The Value of Knowing History

I've been thinking of putting something together on the value of reading and knowing history, but concluded it would be more interesting to ask a historian to deal with this. So I emailed a friend Richard Bailey to get his thoughts on this. Richard is an Alabama native transplanted to Buffalo, New York, where he teaches early American history at Canisius College. He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky.  Richard plays basketball a few times a week, tours by bicycle when he can, and has recently discovered the thrill of waiting for a trout to rise while flyfishing on the streams of western New York. He's also a connoisseur of coffee and the General Mills monster-themed cereals. Most importantly he loves God and the church, and I was excited to get his thoughts for the blog.

In high school I completely blew off history, and didn't see the value of it. In fact, I think I took freshman history four times (I kept failing the class). Why is knowing history important/relevant?

If it's any consolation, Joe, that doesn't only happen in high school and you weren't and aren't alone. I find that many of my students often have a similar attitude to history because they are asking the exact same question, namely, why is studying or knowing history important? So, I generally work throughout my classes to focus on those moments in American history that allow all of us to see the significance, relevance, and connections of moments in the past to the present and the future. So, for instance, I try to connect, say, the arrival of enslaved Africans in the early seventeenth century to the development of antebellum slavery to the Emancipation Proclamation to Brown v. Board of Education to the election of Barack Obama. And as we connect the dots, be they of race relations or constitutional issues from the eighteenth century to contemporary life, I often find students starting to recognize that who we are as Americans in 2011 nearly always has very intimate connections to who we have been since 1607.

An equally important reason that I am convinced history matters is that asking questions about the past helps us understand how best to think about and react to the here and now. So, it's an issue of learning to think critically and to live responsibly. And I genuinely believe history provides a fascinating tapestry on which to see the complex relationship of causes and effects, allowing us as students to see that most things aren't as simple as we would like them to be and that it's crucial for us to think critically and responsibly about our decisions and the consequences they might have not only in the now but also in the years to come.

More specifically, can knowing church history help Christians become better theologians, lovers of the church, and lovers of God?

In a round about way, I suppose I'd say yes. Like you, Joe, I'm convinced that sanctification (another word for "Christians becoming better theologians, lovers of the church, and lovers of God") is a work the Holy Spirit performs. That said, I certainly believe the Spirit uses means to accomplish this work. And knowing church history, I'd argue, is a very effective means for a variety of reasons.

First, the story of the church is often a story of struggle and contention. From the controversies that occupied the early church fathers to the Protestant and Catholic Reformations to controversies within the Southern Baptist tradition that you and I share, church history is the tale of contending for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I do think that understanding such controversies in their respective contexts can certainly be a way the Spirit not only guides Christians toward loving truth and theology more but also prepares saints to defend orthodoxy when necessary.

Second, the story of the church often models how Christians ought to love both the church and God. The biographies of men and women of faith seem an especially pertinent way to introduce believers to church history. The stories of saints as diverse as Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, David Brainerd, Lemuel Haynes, Jim Elliot, and Fanny Crosby serve as models the Spirit can apply to mold present and future saints who love Christ and his bride and are willing to sacrifice their lives and energies for them.

Of course, biographies do more (or should do more) than simply lionize men and women of faith. If historians do their jobs then these stories of saints ought also to show the weaknesses of humanity and stress the consequences of the Fall. Personally I prefer these sorts of biographies over hagiographic accounts of saints' lives. On the one hand, they demonstrate the power of God to use broken vessels in powerful ways. On the other hand, and even more importantly, such biographies demonstrate (as historian and pastor Sean Lucas maintains) that there is really only one true hero, Jesus Christ, and that he alone is worthy of our love, praise, and admiration.

How can local churches help her members appreciate and benefit from church history?

This is a great question and concern. Without some encouragement and direction, many believers are going to keep reading within their comfort zone, which all too often includes only fiction and Christian self-help books. Local church leaders are essential in encouraging those under their care to reach to the shelf for books that offer a more diverse diet, including the writings of contemporary theologians, philosophers, missiologists, and, yes, historians.

Certainly, I hope pastors regularly recommend books about the story of the church from the pulpit. But, as is usually this case, such recommendations shouldn't solely be the task of pastors. Community group leaders, Sunday School teachers, deacons, nursery workers, and any believer the Spirit has molded through the reading of the church's past ought to encourage other brothers and sisters in the selection of good books. For those churches that have book tables or suggested reading lists, I'd challenge those in charge of such lists to include historical books alongside the Christian living, theology, and devotional selections.

Others ways, of course, to encourage believers to dive into church history is to have reading groups that select historical works on a regular basis. Or film groups that show and discuss historical films as they can, relating them to redemptive history.

Often all it takes is a little encouragement for members of the body of Christ to see how exciting and captivating the story of the church really is. And this shouldn't surprise us. As I was reminded recently by Paul House, a former professor that you and I studied under at Southern Seminary, genuine disciples long to be taught.

Where should someone start if they want to ease into church history? Can you recommend a few books?

I usually try to find out what sorts of issues and time periods people are interested in as I suggest books to them. It's often easier for them to see the answer to question #1 above about relevancy if they are genuinely interested in the subject. That said, I'm always willing to recommend a few books.

For more general overviews of the church both worldwide and in the American context, I'd suggest Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, and Doug Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement. Both are very accessible and generally brief texts written by first-rate historians.

As I said earlier, I believe the biographies of believers are ideal places for believers to make their initial forays into the reading of the church's story. This list could get really long really quickly, but a few of my favorite more-recent biographies are: Gerald McDermott, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide; Harry Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism; George Marsden, A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards; and Sean Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life.

Tell us about your book, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, and when it's coming out.

Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, which will be published by Oxford University Press as a part of their Religion in America Series in March/April of 2011, is a look at the intersections of the experiences of English, African, and Native American puritans in colonial New England, especially the ways that colonial New Englanders used, constructed, and re-constructed their puritanism to make sense of life in North America. One of the main contentions of the book is that as white New Englanders started offering spiritual freedom or redemption to the African, Indian, and mixed-raced peoples that lived among them in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century America, they began distinguishing themselves from many of these new converts. This attempt to explain what they perceived as differences, I argue, fostered the development of what we know today as "race." So, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England focuses on some of the connections between religious convictions and racial constructions.

You can follow Richard on Twitter: @richardabailey