I’ve just returned from a nearly month-long summer trip with the family, during which we saw a great deal of the United States including Kirtland, Springfield, Nauvoo, Independence, the Great Plains, the Rockies, and Salt Lake. Our last stop before returning home was to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, better known for the St. Louis Arch which sits atop it. It was, perhaps, a fitting place to end the trip, being known as the Gateway to the West (from whence we had just returned, and indicative of traveling against the grain of traditional histories).
Dedicated to the history of national expansion, especially the Louisiana Purchase, the memorial and arch are located near the spot that Lewis and Clark started their famous expedition.
While I now have a much more nuanced and sometimes negative view of national expansion (and the exceptionalism that was fueling and justifying it), I found myself caught up in the story, and telling the story to my children–especially Lincoln, who’s becoming old enough to understand such things on a basic level. Surprisingly tribal, it became a very moving experience–a rediscovery of my people’s past, or a story I was telling myself to understand myself.
But, unlike the stories told to me in elementary school, the simplified history I shared with Lincoln wasn’t whitewashed of the negative elements. Rather than promoting exceptional history, I acknowledged “our” past mistakes–and the need to learn from rather than repeat them. Linc learned that the Native Americans weren’t dealt with fairly; that it was bad to kill all the buffalo. But he also learned of trappers and explorers and pioneers and how they courageously climbed and settled the backbone of the continent. He learned of his people, warts and all.
I once believed in and was taught about one great nation separated and set above all others by God, with a divine destiny and calling; I now see one nation among many, but with unique histories and capabilities and certain global responsibilities. Being divorced from the exceptionalism has not made the history any less important, only more honest. In fact, I think my commitment to history has become more important even as it has become decentered from national, westward, traditional narratives.
I think there is a lesson to be learned here for the Restoration. Many once thought in terms of “one true church.” And many now recognize the dangers of exceptionalism and the problems with sacred histories that are as much whitewash as fact. But the past need not be any less important simply because of more nuanced and honest approaches; in fact, it is all the more important to understand who we are, and where we ought to be going.
Amen!!! Historian Grant Wacker writes that an actor-centered approach to history (allowing people to speak in their own voices) may reveal our ancestors to be less than perfect and a bit petty. However, “if the price of such chastening is a sharpened vision of human pretension, the reward may be a heightened sense of divine faithfulness generation after generation” (“Understanding the Past, Using the Past,” in Religious Advocacy and American History, p. 168).