Monthly Archives: July 2013


Followers of this blog will have already figured out that I sometimes get to the point slowly.  (I prefer to think of myself as systematic.)  A case in point is this series of posts on Christianity and the Constitution.  Rather than dive right into a dogmatic argument, I began by asking us to consider our motives for exploring the subject in the first place (see here).  I followed that crucial question with a warning, using the often embellished story of Benjamin Franklin’s proposal for prayer at the Constitutional Convention as a reminder that “revisionist” history was not invented by post-1960 liberals.  (See here.)  Well-meaning Christians have been revisionists, too.

I’ve taken this path because my goal in this blog is not so much to convince you what you should believe about the role of Christian faith in American history.  I am more than ever convinced that a genuinely Christian approach to the study of the past will be reflected more in how we think than in what we conclude.  Developing Christian habits of mind as we think historically requires that we practice metacognition, i.e., that we self-consciously think about how we think.

With this caveat, I’m finally ready to make my own case about the relationship between Christianity and the Constitution–sort of.  My approach may not be what you expect.   I believe that one of the greatest obstacles to our learning anything from the Constitution (as opposed to about it) is our very preoccupation with constitutionality.  Caught up in contemporary political struggles over the acceptable place for religious belief in the public square, we ransack history for evidence that the Framers were on our side.  This is the epitome of the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past.  (See “What is the Value of History–Part II.)  As I have argued repeatedly, this approach always exacts its price: we find what we already “know” but actually learn nothing at all.

Seventy years ago, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter captured the cost of the transaction when he observed, “Our constant preoccupation with the constitutionality of legislation rather than with its wisdom tends to preoccupation of the American mind with a false value.”  Did you notice how he distinguished between constitutionality and wisdom?  Following Frankfurter, as a Christian interested in learning from the past, I would argue that going to the Constitution solely with questions of constitutionality in mind closes us off from a much richer payoff.  I’m enough of a realist to understand that we can’t ignore questions of constitutionality entirely, but we mustn’t allow them to become all consuming.  We need to be seeking illumination more than ammunition, and that necessitates a different approach.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy

Popular Christian writers have explored the relationship of Christianity to the Constitution primarily by posing one huge, dichotomous question: Is the Constitution a Christian document, or isn’t it?  To confirm that it is (and this is typically their predetermined goal), they have either tried to prove that the document was shaped by Christian (or Judeo-Christian) thinking, or, more simplistically, to establish that the men who crafted it were orthodox believers.

Both approaches are fraught with difficulty.  Establishing intellectual causation may be the most difficult task a historian ever attempts.  We know from their correspondence, diaries, “common books,” and libraries that the Framers were not only extraordinarily well read–students of history, philosophy, science, and ancient literature, as well as theology–but also practical men of the world with practical concerns about profit and power.  Unraveling the interwoven threads of intellectual influence to identify a single strand as determinative is almost impossible, and our conclusions will in all probability say more about our own biases than about the mindset of the Framers.

We should also be leery of the claim that it is a simple thing to substantiate the faith of figures from two centuries ago.  “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him?” the Apostle Paul asked (I Corinthians 2:11).   We should be even more suspicious of the implicit supposition that professing Christians will necessarily think and act Christianly, as well as of the corollary that Christians from the 18th century would necessarily agree with Christians in 2013.

Candidly, I’m for abandoning the whole attempt either to identify the Christian influences on the Framers or to determine what proportion of them were authentic believers.  It is far more fruitful, in my opinion, simply to take the document that they bequeathed to us and try to figure out the values and concerns that it reflected.  Rather than merely searching for ammunition with which to score points in contemporary debates, we can approach the creation of the Constitution ideally as we would any other crucial event from the past.  We can think of it as a window, a portal through which to explore the mindset of another time.  We cal also welcome it as a mirror, inasmuch as contemplating the past can often help us to see the present more clearly.

So here is my recommendation: rather than asking, “Is the Constitution a Christian document,” it is far better to ask instead, “What values and convictions inform the Constitution, and to what degree are they consistent with Christian teaching?”  Note two key features of the latter question: It is not dichotomous (yes/no questions always promote oversimplification), and it asks us to think about correlation (which can be logically demonstrated) rather than causation (which is almost impossible to prove).

The broad question that I am advocating actually encompasses a host of subsidiary questions.  In exploring the “values and convictions” that informed the Constitution, we might subdivide the task to ask a series of narrower questions.  For example, what view of the role of government shaped the Framers’ deliberations?  Or what was their understanding of society, of equality, of justice, of individual rights?  As we explored each, our goal would not be to determine the way that Christian conviction shaped the Framers’ particular views, but instead to evaluate the degree to which their views, whatever their foundation, can be reconciled with Christian principles.

I wish I were knowledgeable enough to investigate all of these questions with you, but I am not.  I do want to take the time to explore one such question that I have thought a lot about, namely, what is the view of human nature that under girds the Constitution?  Popular writers interested in Christianity and the Constitution have devoted much of their attention to figuring out what the Framers thought about God.  I’m inclined to believe that we should spend more time trying to determine what they thought about man.  Certainly, the Framers thought that no free government could long endure without an accurate understanding of the human condition.  As Virginia delegate James Madison put it so memorably, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”

Figuring out the view of human nature that informs the Constitution isn’t easy if we limit our search to the document itself, however.  As historian Forrest McDonald has observed, the Constitution is essentially a procedural document.  Apart from its brief preamble, it just tersely specifies who exercises which powers and how.  What is more, it comes without study notes or elaborate commentary to help us understand it.

For that we need to turn to the record of the extensive conversation that unfolded as Americans debated whether to ratify the proposed framework.  There is no better starting place in this regard than the Federalist (often known as the Federalist Papers), a series of eighty-four essays penned in 1787-1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay  (The first two were delegates to the convention itself.)  Staunch advocates of ratification, the authors undertook a systematic justification of the proposed Constitution, and their arguments on its behalf regularly link its signal features to the Framers’ understanding of the human heart.

In the Federalist we read about “the folly and wickedness of mankind” and the “ordinary depravity of human nature” (no, 78).  We are told that “men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious” and that “momentary passions and immediate interests” control human conduct more than “considerations of . . . justice” (no. 6).  We hear that “the mild voice of reason . . . is but too often drowned . . . by the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain” (no. 42).  Other similar characterizations abound in the Federalist.  Collectively, they drive home the authors’ conviction that self-interest was the predominant motive in the human breast and that virtue (which they would have defined as self-denial for the common good) was as uncommon as it was precious and fragile.

From these two convictions, it followed that power, however wielded, would always pose a threat to justice and liberty.  When the people wielded unchecked power, some subset of the population would always be vulnerable.  (“If a minority be united by a common interest,” Federalist 51 averred, “the rights of the minority will be insecure.”)  When the government wielded unchecked power, on the other hand, the rights of the people would be in jeopardy.  (Once in power, according to Federalist 61, leaders are prone to “forget their obligations to their constituents and prove unfaithful to their important trust.”)

In the light of this skeptical understanding of human nature laid bare by the Federalist, the significance of the procedural details of the Constitution that we all learn in civics class comes into focus.  Both the system of checks and balances designed to constrain the government, as well as the limitations on popular influence designed to protect it, are reflections of a fundamental suspicion of unlimited power, which in turn reflects the Framers’ basic assessment of our flawed human nature.  The very structure of the Constitution becomes an implicit reminder of the view of human nature that the Federalist makes explicit.

As Christians, we can then proceed to ask whether this underlying understanding of human nature is consistent with what God has revealed through His word.  You and I might disagree, but I would say that it is absolutely consistent.  Whatever the source of their views, the Framers held an understanding of human nature that as Christians we can in good conscience affirm.  Whether that view of human nature continues to shape government today, or the ideology of either major political party, or even the values of many American churches, is a different question entirely.



In my last post I introduced the topic of Christianity and the Constitution by sharing an acknowledgment and a warning.  On the one hand, it is right and proper for American Christians to be curious about Christianity’s influence on the nation’s founding and its framework of government in particular.  On the other hand, all kinds of historical snares await us when we explore the question.  Even with the best of intentions, we will be tempted, subconsciously if not consciously, to distort what we see in order to find what we are looking for.  As I noted, we naturally want to harmonize the various facets of our identity–we want to think of our loyalty to Christ as perfectly reconcilable with the other attachments that are important to us.  For many American Christians, this has translated into an insistence that the United States be viewed as a Christian nation built on Christian principles embodied in fundamentally Christian founding documents.

When it comes to the Constitution, a common strategy has been to insist that the overwhelming preponderance of the Framers were Bible-believing Christians and that they actively sought divine guidance as they deliberated about the form that the new government should take.  The latter is epitomized in the moving story below–see if you recognize it:

It was June 28th, 1787, and 55 men had gathered behind closed doors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to try to create a new framework of government that might deliver the infant United States from a morass of difficulties: governmental impotence, contemptible military weakness, commercial anarchy, and financial disarray.  Their quest “to form a more perfect union” was foundering, however, as the clashing interests of northern and southern states and of large and small states had repeatedly thwarted efforts at compromise.

Then, according to the detailed notes of the convention kept by Virginia delegate James Madison, late in the afternoon Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin rose to address the contentious gathering.  The 81-year-old scientist, statesman, writer, printer, inventor, businessman, and patriot acknowledged that the convention had reached an impasse, “groping as it were in the dark to find political truth.”

“How has it happened,” Franklin asked, “that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? . . . I have lived a long time,” the convention’s oldest delegate shared, “and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth–that God governs in the affairs of men.  And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can fall without his aid?”  Franklin went on to make a motion that, from that point forward, each day’s proceedings begin with prayer led by some local clergyman.

A modern work by a popular Christian historian picks up the story at this point and explains that Franklin’s speech was a turning point in the convention.  With but one dissenting vote, the delegates immediately acknowledged the wisdom of Franklin’s proposal and agreed to take a three-day recess.  For seventy-two hours they devoted themselves to prayer and fasting, and when they returned to their labors they discovered that all wrangling had ceased.  Thanks to a new spirit of compromise and selflessness, the logjam was broken and the delegates readily crafted the remarkable document that forms the foundation of our political system to this day.

It is an inspiring story with only one serious defect: much of it likely isn’t true.

As best we can tell, Franklin did make the motion, although his motives are not entirely clear.  It is worth remembering that, by his own admission, he was not a Christian.  Only a month before his death, Franklin brushed away the earnest plea of a friend that he look to Christ for salvation.  “As to Jesus of Nazareth,” he observed in one of the last letters he ever wrote, “I have . . . doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it is needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

And though he did make the motion, the reaction was far from universal ascent followed by prayer and fasting.  In his detailed notes, Madison recorded that several delegates objected on a variety of grounds (they didn’t want to appear desperate, they lacked the funds to pay a clergyman), and then the convention tabled the measure and adjourned for the day.  On the 29th they resumed their deliberations as usual, never subsequently hiring a chaplain or beginning any of their proceedings with prayer.  Franklin, who had sketched out in writing what he wanted to say before addressing the assembly, tersely recorded the outcome of his proposal on the back of his notes.  “The Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary.”

So how did such a story originate?  Modern Christian writers have not made it up, for there is a reference to it in the historical record.  In contrast to Madison’s notes, which he recorded daily as the Constitutional convention unfolded, this testimony first appeared in print nearly four decades later and was decidedly second hand.  Thirty-eight years after the convention, a newspaper printed a letter from a man named William Steele, who claimed that he had heard the story ten years earlier in conversation with one of the lesser-known delegates to the convention, a politician from New Jersey named Jonathan Drayton.

Or to put it the other way around, the supposed eyewitness waited nearly three decades to relate his experience to someone who waited another decade to write down what he was told.  Significantly, by the time Steele got around to circulating the story, Drayton had died, along with almost all of the other delegates–but not James Madison, who pointedly rejected the story when approached by a Methodist minister who was writing a history of the convention.  It appears that either Drayton, or Steele, or both had added quite a bit of jam to the bread, making Franklin’s call for prayer much more of a turning point than it actually was.

So what can we learn from this?  I think the most important moral of the story is that Christians can be “revisionist historians” just like secularists can.  (For more on this point, see my post on “revisionist history.”)  I have no idea what might have motivated Drayton and/or Steele to embellish their accounts.  It might have been simply faulty memory, or wishful thinking, or an innocent desire to tell a more entertaining story.  What is more interesting to me is how the story became popular.  What was it that led editors to recycle the story so frequently that, according to  Christian historian Keith Beuttler, “the vignette became a stock tale in evangelical publications” during the 1820s and 1830s?

When evangelical newspapers like New York’s Christian Advocate and Journal and Zion’s Herald reprinted Steele’s letter, I am confident that they were not intentionally circulating a story that they knew to be false.  If they were guilty of wrongdoing, I suspect that their crime was not premeditated deception but a much more subtle offense that we are all prone to.  Like the evangelical editors who chose to endorse the vignette, the temptation that most of us will face when investigating America’s Christian past is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility–the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true.

All too often, popular Christian writers exploring the role of faith in the American founding write as if only secularists are susceptible to bias.  Authors like Tim LaHaye, Gary DeMar, and above all, David Barton (who reprinted the Drayton/Steele account as fact in his book The Myth of Separation) present themselves as uniquely zealous in the search for truth.  They suggest not too subtly that those who reject their interpretation of the American past are ignorant or unethical–“ill-informed or ill-intentioned,” in Barton’s words.

What is lacking in much of the debate over the nature of the American founding is the kind of Christian virtues that are vital to effective historical thinking: a respect for the scope and complexity of the past, a humble sense of our own limited abilities to recapture it, a determination to love rather than use the figures from the past whom we encounter, and a willingness to think charitably toward those who might arrive at conclusions different from our own.

For my part, I would advise that we abandon as hopelessly problematic the whole attempt to identify the percentage of Framers of the Constitution who were Christian or the role that prayer played in their deliberations.  Rather than trying to prove that the authors of the document were Christian, I think it is more fruitful by far to think Christianly about the document that they created.

I will  explain what I mean in my next post.



In a recent post (see “Summer Reading on Faith and the Founding“), I shared my impression that Christians who are interested in American history seem to be especially interested in the relationship between Christianity and the American founding.  “Was the United States founded as a Christian nation?” they want to know.  “Was it founded by Christians and based on Christian principles?”

These are great questions, and it is good for us to ask them.  Among its many functions, history is a story about who we are and where we come from, and it is right and proper for American Christians to want to know the role that Christian faith has played in the American past.  This natural curiosity drives much of the interest in the nature of the American Revolution, which I have touched on previously.  It also under girds the persistent interest in the influence of Christian principles in the creation of the U. S. Constitution–a question to which I would now like to turn.

I would like to explore this question with you over the next several posts, but before diving into it fully I want to share a word of caution: the question is a minefield.  I have written before that we always face two primary obstacles in our quest for historical understanding: our finiteness and our fallenness.   The former means that we will necessarily write from a less than omniscient perspective.  Thanks to the unbridgeable chasm of time, the fading of memory, and our dependence on evidence that is flawed and invariably incomplete, our understanding will necessarily be limited and imperfect.  The realistic historian always echoes Paul’s realization in I Corinthians 13–for now, we see as through a glass, darkly.

If the first obstacle centers around problems with historical evidence, the second concerns problems with the historian.  In our fallenness, we will always be tempted to interpret the past in ways that further our own agendas.  Our agendas don’t have to be evil–they may, in fact, be quite noble–but the temptation (conscious or unconscious) to find what we are looking for in the past–whether it is really there or not–affects us all.

I stress this point because popular Christian writers often seem to forget it.  My latest summer reading has been David Barton’s recent controversial book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson.  I will probably share my thoughts on this work more systematically before the summer is over.  In this context I’ll just call attention to the title, which neatly captures the book’s tone.  As Barton explains it, there are only two reasons why anyone would disagree with his portrayal of Jefferson: they are either ignorant or dishonest.  The book’s title underscores the latter.  The subtext of the book is the not so subtle message that anyone equally zealous for the truth and committed to intellectual honesty will arrive at the same conclusions as the author.  To persist in disagreeing is to come under judgment.

As I have noted before (see “The American Revolution and the Church“), part of learning to study the past Christianly is developing the habit of monitoring our motives for study in the first place.  Why are we interested in the topic?  What do we hope to gain by our efforts?  Are we open to being challenged, even to changing our minds?  I have already written of the temptation to study the past in search of ammunition for contemporary political or cultural debates.  Let me conclude this first post in the series by calling attention to another common pitfall that might ensnare us unless we are careful.  I will do so by quoting from my forthcoming book The First Thanksgiving: What The Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History (Intervarsity Press):

This pitfall “is the tendency to allow our thinking about history to distort our identity as followers of Christ.  Although we may not realize it, a sense of the past is integral to our sense of personal identity.  As human beings, we answer the question “who am I?” at least in part with reference to the past, to our origins as well as to those experiences we perceive to have shaped us.  We also routinely recast the question to ask “who are we?”–defining ourselves in part by the groups to which we belong.  In some instances, though not all, the meaning that we impute to these groups will be related to our sense of their collective history.  The list of possible affiliations is extensive.  To begin with, if we are serious about following Christ, we will surely define ourselves as Christians.  Depending on our circumstances, however, we can also define ourselves, in addition, as members of a particular family, denomination, class, sex, race, or ethnic group; as products of a certain neighborhood, school, region, or country; as practitioners of a specific craft or profession or trade.

“This much is all natural and potentially quite innocent.  The problem as C. S. Lewis’s fictional devil Screwtape understood, is when we link our commitment to Christ too closely with one or more of our other group attachments.  And there is always a temptation to do so, especially with those attachments we hold most dear.  Life is much simpler when the various facets of our identity are reinforcing rather than competing.  Yet when the boundaries between them become blurred, we fall prey to what Lewis called “Christianity And,” a state of confusion in which it becomes easy to mix up means and ends and increasingly difficult to think clearly about the world around us.  We can all probably think of examples of what this might look like: it is so easy to intertwine our faith with adherence to a particular social cause, economic system, approach to education, or political party, for example.  When it comes to thinking about the past, however, I think that “Christianity And” is most often a concern when we grapple with what it means to be both a Christian and an American.  I share this caution, let me hasten to add, as someone who is profoundly thankful to have been born in the United States, as the proud son and grandson of ancestors who fought in two world wars in defense of this country.  This family history makes me sympathetic with the desire to see our national and religious identities as perfectly reconcilable.  Yet as a Christian, I agree with Lewis that the temptation to equate them–to think of patriotism and piety as two sides of the same coin–can lead us down the path of idolatry.  As a historian, I further understand that whether we hold these aspects of our identity in tension or view them as interchangeable will depend, in large measure, on our understanding of the American past.”


The Fourth of July has come and gone, but the long Fourth of July holiday  weekend is still in mid-swing, so I thought I would add one more title to my list of suggested summer reading on faith and the founding.  (If you missed it, see here.)

The book I have in mind is Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution, by Vanderbilt University’s James P. Byrd.  I just reviewed the book for Christianity Today online (see here), and I thought I would call it to your attention as well here, without going into the same details that I shared for CT.

Sacred Scripture

Boiled down to fundamental categories, historians undertake three basic tasks.  They describe, they explain, and they evaluate.  In other words, they ask the questions “what happened?”  “why did it happen?” and “was it good that it happened?”  Because description is so essential to history, the first step of historical argument is laborious but simple–the historian wades through  mountains of primary historical evidence on a particular topic and looks for patterns.  The heart of historical thinking comes in making sense of the patterns that appear.  What can explain them?  What might they teach us?

James Byrd has done a marvelous job of systematically, exhaustively  sifting through evidence to answer a basic “what happened?”  question.  Byrd’s question is this: how did colonists who supported the cause of American independence defend their position through scripture?  Despite all the ink that has been spilled on the relation of Christian faith to the American founding, we lack a comprehensive analysis of this basic question–until now.

To answer the question, Byrd read all of the colonial writings that he could find that addressed the the topic of war while appealing to scripture.  When all was said and done, he had systematically evaluated 543 sources (the vast majority of which were sermons) that included 17, 148 biblical citations.  It is hard to overstate the magnitude of what he has accomplished.

The heart of Sacred Scripture, Sacred War is Byrd’s delineation of the five most striking patterns that he discerned in the course of his investigation.  Without developing those in detail, I thought I would share with you the scripture verses or passages that appeared most often in these pro-independence colonial writings.  If you’re up for a game, take a minute before proceeding and ask yourself what verses you might expect to see on the list, and then compare them with the list I share below.

In an appendix to the book, Byrd lists the eight most commonly cited scripture references in order of their frequency.  I’ll summarize them here:

The first, fifth, and eighth most common were passages that loyalists frequently appealed to in condemning the revolution, and patriotic ministers who cited them were typically doing so defensively, i.e., they were trying to explain why the texts did not apply in this instance:

#1: Romans 13:1-7–Paul’s teaching on obedience to civil rulers, which begins, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.”

#5: I Peter 2:13-17–Peter’s teaching on obedience to civil rulers, which begins with the injunction,” submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” and concludes with the exhortation to “honor the king.”

#8: Matthew 5, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, especially Jesus’ teaching in verses 38-48 that seem to teach a peaceful response to mistreatment (“turn the other cheek,” etc.)

The remaining five most commonly cited passages were appealed to not negatively but positively, i.e., the colonial ministers who quoted them appealed to them as proof texts supportive of violent resistance to British rule:

#2: Exodus 14-15, the chapters dealing with God’s deliverance of His chosen people by parting the Red Sea and then destroying Pharaoh’s army.

#3: Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”  (It is interesting to note that, in The Light and the Glory, Peter Marshall and David Manuel stated that it was this biblical text that convinced them that the American Revolution was a righteous response.)

#4: Judges 4-5, including the Song of Deborah after God had granted the Israelites victory over Jabin, king of Canaan, and especially verse 5:23, in which the angel of the Lord pronounces a curse on the people or community of Meroz “because they did not come to the help of the Lord . . . against the mighty.”

#6: I Kings 12, the story of the revolt against Solomon’s tyrannical son, Rehoboam.

#7: Psalm 124, David’s thanksgiving for God’s defense of His people, including his statement: “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their wrath was kindled against us” (vv. 2-3).

Were you able to predict any of the passages that made the list?  I would be very interested in hearing your response to the list, especially to those passages that patriot ministers employed to promote the cause of independence.


One hundred fifty-years ago today, around 3:00 in the afternoon, some 13-15 thousand Confederate soldiers left the cover of the trees to begin a 3/4 mile march across open Pennsylvania fields toward awaiting Union defenders on Cemetery Ridge, a commanding prominence at the center of the Union line just south of the town of Gettysburg.  After two days of brutal fighting, Confederate General Robert E. Lee hoped that a final assault might break the Union line and force a Yankee withdrawal.  Led by Major General George Pickett, the Virginia and North Carolina troops assigned to the undertaking fought valiantly but unsuccessfully, suffering casualties in excess of 50 percent.  The failed assault would eventually bear the title “Pickett’s Charge,” and the day would come when both North and South would remember the event as the turning point of the American Civil War.

"Battle of Gettysburg", L. Prang & Co. print of the painting "Hancock at Gettysbug" by Thure de Thulstrup, showing Pickett's Charge

“Battle of Gettysburg”, L. Prang & Co. print of the painting “Hancock at Gettysbug” by Thure de Thulstrup, showing Pickett’s Charge

If the National Park Service is correct, perhaps a quarter-million people will converge on Gettysburg this Fourth of July weekend to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the three-day conflict that killed or maimed more than fifty thousand Americans.  If you’re not among them, let me suggest a couple of books that will allow you to do so vicariously.

The first is the Killer Angels, by the late Michael Shaara.  The Killer Angels came out in 1974 to critical acclaim (garnering the Pulitzer Prize in 1975), and if the publisher’s figures are correct, it has sold approximately 2.5 million copies since its appearance.  Shaara will take you imaginatively into the thick of battle, so military buffs will find it engaging, but what makes the novel really work, I think, is his ability to place the personal stories of the cast of leading characters at the heart of the human drama he is creating.  After all, although the novel is undeniably packed with action, we already know how the battle is going to come out.  What makes us care about the outcome is Shaara’s ability to make us care about the individuals involved, tragic or inspiring figures like Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, John Buford, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.  I have assigned this novel numerous times in college courses over the years, and it’s routinely the case that even students who aren’t the slightest bit interested in military history find it thoroughly engrossing.

Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.

Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.

For all its virtues, however, Shaara’s historical novel obscures what history actually is, and it will teach you nothing about what it means to think historically.  When I started this blog, I shared that it was my heart’s desire to be in conversation with Christians about what it means to think both Christianly and historically about the American past.  In my posts I have tended to concentrate primarily on the former, but not because the latter is unimportant.  As Christians, if we are ever to think with discernment and wisdom about the American past, it is imperative that we learn good historical thinking skills.

I believe that the first step to thinking historically is understanding the crucial difference between the past and history.  As I have shared before, the past is everything that humans have said or thought or done until now.  The past is almost infinitely vast and unfathomably complex, and only glimpses or shadows of it survive.  History, in contrast, is the effort to piece together the evidence that remains in order to make sense of the past.  I like Christian historian John Lukacs’ simple definition of history as the “remembered past.”

The Killer Angels tells a gripping story, some of which is true and much of which is inspiring, but it wholly conceals this fundamental difference between history and the past.  The omniscient narrator simply pulls back the veil and shows us exactly what happened.  And as we are drawn into the story, we easily forget that almost all of the dialogue and absolutely all of the private ruminations that we find so compelling are inventions of the author.  And when it comes to those factual details that seem utterly mundane (who charged when and where and why), one could read the novel a thousand times and never suspect that almost every factual statement Shaara makes is open to dispute.  Indeed, when I assign The Killer Angels, I do so not to teach students about the Battle of Gettysburg, but to help them to think more deeply about the differences between history and fiction.  I pair the novel with a tall stack of primary accounts left by the leading participants, and I challenge them to see how little of Shaara’s narrative of the battle can actually be proven.

Although no major motion picture will ever be based on it, a book about Gettysburg that does help us to think more historically is Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory.  The author, a professor of military history at Penn State, is primarily concerned with how the climactic charge on the third day at Gettysburg was remembered both by veterans and by succeeding generations.

Author Carol Reardon traces the evolution of Pickett's Charge from historical event to popular legend.

Author Carol Reardon traces the evolution of Pickett’s Charge from historical event to popular legend.

Reardon begins her study with a quote from a Union lieutenant who was an eyewitness to Pickett’s charge.  In a letter to his brother trying to describe the events of July 3, Lieutenant Frank Haskell concluded that “a full account of the battle as it was will never, can never be made.  Who could sketch the changes, the constant shifting of the bloody panorama?  It is not possible.”  In the end, he predicted, “out of the chaos of trash and falsehood that the newspapers hold, out of the disjointed mass of reports, out of the traditions and tales that come down from the field, some eye that never saw the battle will select, and some pen will write what will be named the history.”

Agreeing with Lt. Haskell, Reardon shows how little is definitively known about the battle.  How many troops were actually involved in the attack?  We’re not sure.  How long was the pre-charge cannonade, when did it begin, and how effective was it?  We can’t be certain.  What was Pickett’s actual role in the attack?  There are too many conflicting accounts to decide.

Reardon goes on to explain that, while there are a wealth of surviving historical sources concerning the battle, all have limitations.  Participants’ letters or diaries are of limited usefulness, inasmuch as individual soldiers saw only a microscopic fraction of the battlefield, and in the stress of battle they often remembered a kaleidoscope of disparate sensations more than a coherent narrative of what had occurred.  The official reports of commanders were often selective and self-serving.  Newspaper accounts came from reporters who typically had little personal military experience or knowledge and were faced with the daunting task of trying to bring some sort of coherence to the myriad individual, often conflicting perspectives garnered from interviews.

One of the book’s most striking features is Reardon’s demonstration that the memory of Pickett’s Charge continued to be a battleground for at least another two generations.   Part of this was a struggle over significance.  Immediately after the battle’s conclusion, Pickett’s Charge wasn’t even known as Pickett‘s charge yet.  (Pickett was rarely even mentioned in the first newspaper accounts.)  None of the participants knew what the battle meant in the big picture except that the Confederate invasion of the North had been blunted.  Most significantly, few soldiers at the time thought that the battle constituted a major turning point in the war.  Reardon writes that the battle’s purported effects on the “war’s decision, America’s destiny, the doom of the Confederacy–all of this was read afterward in to the story.”

Part of the struggle was over credit and blame. For the rest of the century, soldiers from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi wanted to know why only Pickett’s Virginians were remembered in the story’s retelling.   Soldiers on both sides wanted to know why the fighting on the final day of the battle seemed to be all that the public remembered.  Union soldiers wanted to know why so much attention was being lavished on traitorous Confederates.   Whatever had actually happened on Cemetery Ridge, the larger meaning for America was far from certain.

In a way that The Killer Angels does not, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory reminds us of the messiness of the past and the severe limitations on our ability to know it.  As Christians, we recognize in this not only a reflection of our own finiteness–we are vastly overmatched by the scope and complexity of the past–but also of our fallenness, as we strive to remember the past in self-serving, self-justifying ways.



Did you see this past Sunday’s Parade magazine?  As a tip of the cap to the impending Fourth of July, the magazine’s cover featured a portion of John Trumbull’s famous painting “The Declaration of Independence.”  The massive (12 feet by 18 feet) canvass portrays the committee charged with drafting the declaration presenting their work to the continental congress.  The five co-authors (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin) submitted their draft on June 28, and less than a week later the congress approved a considerably edited version.  Completed in 1818, Trumbull’s portrayal of the scene has been on display in the rotunda of the U. S. capitol since 1826.

A portion of "Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1818

A portion of “Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull, 1818

Parade‘s version of Trumbull’s masterpiece is altered for laughs.  Captions appear over several of the prominent figures so we will know what each was thinking in the midst of this historic moment.  For example: Concerned about his physical appearance, John Adams is complaining that oil paintings make him look fat (so “Don’t tag me,” he pleads), while Charles Thomson, the secretary of the congress, is thinking that what the new nation really needs “is a good theme song.”  The caption that most caught my attention, though, was the question appearing over Benjamin Franklin.  What the writer, philosopher, scientist, inventor, statesman and diplomat wants to know is, “Can we get this down to 140 characters?”

John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence," from Parade Magazine, June 30, 2013

John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence,” from Parade Magazine, June 30, 2013

The caption is pretty clever, really, and I got a kick out of it.  But then I began to think about it and I got depressed.  What makes the Parade cover funny is that it is absurd.  The captions don’t fit the time and place.  What makes the Parade cover depressing, in my opinion, is that the captions do fit perfectly in our own day and age.  We live in an age of slogans and bumper stickers, 8-second sound bites and tw0-minute responses in tightly-scripted debates–a time in which not only movie stars and professional athletes but also congressmen and senators communicate with the public in 140-character increments.

The Founders were realistic statesmen who recognized the need to rally popular support for the cause of independence, but they were also students of history, theology, philosophy, and classical literature, intellectuals more than politicians who worked to craft intellectually formidable arguments for the cause for which they were risking their lives.

Founders and the ClassicsOne of my “summer bench books” this year has been The Founders and the Classics, by Professor Carl J. Richard, and I highly recommend it.  In his opening chapter, Richard reminds us of how well educated the Founders typically were for their day.  After preparatory training in grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, they frequently went on to college studies that focused primarily, almost exclusively on classical literature and languages.

Presbyterian John Witherspoon (president of Princeton and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) declared that such subjects were essential “to fit young men for serving their country in public stations.”  He knew whereof he spoke, inasmuch as his graduates would include “ten cabinet officers, thirty-nine congressmen, twenty-one senators, twelve governors, thirty judges (including three supreme court justices), and fifty state legislators.”

Given this educational and cultural context, it is small wonder that, as the American Revolution unfolded, both patriots and loyalists peppered their political arguments with classical allusions and historical arguments.  Nor did the pattern end with American independence.  When the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 produced a new proposed Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, both supporters and opponents marshaled complex, erudite, and lengthy arguments for their positions.

The so-called Federalist Papers (much cited but seldom read today) are a case in point.  Open their pages and read as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton sought to sway political momentum with references–repeated references– to the “Amphictyonic League” of 4th century B. C. Greece.  It would be hard to fit their argument into a thirty-second ad. To read the Federalist essays today is to underscore the superficial sloganeering that now passes for substantive political argument.

If this sounds like a rant I can only plead guilty as charged.  But let me end by giving Benjamin Franklin the last word.  If any of the Founders would have embraced social media, Franklin would get my vote as “the Founder Most Likely to Tweet.”  After all, he built much of his early public prominence on his popular Poor Richard’s Almanack with its store of pithy aphorisms like “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  (That’s only 57 characters!)

And yet Franklin was as deeply committed to intellectually substantive exchange as the far better educated statesmen who appear in Trumbull’s portrait.  Although he had only a couple of years of formal schooling, he read deeply (took up Plutarch before age 12) and  labored assiduously to make himself an effective communicator, seeking to fine-tune his prose by immersing himself in the best English writers of his day.  His appreciation for the life of the mind are further reflected in his role in founding the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as in his decision to retell the story of his life in a lengthy autobiography, a work that even still commands a world-wide readership.

Litera scripta manet, Franklin observed in his memoir–“the written word remains.”  What a convicting truth.  I only wish it didn’t apply to tweets.