The Recovery of the Under-appreciated in History

I love history books that examine overlooked figures.

Have you ever wondered how we choose the figures we use to tell the stories we tell? In certain cases, the decision is obvious. You can’t, for example, tell the story of our nation’s Civil War and emancipation of slaves without the figure of Abraham Lincoln. However, over time, some historical figures, for various reasons, begin to take on an oversized role, while others, who played significant roles, begin to diminish or fall out of the story completely.

Sometimes these oversights are due to cultural forces. For example, the national effort in the 1960s and 1970s to limit religious expression in public schools led several history textbook publishers to omit religion from their presentations of American history. But how do you tell our nation’s story apart from religion? How do you leave out discussions of pastors, theologians, and religiously convicted politicians? Further, how do you omit religion when discussing the everyday lives of the millions who populated this continent, many in search of religious freedom?

Other times, personal biases of historians lead to these omissions. Historians are human beings, and they will naturally be drawn to certain figures for personal reasons. Because no historian will ever be able to give the full story, they will also inevitably leave out other figures. Often, intellectual historians have been criticized for focusing so much on elite intellectuals that the lives of ordinary people are completely omitted. Can you really tell any story accurately while leaving out the lives of the majority?

George Marsden has recently written a review of a new book by Arlin C. Migliazzo called The Mother of Modern Evangelicalism: The Life and Legacy of Henrietta Mears. I recommend the review because it presents a figure who is often overlooked precisely because she was content to stay in the background. Yet, her impact seems to have far exceeded her contemporary renown. After reading it, you will probably want to buy the book like I did.

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