Why History Matters

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, March 7, 2011

Why History Matters

My library consists of several thousand volumes, and it is divided into sections:  biblical studies, world religions, apologetics, cultural studies, Christian living, biography, theology, leadership, ministry, social issues, reference works, science, history and more.

I was in my study, reading in my “reading” chair, and I looked up and glanced around the shelves.  A random thought entered my mind:  “If I could touch a single set of shelves and instantly absorb all of the knowledge those books contained in a photographic way that would be with me permanently, which set of shelves would I wrap my arms around?”

I knew in an instant.

It would be the section of books related to history.  Perhaps not everyone’s first choice.  But perhaps it should be.

As Francis Bacon once wrote, “Histories make men wise.”  Cicero would have agreed, writing, “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain a child always.”

Why is it so important?  Because understanding our day demands understanding the day before.  This means history.  I know that many people were forced to study history in high school under a person singularly gifted to present the subject with numbing dullness.  As a result, many of us read the word “history,” and instantly want to close the book and reach for the remote control.

As long as it doesn’t turn on the History Channel.

But history is not simply a cascade of names and dates, divorced from meaning and relevance.  It is the story of our world.  Just as learning about your family of origin helps put the pieces of a larger puzzle together in terms of who you are now, so understanding the flow of events and ideas from centuries past brings clarity and insight to the present moment of our day.  There’s an old adage suggesting that the one who forgets history is condemned to repeat it.  Perhaps more to the point is that the one who ignores history is condemned to be swept away by its directive force.

Or as Mark Noll has written, when it comes to Christian interactions with surrounding culture, “almost all such issues have been faced before, at least in some form…[and] believers – guided by Scripture, church authorities, sage employment of worldly wisdom, and the inner prompting of the Spirit – have often acted wisely and well on such cultural matters.”

So whether it is the Council of Nicaea or the coronation of Charlemagne, the French Revolution or the Cuban Missile Crisis, history matters.  And because of the fast-paced nature of political and cultural change, it matters now more than ever.

So turn on the History Channel.  Read the works of those who have contributed critically acclaimed while highly readable and entertaining histories, such as Barbara Tuchman, Paul Johnson, William Manchester, Simon Schama, Susan Wise Bauer and David McCullough.

And then remember the words of Soren Kierkegaard:  “We live forward, but we can only think backward.”

Let the thinking begin.

James Emery White



Francis Bacon, Of Studies.

John Lukacs, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History.

Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.  

Why History Matters