Monthly Archives: December 2013


Part of thinking historically involves learning to appreciate the crucial value of context.  Historical context is critical to historical understanding for one basic reason: none of us lives in a vacuum.  Humanly speaking, our lives are influenced (not determined, but profoundly influenced) by what has gone before us.  Indeed, if there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time.

Waxing poetic,  historians sometimes liken human history to an enormous, seamless tapestry.  (Imagine the wall of a European castle here.)  Although it is possible to extract and examine a single thread, it is in contemplating the larger pattern that we can best understand the purpose and significance of the individual fibers.  In sum, the particular makes little sense without reference to a larger whole.  Similarly, when wrenched from its historical context, an isolated historical fact may intrigue or entertain us (good for crossword puzzles or Jeopardy), but it has nothing meaningful to teach us.  No context, no meaning.  It’s that simple.

Curiously, not everyone finds it easy to relate to a textile analogy.  This is where Hollywood comes in handy.  When teaching on the importance of historical context, I often enlist the help of a movie that many of you are likely to watch this Christmas season.  I have in mind Frank Capra’s holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.  Hollywood rarely aids the life of the mind–and in truth, the movie’s theology is really messed up–but when it comes to the importance of historical context this film gets it right.

It's a Wonderful Life II

To begin with, the very structure of the movie teaches that context is indispensable to understanding.  If you haven’t seen it (and if so, what’s the matter with you?), the story begins on Christmas Eve, 1945, as countless prayers waft toward heaven on behalf of the protagonist, down-on-his-luck George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart.  In response, the senior angels Franklin and Joseph call for George’s guardian angel, an “angel second-class” named Clarence Odbody, played by the marvelously eyebrowed Henry Trevor.

Its a Wonderful Life VII

Clarence appears immediately, and when Franklin and Joseph explain that someone on earth (George) is seriously contemplating suicide, Clarence offers to rush immediately to his aid, but his mentors stop him short with a sharp rebuke.  “If you’re going to help a man, you want to know something about him,” Joseph scolds, and for the next hour and a half they provide Clarence with historical context for the present crisis.  All told, fully two-thirds of the movie consists of flashback, powerfully driving home the message that we can’t comprehend any moment in time without knowledge of what has preceded it.

But not everything that has gone before will be relevant.  In briefing Clarence, Franklin and Joseph practice what one historian calls the principle of “selective attention.”  Rather than overwhelm Clarence with a flood of facts, they choose the events and circumstances in the past that have been most influential in shaping the man George has become.  In turn, this helps Clarence to comprehend what George’s current circumstances mean to him.

In reviewing George’s life, furthermore, the senior angels also remind us that our lives unfold within multiple contexts.  Some of the circumstances that they review are intimate details quite specific to George, for example his rescue of his brother Harry or his longstanding yearning to see the world and build modern cities.  Others grow out of George’s family context, for instance the centrality of the family savings and loan business or his father’s decades-long struggle with “old man Potter.”

Both categories involve the kind of personal pasts we preserve and pass on in conversation around the dinner table without realizing that we are functioning as historians  But George’s life was also touched by distant, much less personal developments that affected the entire nation or even the world–the kind of events that get into textbooks and which we instantly recognize as “historical.”  So, in the flashback we see how George’s past intersected with events such as the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1919, the Great Depression of the 1930s, or the Second World War.

It's a Wonderful Life VFinally, the movie points us toward a bedrock truth about the human condition that explains why context is always important to historical understanding.  If Clarence is initially mystified as to why it should be important, by the movie’s end he understands fully and expresses the underlying principle with eloquent simplicity.  After showing an incredulous George that the world would have been starkly different if he had never been born, Clarence muses, “Strange, isn’t it?  Each man’s life touches so many other lives. . . .”

Clarence’s insight into the unlimited interrelatedness of human experience–we could call it Odbody’s Axiom–is at the heart of all sound historical thinking.


As we were finishing up the semester last week, one of my U. S. history students asked me what my favorite Christmas song was.  There are many that I love, and I told him that I couldn’t possibly choose just one, but as a historian—and a specialist on the American Civil War, particularly—I have always been deeply moved by I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  In its original form it’s not heard too much these days, although several contemporary Christian groups (Casting Crowns and Jars of Clay, for example) have performed variations on it.

The carol is based on a poem written at the height of the Civil War by the renowned American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  A native of Maine and long-time resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fifty-six-year-old Longfellow was an American celebrity by that time, famous for works such as The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and most recently, Paul Revere’s Ride.  (At his death in 1884 he would become the first American to be memorialized by a bust in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.)  The glow of celebrity was offset by personal tragedy, however.  In 1861 Longfellow’s wife died in a fire, and in the fall of 1863 the poet’s oldest son, Charles—a lieutenant in the Union Army—was severely wounded in fighting in northern Virginia.  Still mourning for his wife, and far from certain of his son’s recovery, Longfellow sat down at his desk on Christmas morning, 1863, and penned a seven-stanza poem he called “The Christmas Bells.”  Seven years later his poem would be set to music, although in its carol version several of the original verses are rarely sung.

“The Christmas Bells” opens with the now familiar passage from which the carol takes its name:

I heard the bells on Christmas day / Their old familiar carols play,  / And wild and sweet the words repeat / Of peace on earth, good- will to men!

In verses 2-3 the poet reflects on how the angels’ message would repeatedly resound around the globe as the “world revolved from night to day.”  But then in verses 4-5 the chaos and heartache of contemporary events crashes in.  Few modern hymnals include these verses, which refer directly to the war raging a few hundred miles away:

Then from each black, accursed mouth / The cannon thundered in the South, / And with the sound the carols drowned / Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent / The hearthstones of a continent, / And made forlorn the households born / Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

In December 1863 the American Civil War had already lasted far longer and exacted a far greater price than almost anyone had anticipated two and a half years earlier.  After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for volunteers to serve for only ninety days, and yet northern newspapers had castigated the president for his pessimism.  Everyone “knew” that the dust-up down South could not possibly last that long.  Zeal and a heart-wrenching naivete were the order of the day, and all across the land young men donned uniforms of blue and gray and rushed to the front, fearing that the war would be over before they could experience its glory.  Thirty-two months later all such innocence was gone, bloodily obliterated on battlefields with names like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga.  Each casualty statistic on a regimental return represented a husband, son, brother, father, or friend and—as Longfellow knew from experience—a household “made forlorn.”  The poet’s anguish in verse 6 is palpable:

And in despair I bowed my head / “There is no peace on earth,” I said, / “For hate is strong and mocks the song / Of peace on earth, good will to men!”

But the poem doesn’t end there, of course.  In the poem’s seventh and final verse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow preaches the gospel to himself—and to us:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: / “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;/ The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, / With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

In these final lines we find not a cry born of wishful thinking—a blind insistence that all is right with the world when that is palpably untrue—but rather a faithful declaration from one who sees the reality of hatred and the pervasiveness of suffering and yet finds hope in a Redeemer who would leave the glory of heaven to dwell among us.

May that hope be yours this Christmas.