Review by David L. Neidert, Current Historian Editor
It is the often quipped reason for taking my history course; “because I’m required.” Yet about three weeks into the course, I am reminded why it is required; most students have no concept of history and how it affects their lives. Most students cannot share the events of the past nor can they connect the stories they’ve heard with currently unfolding events, trends, circumstances or debates. For that matter, it is not just college students who do not know the past, but most adults also have no reference point for history that informs citizens’ rights, historical reasons for events, world complexities, and so on. My observation is at times confirmed in posts I see on Facebook or opinions waxed eloquent by people defending a point; many assumptions, but little documentation of reasons or understanding of context.
The late Paul W. Lapp in his book, “Biblical Archaeology and History” (World Publishing Co.: 1969), captures the problem when he writes, “We tend to fill in the vast gaps in our knowledge of ancient men and women with what we know about humankind and the world today or what we think ancient humankind would have thought and done.” (Italics added, Lapp: 17) Lapp reminds us that “If we cannot understand our own modern times, how will we understand the past? If we know so much about science today because of research, how can we know the past which often leaves few clues?” (Lapp: 17).
What Lapp conveys serves is a fitting segue for why the work by Dale Stultz and Doug Welch (The Gospel Trumpet Years: 1881-1961, Historical Society of the Church of God, Evangel Press, Nappanee, IN: 2011) is critical for the history of the Church of God (Anderson) and those desiring to debate its story, doctrines, and future from an informed mindset. If we are to consider today’s issues, it is imperative to understand from where we have come and to observe the long trends to which historical investigation points us. Stultz and Welch have tried in their research work to provide an honest history, with new information that sheds light on our Church of God heritage, “warts and all.” As Welch notes throughout the book’s introduction, we often create heroism in telling our historical narrative. This eventually becomes our standard history, whether the accounts are accurate or not. In a time when more and more documents are becoming available to us, whether in archival or electronic formats, it is imperative we revisit our history so that we might see all we can and not continue an ancient Egyptian-type legacy of portraying our founders, pioneers, and leaders as gigantic, larger than life figures without a reasoned insight into their total character (good and bad), complexity of the events, and narrative that more closely resembles who they were and the events that took place.
A former colleague at Anderson University, Dr. George C. Rable (now the Charles G. Summersell Chair in Southern History at the University of Alabama), helped me see this clarion invitation in his book, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002). This book received five major history awards in the United States, including the prestigious 2003 Lincoln Prize which recognizes “the best non-fiction historical work of the year on the American Civil War.” (Wikipedia) The Journal of Southern History, for this particular blog, captures why a book like The Gospel Trumpet Years, is essential for historical investigation. The Journal writes, “An excellent book: extensively researched, clearly written, judiciously interpreted. From war front to home front, from newspaper office to the halls of Congress, Rable fuses the ‘old’ and ‘new’ military histories to relate more about what Fredericksburg meant than we have ever known before.” (Journal of Southern History: Amazon). I heard Rable share about his book before a packed house at his former institution. One of the most important insights was that Rable spent hundreds of hours researching newspapers, court house documents, and reading diaries of those at Fredricksburg. This is the gift that Stultz and Welch give to the Church of God in their book. As they note, we have “leaned heavily on documents recovered in the past decade from family members, descendants, second-generation ‘saints.’” (Stultz/ Welch: 174) Through private letters, photographs, and unpublished diaries, this team put together a “warts and all” history that is important reading to balance the heroism type of narrative that often circulates in institutions and in popular lore. As they conclude, “Writing history is hard, demanding, time-consuming work….it is only exceeded by the months and even years of research which must precede it.” (Stultz/Welch: 176)
As these authors attempt to explain in their book, Church of God histories have often been built on selected written volumes from Byrum, Byers, and Brown without searching for and researching original sources such as these private letters or diaries and attempting to match them with Gospel Trumpet articles and reformation histories. While diaries and private letters also show personal opinions and viewpoints or interpretations of events, they are critical in balancing the institutional claims of how events unfolded or ended. I found this true in my own research of DO Teasley, once Manager of the Gospel Trumpet, and the important letters discovered that were written by Emma Myers (see Gospel Trumpet Years, Appendix XI, pp. 230-233). Without these narratives to provide balance, we unwittingly fulfill what is attributed to Winston Churchhill, “History is written by the victors.”
In all works, however, there are critiques. In the Stultz and Welch book, the major critique is the lack of footnotes and reference notes. While the authors attest to documents used and shared by others with them, the book would have been greatly enhanced by detailed footnotes and/ or reference notes to the original documents. While some notes are given, they are not adequate for a book of historical interpretation of this magnitude. Academic footnoting may deter some readers, but is essential for historians, whether professional by formal education or self study. It should also be noted that the parenthetical statements would have served much better as reference notes, as they often portray the author’s insights or material added to clarify the documentation.
As a historian by formal training, as well as through a lifetime of study, I highly recommend this book to serious students or the casual reader of Church of God reformation movement history. It will help evaluate the reformation’s history in a balanced light and not fill the gaps with our own perceptions or under investigated stories handed to us over decades. Works like these are integral in helping us more accurately know our past, share our story, and gain insights to the trends that are being played out in own time.