Last week my family and I spent five blessed days at my wife’s ancestral farm, a beautiful spot located between Navasota and Brenham in historic Washington County, known as the birthplace of the Republic of Texas in 1836. The land, possessing rolling hills, tranquil ponds, and a plethora of bluebonnets (in the spring) has been in my wife’s family since the mid-nineteenth century. It is a wonderful place, rich in beauty and nostalgia. I confess: it is one of our favorite places on earth.
It was during this trip that we occasioned to visit the museum in nearby Chappell Hill (population 553) where the region’s—and much of my wife’s family—history are on display. Housed in what used to be the Chappell Hill Female College (established in 1856), one felt immediately transported into another place and time. There were letters, photographs, and placards, all of which offered amazing insight into the lives and culture of this nearly forgotten community.
I was reminded that history is not merely some abstract record of facts and events, but rather the record of prior human beings made in God’s image and their experiences dealing with the challenges and opportunities of life within a fallen and yet beautiful world. This form of history is what connects us to our own personal past, in the case of my wife and children, but also our collective cultural past as Americans. This connection, I would argue, is of profound importance—if for no other reason than it tends to arrest our tendency toward self-centered individualism, which not only disconnects us from our past but also from enjoying real “community” in the present.
In Scripture, God Himself continually reinforces the importance of the past as a valid means of knowledge that is helpful in guiding us into the future through His dealings with the nation of Israel. God was continually commanding the people of Israel to remember what He had done for them in prior generations, so that they would remain steadfast in their faith and obedience. In the New Testament, Jesus established the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a sacred ceremony of remembrance so that every subsequent generation of believers would recall and reflect upon the Lord’s ultimate act of grace and mercy.
Every human action, both past and present, is either in accord with or in contradiction to the truth as revealed in Scripture and confirmed in nature. History is the record of these acts, both great and small, that we can examine and, one hopes, discern from a biblical perspective so that we, too, may walk uprightly in our own day.
So what did I learn from my encounter with history in Chappell Hill, Texas? First and foremost, these—and, frankly, their generation—were a people with a strong sense of community. Much of their life and activity was invested in contributing to the establishment and maintenance of important civic and social institutions that enriched their community.
In this small rural hamlet, the citizenry established two institutions of higher learning: the Chappell Hill Female College mentioned earlier, and Soule University, a Methodist college for men with chairs in law, medicine, and biblical science. Community leaders in Chappell Hill established five churches, thriving industries, a Masonic Lodge, a railroad line, and numerous social organizations, such as the Mandolin Club, Racquet Club, and Study Club (whose subjects included the opera). These efforts and activities continued well into the twentieth century.
These “civic virtues” contrast dramatically with the determined individualism so prevalent in today’s culture. In Robert Putnam’s important book Bowling Alone, he points out, “For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago—silently, without warning—that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third century” (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
Letters collected from the women of that era revealed that they were active in the study of theology and philosophy, representing a generation that pursued education for education’s sake and not merely as a means to an end. There were no college courses—or interest, for that matter—to study techniques helpful in selling nonessential consumer goods to people who have to borrow to buy what they cannot afford. Even in high school, as evidenced by a report card from 1887, the subjects were rooted in the humanities, logic, and elocution. I admit that I had to chuckle at the grading system of that day. Grades were based on a ten-point scale, with ten being perfect and five failing. However, they were anything but ambivalent about substandard work. The failing grade of five was described “5 = Very bad and a complete failure”—a stark contrast to today’s educational philosophy that often exalts self-esteem above personal responsibility measured by absolute standards.
In addition to the aforementioned subjects, there was also on display a copy of A View of the Evidences of Christianity by William Paley, which was part of the core curriculum in the local public school. Published in 1794, Evidences is an extremely scholarly work in which Paley supplemented human reason with divine revelation as supporting foundations for the existence of God and miracles over and against the deistic thinkers of his time, addressing some his arguments specifically against the notable David Hume. This was not a superficial course in bible stories that merely satisfied cultural religiosity typical of “country folk.” Here again, we see a society that was very intentional in its effort to transmit its faith from one generation to the next.
The loss of community and civic virtue, along with all of their deleterious effects; the inadequate transmission of values and beliefs from one generation to the next; the reduction of education to mere utilitarian purposes; and the idealization of a superficial existence are symptomatic of a culture adrift from its past. The solution to these issues lies within the realm of a renewed church that endeavors to recover historic Christianity and press these unchanging biblical values into contemporary public life and culture.