Christian historians and the “imago Dei”

Why Study HistoryEarlier today I posted on the politicization of the Judeo-Christian belief that human beings are created in the image of God.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in the imago Dei informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Historians are not in the business of studying God; they are in the business of studying humans. Those committed to the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that God created us in his image. Human beings are the highest form of his creation and thus have inherent dignity and worth independent of their actions and behavior. Because we are made in the likeness of our creator and thus share, in some fashion, the divine image, human life is precious and sacred. There are no villains in history. While people have been created with freedom, and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subject bears the image of God and thus has value in God’s eyes.

The imago Dei should also inform the way a Christian does history. This doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the people whom we come across when visiting the “foreign country” that is the past. It should shape the way we teach the past, write about the past, and interpret the past.

An approach to the past informed by an affirmation of the imago Dei can make the Christian historian’s work compatible with some of the best scholarship that the historical profession has to offer. Let me illustrate this from my own subdiscipline, the study of colonial American history.

Lately, historians have been complicating the very definition of what we have traditionally called “colonial America.” Recent scholarship on the history of the North American continent between 1500 and 1800 has suggested that “colonial America” is a loaded phrase. For most of my students, “colonial America” is equivalent to the “thirteen colonies”–those individual settlements that came together in 1776 to rebel against England and form the United States of America. When I ask them why we should study the colonies, they inevitably answer by saying something about the importance of understanding the reasons for the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. For most of them, the purpose of studying the colonial period is to locate the seeds of their nation–as if these seeds were somehow planted in the soil of Jamestown and Plymouth, were watered through a host of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century events, and finally blossomed in the years between the resistance to the Stamp Act (1765) and the writing of the Declaration of Independence (1776). The colonial period thus becomes part of the grand civics lesson that is the American history survey course.

This approach to teaching history has demographic implications. Who are the most important actors in the stories we tell about the American colonies? Since the United States survey course has always been taught as a way of producing good American citizens, the most important people and events will be those who contributed to the forging of a new nation. In this view, the worth of particular humans living during this period, or the degree of prominence that these humans will have in the stories we tell about the period, is based on the degree to which they contributed to the creation of the United States rather than their dignity as human beings created in God’s image.

For example, we might give short shrift to humans living in North America who did not contribute in obvious ways to the founding of the American republic. We all know the usual suspects: Native Americans, women, slaves, and anyone not living in the British colonies. But if the colonial period is understood less as a prelude to the American Revolution and more as a vital and fascinating period worthy of study on its own, then these marginalized historical actors become more important and our teaching becomes more comprehensive, inclusive, and, according to recent scholarship, historically accurate.

Consider Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, a history of colonial America published in 2002. For Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, the colonies should not be studied solely for how they served as the necessary forerunner to the events of the American Revolution. Rather, they should be studied for the story of European imperial expansion in North America and for the impact that such expansion had on whites, natives, and slaves. The changes that this expansion brought to the lives of ordinary people, Taylor argues, were the real “revolution” that took place on the continent between 1500 and the turn of the nineteenth century. For Taylor, European expansion did more to change the lives of the inhabitants of North America than did the hostilities between the British colonies and the mother country in the years leading up to 1776. This was a social revolution, not a political one.

Taylor turns the concept of the “New World” on its head, suggesting that the colonial expansion of Europe throughout the Atlantic (and Pacific) basin brought profound changes to the Indian populations who were already there, the Africans who would arrive as slaves, and even the Europeans themselves. The American colonies were diverse and “multicultural” places. Africans, Indians, the French, the English, the Spanish, the Dutch, and even the Russians in the Pacific Northwest encountered one another in this new world. And everyone involved in this encounter was forced to adjust and adapt. All of these groups helped to create a truly global economy and, conversely, were profoundly influenced by global economic trends. Slaves were shipped as commodities to the Americas. Indians and their wars had an effect on European markets for skins and furs, even as Indian culture itself was changed by access, if not addiction, to British, French, and Spanish consumer commodities. Such an engagement also had environmental consequences as both Europeans and Indians overworked the land. European disease changed the indigenous populations of North America forever.

As for the United States, the colonial period was important for the way all of these “colonies,” with their very diverse backgrounds and cultures, assimilated over time into one national story. The British colonies and their gripes with Parliament and the king were only one part, albeit a very important part, of this larger narrative.

Some might argue that Taylor’s analysis of the colonial period is driven more by politics than by good historical practice. By including the stories of Native Americans and slaves in his narrative, Taylor is engaging in political correctness. He is giving short shrift to the white Europeans who planted the American colonies. According to such a critique, American Colonies is just another example of the left-wing historical takeover of American history.

But what if we looked at the changes in the field of colonial American history, as portrayed in Taylor’s American Colonies, from a theological perspective rooted in the belief that we are all created in the image of God and thus have inherent dignity and worth? If we view colonial America, or any period in American history for that matter, from God’s eyes, then we get a very different sense of whose voices should count in the stories we tell. To put this differently, everyone’s voice counts, regardless of whether that person or group contributed to the eventual formulation of the United States.

Now, of course, certain white Europeans–such as the founding fathers–will appear prominently in our accounts of the American Revolution and its coming, but Whig history too often only celebrates the winners, the beneficiaries of liberty and progress, or the most privileged figures in the history of Western civilization. Whig history neglects anyone who does not fit this mold, and it fails to consider the imago Dei as a legitimate category of historical interpretation.

Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that “God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless. God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social, and embodied selves with their specific needs.” What might this reality look like in our historical writing and thinking about the past? On closer examination, much of this new scholarship in colonial American history seems to be more compatible with Christian teaching about human dignity than the nationalistic narratives that have dominated much of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century and which still have influence today. A history grounded in a belief in the imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but it will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

Annette Gordon-Reed Reviews Alan Taylor’s New Book on Jefferson and Education

Taylor JeffersonWhen a Pultizer-Prize-winning American historian reviews a new book from another Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian it is worth a separate post here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Taylor’s book is titled Thomas Jefferson’s Education.  Here is a taste of Gordon-Reed’s review at The Atlantic:

The Revolution and the creation of the United States of America broadened Jefferson’s vision in many ways, and by his mid-40s, he had taken to insisting that the job of reforming Virginia—above all, ending slavery, a system in which he participated—would fall to “the rising generation.” He and his fellows in the revolutionary generation had done their service by founding a new country. It was now up to the young people who inherited that legacy to carry the torch and continue the advancement of what he considered Enlightenment values. But Jefferson could not totally bow out of the quest to transform the place he was born and had long thought of as his “country.” After 25 years in national public service, he was at last able to return to the project in 1809, and he did so decidedly in his own way.

Improving Virginia’s system of education, Jefferson believed, was the foundation upon which progress would be built, and the foundation had to be laid properly. If publicly supported primary and secondary schooling was not possible, he would shift his focus. He filled his time in retirement writing and answering letters, and playing host to the hordes of visitors who came up the mountain to see him. But his main mission was planning for a university that would rival the great universities in the North. No longer would the sons of Virginia be limited to attending his alma mater, William & Mary, or traveling north to Harvard or Yale—choices that disconcerted him for different reasons.

In Thomas Jefferson’s Education, Alan Taylor—the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia—probes that ambitious mission in clear prose and with great insight and erudition. He explains why Jefferson found those educational choices so intolerable, what he planned to do about the situation, and how his concerns and plans mapped onto a growing sectional conflict that would eventually lead to the breakup of the Union that Jefferson had helped create.

Read the entire review here.

Accidental Patriots

taylorEarlier this week on our Virtual Office Hours series we wondered about the things that motivated revolutionary war soldiers to take up arms.

Historian Caitlin Fitz takes up the question of who supported the Revolution and who did not on a larger and more general scale (not military-specific) in her review of two new books on the American Revolution: Jane Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804.

Here is a taste:

It’s life or death for America, people tell you. Angry debates about taxes, religion, and race relations inflame the newspapers. Everyone is talking politics: your spouse, your teenage daughter, your boss, your grocer. Neighbors eye you suspiciously, pressing you to buy local. Angry crowds gather, smelling of booze and threatening violence; their leaders wink, confident that the ends justify the means. The stores have sold out of guns.

It’s 1775 in Britain’s American colonies. Whose side are you on?

Read the rest in the December 2016 issue of The Atlantic.  

And check out interview with Fitz on her new book Our Sister Republics.  And check out our interview with Taylor here.

Alan Taylor: “We honor the founders best by sustaining their debates over core principles of government.”

founding-fathers-strip

As a historian, I think it is fair to say that there is much about the 2016 presidential race that is unprecedented. But, as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor reminds us, even the founding fathers fought bitterly over the best way to secure a bright future for the United States.

Here is a taste of his recent New York Times op-ed: “Our Feuding Founding Fathers.”

Instead of offering a single, cohesive and enduring vision for America, the founders were diverse and squabbling. They generated contradictory political principles that persist to our own day. Instead of offering us an antidote to our divisions, those clashing founders created them.

Our early politics were so edgy and shrill because the stakes involved were so high, as leaders and their followers struggled to define the revolution and Constitution. The union of states and the republican form of government were new, tenuous, vulnerable and open to debate. It was easy to imagine one’s political rivals as ominous threats to free government. When Mr. Trump accuses Mrs. Clinton of cofounding the Islamic State, he echoes the recklessness with which Hamilton associated Jefferson with the bloody Jacobins of the French Revolution.

We often hear pundits declare that our politics have never been more polarized. In fact, politics were even more divided and violent in the era of the founders, when one minister worried that the “parties hate each other as much as the French and English hate” each other in time of war. In one town, when a Republican neighbor died, a Federalist declared, “Another God Damned Democrat has gone to Hell, and I wish they were all there.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Alan Taylor

american-revolutionsAlan Taylor is Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. This interview is based on his new book, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).

JF: What led you to write American Revolutions?

AT: I have been teaching the field for many years and developed an approach that tried to combine social and political history as well as incorporating the broad reach of the North American continent in the story.  I had taken a similar approach in my book American Colonies and wanted to write a sequel that carried the continental story forward through the American Revolution into the early nineteenth century.

JF: What is the argument of American Revolutions?

AT: The book emphasizes the role of western expansion, native resistance, and British attempts to regulate the west in the constitutional crisis that disrupted the empire and led to the revolution.  In the West, I also locate the fulfillment of that revolution as Jeffersonian Republicans ultimately facilitated and hastened that expansion.  American Revolutions also asserts the multiple dimensions of revolution as experienced by native peoples, the enslaved, Canadians, Spanish Americans, and French imperialists.  Competing definitions of the revolution also divided Jeffersonians from Hamiltonians in the politics of the early republic.  And our own political divisions persist along fault lines inherited from that still contested revolution.

JF: Why do we need to read American Revolutions?

AT: The American Revolution transformed the continent, unleashing the movement of peoples, diseases, and ideas that would shape not only the United States but Canada and the colonies of Spanish America, which would host their own revolutionary movements during the next generation.  In addition, we cannot well understand our political disputes and dilemmas today without grasping the creation of our republican institutions during the late eighteenth century.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AT: I loved to read history books of all sorts as a child and had the encouragement of my parents and teachers.  Access to local public libraries was also essential to sustaining my interest.  And I benefited from generous undergraduate mentors who taught me the skills and gave me the confidence to pursue graduate study in American history.

JF: What is your next project?

AT: I am researching Thomas Jefferson’s college education in late colonial Virginia and how he and other graduates of the College of William and Mary came to design a radically different sort of university meant to fulfill and consolidate the American Revolution.

JF: Thanks, Alan. Sounds like some good stuff.

Alan Taylor Channels Gordon Wood

school-house

By now many of you have probably read a review of Alan Taylor‘s new synthesis of the American Revolution.  (We will be featuring Taylor in an upcoming edition of the Author’s Corner.  Stay tuned).

Writing in The New York Times, Gordon Wood described Taylor’s work this way:

A major legacy of the Revolution, he concludes, was the emergence of a society dominated by ordinary middle-class white men, the very people he has most criticized as patriarchal, racist and genocidal. In Taylor’s mind their victory seems to have come at the expense of others. By focusing on common white men, he maintains, the Revolution worked against blacks, Indians and women. The question raised by Taylor’s book is this: Can a revolution conceived mainly as sordid, racist and divisive be the inspiration for a nation?

And here is Eric Herschthal at Slate:

Taylor…gives a central role to women, blacks, and Native Americans in determining the war’s fate. The wives and daughters of Patriot soldiers took over the shops, farms, and slave plantations of those who left to fight. For the first time in their lives, white women became public participants in politics, organizing boycotts and participating in street protests.

Indeed, Taylor’s new book is not your traditional Whig history of the American Revolution.  If the reviews I read are correct, Taylor gives due attention to women, blacks, frontier settlers, and Native Americans, making these groups important actors in the story.  (I discussed, and praised, Taylor’s similar approach to the colonial period in Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).  Since I have not yet read American Revolutions, I don’t know how Taylor covers the so-called “founding fathers.”  I am guessing that few reviewers, especially historians of a progressive bent, will say much about his treatment of these white men.

But for those who have not yet read the book, I think we get a glimpse of how Taylor treats the founders’ ideas from his recent piece at the American Scholar titled “The Virtue of an Education Voter.”

A lot of folks on my social media feeds are criticizing Gordon Wood’s review of the book (perhaps rightly so–Wood writes with his usual crankiness), but in this American Scholar piece Taylor sounds a lot like Wood in The Creation of the American Republic.  Taylor focuses on the role that “virtue” and the common good played in the founders’ thinking, particularly as it relates to their belief in an educated citizenry.  Like Wood, Taylor argues that this kind of self-sacrificial virtue was important to the founders.

But Taylor also writes prescriptively about the founders’ belief in the importance of virtue.   In other words, he suggests that the founders were correct when they called for a virtuous republic built upon an educated citizenry.  He tries to resuscitate these civic humanist arguments and employ them in our current debates over the funding of education.

Perhaps there is more Gordon Wood in Taylor’s book than some reviewers would like to admit.

Here is a taste of Taylor’s essay:

We have come to think and speak of education as primarily economic (rather than political) and individual (rather than social) in its rewards. As a consequence, growing numbers of voters care only for the education of their own children. These conceptual and rhetorical shifts lead legislators to wonder why taxpayers should pay for the education of others—particularly those of poorer means, different culture, or darker color. If only the individual, rather than society as a whole, benefits from education, let the student bear the cost of it: so runs the new reasoning.

During every recession, state governments make budget cuts, and public colleges and universities become the tempting, soft targets. That temptation grows when states feel pinched by rising costs for Medicaid and prisons (places stuffed with the poorly educated). By reducing public support for colleges and universities, legislators and governors induce them to increase the tuition and fees that students pay. A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that since the 2008 recession, states have reduced spending on public higher education by 17 percent per student. During the same period, tuition has risen by 33 percent. The University of California system is the largest in the nation. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the state of California provided a quarter of the system’s budget in 2002. After a billion dollars in cuts, the state now pays for just nine percent of the system’s costs, yet legislators howl in outrage when university administrators admit more out-of-state and foreign students, who can be charged twice as much as in-state students. The same game is playing out in every state.

Increasingly reliant on loans to cover the cost of higher education, students have assumed alarming levels of debt: an estimated $1.3 trillion owed by 42 million Americans. According to the August issue of Consumer Reports, graduates this year average $37,000 in debt per student. The debt burden puts a drag on the overall economy and society, as thousands of graduates delay buying a home or having children. Increasingly, young people from middle-class families question whether attending college is worth the cost.


As a country, we are in retreat from the Jefferson and Peck dream of equal educational opportunity for all. And the future social costs will be high. Proportionally fewer Americans will benefit from higher education, inequality will increase, and free government will become a stage set for opportunists to pander to the prejudices and fears of the poorly educated.

Although the current definition of education is relentlessly economic, the source of the crisis is political. Just as in Jefferson’s day, most legislators and governors believe that voters prefer tax cuts to investments in public education. Too few leaders make the case for higher education as a public good from which everyone benefits. But broader access to a quality education pays off in collective ways: economic growth, scientific innovation, informed voters and leaders, a richer and more diverse culture, and lower crime rates—each of which benefits us all. Few Americans know the political case for education advanced by the founders. Modern politicians often make a great show of their supposed devotion to those who founded the nation, but then push for the privatization of education as just another consumer product best measured in dollars and paid for by individuals. This reverses the priorities of the founders.

Americans lost something valuable when we forsook “virtue” as a goal for education and a foundation for free government. In 1950, a Harvard committee published an influential report titled General Education in a Free Society. The authors wrote that “our society, like any society, rests on common beliefs and … a major task of education is to perpetuate them.” But the report struggled to define the “common beliefs” best taught by modern American universities. In the 19th century, most colleges had promoted a patriotism linked to Protestant Christianity. But in our own century, no one creed seems capable of encompassing the diverse backgrounds and values of American students. We also balk at empowering any public institution to teach a particular political orthodoxy. The sole common ground is a celebration of the university as a “marketplace of ideas,” where every individual can pick and choose her or his values. Secular universities preach just one core value: the open and free investigation of multiple ideas. Liberal education now favors a process of free choice rather than any other particular belief.

We need to revive the founders’ definition of education as a public good and an essential pillar of free government. We should also recover their concept of virtue, classically defined, as a core public value worth teaching. That, in turn, would enable more voters to detect demagogues seeking power through bluster and bombast and pandering to the self-interest of members of the electorate. At the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman in Philadelphia is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the delegates had created for the people. He supposedly replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

Read the entire piece here.

This Week’s "Anxious Bench" Post at Patheos: "The Historian and Imago Dei"

Two weeks ago I wrote in this space about the relationship between the historians work and the reality of human sin.  This week, I want to focus on the historian’s work as it relates to the Judeo-Christian belief in Imago Dei.  Those committed to the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that God has created humans beings.  In the opening chapters of the Old Testament book of Genesis we learn more about what that means.  One central theme in the Genesis creation story is the affirmation that human beings are created in the image of God (“Imago Dei” in the Latin).  Consider Genesis 1:26-27: 

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our own image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

The fact that God created us in his image, as the most beautiful and highest form of His creation, implies that all human beings have inherent dignity and worth independent of their actions and behavior.  Because we are made in the likeness of our creator and thus share, in some fashion, the divine image, human life is precious and sacred.  There are no villains in history.  While people have been created with freedom, and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subject bears the image of God and thus has inherent value in His eyes.

Read the rest here.