In his Requiem for a Nun, the poet William Faulkner somberly reminds us that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The persons and events of generations past in many ways are still very much alive, influencing and informing our current dialogues, discussions, and perspectives. Since our understanding of history is so crucial to understanding ourselves and to imagining our future, the need for good historians has never been more important.
Recently, I had the opportunity to Zoom with Rev. Dr. Sean Michael Lucas, pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN, and Chancellor’s Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary. Dr. Lucas has written several books on southern American religious life in the 19th and 20th centuries, most recently For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (2015). In our conversation, we discussed how the vocation of historians contributes to the flourishing of the world, and how their work of restoring our collective memory and telling true stories can promote the common good in a time where there seems to be little common ground.
Matt Lietzen (ML): Take us back to the beginning. What got you interested in the study of history?
Sean Michael Lucas (SML): When I was a graduate student at Bob Jones University, I took a class on colonial American church history from Dr. David Beale. The class was set up to where your grade was connected to how many pages you read. We could read anything from the founding of America through 1800, and through that I ended up meeting this guy named Jonathan Edwards. Reading Edwards was not only good for my soul, but along the way I began to understand that history was necessary as a discipline for pastoral ministry. One of the things I try to argue when I teach church history is that church history isn’t part of the theological curriculum just because historians need jobs! It really is a profoundly pastoral discipline because in understanding the past you get a new insight on the present.
ML: Sean, how do historians bless the world? What is it about their calling and skill sets that promotes the common good the flourishing of all kinds of people?
SML: Historical work is really an exercise in collective memory. One of the things that historians do is we try to tell the truth, but we also try to remember truly. Every people has a collective memory, but the problem is that sometimes those collective memories aren’t true! We all have this experience–we go to family reunions and people are telling stories about ancestors that we never knew or never met, but when we actually dig around to verify whether those stories actually happened, we realize that it wasn’t quite the way we were told. Historians are in the job of trying to tell the stories of our collective memory in a true way, but also with a mind towards human flourishing. We try not to tell our stories in destructive ways but in constructive ways.
Not only are historians in the task of collective memory, we’re also in the task of doing cross-cultural work. We all operate within cultural systems, so we don’t always see the ways in which our cultural system or our cultural moment co-opts our most fundamental beliefs–our biblical beliefs, our theological beliefs–as they bump up against race and gender and class and region and education and all sorts of things within that system. When our deepest commitments bump up against those areas, sometimes our biblical beliefs will transform our understanding of those areas. Sometimes, though, our biblical beliefs are held captive by our racial commitments or commitments to gender hierarchy or whatever it may be. When those things happen, we develop cultural blind spots, and the only way we can see those blind spots is by doing cross-cultural work, which can be done either geographically or generationally. A geographical example is like going on a short-term mission trip. Generational cross-cultural work, on the other hand, is the work of historians. Our job is to help people cross cultures generationally through time so that we can begin to see ourselves more clearly, and in seeing ourselves more clearly, hopefully we can take what we know and can act upon it in a way that is for the flourishing of the world.
ML: Thanks for that answer. As you were speaking, my mind was thinking about some of the ways the general public today does the work of history. The first thing that came to mind was the phenomenon of cancel culture, where the histories of individuals, groups, or events are scrubbed from our memory because of their moral failings and complicity in oppression. As a historian who strives to tell true stories truly, how can you help us evaluate history and historical figures in a sober yet constructive light?
SML: My first book was on Robert Lewis Dabney, the 19th century southern Presbyterian theologian. Dabney presented a real challenge for me, in part because theologically, 95% of what Dabney said I absolutely agreed with. And so, the fundamental question became, “How can someone who got it so right theologically get it so wrong when it came to slavery, segregation, and race?” Dabney is probably the most egregious example; he wrote one of the last pro-slavery defenses that was published in America in 1867, a book called A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her, of the South, where he gives a full-throated, multi-layered argument for race-based chattel slavery. So, what do you do with someone like that, someone with whom you have so much agreement theologically and yet has not just a blind spot but is culpably wrong when it comes to issues of race, segregation, and slavery?
I think one of the first things we have to say is that he is wrong. Dabney wasn’t simply a child of his time, because even in his own time there were others who held out other possibilities and pathways–Theodore Weld would be an example. He was a significant abolitionist speaker and also a Presbyterian. Weld was profoundly committed to the social equality of African Americans, as well as their legal and political equality. There were also black Presbyterian leaders in the antebellum period–Samuel Cornish, Theodore Wright, Henry Highland Garnet–Dabney could have easily listened to those men. So, the first thing we have to say is Dabney was wrong. He wasn’t simply a child of his time. There were other pathways he could have taken.
Having said that, the second thing we have to say is, “Here is a massive area of wrongness–what does that mean for his theological commitments?” Do we simply junk everything related to Dabney and his theological commitments? Recently, First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC, voted to remove [James Henley] Thornwell from their buildings and lecture series–a move with which I completely agree because of Thornwell’s full-throated defense of slavery–but does that mean the rest of Thornwell’s theology is wrong? Where these men agree with Scripture (as it is with any of us), then we listen to their theology; where they stray from Scripture, we reject it. That said, this deep commitment to race-based slavery should raise questions for us. How can we trust fully their commitments, say, to human equality, to the fact that we were all created from Adam (monogenesis)? How can we trust this when Dabney, for example, will say that African Americans represent a species that so fixed as to almost be a different kind of genus from white men and women? That’s a pretty significant error theologically! So, I think entering into some of that complexity is part of what we as historians, and really as Christian historians, are called to do because a collective memory that glides over or hides or excuses those theological errors doesn’t help any of us.
Let me say one final thing about this. All of us have areas of error, and so recognizing that God could use a Jonathan Edwards or George Whitfield or even a Robert Lewis Dabney, with all of their fallen error, actually gives me some measure of hope that God can use me, with my fault, my error, my blindness, and so forth. There’s so much more to be said, but this, I think, is where we should start.
ML: Another question I have is what can the work of historians bring to our current cultural moment, particularly as it pertains to racial reconciliation? Is there anything in particular that historians can bring to light in order to help us live differently today in light of the past?
SML: A big part of leaning into racial reconciliation and justice is to have the humility to listen well to our contemporary African-American brothers and sisters, but also to listen to our historical African-American brothers and sisters. We ought to listen well to a Frederick Douglass or a Frances Grimké, to even Howard Thurman or James Cone. We listen well not by brandishing a club–“Liberation theology! Marxist! Socialist! Nope, nope, nope!” We listen well by listening to them in their own context from their own perspective before we move to critique. I think historians can help us with that.
Anyone who has read W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic The Souls of Black Folk (which is one of the most haunting and sad books, and yet also profoundly wise) knows that Du Bois puts his finger right on the heart of African-American experience in the United States when he writes about his sense of “double consciousness,” of being both American and black. This is a double consciousness that quite honestly white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant folk don’t have in America. Du Bois also makes the point that the color line cuts through American history–which honestly, if Americans had listened well to Du Bois in 1902, perhaps we wouldn’t have had some of the conversations that we’ve had even in recent days because Du Bois points us to something that’s true. That doesn’t mean he is right about everything, in the same way that James Baldwin’s not right about everything, that Ta-Nehisi Coates is not right about everything. Part of listening well and listening out of a posture of friendship means I don’t have to agree with my friends on everything. Listening well means I extend the courtesy and the charity to hear what they’re saying in the way they intend. That’s something I think that historians can help us with.
One of the things that most historians know who work in American history is that there’s little doubt that the tragic flaw of American history is our complicity in racial injustice. That’s there from the beginning. It doesn’t undo the larger “glorious ideals” of America, but to deny that is in fact the case just betrays an ignorance of our own story. That’s where this whole issue of collective memory–a true collective memory–comes in; that’s where telling historical stories not to destroy but to be constructive comes in. Our hope is that by telling true stories, we might actually be able to see ourselves more clearly and so change. That is what the best historical work, whether Christian or non-Christian, aspires to do.
ML: Finally, Dr. Lucas, what encouragement can give you give to historians as they go about their work?
SML: The first thing I’d say is that this is work worth doing, especially now. One of the things that was happening before COVID but certainly is being accelerated is that colleges and universities are doing away with humanities and trying to focus on either STEM disciplines or job training programs. Those majors are great (my three oldest children are all STEM!), but we lose something important when we lose the stories of collective memory. The wisdom of the ages–that’s what historians bring to the table–is sorely needed today. Historians have a major role to play in helping us learn wisdom for our age, and particularly in an age that doesn’t seem to care much about history. This is good work to do so we need to keep doing it.
The second thing that I would say, especially to younger historians, is to try to plow into fields that have not been done yet. We tend to plow the same ground over and over and over again. My doctoral mentor when I was at Westminster Theological Seminary was the historian D.G. Hart. I’d gone to Westminster to write my dissertation on Jonathan Edwards because he had made such a huge impact on me as an undergraduate and graduate student. After three years of doing different work on Edwards in order to prepare myself to write a dissertation, Dr. Hart told me, “Lucas, Edwards is overdone. Do something else.” And he was right (although I eventually wrote a book on Edwards!). His advice led me to write on Dabney because there hadn’t been much work done in southern Presbyterianism.
What I’m getting at is that there are stories to be told. One of my passions, in part because of my own blindness, is the history of black Presbyterianism. One of the things that I’ve come to realize over the last seven or eight years is this recognition that in my graduate studies (nor in a book I wrote called On Being Presbyterian), I was not exposed to the fact that there were significant black Presbyterian leaders throughout Presbyterian history. So, I’ve been a little on a little bit of a crusade to try to help us know their stories and tell those stories, because if we don’t tell Black Presbyterian stories, they become invisible to us. And if Black Presbyterians of the past are invisible to us, then perhaps our Black brothers and sisters today will be invisible to us. We will act as though Black Presbyterians aren’t in the room. Unfortunately, all too often, throughout our history, white Presbyterian folk have acted just that way. So, begin to lean into these places, tell these stories–the stories of Theodore Wright or James W.C. Pennington or Henry Highland Garnet or Francis Grimké–these stories that have not been told can make a huge impact on all of us going forward.
The last thing I would encourage historians to do, particularly Christian historians, is to tell your stories to benefit the church. Even as you are writing for the academy, have an eye to benefit the church. As Christians, we believe the kingdom of God is present in his world, so we should be mindful of how we tell these stories to benefit the people of God. Yes, we’re working for the common good, but all too often we historians have told their stories for the guild and the church doesn’t benefit as a result. We Christians have profound blind spots and we’re co-opted by all kinds of things that are sub-biblical, so we need historians to help us see clearly.