalition.  In referring to the value of “Christian History,” he has in mind church history or the history of Christianity.  For an argument about the value of history more broadly, consider reading my post on “A Christian Case for Studying History.”


7 Ways Christian History Benefits You

Matt Smethurst

Christian history. Some of you already may be tempted to stop reading. History, after all, is a subject that can often feel distant, boring, irrelevant.

But I’m convinced you should care about the history of the church. In fact, I believe it’s essential. And for your good.

Christianity is a history-anchored faith. We don’t teach a set of abstract principles or philosophical ideas; we teach the truth of a historical event. As Francis Schaeffer liked to say, if you were there 2,000 years ago you could have run your hand down the cross and gotten a splinter. How silly would it for us to conclude, “Well, I believe Jesus lived and died and rose in historical time, and that without those historical events I’d be lost forever, but I don’t really care about history.”

Further, if you’re a Christian, then church history is your family history. Think about that. Studying church history is like opening a photo album and exploring your family heritage.

But Christian history isn’t just meaningful; it’s intensely practical, too. Here are seven ways that studying it benefits us.

1. It Instructs

First, Christian history instructs us, replacing our ignorance with truth. “To know nothing of what happened before you were born,” warned the ancient philosopher Cicero, “is to forever remain a child.” Learning history matures us by rooting us in reality—in what actually happened as opposed to what we assume must have happened or wish had happened.

The Christian church has a glorious yet checkered past. Just as the scriptural record of God’s people is a mixed bag—great feats of faith mingled with great falls into sin—so is the history of the people who have made up the church through the ages. Historians John Woodbridge and Frank James observe:

The history of the church reminds us that Christians can be culprits of foolishness as well as bold titans for truth. They can be egoistic and self-serving; they can be humble and generous. A single individual can embody conflicting traits. We may find it disconcerting to discover that our heroes are sometimes flawed. . . . [But] God works through sinners to accomplish his good purposes.

The study of Christian history serves an instructive, and therefore maturing, purpose.

2. It Exhilarates

Second, Christian history exhilarates. Yes, it can seem boring at times. And no doubt it can be taught boringly. When taught well, though, it involves the thrill of discovery—and that’s exciting. You get to meet people you’ve never seen and visit places you’ve never been, and can never go, since they no longer exist.
Exploring your spiritual heritage can be a thrilling adventure.

3. It Gives Perspective

Third, Christian history provides perspective, freeing us from the narrow perspectives and overwhelming demands of the urgent.

One historian aptly noted that history “must be our deliverer not only from the undue influence of other times, but from the undue influence of our own—from the tyranny of environment and the pressures of the air we breathe.”  An excessive focus on the present leads to historical and spiritual myopia. We need Christian history to expand our horizons.

Additionally, it can be easy to think that there was some golden age of doctrinal knowledge and Christian living long ago to which we must return. But this is an illusion. No era has known a level of Christian thought and practice that didn’t cry out for the King’s return.

4. It Illumines

Fourth, Christian history illumines. It sheds light on present trends and circumstances, thereby going a long way toward explaining why things are the way they are today.

The challenges facing us as Christians are rarely unique to our time. For example, if you’ve ever talked with a Mormon you may know that they deny Christ’s deity. He isn’t the Creator God, they say, but a created god—the highest creature, even. But this argument has been around since at least the third century, and a book like Athanasius’s On the Incarnation—written in response to this very issue—can illumine us on how to answer our Mormon friends.

5. It Inspires

Fifth, Christian history inspires. I imagine you know what it’s like to hear a story or watch a film about a historical figure and feel stirred. Reading biographies can be a particularly powerful source of inspiration. Whether learning of the heavenly-mindedness of Jonathan Edwards, the persistence of Adoniram Judson, the faith of George Mueller, or the conviction of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God has often used biographies in my life to encourage my soul and spark fresh devotion to Christ. . . .

In Scripture, rehearsing acts of faith in the past (Hebrews 11:1-40) is tethered to running with endurance in the present (Hebrews 12:1-2). Your King intends yesterday’s stories to inspire you in today’s race.

6. It Humbles and Convicts

Sixth, Christian history humbles and convicts. As you explore the lives of your spiritual forebears, you’ll soon find you’re not as impressive as you thought.
Bethan Lloyd-Jones, wife of the great 20th-century preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones, once explained: “In order to understand my husband you must understand that he was first of all a man of prayer, and then an evangelist.”  Now ask yourself: if the person who knows you best were to share the secret to understanding you, would prayer and evangelism top their list?

7. It Fires Worship

Finally, studying Christian history fires worship. How could it not? It deepens our amazement at God’s unflinching faithfulness through the ages. We’re moved to praise him for saving, for preserving, and for using his people despite themselves.

Although Christian history is the study of the works of men and women, it’s ultimately the study of the work of God. It’s not Christians who have been building the church, after all; it’s Christ. I will build my church, he promised, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

Speaking of Jesus, few things showcase him like church history. We may think there are many heroes of the past, but in the final analysis there’s only one. The Lord Jesus is the only perfect Hero to which all of his imperfect followers point.

Matt Smethurst serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition. He and his wife Maghan have two children and live in Louisville, Kentucky, where they belong to Third Avenue Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter.