Taking History Seriously

  • Nathan Schneider

With only two days left in the year, one would naturally expect this post to focus in on the topic of New Years and looking to the days ahead. But honestly, circumstances and providence have me doing something quite different lately. Maybe it’s all the talk of getting past 2020, of moving into a new year and forgetting all the horribleness that was the last 365 days.

I think more than anything, though, it’s that God has pressed on my heart issues and themes that have me questioning whether or not that sentiment is at all healthy for people, for a church, and for a nation.


My last living grandparent, my grandpa Warren Schneider, passed away last May (2019) at the age of 98. Obviously, at that age he lived a full life, and many of us could only hope to someday be able to see our 98th birthday. But he did, and he had a lot of history to tell.

My grandpa was one of a dwindling number of people still remaining who remembered and participated in World War II. He was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base, and was present during the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor. In September 2008, the Spokane Review published an article highlighting my grandpa’s military service. It’s worth a read.

I bring him up because his death is but a symbol of what’s the come. At some point in the not-too-distant future, the last veteran of WWII will pass away, just as the the last WWI veteran died in 2011 at the age of 110. And with him will go the last direct link to that war. What we know will live on in what’s written and what’s passed down from generation to generation. If we remember. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

Conflicts like the two world wars of last century are quickly growing more and more faint. It’s harder for younger generations to consider WWI “recent history,” and it won’t be long before the same could be said about WWII. Sure, those events will live on in movies and books, but as the world keeps turning and the clock keeps ticking, watching those war movies will feel more and more like watching something about the Civil War. We know it happened, but it seems like ancient history. The last surviving Civil War veteran, by the way, died in 1956 at the age of 106.

Looking back

All this really comes as a preamble to the main point I want to make, which is that it’s critical as individuals, as Christians, as churches, and as a nation, that we remember to look backward. I was reminded of this over the last couple weeks as I read a short history of World War I, a conflict I’m sad to say I understood far too little. About the same time as I was reading this book, I came across an obituary in the newspaper about the death of UAF history professor Terrance Cole. His Modern World History course was one of the first classes I took as a freshman at UAF, and I remember that class to this day. He was the first one to introduce me to WWI in the big picture, to help me understand the events and the backdrop of that war and the prevailing circumstances and sentiments that led to it.

Now I’m on to another book, this one detailing the Battle of Britain and Winston Churchill’s stalwart leadership of the nation at a time when it was hopelessly close to falling under the weight of the Nazi war machine. I must confess, I’m enthralled. I can’t wait to read more, because I’m discovering history as if it’s brand new events for me.

I’m not alone. My generation and those younger than I am are increasingly at risk of losing touch with the events that have shaped the lives we live today. How little can we imagine the world that could have been…had there been a Confederate States of America…had there been a Nazi German empire of Europe. We live in the shadow of these giant events without the faintest clue how they influenced the lives we live today.

looking forward

So, when it comes to bringing in the new year, I’ll assert that the only way to look forward is to look backward at the same time. Take history seriously. After all, history is filled with examples of people who didn’t take history seriously. Who didn’t study it and learn from it.

Exodus 1:6 begins with these telling words: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” No knowledge of history. No relationship with the past. This was the beginning of the events to unfold in the enslavement of God’s people. But it began because of a disconnect with the past.

After Israel disobeyed God and refused to follow Moses in conquest into the land of Canaan, that entire generation of adult men and women was condemned to die in the wilderness without seeing the land promised to them. And after 40 years of wandering aimlessly through the Sinaitic wilderness, Moses then addressed the second generation, who were on the eve of entering into that land to take possession of it. But before they embarked on this conquest, Moses first reminded them of everything that had happened, of the rebellion, of the wilderness, of the wanderings, of the defeated pagan kings, even of Moses’ own transgressions which led to his banishment from the land as well. For three whole chapters, he reviews the past to make a point: know your history if you are to avoid making the same mistakes.

Zechariah opens his prophetic call for repentance and a return to the Lord by reminding them of the sins of their forefathers, which led to their exile in Babylon. In other words, Judah’s return to the land after 70 years of exile began because their ancestors refused to follow the Lord. So he says, “Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the LORD” (Zech 1:4). Sometimes, the key to the present and the future lies in understanding the past.

The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10 concerning the events of Israel’s history, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:11-12). One of the goals of giving us the history in the Old Testament is for our instruction as believers in the 21st century. And a knowledge of what has come before is part of the antidote to keep us from falling into the same traps and pits as did those who came before us.

What do we gain by being familiar with history? Here’s a few things to think about:


History helps us gain a sense of identity. It anchors us in time and space, and gives us a transcendent context for understanding who we are as people, as a nation, and as a church. By contrast, when we lose a connection to the past, we also risk forgetting who we are, and when that happens, there’s great risk of morphing into something completely different. I believe this is one of the issues at the heart of our current national turbulence. Every statue that falls is a story that is forgotten, a memory erased, and a lesson unlearned from history.


History gives us lessons we can learn from. As Solomon wisely wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). One of the reasons a Christian should know and understand church history is so that he or she can accurately identify heresy. Often times, believers find themselves caught up in what seems like novel theological insights, when in reality they are nothing more than centuries-old heresies wearing new clothing.

There are lessons to be learned from history. What’s more, failing to learn these lessons can have deadly consequences. What would the world have been like today had Adolf Hitler learned from the failures of Napoleon a century and a half earlier and not tried to conquer Russia? As many historians agree, it was not the United States’ entrance into the war that made the different. It was Russia. Without them, most agree that the allies would not have been able to defeat Nazi Germany.


History also gives us people to learn from. Not all of them are examples to follow. Sometimes, we need examples of who not to follow. But history provides us with examples of what it means to lead, to fight, to love, and to serve, as well as the complete opposite as well.

Closing Thoughts

So, in closing, let this be a gentle yet firm nudge to not fall into the pattern of wanting to move past the past. Yes, 2021 is almost upon us. Yes, 2020 was a painful year. But do we really want to forget? What would we gain by pretending this year never happened? I don’t know…but I can tell you what we’d lose.

Now here’s your chance to respond…

What are some other things we can gain from studying and understanding history? I listed a few. Perhaps you can think of more…

What things have you learned from this year that we can’t afford to forget?