Peter Marshall on the Texas History Standards: Part One

We now move to the review of the Texas Social Studies standards written by Presbyterian minister Peter Marshall. (You can read his review here). Like David Barton, Marshall is not a historian. Yet many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians think he is a historian because he has written a providential history of early America entitled The Light and the Glory (now available in a revised and expanded edition). This book is a very popular textbook among conservative Christian homeschoolers and has been a steady seller for the Fleming H. Revell Publishing Company (a division of the evangelical publisher Baker Books) since it first appeared thirty years ago. I have written about Marshall before. If you get a chance, take a look at my piece, “Thirty Years of Light and Glory: The Perils of Providential History.”

Someone on the Texas Board of Education must really like Marshall. This is the only way to explain how a Presbyterian pastor from New England with no formal training in history became an expert reviewer for the Social Studies standards for one of the largest states in the Union.

After a lengthy section on organization and structure, Marshall stresses the importance of studying the “motivations” of why people acted in American history:

Studying history this way -telling the stories of real people and what motivated the decisions they made, and then what happened as a result of those decisions -gives the present-day student the exciting idea that he or she can influence the course of history. And that is one of the main things we are aiming at in the education of our children. We want them to reach young adulthood with the vision that they can be world changers!

This all seems well and good, until we get to see exactly what kind of “motivations” Marshall wants Texas students to study.

In our American situation it is indisputable that the motivational role of the Bible and the Christian faith was paramount in the settling of most of the original 13 colonies, notably Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. The settling of America was not “accidental” but purposeful. For example, the Pilgrims were motivated to risk their lives in coming to America because of their Christian faith, and their desire to propagate that faith in the American wilderness. Even small children need to understand that the Pilgrims were not just “people who liked to take long journeys in ships” (as one elementary history text puts it), but rather a group of people who believed in God and tried to live by the teachings of the Bible. Pilgrim Governor William Bradford made it clear that “they had a great hope and an inward zeal … of laying some good foundation … for the propagating and advancing of the Gospel of the Kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world.” They were not refugees thrown up on the rocky shores of New England, but missionaries with a strong sense of call and purpose. They knew exactly what they were about.

Whoa! This paragraph reads like something lifted directly from The Light and the Glory. When it comes to Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth I tend to agree with Marshall about motivations. These settlers were motivated to settle primarily for Christian reasons. This, of course does not rule out the other economic motivations that prompted settlers to come to New England and expand into places such as New Hampshire, Connecticut, and the Massachusetts frontier. Marshall needs to read the works of scholars such as David Cressy, David Jaffee, Stephen Innes, Virginia De John Anderson, and John Frederick Martin that have offered much more sophisticated and nuanced interpretations and revisions of Perry Miller’s “errand into the wilderness.”

In Pennsylvania, “the best poor man’s country in the world,” the motivation for settlement was mixed. Yes, Penn did want to establish a “Holy Experiment” that he believed would “advance the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ,” but he was also a businessman who saw the colony as an opportunity to make money. And why did people come to Pennsylvania? Some came for religious freedom, some came as indentured servants, but most, including the Quakers, came to accumulate land for themselves and their children. The literature on this is endless, but I still think the best book on the subject is Barry Levy’s Quakers and the American Family: British Settlement in the Delaware Valley.

And don’t get me started about Virginia. Jamestown was a mercantile colony. The settlers came to strike it rich. As T.H. Breen has put it, they were “looking our for number one.” Religion was a factor, but it was not anywhere close to a primary motivation.

Something tells me that such arguments will not deter people like Marshall from continuing to promote ideas like this:

Countless other examples from colonial America may be adduced, but the point is that the discovery, settling, and founding of the colonies happened because of the Biblical worldviews of those involved. Only when this is taken into account can America’s founding be properly understood. And, if the cause and effect relationship between people’s worldview and their actions is made an integral element of the teaching of history, then the study of American history can become inspirational for our students in regard to the formation of their own lives, rather than simply informational.

More to come…