Yesterday, I called a good friend of mine to discuss a quandary I was puzzling over. I finished reading Carry On, Mr. Bowditch recently because Autumn and I are discussing it for her literature right now. I was inspired by Nathaniel Bowditch's life as I read. He was independent, creative, determined, a seeker of knowledge, hopeful, and didn't give up.
But, my ideas of this man began to change a little when I assigned Autumn a worksheet for historical fiction. Her assignment was to identify five factual statements from the book and five statements that were fiction. I realized that she needed another biography of Nathaniel Bowditch to compare to Carry On, Mr. Bowditch. I found two different biographies online. They began to paint a different picture for me. One was that this man was a Unitarian. Here is a quote from one site "When asked about his religious beliefs he answered, "Of what importance are my opinions to anyone? I do not wish to be made a show of. As to creeds of faith, I have always been of the sentiment of the poet [Alexander Pope, Essay on Man],—'For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight; His can't be wrong, whose life is in the right.'"" It occurred to me that Unitarians might have had different beliefs back in the 1700s than they do now. I discovered that this was true, but it's very confusing!
I found myself pondering many questions...
We look up to many historical figures as being "Christian heroes". But, what if they weren't believers? What then? What do I tell our children? Not tell our children? Should we study Christian figures more than people who didn't believe in God? Should we sugarcoat people's faith and say they were Christians if their memoirs tell otherwise? What makes people important? Do I separate life from faith?
I found myself struggling to figure out how to teach history.
So, I called my friend, who has her master's degree in history. She shared me with me several stories. One was about how Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant man, tore out whole sections of the Bible. Yet, we call him a Christian and look to him as a "Christian" figure in American history. Yet, he was a brilliant writer who had a profound influence on the formation of our government.
God works in our world through Christians and unbelievers. He works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). He provides for us through farmers who grow food--some who know Him and some who don't. He provides for our safety through police men and women--some who know Him and some who don't. He provides for us through teachers--some who know Him and some who don't.
God shapes each one of us uniquely. He has gifted us. There is something called common grace. From Wikipedia: "common grace is seen in God's continuing care for his creation, his restraining human society from becoming altogether intolerable and ungovernable, his making it possible for mankind to live together in a generally orderly and cooperative manner, and maintaining man's conscious sense of basic right and wrong behavior." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_grace)
I grew up in the Quaker Church being taught to look for that of God in every man. Though I see now how the idea can get twisted, I appreciate the idea that we see God in a man's ability to create, to write, to invent, to discover, to name, to bear children. So, although these historic figures may not have given credit for their achievements themselves to their creator, we can.
We can help our children see what men and women in the past have achieved and done. We can see who they were and how they withstood adversity. We can see how they didn't give up. We can teach our children about God and help them understand that it is He who helps us stand and weather the storms. We can teach them about standing up for others. We can show them the examples of others. We can remind them that God has a plan and He works in our lives and He worked to care for our ancestors as well.
It is good to see the good in people. It is good to see the admirable traits and things they have done. I think it's important, though, not to misrepresent people. I am going to be careful about how I present people from history. I don't want to present them as Christians if they weren't. We often talk about Christians forming our nation and assume that all of the leaders of our country during the revolution were Christians. But, some of the men who formed our nation had some strange ideas about God. Perhaps, it's wise to remember that and not present people as something they weren't.
I hope this post didn't wander too much and that it is coherent. I am still sorting these ideas out in my head, trying to come to cohesive conclusions.