Teaching and Interpreting American History

Author’s Note: Nota bene: This article is a revised reprint of an article I wrote at one time for the Hope Protestant Reformed Christian School Highlights.
At sometime in the school life of every American living in the twentieth century, the history of America becomes a subject for study and reflection. It is necessary for the school, whether it be public, private or Christian to acquaint students with the history of our country, the United States. In some states this subject is prescribed by legal statute. This is true in the State of Michigan.
Traditionally a course in American or U.S. History has included such topics as: The Discovery Period, The Colonial Period, The Revolutionary Generation in Charge, The Period of Federalist Dominance, The Era of Jeffersonian Democracy, The Rise of the Common Man, The Reign of King Jackson, The Westward Movement and the Industrial Revolution. These are just a few of the many topics that could be considered in a U.S. History course. To teach the facts of these periods is not so difficult but to interpret and to see some pattern and reason for these events is the difficult task.
Leopold van Ranke (1795-1886) lectured at the University of Berlin and is considered by many as the “Nestor of Historians”. He taught that history should be written from eye-witness reports and from the “purest, most immediate documents”. The historian, he said, must treat each period with unswerving impartiality. Each particular must be grasped as a part of universal history. This he considered to be the sole duty of the historian. His method has been called historicism.
In the book, Christian Reflections, by C. S. Lewis, the writer is quite frankly at war with the historicist. Lewis identifies and defines historicism as: “…the belief that men can, by the use of their natural powers, discover an inner meaning in the historical process”.
With the position of van Ranke we basically differ. We differ because it is impossible for man to be “unswervingly impartial.” I doubt very much whether van Ranke could write a history in which he tenaciously followed this basic principle. It is impossible to write such a thorough history of the world or of a nation which would include every fact of history. Some basic prejudice would become evident in the very selection of the facts or details of the history being written. The reason for this is that the historian does not really write history. Only God writes history. The historian is a historiographer. The historian is a sinful man and will of necessity violate the principle of “unswerving impartiality.”
I maintain that one cannot be so impartial. In fact, everyone has a basic prejudice and bias which will determine his selection and presentation of the facts of history. It is my contention that one cannot teach or write history. He writes a history which must be understood in terms of his own basic prejudice. He places a construction on history. By his very nature, man must give an interpretation of history. He will arrange history so that the pattern is according to his basic philosophy of life.
The teacher in the Protestant Reformed Christian School has the calling to interpret history and to be “unswervingly partial.” I am sure that he cannot come to a correct interpretation of the history of America unless he is in the first place a dedicated student of history. This means that he must be a student of the past so that he may give an interpretation which is consistent with the many events that occur and are called the history of the world. I also believe that if one is to correctly interpret history and the history of America, he must be unswervingly partial to the Word of God. He must be a student of the Scriptures. He must also be a student of the theology, of the philosophy and of the literature that has been written and has been espoused in theory and practice by the American people. This is a big bill to fill. One wonders if there is anyone who is completely adequate to this task.
C. Gregg Singer in his book, A Theological Interpretation of American History, asserts that the student of history must be clearly aware of the theological backgrounds of a people to understand and interpret the history of the people. He believes this is especially true of the student of the history of America. America is the melting-pot of nations in more ways than one. I, too, am sure that the student of history in our Protestant Reformed community must be a student of the ideologies and the theological changes in America. He must study the growth of apostasy and the development of the lie in a land which was settled primarily by immigrants from Europe. The apostatizing of the Church, the development of the lie and the tremendous growth of pseudo-Christianity has had a profound effect on the pattern of American political, constitutional, social and economic development.
The truth of the Word of God and the Devil’s lie came into America with the European settlers. It came into America in the form of western civilization and the established “Christian” church when the white man first stumbled upon the shores of America in the 15th and 16th centuries. The battle of the ages would be fought on a new soil in the context of western philosophy versus Reformed Biblical theology. This has had a profound effect on American history.
For this reason we must ultimately understand the history of America in terms of the teaching of the Scriptures. We must have taken our starting point in the Word of God. We must have heeded in our interpretation of American history the command of one of the seven angels which had the seven vials in his hand and talked with John.
“Come hither; I will shew unto Thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters:…And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” Revelation 17:1b and 5b.
It is basic that we understand that the nations of the earth are the beast spoken of in Revelation and that these nations unite with the whore (the false church). America is one of these nations.
An interpretation of history involves an understanding of the teaching of the Scriptures concerning the ultimate victory of the Lamb. The Lamb shall overcome them for He is Lord of lords and King of kings. They that are with the Lamb are called and chosen and faithful. Those that are with the whore and with the beast shall be made desolate for they are peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues. This basic understanding and presupposition must form the basis for all interpretation that is given in the history classrooms of the Christian School in the Protestant Reformed community. (See Revelation 17)
This is not historicism, but it is an “unswerving partiality” to the Scriptures. The Bible becomes the primary source for all the interpretation of the events of the past, the present and the future.
Show me a teacher who says concerning the history of the world and concerning U.S. history: “I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things,” and I know that he interprets history theologically. Show me a teacher who declares with Amos: “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” and I will know that he interprets history theocentrically.

Originally Published in:
Vol. 29 No. 4 June July 1969