Growing and Learning as a Christian Historian

Part 6 (conclusion) of the Integration of Faith & History in the Classroom series

by Dan Miller.

blackboard with hand writing in chalk "History"These are tough issues for students (and professors) to grapple with, especially if they have not previously been asked to examine carefully and think deeply. Hence, I encourage them to see their education as a process rather than a result. We all begin our educational journey in a state of ignorance. Not only as children, but even as adults there are many important issues about which we know little. This leaves us blissfully ignorant. However, as we recite often in church, I am not only responsible for the evil that I do, but for the good that I fail to do. Ignorance is not a viable option for Christians who take their responsibility to do good seriously.

In my own experience, the next stage in education is often a kind of exaggerated clarity. For children, truth is whatever their parents tell them and right is whatever their parents do. Even as adults, however, we can be “turned on” by a particular book or guru and feel as though we have just “seen the light.” (For an excellent example see: Arthur Koestler, “Conversion to Communism,” in Main Currents of Western Thought: Readings in European Intellectual History from the Middle Ages to the Present, ed. Franklin Le Van Baumer, 763-766, [Yale University Press, 1978].) This stage brings knowledge and convictions upon which we can base our actions. However our first exposure to a new field of learning, or a new topic in history, is often very partial. A little learning can be dangerous! It can predispose us to “black/white” thinking which in turn can make us intellectually arrogant or bigoted. The actions we take in response to such knowledge may reflect a judgmental spirit that fails to acknowledge the complexity of our world.

black and white vintage photo of students in classroom.Often the next stage in education is a heightened consciousness of complexity. When students first encounter ideas that contradict the teaching of their parents and their home church, or when any of us realize that our initial exposure to an issue was simplistic or partial, we may swing toward radical subjectivism. On the positive side, people in this stage are more tolerant of others’ ideas and more humble in expressing their own. On the other hand, such people can become excessively cynical about truth claims and appeals to virtue, so worried about appearing naïve or “enthusiastic” that they are immobilized from taking any action whatsoever.

I like to think that the education I provide my students pushes them past these stages to a fourth stage of moral and intellectual maturity. What I mean by this is that they (and I) can acknowledge that some beliefs about the past are quite certain while others are very tentative, and that moral convictions should range from those few that are non-negotiable to many others that are matters of subjective judgment. To illustrate from my own experience, I haven’t studied the Kennedy assassination enough to say with confidence whether or not Lee Harvey Oswald had accomplices. On the other hand, I am quite certain that the Nazis killed around six million Jews, that’s not just an “opinion.” Regarding matters of moral judgment, I find it very easy to argue both sides of the question, “Was the American Revolution justified?” but I find it very hard to defend the proposition that the removal of the Cherokee people from their ancestral lands in the 1830s was warranted. To be at this stage in our education means that we have enough confidence in our knowledge and convictions to act on them, and enough awareness of our limitations to keep us open to criticism and perhaps a change in course.

Hallway in Hiemenga Hall with sign pointing toward history department.

Calvin College History Department… a great place to study history. (Photo by Madi Goodman.)

History is a wonderful discipline for promoting this on-going process of deepening our knowledge and sharpening our moral sense even while we remain open-minded to new information and aware of the moral complexity of life. If such an understanding of the past is placed at the service of a Christian heart and mind, it will not lead merely to reflection or amusement, but to thoughtful service for the kingdom as well. In fact, I would argue that such an understanding of the past can make for wiser and better Christians just as surely as Christian understanding can make for wiser and better historians.

This is the final post in a six-part series based on a statement essay entitled “What Does History Mean to Me as a Christian? On the Integration of Faith and History in the Classroom” by Daniel Miller. This essay was originally written as a faith and teaching statement, which is required of all Calvin faculty but is rarely seen outside the boardroom. On Historical Horizons, we would like to share excerpts from some of our statements as a way of connecting with folks off campus who would like to get to know us better or are thinking about these issues as well. Additional posts will explore Professor Miller’s approach as a Christian historian, including the use of evidence, the role of the Bible and Christians in history, thoughts on a “secular” approach to history, and what our common humanity means to us as historians and Christians.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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William Duer: America’s First Wall Street Villain

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.

It’s no secret that the United States has had its fair share of financial scandals. Ferdinand Ward fleeced Ulysses Grant in 1881. Samuel Insull bilked thousands of people out of millions of dollars invested in his utility schemes in the 1930s. More recently we’ve seen Bernie Ebbers, Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, all of whom made off with someone else’s cash. When these buccaneers’ ventures went south they joined the national rogue’s gallery of financial villains, whose oldest member is the largely forgotten William Duer.

black and white drawing of 18th century Wililam Duer

William Duer

Arriving in New York from England, via a Caribbean plantation, during the 1760s, Duer became one of the colony’s plungers, with investments in timber lands, a sawmill, and a mercantile firm. During the 1770s his choicest trees went to the Royal Navy. Following a brief fling in revolutionary politics as a state senator and congressman, Duer spent the balance of the war years earning a healthy percentage from importing war materiel for the Continental Army. Profiting for the cause connected him to George Washington’s staff officers, especially the reedy Col. Alexander Hamilton, the rotund Gen. Henry Knox, and self-styled Lord Stirling, General William Alexander. Duer married the Lord’s daughter in 1779. By the end of the 1780s Duer was serving as secretary of the Confederation’s Board of the Treasury. When Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, he appointed Duer as first assistant.

Public office did not end Duer’s private enterprising. He joined Henry Knox’s efforts to corner the market in former royal lands located in the District of Maine. Duer speculated in the debts the United States owed to France. He helped his mercantile associates obtain army supply contracts. In the first ever congressional investigation, occasioned by the army’s disastrous defeat at the hands of the Indians in northern Ohio, the blame fell on Duer’s friends, who failed to deliver the expeditionary force’s supplies. While Duer escaped prosecution, he did resign as assistant secretary.

His greatest, and final caper involved the sale of stock in the newly minted Bank of the United States. This brainchild of Alexander Hamilton was embraced by Congress and approved by George Washington in 1791. The federal government would hold twenty percent of the bank’s stock, while the public could purchase the remaining eighty percent.

drawing of the bank in Philadelphia

First Bank of the United States, Philadelphia

On July 4, 1791, the bank’s subscription books were opened to the public in the hallowed space of Philadelphia’s Carpenter’s Hall. What was actually for sale that day were derivatives – scrip – pieces of paper that would allow the bearer to eventually buy a share in the bank. Within an hour, the subscription books closed, with the scrip supply outstripping the anticipated shares. The real fun began as touts, stockjobbers, and speculators (Duer among them) spread the word that the bank, with its government connections, could not fail, and would surely return dividends of 12% or more. “Scrippomania” had broken out in the land.

Alexander Hamilton privately expressed great alarm at what his bank had wrought. Publically he dared say nothing. Many of the scrip holders were his political friends: thirty of them members of Congress, and one other none other than Secretary of War Henry Knox. By August 11, bank scrip bought at $25 fetched over $300. New York and Philadelphia bankers squelched the frenzy by cutting credit to the speculators. By September the price stood at $110, finally stabilizing at about $150, a level Hamilton regarded as realistic.

Round two began during December 1791. With the bank’s stock now held by investors, Duer and his friends borrowed to finance an attempt to corner the market in U.S. government securities, the Bank of the United States stock, and the shares of New York’s largest bank. The pool drove prices higher for almost two months, before seeing them slip in February and plunge during March. The Bank of the United States and other creditors pricked the bubble, leaving the speculators short in a bear market.

Duer had used his supposed insider connections to Hamilton as his personal bond. Mrs. Duer and Mrs. Hamilton were cousins. Hamilton, wise to his kinsman’s profligate habits, had warned Duer to behave himself. He hadn’t. Overwhelmed by debts from his failed corner scheme, Duer landed in debtor’s prison. Hamilton left him there. For seven years Duer remained confined, unable to pay his debts, unredeemed by his erstwhile friends, or his relatives. He had become the first American pariah, rendered so toxic that the movers and shakers with whom he had associated for decades abandoned him. In 1799 he died in a cell.

Duer became the first Wall Street villain because he conflated personal independence (a good thing) with greed (a very bad thing). For him, a gentleman’s need to live well morphed into grubbing for money. And he got caught. Others, like Henry Knox, did not. He died of old age in a stoutly-constructed bed.

painting depicting stockbrokers meeting under a tree

The Buttonwood Agreement, May 17, 1792

In an attempt to prevent other freebooter speculators, like William Duer, from disturbing the financial peace, a group of New York moneymen met under a buttonwood tree at the corner of Wall and Nassau in 1792. They signed a pledge to conduct their securities businesses in an honest fashion, and exclude undesirables from their club. That club became the New York Stock Exchange.

P.S. While William Duer rotted in prison his family did ultimately enjoy a successful second act. His sons, John and William Alexander, built careers as prominent lawyers in New York. William Alexander Duer sat on the bench of the state supreme court for seven years, until he was appointed president of Columbia College in 1829. He headed Alexander Hamilton’s alma mater for thirteen years.

So, all hail to William Duer, mover, shaker, money manager, businessman, patriot, man about town, and scoundrel. Without him Wall Street would have been just another street, and the malefactors of great wealth who came to reside there, would have roosted some where else, Delancey Street? Maiden Lane has a certain ring to it.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his eleventh year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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The Christian Historian and Empathy

Part 5 of the Integration of Faith & History in the Classroom series

by Dan Miller.

empathyFew developments in the history of any group or individual can be reduced to simple matters of good and evil. Taking an empathetic approach to history means trying to understand the circumstances and perceptions that move people to action. None of us acts with total freedom or perfect knowledge. Our very consciousness depends on chemicals in the brain that can roil our emotions or make us hear voices. We are born into cultures that shape what we are able to see. We operate within institutions that limit our options and history sometimes presents us with a choice between various evils. As Reinhold Niebuhr argued so forcefully, unselfish virtue is not practical in a world where evil has access to power. Hitler’s legions could not be stopped by “turning the other cheek” and so the pacifists who called on the western democracies to disarm and foreswear the use of violence in the 1930s were less “moral” than the political realists who used military violence to halt fascist aggression.[1] In light of that, it behooves Christian historians to avoid condemning others without first trying to understand them. As Abraham Lincoln said of white southerners who “dare[d] to ask God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” we should “judge not that we be not judged.”[2]

And yet, empathize as we must, we Christians find ourselves unable to escape entirely from the language of good and evil. We have seen how often and how easily the language of political realism is manipulated to provide a justification for actions that are really just selfish—witness again the CIA-backed coups in Iran and Guatemala or the frequent appeals to “national security” by U.S. Presidents who are merely trying to escape political embarrassment. And we cannot help but admire those individuals who seemed to transcend the limits of their time and place to exhibit broader conceptions of virtue than we thought possible. One thinks in this regard of Bartolomé de las Casas and other Catholic missionaries who offered a Christian defense of the rights of the New World people against the claims of the Spanish empire of which they themselves were representatives, or of the Quaker John Woolman who saw how un-Christian slavery was long before his colonial American contemporaries.[3] One could, and a Christian historian should, multiply such edifying examples. The point is, that while we must avoid simplistic moral judgments, we must not abandon the awareness that, as people made in God’s image, our actions inevitably carry moral consequences and we ought always to be seeking “to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord” regardless of what our immediate circumstances seem to dictate.[4]

Ovassyne of the most awkward issues I deal with as a Christian historian is the history of the Church. Because Christians are “my people” in a deeper way than all others, it would be tempting to “go easy” on them when telling their story. The Scriptures themselves offer the most powerful rebuke to that approach. Time after time the “heroes of the faith” are depicted with unflinching honesty as sinful and foolish human beings. We are so familiar with the stories in the Old and New Testaments that I think we forget how much space is devoted to “bad news” about God’s people. On numerous occasions, the scriptures announce that God’s judgment begins, not with “the heathen,” but with the chosen. So I do not shy from presenting evidence of moral failure among the Christians. In presenting the Reformation era, for example, I assign Natalie Davis’ article on religious riots in 16th century France.[5] It offers a sobering look at how cruel Christians could be to each other when they thought they were defending the truth. (For balance, I also assign excerpts from W. Fred Graham’s, The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and his socio-economic impact, which offers a very sympathetic account of Calvin’s teaching on social and economic matters.)[6]

things-fall-apartThe source which comes closest to capturing my own sense of what students need to ponder in the history of the Church is Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart.[7] Achebe, a Christian when he wrote the book, portrays the coming of the gospel to Nigeria. There is both humility and arrogance in the attitude of the missionaries. For some of its hearers, the gospel brings deliverance from spiritual and even physical death, for others it spells the destruction of a familiar and satisfying way of life. And despite the best intentions of its best representatives, the coming of the gospel in its Western Christian guise facilitates the expansion of Europe’s imperial power over the native people. A contextualized gospel indeed! And yet even that is not the last word. As Philip Jenkins makes clear, with the retreat of imperialism, Africa has witnessed a veritable explosion of Christian conversions. God works in mysterious ways, and history is full of surprises.

This post is the fifth in a six-part series based on a statement essay entitled “What Does History Mean to Me as a Christian? On the Integration of Faith and History in the Classroom” by Daniel Miller. This essay was originally written as a faith and teaching statement, which is required of all Calvin faculty but is rarely seen outside the boardroom. On Historical Horizons, we would like to share excerpts from some of our statements as a way of connecting with folks off campus who would like to get to know us better or are thinking about these issues as well. Additional posts will explore Professor Miller’s approach as a Christian historian, including the use of evidence, the role of the Bible and Christians in history, thoughts on a “secular” approach to history, and what our common humanity means to us as historians and Christians.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

Notes & References: Continue reading

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