Part of my punishment for wrongdoing as a child was the walk to the willow tree on our fence line. I often thought of shuffling past it to find cover in the horse pasture. I never did.
I chose my switches like an adult buys a car. They needed the right features—no knots, good flexibility, and not too aerodynamic. They failed to perform to my expectations.
That willow tree towered over my childhood. It was a memorial to what happens when a boy tells a lie, slaps his sister—I was framed—or uses gasoline too close to the house to kill wasps. It served a purpose. It was an indispensable part of my history.
What is history? Is it only—as Voltaire wrote—humanity’s “register of crimes and misfortunes?” Or does our understanding of the past serve an indispensable, corrective purpose more instructive to the culture?
History is bloody and violent. It is a record of our transgressions. But it also is instructive and formative. Through it, we trace the maturation of a nation as it progresses towards its ideals. We see men and institutions change over time. They can and do improve, in our context, while in pursuit of “a more perfect union.”
Rulers in ancient times viewed history as cyclical. Each saw himself as the beginning of a new order. Each smashed statuary of the previous rulers, tore down obelisks, destroyed tombs, and burned the writings of previous rulers. The only purpose which mattered was that of the new dynasty. Only its memory need survive.
Men like Jefferson and Adams were familiar with tales of the rise and fall of civilizations in classical antiquity, all of which confirmed what Thucydides wrote in his history of the Peloponnesian War. He had recorded no fanciful tale, but “a clear view both of events which have happened and of those which will someday, in all human probability, happen again in the same or a similar way.”
Many of the founders, however, believed the views of classical thinkers incongruous with the newness and uniqueness of the American experiment. Nothing like a constitutional republic had ever been attempted, especially in a land so steeped in religion. That is why America’s religious leaders came to view history in an entirely different light. For them, history was linear. God, they believed, was pursuing a telos, or a final purpose, of which America was a part.
This view reared its head in the sermons of millenarian preachers who believed they were conditioning the people for the return of Christ. As virtue increased, they believed, the nation would strengthen and, thus, fulfill its role in God’s new order. Unfortunately, these same men often placed a greater value on the surety of social order—the same social order which permitted wars against Native Americans and chattel slavery—than they did on the rights of all men.
In this, we can say without an inkling of doubt, they were wrong. Our founders, and countless ministers, for 100 years shrugged off the inconsistency of slavery and the teachings of Christ. Life in this world was, to them, “fixed.” The social die was cast and they lived with it, not realizing how badly it would taint their memory.
But should the memory of men who did good things, who built the republic, and who gave it a mostly Judeo-Christian ethos, be expunged because they did things we—in a different age, having progressed and matured—deem evil? Should we cease to teach of men whose actions momentarily divided the nation, and of the consequences which may have been a sharp measure of discipline from the Lord?
The answer is “no.” We should see them for what they were. They were fallen men with blind spots the same as modern Americans. Honor them as founders, as contributors to the American experiment who sought to attain a republic, but recognize they fell short of their own ideals.
In our own orbit, it is true our namesake fought for the Confederacy. B.H. Carroll went to war as a Texas soldier (though he did not favor secession). Shattered personally by his experiences, he sank into deep depression. Later in 1865, however, he was introduced to the gospel of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. He grabbed hold of the message and pledged his life to the King’s service.
He was markedly different afterward, with no untoward behavior against those of other races. In his work, Baptists and Their Doctrines, he claimed church governance should be purely democratic (that is, congregational) and all members should have an equal vote without consideration of wealth, sex, age, level of education or, most importantly here, race.
While Carroll accepted the societal status quo, as most in his day did, he did not speak disparagingly of black Americans and there was no acrimony toward them in his preaching. In fact, he repeated calls for ministry and missions among the black communities of the segregated South.
This story of Carroll’s faith and the change it brought was not unique to him. It was true of many prominent leaders of the faith over the span of Christian history. Yes, men can change. In Christ, they do change. That is why we consider what they became, rather than solely what they did at a point in time.
The willow tree I mentioned beforehand is long gone. But even removed from its place, I can close my eyes and envision it and the purpose it served. Its image is a reminder of the discipline which formed me. If I forget its lessons, if I don’t pass those stories on, the character it helped build will pass away as well.
Our history should be viewed in the same way. Always remember the past lest it be repeated. Its lessons, like that tree, still speak. They recall a time of pain which formed our national character. And, they will remain whether or not monuments are removed or names are scrubbed from buildings. Properly contextualized as reminders of that pain, we can see those memories as museum pieces which remind us of how our people were disciplined and matured, as well as how far we have yet to go.
Dr. Gregory Tomlin is a Carroll Fellow and Associate Professor of Christian Heritage at the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute.