I've been holding back on posting the following because I prefer to post positive recommendations rather than criticisms of specific programs.
But I think that, over the course of the next year, we're going to hear "God's will for our country" and "God's purposes in history" brandished quite a bit for political purposes, so I want to point out a particular kind of history that I think we should continue to be wary of.
I call this "providential history," and in my workshops on historiography, I define it as a form of progressive history. Bear with me for a moment: progressive history sees the story of humans as travelling forward along a road that goes in one direction, from less developed ("primitive") towards a particular goal. Marxist history is progressive (class conflict is escalating towards rights for the masses). Whiggish history is progressive (we are moving towards a greater and greater perfection). Providential history says that we are moving along God's timeline, from the beginning of his work with humanity, towards the inevitable end of the ages brought about by divine fiat.
More than that, though, providential history, particular for kids, takes on the job of explaining WHAT God is doing in the past, and exactly HOW he is doing it, and this is where problems arise.
So. In the fall, I got a number of marketing emails and offers for a history course called "The Pilgrim Story." The Pilgrim Story is based on the Principle Approach ("As American Christians, the Principle Approach enables us to discern the biblical principles of government upon which our nation was founded, thereby, empowering us to restore what has been systematically dismantled over generations") and promises to help us understand "the character of the Pilgrims and their perilous journey to the New World" by viewing "history through the lens of Scripture."
If you're a Christian (I actually am), this might sound appealing. But there's a problem with providential history. In attempting to plumb the depths of the divine purpose (I would think that all Christians should be wary of such an undertaking), it seems, inevitably, to wrap itself up in entirely un-Christian conclusions.
Here's the example from "The Pilgrim Story" that I would offer you.
The authors are determined to show that everything that happened to the Pilgrims on their way to the New World was controlled and directed by God. In one of the central lessons, the student is told about six different things that happened on the sea voyage. Each one, the course tells us, proves that God was entirely in control. The principle being taught: God "loves you and will take care of you. Never forgetting that God is in control."
So here's how God was in control (reproducing the lesson in full although not all of it is relevant):
God was taking care of the pilgrims, because he loved them and had a special plan for them.
God’s Providence on the Trip
a. sweet wine smell (God protected them from this)�
b. main beam cracked (God knew that they would need a screw)�c. John Howland was saved (this was a miracle)�
d. no Pilgrims died (Only a servant boy and a sailor died, none of the pilgrims. The fact that none of the Pilgrims died and all of them made it to the new world alive is also…a wonderful sign of God’s providence)
�e. Oceanus was born
�f. profane sailor died (God protected them from the mean young sailor who was unkind to them, and then the other sailors showed them more respect).
Nothing happened by accident or coincidence.
Let's just look at (d) and (f) for a moment.
(d) No Pilgrims died. Only a servant boy died. This "a wonderful sign of God’s providence."
ONLY a servant boy died.
ONLY a servant boy died.
ONLY a servant boy died.
The conclusion is inevitable: The servant boy was worth less than the Pilgrims. The servant boy wasn't under God's providential care. The servant boy didn't matter.
Is that the gospel?
(f) profane sailor died. After that things were better for the pilgrims.
The inevitable conclusion: God killed him. The profane sailor wasn't worthy of salvation. The profane sailor didn't matter.
Is that the gospel?
Dear followers, parents and students: These are not the lessons we should be absorbing from history. Please, please keep your eyes open for "history" that teaches your students a hierarchy of worth, a false view of God, a false view of the past. ... See MoreSee Less
3 days ago
Not only that, but how do they then explain the many pilgrims that DID die a very short time later? Did God’s providential protection suddenly vanish once they got off the boat? 🤔
This is exactly why I used Story of the World when homeschooling my children. Your work takes a much more fair and neutral tone while still recognizing the significant role of Christianity in the context of world history. I am also a Christian, but I think that some of the ways that history is taught can be harmful and exclusionary, which is not gospel-centered teaching.
This thinking was also used to normalize and justify the kidnapping, breeding, abusing, robbing, obectifying, and separating families of Africans. It is as if their humanity, like the servant boy you mentioned, was merely purposed to uphold a narrative of (in this case) Pilgrim supremacy. Their humanity was reduced to tools, cash, and pleasure... for someone else to enjoy and pass down with compounded blood-weight to generation after generation.
Thank you for addressing this. I’m a homeschool mom who is Christian. I’m native and my husband traces his family back to those very pilgrims on the mayflower. I have been so disturbed by many Christian homeschool history programs over the years teaching similar things like this!! I can’t stand the wording they choose and the one sided view point of history. I often have stopped reading and said to my children but what do you think the natives thought? Is that the way Christian’s should act? That exact wording would have definitely stopped me in my Tracks and would have caused a discussion with my kids. I quit several programs bc of stuff like that and I can’t handle the one sided indoctrination. Then I’m out the money because I couldn’t resell it bc I didn’t want anyone else using it. I’ve reached out to a particular company and told them they need to stop using a particular book and to have someone rewrite their curriculum and I offered to help!
I was routinely criticized by admin at the “classical” school I taught at because I did not teach history in a “Christian” way, which I interpreted as exactly what you describe here. I quietly ignored the absurd critique as long as I could. Incidentally, my students generally loved my teaching. I refused to be anyone’s propagandist.
Thank you x a million. Not to rag on one specific theological branch, but there seems to be something very Calvinist in this approach -- equating American Christians (of which I am one) with the elect and seeing a particular kind of America as both our birthright and our (pre)destiny. And entwined in all this is what I think of as a "ladder of merit," which is probably the same thing as the "hierarchy of worth" you describe. I think these ideas have deep, and tangled, roots in the history of religion and politics in America, and too many of us are loathe to question them because that's deemed unpatriotic. (Which leads to the question: is politics our real religion?)
Our nation was established on a foundation of racial hierarchy, valuing some humans above others on a ladder of human value. In the sample story you offered, what of the value of the millions of indigenous humans lives that were lost at the hands of the "pilgrims"? 😔 Thank you for sharing this example, Susan Wise Bauer ; sadly, it is just the tip of the iceberg.
Ahhh yes. This story has predestination written all over it.
“I would think that all Christians should be wary of such an undertaking”. YES!! I would think anyone of faith would be inherently uncomfortable with suggesting that they are able to fully understand the mind and will of God. We can attempt to understand to the limits of our humanity, but I think it takes tremendous hubris to think that we can achieve full understanding.
Very good! When people think about providence they are usually focused on thinking about benefits for themselves. I wish we could focus more on how we can work together to make things better for everyone.
I would be SO curious how you view the historical narratives in the Bible! It seems like many biblical authors view history this way — God did this / God did that. I’ve been grappling to understand if God REALLY did that — or is that just how they viewed alllllllll things? Would be an interesting conversation!
I'm sure you'll get a lot of push back for this, but I really, really appreciate your message and your willingness to post it in the face of that opposition.
Thank you for the very wise words of warning. As someone with an advanced degree in history, who has some grasp of the complexities involved in unfolding our story, it grieves me to see fellow believers using distorted and one-sided versions to support their ideologies and weaponize history in the cause of their agendas. The oversimplification in the name of political ideas is dangerous and false. We can and must approach our history with honesty, humility, and a willingness to learn from past mistakes.
Thank you for taking the time to share this. I think this has been a very big concern for several years and I can see how it would be growing now. Is there a good book to read to get me started on different philosophies of history? I am interested in this in more detail.
Thank you for writing this. We homeschooled and loved using your history curriculum. As tides have turned in terms of how many Christians demonize history being taught as anything but “providential history” I’ve actually wondered what your stance on this was. This means so much as a Christian mom who sought to teach her children to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.
Wow. Perhaps these comments you shared were based upon a poorly worded email you received? I know these programs and their content. They unilaterally do not share or preach what you have implied here. They would never indicate the life of a servant boy or an unsaved sailor was worth “less”, as indeed their entire theology is based upon the belief that God alone is sovereign and good, and we are sinners, needing grace, all of us. I’ve never heard a full telling of the Pilgrim story from this perspective remove the death of nearly half the Pilgrim colony that first winter and the many mistakes they made along the way (admitted in Bradford’s own history). The “ Providential” part indicates God’s own character, and not the character of the (very flawed” people in history. The inspirational piece for me, is that God has given us laws that help us towards a more honorable, good and just civilization. We just keep messing it up. But every time we repent and return to these principles, we can see liberty extended. America is not “special” - our God and the Biblical ideas behind the Declaration, the Magna Carta, Lex Rex, and the Hebrew Republic itself, are indeed special, and can transform nations. It is for all people and all nations, these truths. This unkind and untrue description of an entire philosophy of history is a false representation of the “providential” view as a whole. The implication is that these folks have a racist tilt which I find disturbing (and I’m sure many of your readers would as well!). I respect your work a great deal, and even where I may disagree, I have never seen this level of cruelty in your assessments. If your research had been anything more than cursory, you would have found your insinuations to be utterly untrue. The original authors of the books behind “The Principle Approach” (Verna Hall and Rosalie Slater) were women I think you would have found intellectually your equal, great students of history and primary source documents, and they devoted their lives to the search for truth. I remember them as being a bit sober and serious, but that is my own frivolity talking. I prefer to triangulate history with a more broad bent, but I do very much respect their research. Your description does them a great disservice. I hope you will consider reading further and perhaps speaking with a living historian who claims this approach, rather than pulling from a children’s book obviously aimed for littles. The Plymouth Rock Foundation and Paul Jehle would be a great starting point, if you want something meatier. I’m not sure you would ever join in this view, but I hope at least you could report on it with the clarity and fairness you use commonly in your writing. This was heartbreaking, and knowing some of those involved in that realm a bit, I believe these comments would cause great hurt not because you are “honest” but because you did not do your research on this one, and your opinion is usually backed by reason and understanding. The brush you paint them with is entirely the wrong color. I hope it was by mistake. We all make them.
I’m guessing as an historian you’ve read The Light and the Glory. Would this book fall into that category?
Thank you, thank you Susan, for addressing this so directly and powerfully. Your voice in the education sphere carries such weight and we desperately need wisdom like this and critical, Scriptural perspectives to help think better about these movements. There is much I find discouraging as a veteran homeschooler who loves homeschooling my own kids. This was deeply encouraging to read.
I need you to understand how much I absolutely love you my sister.
A belief in some sects within Christianity that some people are “elect” or otherwise pre-chosen to share God’s eternal reward, while others are not is hardly new. This dates back hundreds of years. It shouldn’t be surprising to see the doctrine carried into books they write. It wouldn’t be my choice of text (probably for multiple reasons), but there’s nothing especially revolutionary here, is there?
My Christian beliefs include believing that God is sovereign in all the events of man and beast, but I wholeheartedly agree that we should be very careful to ascribe our thoughts and explanation to history. (Beyond telling our personal testimony of how God faithfully used ____ to shape our own life).
Thank you for this. I have had to abandon most "Christian" history curriculums because of this rhetoric.
"profane sailor" lol. Is there any other kind? 🤣🤣🤣
As a British person, it all sounds quite loony, even without the dodgy theology. Even the idea that the New World is some kind of promised land is completely barking mad to this English Christian. Sorry🤣🤣
I looked up this program because I was curious who was publishing it. It’s a school that is also advertising their speaker series event featuring Tucker Carlson this spring.