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G. K. Chesterton on “Secular” History

March 25, 2008

About half the history now taught in schools and colleges is made windy and barren by this narrow notion of leaving out the theological theories. The wars and Parliaments of the Puritans make absolutely no sense if we leave out the fact that Calvinism appeared to them to be the absolute metaphysical truth, unanswerable, unreplaceable, and the only thing worth having in the world. The Crusades and dynastic quarrels of the Norman and Angevin Kings make absolutely no sense if we leave out the fact that these men (with all their vices) were enthusiastic for the doctrine, discipline, and endowment of Catholicism. Yet I have read a history of the Puritans by a modern Nonconformist in which the name of Calvin was not even mentioned, which is like writing a history of the Jews without mentioning Abraham or Moses. And I have never read any popular or educational history of England that gave the slightest hint of the motives in the human mind that covered England with abbeys and Palestine with banners.

Historians seem to have completely forgotten two facts – first, that men act from ideas; and second, that it might, therefore, be as well to discover which ideas. The medievals did not believe primarily in chivalry, but in Catholicism, as producing chivalry, among other things. The Puritans did not believe primarily righteousness, but in Calvinism, as producing righteousness, among other things.

It was the creed that held the coarse or cunning men of the world at both epochs. William the Conqueror was, in some ways, a cynical and brutal soldier, but he did attach importance to the fact that the Church upheld his enterprise, that Harold had sworn falsely on the bones of saints, and that the banner above his own lances had been blessed by the Pope. Cromwell was, in some ways, a cynical and brutal soldier, but he did attach importance to the fact that he had gained assurance from on high in the Calvinistic scheme, that the Bible seemed to support him – in short, the most important moment in his own life, for him, was not when Charles I lost his head, but when Oliver Cromwell did not lose his soul. If you leave these things out of the story, you are leaving out the story itself.

If William Rufus was only a red-haired man who liked hunting, why did he force Anselm’s head under a mitre, instead of forcing his head under a headsman’s axe? If John Bunyan only cared for righteousness, why was he in terror of being damned, when he knew, rationally, he was righteous? We shall never make anything of moral and religious movements in history until we begin to look at their theory as well as their practice. For their practice (as in the case of the Mormons) is often so unfamiliar and frantic that it is quite unintelligible without their theory.

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), The Uses of Diversity: A Book of Essays (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1920), pp. 123-124.

3 Comments leave one →
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