Written by Dale Suderman Wednesday, 05 March 2008 14:37
Historians are dangerous and subversive. While often soft-spoken and mild mannered they quietly undermine our conventional wisdom.
How often do we hear folks say, “But this is the way we have always done it” and “This is what we have always believed”? Sometimes we are taken down the opposite road, “Here is a wonderful new idea or insight that will change everything.”
Historians are messy people. They subvert both our certainty of eternal truth and our discovery of what we believe to be new by digging through old books and archives and emerging with data that challenge both our past and our future.
If a school is given a choice between hiring a Marxist or a religious fanatic versus the option of hiring a good history teacher, schools are safer with the former two rather than the later. Historians don’t picket, preach or shout. They just quietly assemble enough evidence to challenge and confuse everybody’s thinking.
I was reminded of my own love for the complexities of history when over the past years my friend, Dr. Ben Hartley, let me tag along with him while he was doing his doctoral research using archives in Boston and Chicago. He was asking questions about what evangelical Protestants were like in Boston after the Civil War.
Ben did the heavy lifting and deep thinking while I was happy to chase the bunny rabbits of historical trivia.
Ben discovered that Boston evangelicals had a passionate concern for the poor—particularly immigrants and children. At the same time, they were often virulently anti-Catholic—a sort of compassionate bigotry.
I rediscovered Francis Willard, the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. My assumption was that she was a prim and proper single woman supporting conservative causes such as prohibition. In fact she was a power house who could speak alongside D.L. Moody at revival meetings, but she was also a feminist, socialist and supporter of radical union causes.
In 1915, Kansas passed a statute requiring public schools devote every Sept. 28 as a day to teach students about the life and values of Francis Willard. This statute may still be on the books. If so, compliance would require that children be exposed to feminism, socialism, unionism as well as prohibition. This might be stretch for the Kansas Board of Education.
(I am indebted to Howard Collett for verifying the existence of Francis Willard Day.)
The Francis Willard story reminds me that Kansas was once a hotbed of radicalism. Mary Ellen Lease spoke to an audience of thousands without the help of a microphone and told Kansas farmers to, “Raise less corn and more hell.”
“Sockless Jerry” Simpson was a three-term Kansas congressman who reviled his rich Republican opponent by saying, “He wears silk stockings but I don’t wear any socks at all.” (Actually he said underwear, but the press was too prudish to print the word.)
Poking around archives reminded me that the values of our two major political parties have shifted over the past century. After the Civil War, it was Republicans who supported civil rights and social reform more than Democrats. (There are hints of this until the 1970s—after all it was Richard Nixon who proposed both OSHA and the major environmental legislation.) Democrats were often a weird coalition of urban immigrants and southern racists led by deal-making party bosses.
Historians deal with odd and paradoxical people and events. When the religious fanatics shout that some world leader has the mark of the beast with a 666 on his forehead, the historian listens attentively, takes notes and says to himself, “Well, until now I only had evidence of 777 different men who were labeled as the antichrist but now I have 778.”
Folks see same-sex unions as a radical new innovation. But church historians remember that from the fourth century on, there was a tradition of same-sex church marriages. Men would marry their best friend to ensure they would be together in heaven. Apparently many men could not bear the thought of spending eternity talking only to their wives, so this was a ritual to determine eternal seating.
Maybe the men had plans to get a six-pack of beer and do some celestial fishing together—if they could avoid the steely gaze of Francis Willard.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote the English novelist, L.P. Hartley—no relation to my friend, Ben Hartley.
Historians give us travelogues to our past. Taken seriously they may cause us to renew our passports to see new lands.
You can contact the writer at Dale.Suderman@gmail.com.