This afternoon I watched a class at your school, Charis Bible College, taught by the Christian minister David Barton.
First, I want to affirm your interest in the study of the past. As a Christian and a historian, I am pleased to see so many people in attendance at a history lecture. A few years ago I wrote a book titled Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. In that book I wrote that the study of history has the potential of transforming our lives by helping us to more effectively live out the Gospel. I bring up this book because I cover many of the same things that David Barton covered in his September 30, 2016 lecture. I also recently published the second edition of a book called Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. Like Why Study History?, this book also covers much of the same ground that David Barton covered in his lecture.
I encourage you to read these books. They take a decidedly different Christian approach to American history than the one you heard on September 30 from David Barton. Both of these books are born out of my love for God and the call to worship God with my mind as we are told to do in Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30-31, and Luke 10:27. I am not a pagan. I am not secular in my orientation. Like many of you, I am an evangelical Christian who believes that salvation lies in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that we should live our lives guided by the authority of God’s inspired word as set forth in the Bible.
As you may know, I have been a strong critic of David Barton because I believe that his books and lectures do not offer a clear understanding of American history. As a Christian, I want to pursue truth. As a truth-seeker and a Christian it is wrong to manipulate the past, and not tell the entire truth about it, even if such manipulation might appear to serve what some of us believe to be positive ends in the present.
So with this in mind, please let me point out a few things about David Barton’s recent lecture. You can follow along with the lecture here.
4:10: David Barton says that Jedidiah Morse wrote the first history of the American Revolution. He did not. Morse’s Annals of the American Revolution was published in 1824. Several other writers had published histories of the American Revolution before this. Two of the most notable examples are David Ramsey’s History of the American Revolution (1798) and Mercy Otis Warren’s History of the Rise of Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. (1805).
4:10ff: Barton says that historians are “supposed to show us God’s fingerprints all across history….” As Barton correctly points out, this kind of history is known as “providential history.” I should say for the record that I believe in the doctrine of divine providence. I believe that God orders and has ordered the world according to His will. But I wonder if we can be so certain about what God is actually doing in history. How can human beings, with limited capacities for understanding the will of God that stem from our sinful nature, claim to be able to know what God has done in the world apart from what He has revealed to us in the Bible? 1 Corinthians 12:13 tells us that we “see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Our knowledge of God’s providence is limited as long as we remain aliens and strangers in this world. My God is too big and too awesome to for me to pretend that I can discern his purposes in this or that historical moment. Instead, it is my duty to remain humble and do my best to understand human behavior as it has unfolded over time.
I understand that Jedidiah Morse and many other early historians believed that providence was the best way to interpret the past. As Christians we need to ask ourselves whether or not they were correct in believing this. I think the best we can do in discerning the mind of God in history is to use the word “perhaps.” The word “perhaps” acknowledges the limits of our humanity in the wake of the Fall (Gen. 3) and acknowledges that we can never truly know God’s will in the affairs of human history on this side of eternity. I know that the term “perhaps” does not provide us with the certainty that some of us, including David Barton, would like, but it also prevents us from falling into idolatry–claiming that we know just as much as God in terms of what he has done in American history.
4:35ff: Barton says that unless one thinks about history in terms of providence the subject is “boring.” If you believe this, you have not experienced very good history teaching. You have not been exposed to one of the many outstanding history teachers and professors who can make the human experience as it developed through time come alive in the classroom.
5:00ff: Here Barton talks about Abraham Lincoln’s apparent conversion experience. It is important to realize that nearly every major scholar of Abraham Lincoln–people who have spent their entire lives studying this man–are skeptical about the conversion experience that Barton discusses here. This includes politically conservative Lincoln scholars such as Allen Guelzo and Gabor Boritt. I would encourage you to read Guelzo’s biography of Abraham Lincoln titled Redeemer President. It is an excellent treatment of Lincoln’s faith from the pen of a leading Christian historian.
6:00ff: David Barton is correct in his analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. It is “deeply profound,” especially in its call to have “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” As a Christian, Lincoln’s speech, with its various references to the Bible, inspires me to live in a way that seeks reconciliation and justice. Lincoln calls us to live in a way that repudiates the culture wars in which we currently find ourselves. I would encourage you to read the speech and reflect on it and then read it to your kids and grandkids and talk about it in the light of our current political culture.
7:20ff: David Barton is at the blackboard talking about the major battles of the Civil War. He suggests that the reason the North won the war was because of Lincoln’s call for a day of prayer and fasting in the wake of the Battle of Gettysburg. As Barton notes, the Union did quite well after Lincoln called for this day national fasting and prayer. This segment of the lecture drew the most applause from those of you in attendance.
But let me raise a few questions here. Can we be certain that Lincoln’s call for a day of fasting and prayer was the reason the Union won the Civil War? Perhaps. Let’s recall that most of the battles after Gettysburg were some of the bloodiest of the war. Tens of thousands of lives were lost including the lives of civilians–women and children. Does God care more about winning a war than the lives of all of these men and women that He created in His own image? I am guessing that most of you care about life because God cares about life. You want to promote policies that defend life. If so, what was God’s will here? Even Lincoln himself said in his First Inaugural Address that “both sides prayed to the same God” and read the same Bible. The Confederates also had days of fasting and prayer. In fact, the Confederates had massive religious revivals in their military camps, the kinds of revivals that David Barton said happen when a society looks back upon its past. (And the Confederacy was quite proud of their slave-holding past and even made Biblical arguments to defend it). What was God doing here?
And if Lincoln was right in claiming, as he did in the First Inaugural Address, that the war was God’s punishment on both the NORTH and the SOUTH for slavery (“250 years of unrequited toil”) then things start to get complicated when we try to discern what God was doing in the war. And why does God’s providence always seem to work in favor of the United States? I hope you are wrestling with these questions and not settling for easy answers like the ones that David Barton provided in this lecture.
11:20ff: David Barton says that the “first right protected in America” was the “right to religious conscience.” Is this true? If Barton is referring here to the order of the words in the First Amendment, the phrase “religious conscience” does not appear in this amendment. Rather the phrase “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” is mentioned. But if I hear Barton correctly, he is saying that the claims made in the First Amendment are actually a watered down version of the idea of “religious conscience” that was protected as far back as the arrival of the Pilgrims and the Puritans in the early 17th century, over 150 years prior to the adoption of the Bill of Rights. So let’s assume Barton is correct here. Did the earliest settlers who arrived in America 400 years ago want to protect the “religious conscience of everyone in their society?” Sadly, the answer is no.
The founders of the Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony (founded by the Puritans Barton mentions) believed in freedom of conscience, but only for those Christians who believed exactly the way they did. Barton quoted 1 Corinthians 8, which says, to paraphrase Barton, that it is our responsibility to “respect differences of religious conscience.” But he then went on to describe a 17th-century society in New England that did just the opposite. Serious Christians in 17th-century New England were banished from Puritan society because they had different theological beliefs than those of the leadership of Plymouth and Massachusetts. Anne Hutchinson believed that the leaders of Massachusetts, including John Winthrop, the man who coined the phrase “City Upon a Hill,” were not sufficiently Christian enough. She was kicked out after a lengthy trial. And when she later gave birth to a deformed baby Winthrop said that it was a punishment of God placed upon her for disagreeing with the doctrinal teachings of the Puritans. Winthrop believed that he was speaking on behalf of providence.
Roger Williams was booted from the colony because he was a Baptist and believed in the separation of religion and government. He criticized the Puritan leaders because he did not think it was appropriate for the government to meddle in religion. His primary interest was to protect the purity of the church. Williams was forced to wander in the wilderness and nearly died of starvation until the Indians helped him found the town of Providence, Rhode Island.
Winthrop “differed on the little things” (Barton at the 14:30 mark) with Hutchinson and Williams, but in doing so he did not respect their right to exercise their religious consciences. Yet Barton holds up the society Winthrop governed as a model for us to follow today because these “first settlers” celebrated “religious conscience.”
Perhaps the greatest irony of the New England settlements was that these Puritans came to America partially to protect their right to conscience, but then did not protect the rights of those with whom they disagreed. It is important that we get a full picture of the past.
15:30: Barton says that the early settlers (I assume he means New England settlers because these are the images he shows) “had a great relationship” with the Indians. I am not sure how he defines “great,” but it is worth noting that these Puritans and Pilgrims were in almost constant war with the Indians over the course of the seventeenth century as white settlement moved westward into Indian lands.
17:35: French Huguenots did not “primarily found” South Carolina and New York., as Barton says. While Huguenots were present in both places, these colonies were not founded “primarily” on religious freedom. New York (known at the time as New Netherland) was founded in 1620 by the Dutch as a trading outpost. South Carolina was founded by settlers arriving from Barbados with their slaves.
19:10: David Barton suggests that the First Amendment only protects the “rights of conscience” of those who are Christians. “As long as” one’s actions are “biblical,” or fall within a “biblical scope,” and reflect a belief in the Christian Gospel and the inspiration of the Bible, they are protected. So I wonder what happens to people living in America whose consciences lead them to live as Muslims or atheists? How do they fit into the American experiment?
Let me politely suggest that David Barton’s view of American history is deeply flawed. He manipulates the past to serve political ends. Christians might choose to defend or reject contemporary issues based on an appeal to Christian morality, but let’s be very careful about doing so based on an appeal to American history.
I wish you well in your continued studies at Charis Bible College. I would be more than happy to come out to Colorado the next time I am in town (my in-laws live in Fort Collins) and work alongside you, as a fellow believer, to make sure we get our history correct. I would welcome the invitation.