In an earlier post, I suggested that one of the great benefits of studying the past is that history can serve as a form of mirror that actually helps us to see ourselves more clearly. That was probably pretty abstract, I know, so I want to provide a concrete example of what I have in mind. Since Thanksgiving is just around the corner, let me draw from the Pilgrims to illustrate the concept.
As a society, we find it pretty difficult to think deeply about the Pilgrims. For much of the twentieth century they were a staple of grade-school curricula. School children regularly learned about the Thanksgiving holiday by getting to know the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors and by imagining what it would have been like to join in the feast that they shared together on the coast of Massachusetts in the fall of 1621. Educators recognized in the “First Thanksgiving” a tailor-made opportunity to teach small children the kind of virtues we want small children to have, namely, to be thankful for our blessings and to be willing to share. As a parent, I have no problem with that. As a historian, it drives me crazy, because few of us ever progress beyond a third-grade-level of engagement with this fascinating group of very serious adults. Instead, the Pilgrims remain perpetually frozen in our mind’s eye as two-dimensional illustrations from children’s stories. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that although Americans have often paid tribute to the Pilgrims—American presidents have regularly alluded to them in their official Thanksgiving proclamations, for example—we have rarely actually taken them seriously. We’re happy to use them to reinforce values that we already hold, but we’re not that interested in learning from them.
So what would it look like for the Pilgrims to serve as mirrors to us today? What, specifically, would we need to do to facilitate that? My suggestion may strike you as weird: I think we start by taking their strangeness seriously. Here’s what I mean: every human being that we encounter when we study history will resemble us in some respects and differ from us in others. Boiled down to its essence, the past always involves some combination of the familiar and the strange, although the balance between the two will vary significantly across time and space. When we go to the past in search of ammunition, we naturally gravitate toward those aspects that seem familiar; in particular, we tend to zero in on ways in which figures from the past reinforce our values or promote our agendas. It’s not that we ignore what strikes us as strange. That’s often the part of the past we find most entertaining, as the programming on the History Channel regularly attests. But to say that we find it entertaining is not to say that we find it relevant or that we are open to the possibility that what strikes us as strange might actually be something we need to hear. This is why our task is to take seriously those things that strike us as strange. Rather than dismissing those elements as curious or quaint or simply bizarre, we consider them as worthy of contemplation. The paradoxical result of this exercise is often to make us more aware of our own ways of thinking and behaving.
So here, finally, is one example from the Pilgrims, and I have chosen a very simple one: the Pilgrims did not believe in church marriage. Their reasoning was straightforward. As devout Puritans, they believed that both the Catholic Church and, to a lesser degree, the Church of England, had ambitiously expanded the power of the Church by clothing the clergy with unscriptural authority. In his treatise A Just and Necessary Apology, the pastor of the Pilgrims’ congregation in Holland, John Robinson, observed that the scripture never explicitly charges pastors with the responsibility of performing marriages. Robinson concluded that “neither ought the pastor’s office to be stretched to any other acts than those of religion, and such as are peculiar to Christians: amongst which marriage, common to Gentiles as well as to them, hath no place.” Following Robinson, the Pilgrims’ long-time governor in Plymouth, William Bradford, agreed that marriage was a civil rite. In his view, the Catholic and Anglican practice of declaring invalid any marriage not performed by a priest was an example of “popish” aggrandizement. A truly devout Puritan, both Robinson and Bradford taught, would never submit to be married in a church ceremony!
Does hearing this jar your ears as much as it does mine? I was born and raised in the midst of the Bible Belt, and I was trained to believe precisely the reverse, i.e., “genuine Christians” would always wish to be married by a pastor, while anyone who would sneak away to a justice of the peace probably had something to hide! Let me be emphatic here: my point in sharing this is not to mount a campaign against church marriages. I am sharing this particular Pilgrim teaching simply to highlight one of the great benefits of studying the past. Much like traveling in a foreign country, when we go to the past we find that “they do things differently there,” as one writer has put it, and this helps us to become more self-conscious of how we do things in our time and place. In this instance, it was only when I learned that the Pilgrims eschewed church marriage that I came to see my own commitment to church marriage as noteworthy. And by taking them seriously—instead of just saying to myself, “Boy, those Pilgrims were eccentric”—I was constrained to think more deeply about why I thought church marriage was important. When we go to the past for illumination instead of ammunition, history can readily serve this mirror-like function. Over and over again the strangeness of the past can expose practices and beliefs that we take for granted, and in making us more fully aware of them, history presents us with the opportunity to think more deeply about them, to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ” more fully than ever before.