The myths of history

Stack of books and school bell on desk with chalkboard

Many people hate history and find it boring or irrelevant, because they have learnt it badly, having to study it as a chronology of events and lists of names to be memorised.

However, bookstores have shelves filled with history books, historical novels, and books of historical fiction, testifying to their popularity – alternate retellings of history like David Gemmell’s Troy series and George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series can be found alongside Anthony Beevor’s accounts of the battles for Stalingrad and Berlin, and Christopher Bayley and Tim Harper’s brilliant books on Forgotten Wars and Forgotten Armies on the fall of Britain’s Asian empire.

These books are popular because they tell fascinating stories – stories that grip and enthrall the reader, whether they are accurate history or just fiction.

The problem arises when, out of convenience or ignorance, we cling to a certain simplified but exciting story, without grasping all the facts. We fail to see the entire picture with all its complexities.

James W. Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me cited the example of President Woodrow Wilson. Many know of Wilson as the president who led America in World War I and who helped establish the League of Nations.

But few know that Wilson was a white supremacist who sent American troops to intervene in foreign countries more often than other presidents in the 20th century – sending troops into Mexico 11 times, invading Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, and Nicaragua, and effectively colonising them, and even intervening in Russia’s civil war from 1917.

Wilson’s racial policies led to the segregation of the navy and the federal government. As the Colored Advisory Committee of the Republican National Committee put it, “Mr Wilson and his advisors entered upon a policy to eliminate all coloured citizens from representation in the Federal Government”.

These policies also encouraged the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan. Loewen wrote that “White Americans engaged in a new burst of racial violence during and immediately after Wilson’s presidency”.

It is important to know this about Wilson, not just to see a connection between his racial policies and the stoking of racism in society, but so we get the full picture and avoid simplified and erroneous perspectives.

The same applies to church history. Since I started teaching at Trinity Theological College (TTC), I have found that many students were surprised and even offended to learn that there was no sustained persecution of early Christians, and that martyrdom was not peculiar to Christianity.

It is true that Christians were persecuted, and many Christians were killed just because they were Christians. Suffering for Jesus was sincere, significant, and inspirational. It motivated others and gave them courage. But there was no sustained and continual Roman Empire-wide persecution of the early Christians. In fact, when the Romans did persecute Christians, they did so not out of hatred, but had logical reasons as Christians were seen as threatening the safety of the empire and its cities.

Candida Moss, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, has written a compelling book on The Myth of Persecution. Much of what she says is not new, but she draws the facts together and eloquently pushes a cogent argument to shatter the myth of a sustained persecution of Christians.

Doing so, she is able to draw new lessons and give new perspectives not just on history, but also on how Christians should approach issues in our day. She concludes: “We can choose to embrace the virtues that martyrs embody without embracing the false history of persecution and polemic that has grown up around them.”

What other myths of church history have we grown comfortable with? There is the idea that the Crusades were an aberration in international relations rather than part of a long history of conflicting interests. Then there is the oft-repeated refrain that Christianity is a Western religion, when there is clear proof that Christianity had spread to China and to high officials there by the mid-7th century. Today, perhaps the biggest myth is the conflict model of science and religion – how heroic science faces off against superstitious Christianity.

We have come full circle from when Pliny in his Letter to Trajan in 112 BC wrote about Christianity as a superstition.

To tackle myths, the answer is in primary sources: actual contemporary documents and eye-witness accounts. These must be collected, stored, and catalogued. Churches must either establish their own archives open for research, or allow the National Archives to store church records.

The selfish and short-sighted hoarding of material is almost as bad as the complete lack of effort to preserve records for posterity.

The effort to find truth is worthy and legitimate. The need to find historical truth has an added dimension because historians try to understand and connect the past to illuminate the present and imagine the future.

It is in knowing as completely as we can the past, with all its complexities, that we have a better sense of who we are today and how we should approach today’s problems. We need to stop retelling myths and start exploring actual historical facts.

The Rev Dr Chiang Ming Shun –
is a Methodist pastor, and Lecturer in Church History at Trinity Theological College.

Reprinted with permission from Trumpet, Aug 2017; this is the second of a three-part series on Church History and Church Historians.

Picture by Sandralise/