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A Reluctant Revisionist
A. Trevor Sutton

It was 6:00 on a Wednesday evening, and I was teaching my catechism class as usual; however, things were different that evening. My students were unusually interested in the evening’s lesson on the Reformation. They listened as I explained the practice of selling indulgences and the advent of the printing press. They oddly hung on my words as I told stories of excommunication and the Diet of Worms. There was an audible sigh of relief when I told them that Luther and Tyndale had translated Scripture into the vernacular.

Still, a confession needs to be made—in the course of my ninety-minute lecture I failed to mention a few important things. I breezed over the thousands of revolutionaries that rioted in churches during the Peasants’ Revolt. I left out the whole part about Anabaptists being drowned on account of their baptism beliefs. I made Luther’s scatological jokes appear as harmless as a child’s knock-knock joke. I deemed the Thirty Years’ War a brief skirmish of little consequence.

It was not with any malice that I neglected the darker sides of the Reformation. I like to think of it as a sin of omission.

I will admit that I revised some bits of the historical record. I admit that I left out some of the bad parts of the Reformation. I simply did not have it in me to dash the hopes of these fragile minds with such negativity. For over an hour, these students had thwarted their pubescent urges and focused on something larger than themselves or Facebook. In an age of Twitter and Skype, they had been mildly captivated by stories of Hus and Tyndale. Hearing about Luther and Campeggio duking it out made them momentarily forget about what they were recording on TiVo. For a split second, thoughts about acne and the opposite sex had been supplanted by thoughts about church history. I was not going to rob my students—or myself—of that precious moment, nor did I know how to explain to angry parents why I had taught their twelve year olds about drowning Baptists. 

Later that evening I pondered what I had done. I thought of something a boisterous Greek professor once told me. When the class accused him of lying about certain grammatical rules, he told us, “In order to teach a language, you must be able to lie with a straight face.” His pithy little statement contains a serious truth. Every language has exceptions to the rules; nevertheless, it is better to learn the rules first and the exceptions to those rules second.  Students must learn regular verbs before they take on the task of learning irregular verbs.

This was the same rationale that I used when I left out all the messy parts of the Protestant Reformation. I wanted my students to see the proverbial forest despite the trees. I wanted them to learn the positive outcomes of the Reformation before they learned the negative aftermath. I wanted to pass on the general consensus of the Reformation. Either way, I can sleep at night knowing that some college professor will come by and straighten them out eventually.

In fact, I am the product of this same didactic method. In fifth grade, I was taught that the American Civil War was fought on the moral grounds of stomping out slavery. The thought that soldiers fought because of deeply held convictions made history come alive for me. As an imaginative ten year old, I assumed that every solider in the Union ranks was as adamant an abolitionist as John Brown himself. I later found out that the war transpired amid less inspiring factors, namely economic tension and cotton. My teacher had revised the historical record here and there, and I came out unscathed.

I take solace knowing that I am in the company of boisterous Greek professors and my former grade school teachers. I know that my motives were pure; I omitted parts of history in the hope that my students would walk away appreciating part of church history. I simply wanted them to take an interest in this sliver of their church’s lineage.

Still, I cannot get over the feeling that I had committed a crime of sorts; at least it felt criminal to leave out intentionally the nastier parts of Reformation history. That evening, twenty-three blank slates sat trustingly in my classroom waiting for me to imprint my knowledge into their malleable brains. For many of my students, it was the first time they had seriously considered the Reformation. I was the one making the crucial first strokes on these soft tabulae rasae. The crime that I committed that evening was imprinting my version of Reformation history on these young thinkers. Everything that I presented to them was ostensibly true, but I knew all too well the moves that I was making. I knew exactly when I was stepping over a pile of Luther’s scatological humor. I knew precisely when and why I was hopping over part of the historical record.

My assessment of the Reformation is that it was a much needed step forward for the church; however, I recognize that many of my brothers and sisters in other corners of the church would disagree with me. At the very moment I was presenting the Reformation as a glorious event in history, another group of students was receiving precisely the opposite lesson.

The question at hand is one that has been asked before: Could I have presented anything other than my own version of history? Søren Kierkegaard, himself a product of Lutheran catechism classes, would likely say that my crime of historical bias was unavoidable; fully separating the self from the object is impossible. In the same manner, a Lutheran pastor presenting a completely unbiased rendition of the Reformation is equally impossible. Certainly Kierkegaard does not let me off the hook entirely, but it makes me feel better to know that he saw personal filters as inevitable to humanity.  

Presenting a biased historical record that is fraught with tactical omissions is one thing; is that somehow different from presenting a historical record that is fraught with additions?

I omitted part of history; others like to add to history. Not too long ago, the Virginia historian Thomas P. Lowry added something to history with a stroke of his pen.  Over a decade ago, Lowry was alone in the National Archives working with some historical documents when he noticed something tempting. By changing the date on a presidential pardon from “April 14, 1864” to read “April 14, 1865,” Lowry could claim it as the last official act performed by Lincoln before his assassination. Seeking recognition from his historian buddies, Lowry forged the document and claimed to be the discoverer of this relic from America’s past. Fortunately, a decade after he did it, the ink addition that Mr. Lowry added to Lincoln’s pardon began looking a bit suspect. He was left with no other option but to admit his forgery.

Adding to history for personal gain—even if it only takes three millimeters of ink—is the work of scoundrels. Mr. Lowry was looking for prestige and fame; I was just looking for students that were eager to receive their communal history. The communal history that my students received was what their parents had signed them up for. Like me, these parents saw Luther as the champion of the Reformation. Otherwise, they would not have signed their children up to be in a Lutheran catechism class. 

It is easy to agree that there is something wrong with adding to or removing from the historical record. It is much harder to agree on the public responsibility one has in teaching a communal history to young students. What is certain is this: teachers of history have an obligation to honesty. That honesty will probably not take the shape of complete and utter disclosure of all historical events. Rather, the honesty that is required in passing on a communal history is of a personal nature. Teachers of history must honestly decipher their motives and intentions. It is impossible not to taint the lesson with personal opinion and emotion, but it is possible to perceive when those opinions and emotions are impinging on the integrity of the lesson.

 

A. Trevor Sutton is a student at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri.

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