From Whence We Came: Why History Is Important

I’m sure many of my readers will have heard this adage, an observation by philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The aptness of this observation has meant that it’s always been in the back of my mind, and I’ve been impressed by its continuing relevance. Readers of this blog may be aware that I’m an enthusiastic student of history – for a brief period during my late teens, I actually hoped to become a history teacher. I inherited my grandfather’s love of books, and with it a large proportion of his library. History is my passion, second only to the infinitely more profitable study of the scripture and the truth relating to divine things.

Many people don’t find history remotely interesting. I can understand that. Everyone has different interests and disinterests – sports, for example, leave me totally cold – and if we were all the same, life would be very dull. Some people’s only experience of studying history is having it cudgled into them at school, a dry litany of royal successions and the dates of battles, information which seems about as exciting as sack of gravel. To me, history is a rich tapestry – if you’ll forgive the cliché – of events, personalities, and ideas, all mingled together, all connected in innumerable fascinating ways. In certain respects, today is built on layer after layer of yesterdays – countless days and their happenings forming the foundation, the substrata, of our present-day lives. The study of history provides a wealth of context, demonstrates the nuance and shades of grey which so often attach to the movements and ideas of man, and should instill in every student a healthy dose of humility.

The reason why I’m writing about the importance of history right now is this: not only are we not remembering the past – we’re actively trying to erase it. A case in point: the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa. For those not familiar with the details of the campaign, here they are in brief: in 2015, a collective of students and staff at UCT mobilised in objection to the presence of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, an influential British businessman, mining magnate and politician in South Africa in latter part of the 19th century. Rhodes Scholarships to the University are funded from his estate, hence the statue of a seated Rhodes on the campus – until April 2015, that is. The objections to Rhodes’s presence in bronze were due to his staunchly Imperialist views, as well as his opinions on race, and the policies he instituted during his tenure as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. His last will and testament included the declaration, “I contend that we [the British] are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” His remarks and general conduct leave him wide open to accusations of white supremacism. The Rhodes Must Fall protestors regarded the statue of Rhodes as an oppressive symbol and demanded its removal – the culmination of the slow build of protest which had commenced the 1950’s.

It isn’t for me to pass judgement on Cecil Rhodes – to condemn him or exonerate him. A brief examination of his career and statements shows a man who had strong views empire and race – views shared by many of his contemporaries. His economic legacy is undoubtedly significant, and the Rhodes Scholarships are part of that legacy. I can understand the position of those strongly opposed to Rhodes and his ideas, as well as those who admire him – both have a case to make. I view him as a highly influential player in the history of the British Empire and South Africa in particular. And that is why I object to his being his statue being torn down.

History – if it’s clear-eyed and objective in its recounting – isn’t a sanitised affair. It’s often a messy business. More often than not we approach history with certain preconceptions, only to have those preconceptions shattered. That can be a stimulating experience, pleasing or distressing, perhaps both. A classic example is William Wallace – a heroic figure in the eyes of my fellow Scots, but one with a chequered history. Many of us would like to rest with the comfortable image of Wallace as Braveheart, but I would suggest that the reality is far more nuanced and difficult for the patriotic Scot to digest. A devoutly Catholic Spaniard might have a similarly uncomfortable experience trawling through the historical realities of the legendary El Campeador, El Cid. My point is that we ought to face the facts, however difficult those facts are to swallow. White-washing history condemns us to repeat it.

To return to Rhodes Must Fall, what purpose does this historical revisionism serve? I’m not a black South African. I fully admit that I can’t identify from my own personal experience with first-hand or inherited memories and traumas of apartheid, and with current experiences of institutionalised racism. I can understand, however, how a statue of Cecil Rhodes may make some South Africans, black and white, deeply uncomfortable. Notwithstanding that I would contend that discomfort, however acute, is not a reason to excise a page from the history books. Discomfort about history is part of learning from it, part of remembering the past and being shaped by it. As a Rhodes Scholar passed his bronze likeness on their way to class, they could reflect on the complexities, contradictions and conflicts which shaped the South Africa of today.

We’re already repeating history, as we erase it. The charity which runs Colston Hall in Bristol, England, has announced that it will undergo a change of name after the venue reopens following planned refurbishment in 2020. The name of Edward Colston can be found (for the moment at least) throughout Bristol. Colston was a Bristol-born merchant and Member of Parliament, celebrated in his home-town for his philanthropy – he gave large sums of money for the establishment of almshouses and schools. That money was raised in part through Colston’s activities as a slave-trader, and his business ventures relied on the exploitation of slaves. This has made him a controversial figure, with many calling for the renaming of the various streets, schools, and landmarks which memorialise him. In other words, Colston Must Fall.

As in the case of Cecil Rhodes, it’s not my purpose to pass judgement on Edward Colston. Again, I regard him as an important figure in the history of Bristol, one who shaped its present. Tearing down his statue, á la Rhodes, and renaming venues which bear his name benefits no-one. On the contrary, it’s white-washing of history, a denial of uncomfortable truths. Is it positive – is it ‘progressive’ indeed – that we forget the way that Bristol and many other towns and cities in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere, benefitted from the labours of slaves? It’s uncomfortable truth for a proud citizen to digest. Keep Colston, I say. Let his name, his statue, his image in stained glass in Bristol Cathedral be a reminder of the essential complexity of history. An antidote to pride. An injection of humility. A reminder of nuance – a reminder that no heroes are straightforwardly heroic, and few villains are unmitigatedly villainous. History is the ultimate demonstration that man is fallen and sinful, as well as a rich source of many other moral lessons. These lessons are being increasingly forgotten.

Readers of The Bowshot will know that I oppose the active participation of believers in politics, and that the outward decline of the Christian profession doesn’t overally concern me. They will know that I believe that the world will go its way, and the believer will take a different path. They may be asking, therefore, why I’m concerned that the western world is forgetting the past and, in some cases, actively trying to erase it? Surely, this is just another symptom of the ultimate irreversible decline? Yes, I believe this is true. However, it’s my fellow believers about whom I’m concerned. I’m concerned that we ourselves will forget from whence we came.

No history is more intensely interesting to me than that of the Church. In it, I see all the complexities and contradictions of human nature which colour all of human history, and throughout it all the operations of Almighty, keeping the “golden thread of the testimony”, as T.W. Carron called it, unbroken throughout two millenia. It’s the history of every believer in Christ. If we, as believers, are going to study any history at all, it should be this. And we should remember it – the good and the bad, the lights and shadows.  The Bible lays bare the lives of many men and women.  To all of them – even the greatest – attaches some degree of failure; all except One, of course, who never failed.  Any Church history written by a spiritual person should take the same line as scripture – unflinchingly recording the good with the bad, showing that no-one is perfect, that the vulnerabilities of the flesh are present even in the most spiritual of servants.  Yet the record should also show the work of God in those who displayed features of Christ, who were faithful in the midst of unfaithfulness, who triumphed over the efforts of the enemy, wearing the panoply of God.  Let the world alternately exalt and abase its heroes – we need to keep a clear-eyed view of history and the human condition.  Rhodes Must Fall?  Rhodes was fallen as soon as Adam fell.

By far the most edifying part of tracing the history of the Church is following the “golden thread”.  To see the work of God going on down these 2,000 years, unimpeded, notwithstanding the most strenuous efforts of the enemy and the weakness and failure of man.  It would teach us to boast in Christ Jesus, and not to trust in flesh (Philippians 3 v 3).  It would magnify Christ, the Rock on whom the Church is built, against which hades’ gates will not prevail.  The believer has nothing to fear from history, and so much to learn.