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April 2016 Brief: Volume 23, Number 12

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Why History Is Important in Our Public Life


by Jerry Hopkins, Ph.D.



My aim in writing these columns is to help each of you in your understanding of history and in learning key things that will encourage and enrich your faith in both God and man. History is a discipline that deals with truth, facts, events, persons, memories, memorials, monuments, tragedies, triumphs, treasures, relationships, and various artifacts. It also deals with emotions such as love and hate, joy and sadness, and a wide range of other emotive experiences. I have often expressed this feeling regarding history – “I love history.” There are many who also embrace this emotive response regarding the study of the past. The Apostle Paul expressed this experience when he wrote, “Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). History is not just a matter of personal opinion, individual preference, or sectarian dogma. It is about truth: what is real, reliable, and factual. Our knowledge of the past is related to what exists in memory, in documents, in artifacts, in monuments, and in other physical remains. Part of the historical experience is learning to evaluate the truthfulness, the reliability of what remains to testify to historical reality.

Sometimes people try to manufacture historical “proof”; they fabricate a lie or series of lies about events or persons for some prejudicial reason. One of the best examples of this is what has been happening for the last fifty or sixty years in historical studies of America’s Founding Fathers, particularly George Washington. For many years there has been an intentional and aggressive effort on the part of some historians and social theorists to reinterpret and to rewrite much of the early, colonial history of America in such as way as to cast some of our Founding Fathers in a totally different light than what their lives actually were. One grave example of this malicious effort has been clearly and powerfully exposed in the publication of Peter A. Lillback’s (with the assistance of Jerry Newcombe) massive 1,187-page George Washington’s Sacred Fire. They put to rest the lie of historians who fostered doubt that Washington was a devout Christian, such as Paul Boller’s influential study Washington and Religion that depicted Washington as being a leader who might have been “nominally Christian,” but who did not take the faith seriously; in fact, Boller argues Washington should be “classified as a Deist” rather than a traditional Anglican.

In Lillback’s carefully researched and impressively documented study, the authors discuss the extensive proof of Washington’s faithfulness and support for and participation in the Anglican Church. In Washington’s collected works you can find more than one hundred prayers he composed and wrote in his own hand. In his First Inaugural Address, Washington spoke of “the sacred fire of liberty” which gives the title for this revealing study of our first President. Washington was a Christian who prayed, encouraged those around him to pray, and practiced his faith on a consistent and regular basis. The authors write, “We believe that when all the evidence is considered, it is clear that George Washington was a Christian and not a Deist, as most scholars since the latter half of the twentieth century have claimed.”

Historians should pursue truth. We should not fashion history in our own thinking, but in the real study of what men such as Washington left us in their papers. It is terribly wrong and morally unacceptable for historians to fashion the biography of anyone incorrectly. As the authors of this excellent study of Washington’s religion put it, “The erosion of accurate historicity is disconcerting: One scholar casts Washington in a Deistic mold. The next goes further and states – without citing evidence – that he didn’t even go to church. What will the next generation of scholars claim?” It is such abysmal ignorance of facts and the actual documentary evidence that led to this study of Washington’s “own written words and the unquestionable records of his actions.” I hope you will find a copy of Lillback’s study of Washington’s religious faith and how it related to his life and leadership instructive for a better understanding of the current political scene. As a historian I am interested in pursuing historical accuracy and truth in the context of real facts and documents. I trust that these words will inspire you to read, to study, and to write about your own experiences.


Dr. Jerry Hopkins is a history professor at East Texas Baptist University and a freelance columnist living in Marshall, TX. Contact him at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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