God: Missing in Action from American History
David Barton - 06/2005
(First published in the June 2005 issue of The NRB Magazine)
American history today has become a dreary academic subject. Yet, most who are bored by American history view Bible history quite differently: they love the stories of David and Goliath, Daniel and the lion's den, and Peter walking on the water. So it's not that people don't enjoy history, it's just that they don't respond favorably to the way American history is currently being taught.
One reason Bible history is interesting and American history is not is that the Bible (as well as American education during its first three centuries) utilizes biographical history - that is, it presents history through the eyes and life experiences of those involved (i.e., the biographies) rather than through the recitation of a string of dates and places. It is the difference between reading the stories in Guideposts and the numbers in a phone book.
Looking at history the way God presents it is exciting and informative; and in numerous verses, God even commends its study:
"Remember the former things of old: for I am God" (Isaiah 46:9)
"Call to remembrance the former days" (Hebrews 10:32)
But why would God want us to know history? The Apostle Paul answers that question in 1 Corinthians 10:1: "All these things happened unto them for example; and they are written for our admonition" (see also Romans 15:4: "Those things written aforetime were written for our learning"). In short, we learn from history; and what we learn affects our behavior.
American leaders long understood this Biblical truth. For example, Thomas Jefferson noted: "History, by apprizing them [students] of the past, will enable them to judge of the future." And what can be learned by being "apprized of the past"? According to Benjamin Franklin: History will afford frequent opportunities of showing the necessity of a public religion from its usefulness to the public; the advantage of a religious character among private persons; the mischiefs of superstition; and the excellency of the Christian religion above all others, ancient or modern.
Franklin understood that history, when accurately presented, would demonstrate the need for Christianity because of both the societal and the individual benefits it produces. In fact, the presenting of an uncensored and unrevised history actually causes a recognition of the hand of God - for, in the words of the great statesman Daniel Webster: "History is God's providence in human affairs."
Today, however, history is presented in such an edited, revised, and politically-correct manner that God's hand is rarely visible - and even the historic role of famous Godly leaders in education, business, politics, and the military is now virtually unacknowledged.
An obvious example of the secularization of history occurs each year around the Fourth of July. Americans are taught that "taxation without representation" was the reason America separated from Great Britain; yet "taxation without representation" was only reason number seventeen out of the twenty-seven reasons given in the Declaration of Independence - it was not even in the top half, yet it's all that most ever hear. Never mentioned today are the numerous grievances condemning judicial activism - or those addressing moral or religious or other issues.
What religious issues? In 1762, the king vetoed the charter for America's first missionary society; he also suppressed other religious freedoms and even prevented Americans from printing an English language Bible. How did Americans respond? They took action; and almost unknown today is the fact that Declaration signers such as Samuel Adams and Charles Carroll cited religious freedom as the reason they became involved in the American Revolution. And significantly, even though Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin (two of the least religious signers) are typically the only signers studied today, almost half of the signers of the Declaration (24 of 56) held what today would be considered seminary or Bible school degrees. Clearly, for many Founders, religious issues were an important motivation behind their separation from Great Britain; but that motivation is largely ignored today.
Moral issues are accorded the same silence. The greatest moral issue of that day was slavery; and after several of the American colonies moved toward abolishing slavery in 1773, the King, in 1774, vetoed those anti-slavery laws and continued slavery in America. Soon-to-be signers of the Declaration Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush promptly founded America's first abolition society as a direct response against the king's order. The desire to end slavery in America was a significant motivation not only for Franklin and Rush but also for a number of others; but the end of slavery in America could be achieved only if they separated from Great Britain - which they were willing to do (and six of the thirteen colonies began abolishing slavery following the separation).
There were many other significant issues that led to our original Fourth of July; so why aren't Americans familiar with the rest? Because in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, a group of secular-minded writers (including Charles and Mary Beard, W. E. Woodward, Fairfax Downey, and others) began penning works on American history that introduced a new paradigm. For this group, economics was the only issue of importance, so they began to write texts accordingly (their approach is now described as "the economic view of American history" and since the 1960s has been widely embraced throughout the education community). Consequently, since "taxation without representation" was the economic grievance in the Declaration, it became the sole clause that Americans studied.
As a result, God is no longer visible in American history; and His absence is now construed as a mandate for secularism. Texts now forcefully assert that the American founding produced the first intentionally secular government in history - even though the Declaration officially acknowledges God in four separate clauses. (But who still teaches the Declaration - or even reads it?) Similarly, leaders such as John Hancock and John Adams receive credit as being the source of our independence, even though John Adams himself declared that the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mayhew and the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper were two of the individuals "most conspicuous, the most ardent, and influential" in the "awakening and revival of American principles and feelings" that led to American independence. Regrettably, God (and His servants) have largely disappeared from the presentation of American history in general and America's founding in particular.
As a further example, consider the legendary Minutemen: even though they are still honored in many texts, their leader, the Rev. Jonas Clark, is no longer mentioned - nor the fact that many of the Minutemen were deacons in his church. And the Rev. James Caldwell is no longer acknowledged as a key leader of military forces in New Jersey - nor the Rev. John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg (who led 300 men from his church against the British) as one of Washington's most trusted generals.
Regrettably, we no longer know much about the indispensable role of pastors and Christian leaders in the founding of our civil government. Americans have been subjected to "revisionism" - defined by the dictionary as "the revision of an accepted, usually long-standing view; especially a revision of historical events and movements." Revisionism attempts to alter the way a people sees its history in order to cause a change in public policy.
Consider how successful this has been. Under the economic view of American history, Americans now believe that the early colonists came to America seeking land and gold rather than for the reason most cited by the colonists: evangelization. And most now accept that the colonies were founded for trade, fishing, and other economic enterprises, even though more than half were founded by Gospel ministers for religious purposes (e.g., Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Georgia, etc.). And if religion is discussed in a text, it will be to present the 21 deaths during the Salem Witch Trials rather than the Great Awakenings, the Civil War revivals, or the turn-of-the-century revivals that led to widespread urban renewal and the end of child labor.
Having now come to believe that economics is what created and made America great, it is not surprising that few Americans commented on the fact that, during the 2004 presidential debates, "jobs" and "economy" were mentioned hundreds of times but "marriage" less than a dozen. Nor is it surprising that over the past decade, 45 percent of evangelical Christians say that economic issues are more important than moral issues when it comes to voting.
There is so much of our wholesome, God-centered American history that we no longer know today. This is especially true when it comes to the average American's knowledge of African American history.
Consider, for example, African American achievements during the American Revolution. Few today know that almost 5,000 of the patriots in the fledgling Continental Army were African Americans - that, for example, a hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill was African American Peter Salem. His heroic actions saved the lives of scores of Americans, and he was honored before General Washington for his courage.
And Pastor Lemuel Haynes was involved in several major Revolutionary battles and became an ardent admirer of George Washington, regularly preaching sermons on Washington's birthday. This patriot preacher was the first African American to be ordained by a mainstream Christian denomination (the Congregationalists, in 1785), to pastor a white congregation (a congregation in Connecticut), and to be awarded an honorary Master's Degree (by Middlebury College, in 1804). Yet who today has heard of Lemuel Haynes?
Or who has heard of James Armistead, the courageous spy at Yorktown whose remarkable service considerably shortened the War? Or Oliver Cromwell and Prince Whipple (depicted in several famous Revolutionary War paintings) who served directly under General Washington and the general staff? Or Jordan Freeman, the gallant soldier to whom a monument was erected for his heroic service at the Battle of Groton Heights?
Then there is also African American church history - including the amazing story of the Rev. John Marrant, the first African American to evangelize successfully among American Indians; the Rev. Richard Allen, who gained his freedom from slavery, served in the American Revolution, became a preacher in a church of 2000 whites, and founded America's first black denomination; and the Rev. Harry Hoosier, who delivered the first recorded Methodist sermon by an African American and drew crowds larger than the great Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury.
And consider African American political history. Who today knows the story of the Rev. Hiram Rhodes Revels, the African American missionary who became the first black U. S. Senator? Or the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, the first African American to deliver a sermon in Congress? Or Joseph Hayne Rainey, who overcame slavery to become the first African American elected to the U. S. Congress, even presiding over the U. S. House? (In the picture of the first seven African Americans elected to the federal Congress - all as Republicans - the Rev. Revels is the first from the left, and Rainey is second from the right.) Or who today has learned that nearly every southern Republican Party was started by African Americans - or that the first 190 African Americans elected to office in South Carolina (and the first 112 in Mississippi, the first 42 in Texas, the first 127 in Louisiana, etc.) were all Republicans, and many were ministers?
I have spent years collecting thousands of original and priceless documents from American history in general and black history in particular; God's fingerprints are evident throughout. I have been asked why I, as an Anglo, would spend so much time in the study of African American political history. The answer is simple: I am an American; and since the story of African American history is part of American history, it therefore is part of my own history. Furthermore, I am inspired by all stories of sacrifice, courage, and Godly character - regardless of skin color. The stories of African American heroes such as Phillis Wheatley, Francis Grimke, and John Roy Lynch are as thrilling to me as are the stories of Lewis & Clark, Helen Keller, and Alvin York.
The reintroduction of a truthful and complete telling of American history is long overdue. Daniel Webster was right: "History is God's providence in human affairs," and it is time for Americans once again to become aware of the remarkable hand of God throughout our history.