Tag Archives: Gettysburg

“FOR HATE IS STRONG AND MOCKS THE SONG”: A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS CAROL

I love Christmas carols and I would have a hard time choosing my favorite, 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 have performed variations on it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

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 Fanny died horrifically in a fire, and Longfellow himself was permanently disfigured in his efforts to save her.  Then, in November 1863 the poet’s oldest son, Charles—a nineteen-year-old 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!

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A scene from the field at Gettysburg, five and a half months before Longfellow penned “The Christmas Bells”

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!

A mass grave at Chickamauga, four months before Longfellow penned "The Christmas Bells."

A mass grave at Chickamauga, four months before Longfellow penned “The Christmas Bells.”

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. We hear instead 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 ours this Christmas.

REMEMBERING THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS

A week ago this morning I was seated on a folding chair on the grounds of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery adjacent to Gettysburg National Military Park.  I had come to Gettysburg thanks to an invitation from Gettysburg Presbyterian Church to deliver their annual “Gettysburg Addresses Lincoln” lecture, but I had most of the day to kill before my 4:00 p.m. talk, and I took advantage of the free time to join the audience of two thousand or so who attended a commemorative program observing the 153rd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  It was an absolutely glorious morning—the sky was a bright clear blue, the thermometer registered sixty degrees, and a smattering of autumn color still decorated the cemetery.  I soaked up the sun and took notes on how Americans remember their past and draw hope for the future.  For a U. S. historian interested in popular memory, this was better than a day at the beach.

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Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 2016

Gettysburg has been commemorating the anniversary of Lincoln’s most famous speech since 1938.  It would be interesting to research how the ritual has changed over time.  By definition, historical commemoration exists at the intersection of past and present.  We gather, in theory, to remember the past as it actually was, but because we look backward through contemporary lenses, what we see and how we respond to it says a lot about our own day. This was surely true of last Saturday’s ceremony, although the specific ways that it was true would be clearer if I could compare it with previous celebrations.

At any rate, I am doubtful that the crowd who gathered in 1938 was full of Civil-War reenactors—men and women, boys and girls decked out for the occasion in elaborate period costumes.  The whole town was crawling with them.  Gettysburg has become a mecca for reenactors, and thousands make the pilgrimage every November 19th.  They crowded the sidewalks, filled the restaurants, and added considerably to the waiting lines at the public restrooms.  As I found an empty folding chair near the back at the cemetery commemoration, I found myself next to a near eighty-year-old Union private.  He left halfway through the program and was replaced by two senior citizens in hoopskirts and bonnets.  (Note, one of the many ways in which Civil War reenactment is historically inaccurate is in the age distribution of participants.  One half of the American population was under twenty years old when the Civil War erupted, and half of Civil War soldiers were twenty-five or younger.  The audience in the cemetery was considerably more “experienced,” and the gathering had a bit of a 19th-century AARP feel to it.)

"Abraham Lincoln" working the crowd before the program began.

“Abraham Lincoln” working the crowd before the program began.

I also doubt that the 1938 celebration opened with a Buddhist prayer, as last Saturday’s did.  As our society becomes more and more religiously diverse, it becomes increasingly difficult to acknowledge our religious pluralism without trivializing our religious differences.  If you believe that all religious belief systems lead to God, then there is no problem.  But if you think that the substance of our faith convictions matters—as the adherents of most of the major world religions have always insisted—then it can be hard to make sense of a program framed by a Buddhist “invocation” and a Presbyterian benediction.  I’m not sure what I would have done had I been in the organizers’ shoes, but I think I would have recommending dropping the prayers altogether.  When the military cemetery was dedicated 153 years ago, the program opened with a prayer by the Reverend T. H. Stockton (four times longer than Lincoln’s remarks), but almost no one remembers that today.

Even in the absence of formal prayers, there would still have been a religious feel to the gathering.  One of the things that struck me most was the number of times that the various speakers on the platform used religious language in describing the final resting place of those who fell at Gettysburg.  “We are gathered together in a holy place,” observed the Buddhist sensei.  Welcome to “these hallowed grounds,” said the military park superintendent.  This is a “sacred place,” intoned the president of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania.  The language of civil religion—equal parts inspirational and blasphemous—was ubiquitous.

Then came the keynote speaker.  It is one of the hallmarks of contemporary America that we conflate celebrity with authority and expertise.  The featured speaker in 1863 had not been Abraham Lincoln but Harvard professor Edward Everett, one of the foremost scholars of his day.  The featured speaker 153 years later was actor Levar Burton, known for his roles in Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and PBS’s Reading Rainbow.  In fairness to Burton, I thought his address was the highlight of the 90-minute program.  Burton began by warning the audience that his heart was heavy, and that he had come to Gettysburg “to share the discomfort of my soul.”  “The promise of America has yet to be delivered to too many” Americans, he lamented.  “We are indeed a house divided,” confronting a “crisis with the power to rend us asunder.”  The actor then went on to speak with great feeling about his mother’s heroic sacrifices on his behalf, and her tireless efforts to prepare him for life as a black male in America.  “What part of ‘all men are created equal’ have we failed to understand?” he asked the audience.

Burton was followed on the stage by George Buss, a.k.a. Abraham Lincoln, who gave a far too rapid rendition of Lincoln’s 272-word Gettysburg Address.  (“Speak very slowly” was Lincoln’s main advice to public speakers.)  Once “President Lincoln” had taken his seat, a bass soloist bellowed out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and then, in one of the most impressive moments of the morning, fourteen candidates for U. S. citizenship took part in a naturalization ceremony.  After taped remarks from President Obama, the Gettysburg High School band played “God Bless America,” a Protestant pastor offered a closing prayer, and a lone bugler played “Taps.”

As is often the case with historical commemorations, the program was better at inspiring the audience than at making us think.  The exception to this rule was Levar Burton, although he still pulled his punches, and the loudest ovation he received came with his concluding “God bless America.”  Once the last strain of “Taps” had faded, the crowd rushed to grab lunch before a 1:00 parade featuring thousands of Civil-War reenactors.

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I have shared already my misgivings (here and here) about the whole reenactment phenomenon.  My day in Gettysburg mostly reinforced them.  For much of the morning, the audience had listened as Levar Burton talked about the persistence of racial injustice in America, heard again Abraham Lincoln’s call for a “new birth of freedom,” and listened to a popular anthem—penned by the wife of an ardent abolitionist—imploring Union soldiers to give their lives to make others free.  The audience listened politely, clapped heartily, and adjourned to watch a parade of thousands of almost exclusively white reenactors who have little place for race in their memory of the Civil War they are supposedly recreating.

THE BATTLEFIELD AT GETTYSBURG–FINAL REFLECTIONS

I apologize for being away for so long.  Not only is it a very busy time in the academic calendar here at Wheaton, but I also had the opportunity to take part recently in a conference at Calvin College on teaching, and since I invariably procrastinate in preparing for such events, the couple of weeks preceding the conference involved a succession of long days and late nights.  Then shortly after the meeting I made a quick 1,400-mile road trip to visit my dad in Tennessee over our brief fall break–and so fell further behind.  Then I participated in another day-long conference on campus this past weekend (in which I had the pleasant task of introducing a panel discussion among Christian historians Mark Noll, George Marsden, and John Fea), but now I am resolved to put some thoughts in writing before I forget how.

Since it’s been ridiculously long since my last meditation on the battlefield at Gettysburg, it may seem anticlimactic to offer a concluding reflection, but I’m going to do so anyway.  I feel like I have to.  What I have to share are two encounters with the past at Gettysburg that, in and of themselves, made my trip there educational.  As I have argued before on this blog, education is not defined by a mere enlargement of knowledge or skills.  Authentic education requires “inner work.”  It touches our hearts, alternately convicting and inspiring us.  When it occurs, we are changed.

One of my favorite quotes about the value of history comes from historian David Harlan, who reminds us that, “at its best, the study of American history can be a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  Not many academic historians hold to that view anymore, and we’re the poorer because of it.  I was repeatedly reminded of this as I walked the ground at Gettysburg–the opportunities for life-changing conversations abound, if we have ears to hear.  “Hear” is the key verb, because the conversations that I have in mind require above all that we be willing to listen.

Sometimes in such conversations the figures from the past interrogate us.  The first conversation that I was drawn into was of this sort.  It began as I tried to envision what happened there a century and a half ago, when over one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers in blue and gray clashed in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere.  I have previously noted the chasm that separates us from the men who fought there, and yet it is almost impossible to walk in their footsteps without imagining what it was like to be in their shoes.  And as I clambered among the boulders at Devil’s Den, peered through the trees on Little Round Top, and ascended the long, gentle slope of Cemetery Ridge, the questions running through my mind began to change.  When the conversation began, I was the one doing the asking–posing safe, academic questions about troop movements and tactics.  But then as I tried to imagine what these men experienced, much more personal, far more disturbing questions came to dominate my thoughts.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

“Could you steel yourself to do what these men did?” I found myself wondering.  “Could you endure what they endured?”  More importantly, “Could you witness such carnage and still believe in mankind?  Could you help to inflict such destruction and still believe in yourself?  Could you experience such suffering and still believe in God?”  Above all, “Are you devoted to any principle, any cause, any person, any Master enough to give, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion?”  The short answer to all of the above is, “I don’t know.”  I pray to God that my faith would not falter, but I just don’t know.  What I do know about myself is not reassuring: I too often struggle with even the most trivial acts of self-denial, the most mundane expressions of laying down my life that pale in comparison to the price paid by so many who fought here.

Sometimes our conversations with the past involve listening in on a discussion among historical figures and trying to learn from it, trying to glean wisdom as to “what we should value and how we should live.”  I was also drawn into this kind of conversation as I walked the ground at Gettysburg, particularly as I contemplated the nearly fourteen hundred monuments that are sprinkled across the landscape.  As I’ve noted before, Gettysburg National Park is arguably the world’s largest statuary garden, and as such it speaks not only to the battle itself but also to its aftermath.

As with tombstones in a cemetery, we read in the ubiquitous inscriptions two kinds of testimony: testimony about the doings of men, and testimony about the longings of mankind.  That is, their words speak not only to what happened here, but also to how the soldiers who are commemorated, as well as their descendants, yearned for significance and wanted to believe that their lives mattered.  In this sense, the monuments at Gettysburg are best understood as part of an ongoing conversation about the meaning of what happened there, and that conversation is, in a sense, merely a small part of a universal human dialogue about why, or whether, our lives matter at all.

As I noted in my last post, in their language the vast majority of Gettysburg’s monuments are mundane.  Like Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times, they care for nothing but “the facts.”  The company or regiment in question fought on this spot at this time for this objective.  It sent this many men into battle and suffered this many casualties.  But not all are so reticent.  “It’s not enough to remember what these men did,” the exceptions seem to say.  “Subsequent generations must also know why these men fought, and why we should venerate them.”

Modern-day historians such as James McPherson and Chandra Manning have read literally tens of thousands of pages of Civil War soldiers’ diaries and letters in an attempt to understand why men fought in the Civil War.  The words they have pored over were not chiseled in granite but scribbled in pencil.  In their unguarded moments, Civil War soldiers revealed a broad range of motives.   Some voiced ideological motives.  Speaking in terms of duty and obligation, they professed to have enlisted in order to defend liberty, or democracy, or union, or states’ rights, or republican government, or the legacy of 1776 (however they understood it).  Others enlisted for less exalted reasons: to escape boredom, find adventure, prove their manhood, see the world, impress girlfriends (or potential girlfriends), increase their income, or avoid the draft.

The Gettysburg monuments that speak to the larger meaning of the battle see only what was noble.  The prototype in this regard is one of the oldest and largest monuments on the field, the so-called “Soldiers’ National Monument” that rises from the heart of the national military cemetery just north of Cemetery Ridge.  Dedicated in 1869, its primary inscription consists of the closing lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its ringing references to a “new birth of freedom,” “government of the people,” and those “who here gave their lives that [the] nation might live.”

Most of the monuments erected at Gettysburg honor specific military units or particular individuals, but many of the states that were represented at Gettysburg eventually built state monuments as well, and these larger monuments regularly make claims about the object and meaning of their sons’ sacrifice.  A sampling of state monuments tells us that Pennsylvanians fought for “the preservation of the Union.”  Michigan troops  were champions of “liberty and union.”  Soldiers from Indiana–a state with more than its share of opposition to emancipation–fought for “equality” and to “advance freedom.”

Southern state monuments were often (understandably) less specific.  Tennessee soldiers were guided by unspecified “convictions” and performed “their duty as they understood it.”  Floridians “fought with courage and devotion for the ideals in which they believed”–whatever they were.  Georgia’s Confederates, though, were forthrightly patriotic.  (“When duty called, we came; when country called, we died.”)  More explicit still, South Carolina soldiers were propelled by an “abiding faith in the sacredness of States Rights.”

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

I want to be clear here.  I am not sneering at the possibility that many of those who fell on this field were motivated by high ideals.  I am convinced that many were, and I admire them for it.  C. S. Lewis has written that the greatest chasm separating the human race is not the divide between Christians and non-Christians or even that between theists and atheists, but rather the gulf between those who recognize any belief system outside of themselves that demands their allegiance and those who acknowledge no such standard.  The latter, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, are adherents of “the most horrible” of religions: “the worship of the god within.”  In a recent essay on the importance of fatherhood, N.Y.U. psychologist Paul Vitz observes that “the world is hungry for examples of unselfish men.”  In our age of materialism and individualism, the example of those who did fight at Gettysburg for union or states’ rights, freedom or independence, is a breath of fresh air.

And yet we need to think carefully about the conversation that we are listening to.  What impresses me most about these monuments is their use of religious language and imagery in commemorating the men who fought here.  It’s not that there are references to God, Jesus, or Christian faith–I’ve found almost none.  But think about the words and phrases that do appear: “martyrs,” “devotion,” “sacrifice,” “faith,” “immortal” fame, “righteous” causes, “eternal glory,” “the millennium of their glory,” “sacred” heritage, “no holier spot,” and “ground forever hallowed.”  As with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address,  such rhetoric  confuses the sacred and the secular.  It fuels a temptation to which none of us is immune: the temptation to conflate our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments.

But such language also speaks to a universal human longing.  No one is truly, completely happy, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft observes.  Beneath the surface of our lives, with its innumerable distractions and diversions, “the deep hunger of [our] hearts remains unsatisfied.”  We reflect on life and, in our unguarded moments, we are haunted by a recurring question: “Is this all there is?”  The reason, Kreeft goes on to explain, is that “we are not supposed to be happy here.”  This is not our home.  “You made us for Yourself,”  Augustine of Hippo concluded nearly sixteen centuries ago.  “Our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”

And yet we commonly cope with our heart hunger through self-deception,  convincing ourselves that we can find meaning and purpose, fulfillment and transcendence in this life alone.  As Christians, we are free to give a conditional loyalty to the state, but not our ultimate loyalty.  All too often, the monuments at Gettysburg that speak to the battle’s larger meaning imply that we can be the authors of our own immortality, and that the key to our doing so lies in our making sacrifices to the state.  Christian scholar Wilfred McClay has written recently that, because “human beings are naturally inclined toward religion . . . we have an incorrigible need to relate secular things to ultimate purposes.”  Gettysburg’s monuments remind us that, because we are fallen, we are naturally tempted to equate secular things and ultimate purposes.

But these are not the only voices that I heard at Gettysburg, for there were countless others raised during the battle itself.  Most of these cries from the heart are known only to God, but a fraction has survived in the soldiers’ own words, confessions made to contemporaries rather than declarations to posterity.  One stands out in my mind, the testimony of an unnamed, unknown soldier who bore witness to a different kind of response to the indescribable happenings on this field.

We know of this soldier only through the recollection of another, Confederate Captain George Hillyer of the Ninth Georgia Infantry, a regiment in Anderson’s brigade of Hood’s division of Longstreet’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Twenty-nine miles from Gettysburg when the fighting began on July 1st, they had marched all day and night and arrived on the field just before daylight on the 2nd.  After spending the morning lying in a stand of woods due west of the Round Tops, in the afternoon Hillyer’s company was part of the general Confederate attack on the Union left.  After making it almost to the base of Little Round Top, the Ninth Georgia was forced to withdraw, and Hillyer and his exhausted and bloodied company spent the night within earshot of Farmer Rose’s wheat field, a twenty-six-acre expanse that had been the site of some of the day’s fiercest fighting.  As the sun went down, the wheat field was a kind of “no-man’s land” between the contending armies, with perhaps as many as four thousand dead and wounded soldiers now carpeting the flattened grain.

And in the midst of that hellish scene, Hillyer marveled to hear one of the men between the lines begin to sing.  “He was probably a boy raised in some religious home in the South,” Hillyer recalled later, “where the good old hymns were the standard music.”  There were “thousands of desperately wounded men lying on the ground within easy hearing of the singer,” the captain observed, “and as his voice rang out like a flute . . . not only the wounded, but also five or ten thousand and maybe more of the men of both armies could hear and distinguish the words.”  The lines that they heard had been penned four decades earlier by an Irish poet named Thomas Moore and then set to music and published in 1831:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish; / Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel; / Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; / Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

This is the voice that I will remember most from my visit to Gettysburg.  To take the past seriously is to put our own lives to the test, and the conversations at Gettysburg do just that, pressing us with hard, discomfiting questions: What do we value?  In what do we hope?  Where do we find meaning?  The answers  etched here in granite are noble, but they are also earthbound, temporal.  Far more challenging, far more convicting, far more comforting, far more hopeful is the response on the lips of this unknown soldier.  Sung in darkness amid death and despair, it is both historical occurrence and spiritual metaphor, an echo of God’s invitation to a bruised and hurting world.

Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel . . .

The Wheat Field at sunset.

The Wheat Field at sunset.

MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–PART I

The morning after I returned from my road trip to Gettysburg, I took my wife and older daughter out to breakfast to catch up with them and share a bit of my experience.  As soon as we had placed our order, my wife leaned across the table and asked, “So what spiritual insights did you come home with?”

She knows me well.  History is an almost inexhaustible storehouse of compelling human stories, but I am convinced that if the study of history is to be truly educational, it must be much more than that.  Authentic education does not merely put knowledge into our heads that wasn’t there before.  It alters the way we think.  It challenges our hearts.  It changes who we are.

At its best, our encounter with the past should be a seamless part of a larger quest for a heart of wisdom, a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” in the words of historian David Harlan.  We shouldn’t settle for less.  Genesis 32 tells how Jacob wrestled with God the whole night through, telling the Lord, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” (v. 26).  I can’t begin to plumb the depths of that story’s meaning, and yet I think of it often in my role as a historian and a teacher.  Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury and an accomplished historian, encourages us to believe “that there will always be gifts to be received from the past.”  We must seek them persistently, insistently.  Like Jacob, we must resolve not to turn loose until the Lord has blessed us.

What I am NOT suggesting is that we pray for special revelation from God, asking him to disclose hidden meanings from the past.  This summer I have been re-reading the “God’s Plan for America” series by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel (The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet).  I have lost track of the number of times that they claim God’s supernatural intervention in their historical research: “The Holy Spirit gave us insight after insight . . .”; “The Holy Spirit reminded us that . . .”; “thus did the Lord bring to our attention . . . “; “the Holy Spirit went on to show us why . . .” etc.

I do not question their sincerity.  But note that Marshall and Manuel are not just saying that God blessed their research by sharpening their minds.  In his prayer “Ante Stadium” (“Before Study”), the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas regularly asked God to grant him, among other things, “keenness of mind” and “skill in learning.”  The Christian historians I know would all readily echo that prayer and long for the Lord to grant it.  Marshall and Manuel go much farther, however.

Repeatedly, they identify particular moments when God supernaturally intervened to direct them to just the right source at just the right time , in the process leading them to a more accurate understanding of American history.  I don’t doubt for an instant that God could do this if it pleased Him, but I find no scriptural basis to expect this sort of revelation.  When such insight comes, if it comes, it is a form of special revelation, and those who receive it are really exercising a prophetic role.  This is why books like The Light and the Glory are not really historical at all–they are works of prophesy.

While I find no promise in scripture that the Holy Spirit will reveal American history to us, the Bible is clear that the Spirit is given in order to convict us of “sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8).  So when I propose that we wrestle with the past until the Lord blesses us, I have in mind studying history in such a way that it ultimately exposes our hearts.  Our highest goal is not to understand the past for its own sake, nor to learn lessons from the past that help us get what we want in the present.  Rather, our ultimate goal is to see both God and ourselves more clearly, to the glory of God and for our sanctification.

The point, in other words, is to get wisdom.  As Proverbs 4:7 puts it, “Wisdom is the principal thing.”And if wisdom is our goal, we must figure out how to make scrutiny of the past lead to scrutiny of our own hearts in the light of God’s revealed Word.  That, I am almost ready to conclude, is the essence of what it means to think “Christianly” about history.

I am still trying to work out what this looks like concretely, but I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that I had while roaming the ground at Gettysburg.  They are examples of the kind of reflections I have in mind.  You may be able to come up with other, better ones, and I welcome your suggestions and reactions.  For now, I’ll share just a couple of observations, with more to follow soon.

First, the palpable weight of the past at Gettysburg is jarring.  As I mentioned in my last post, as I walked the battlefield I felt the almost tangible presence of the nearly 170,000 men who clashed there a century and a half ago.  I don’t mean literally that their spirits hovered there (although there are a number of “Gettysburg Ghost Tours” that claim precisely that).  As I observed last time, there is something about being physically present at the site of a famous historical event.  The experience enlivens our imaginations; sharing a common landscape somehow seems to connect us viscerally to those whose footsteps we follow.

That sensation, at least for me, has the effect of jolting me out of my own narrow frame of reference.  For all the current talk of “globalization,” most of us really live in tiny worlds, don’t we?  The universes we inhabit don’t have room for much: home, work, school, the mall, perhaps church.  We pretend to expand our worlds through “virtual” reality but only isolate ourselves even more.  It’s comparatively easy to believe that the world revolves around us when the island kingdoms that we rule over are so miniscule.  And then we walk the field at Gettysburg, or some similar locale, and the landscape reminds us of the hosts that have gone before, and suddenly we can feel very small.  That’s a good thing.  If an integral component  of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge,” as Flannery O’Connor realized, “is humility.”

Second, as I thought about the men who fought there, I was immediately struck by the chasm that separates us from them.  I’d love to be a tour guide at Gettysburg, but I wouldn’t be a very popular one, because I think one of the most important things to tell tourists is how little we know about what happened there.  That’s not a message we care to hear.  We want history that makes the past “come alive”–what I call You Are There history–and being reminded that “we see through a glass, darkly” when we peer into the past interferes with our fantasies of omniscience.

But call to mind what C. S. Lewis wrote about the vast disparity between the actual past–which is dead and gone–and history, which is not the past itself but our halting efforts to reconstruct it.  “The past,” Lewis observed, “was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of . . . moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.”  The difference between the past and history, then, “is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

This is always true when we try to reconstruct an episode from the past, even an event of such scale and significance as the battle of Gettysburg.  Take, for instance, the battle’s famous conclusion–Pickett’s Charge.  As historian Carol Reardon has shown, even the most basic factual claims about the attack are actually just educated guesses.  We don’t really know precisely when the bombardment preceding the attack began, how long it lasted, or why it proved ineffective.  We don’t know exactly how many men were involved in the charge, and we certainly don’t know which Confederate unit got the farthest or precisely where on the field they were turned back.  (At least three southern states claim that their troops advanced the farthest, and each has installed historical markers on Cemetery Ridge to position their sons at the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”)  We don’t even know for sure what George Pickett was doing during the charge.  (There were even controversial claims after the war that he had skulked in the rear until the bloodbath was over.)

When we move beyond establishing the factual details to the thornier tasks of explanation (why did the attack fail?) and re-creation (what was it like to take part?) our dearth of knowledge becomes all the more apparent.  As Reardon explains, each kind of existing evidence about the battle has its own problems.  Official reports were biased, self-serving, and frequently not composed until months afterward.  Most of the letters and diaries of common soldiers at Gettysburg were never preserved, and those that survive are less revealing than we would hope.  Individual soldiers saw only a tiny part of the battlefield, and in the stress of battle they often retained a kaleidoscope of impressions and sensations more than a coherent narrative of their experience.  In writing to loved ones, they often gave up on the possibility of conveying what they had seen and experienced to civilians.

Newspapers covered the battle extensively (there were dozens of correspondents at Gettysburg), but reporters typically knew little about military matters and, like modern historians, were faced with the daunting task of trying to bring some sort of coherence to the myriad of conflicting individual perspectives that they could glean from interviews.  To compound the challenge, they were under great pressure to rush their stories into print in order to scoop their rivals.  As a result, “wishful thinking ran wild” and “no bit of hyperbole seemed excessive.”

But why stress how much we don’t know?  The author of Proverbs  provides our answer: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7).  It would be an oversimplification to say that what we think reflects our hearts and how we think shapes our hearts, but it’s not far from the truth.  From best-selling popular works to the boring textbooks we’re assigned growing up, much of the history that we consume exaggerates our capacity to know the past and  unwittingly promotes intellectual arrogance.  Herbert Butterfield, one of the premier Christian historians of the last century, trenchantly identified intellectual arrogance as “the besetting disease of historians.”  Christian writers are not immune to this malady, and we cannot guard against it unless we are aware of it.

More to follow soon.