Tales from Durf’s Side “Don’t know much about history …?”

I'm handing this space over to Mark Durfee once again this week. Enjoy and all that jazz.

Mark Durfee is from Texas, but is originally from this reading area - the Conneaut Valley area, Mom is Bonnie Rudler Dearborn; grandfparents are Chuck and Donnamae Rudler.

Tales from Durf’s Side “Don’t know much about history …?”

TROY, TX - Well Crawford County, Lisa invited me back to share with you once again. There are “history buffs” and then there are historians. From where does this passion for the past emanate? Why are the lives of people long gone from this world so fascinating to us? As humans, we have an innate sense of inquiry. Most of us have this burning desire to know how we got to where we are at this particular point in time.

Why did our forbearers first decide to take a perilous journey “across the pond?” There are many reasons. Internet sites such as Ancestry have offered us a cornucopia of primary source documents that help us understand what our ancestors were like and how we do or do not resemble those characteristics. However, the census records, birth certificates, land deeds, immigrant records and family Bibles can only tell us dates and places and names but not what drew them to those places during those dates. This is where a deep understanding in historical research methods comes in handy.

By understanding the truth about our past without allowing our bias to point us toward a conclusion, we can understand why our ancestors lived and worked where they did and why they didn’t move elsewhere. Many of our ancestors arrived in Northwestern Pennsylvania and Northeastern Ohio in the early 19th century and never left. Others moved west for fame, fortune adventure, etc. History helps us understand those names, places and dates in our family history.

I have read vociferous amounts of contemporary historical accounts as well as tons of research using the primary source documents freely available through the Library of Congress’ website. There are also voluminous amounts of primary sources available from the National Archives website as well as digital collections available online from various universities such as Yale University’s Avalon Project that has primary source documents from 4000 BCE to the present.

I have always been a “history buff” but I didn’t truly get the itch to study history until 2008 when I was accepted as a fellow into the Teaching American History Grant sponsored by the U.S Department of Education. I was able to travel to the various historical sites in Boston, Philadelphia, Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry and the Washington, DC area.

One Saturday per month Dr. Charles Brooks from Texas A&M University would drive to Waco from College Station, TX, to lecture on American History. The first year we spent a week at Baylor University during the summer with history professor Dr. Thomas Kidd, who has written extensively on the history of Protestant Christianity in colonial America. At the same time I also began to tune into Glen Beck’s “Founders Fridays” on Fox News Channel. I was particularly taken with his guest historian, David Barton from Wallbuilders in Aledo, TX .

At first I absorbed every word Barton and Beck uttered. I became convinced that somehow parts of America’s history were intentionally hidden from me. The more I watched, the more I learned (or so I thought). I bought several of Barton’s self-published books. In 2010 I began graduate studies in American history. The more I began to study historiography and historical research methods the more I realized that Barton’s books were written to make his readers aware of our Christian heritage as it pertained to our founding. I took Barton’s works with a grain of salt as I got deeper and deeper into my courses. I finished graduate school in early 2012. By the summer of 2012, I caught wind of Barton’s new book, “The Jefferson Lies.” Having recently finished a class on the Constitution and the founders, I was very interested in anything pertaining to Jefferson. This particular Barton book was designed to debunk the myths commonly attributed to Jefferson by so called “Progressive liberal historians.”

I read it in a short amount of time and followed the reviews online. I soon started to realize that much of this work was not entirely accurate, to put it mildly. In an unprecedented move, Thomas Nelson pulled his book from every retail outlet due to numerous errors missed in the editing process. This was quite a blow to Barton. Not to be defeated, he worked to find another publisher to reprint it. Even his friend Glen Beck challenged him on the charges of inaccurate information. Many of these errors were brought to the publisher’s attention because of the efforts of two professors from Grove City College.

Professor of Political Science Dr. Michael Coulter and Professor of Psychology Dr. Warren Throckmorton wrote a rebuttal to “The Jefferson Lies” called “Getting Jefferson Right.” This book caused such a fuss that it led Barton to write a second edition. In which he omitted many of the errors found in the first, which had been brought to his attention by Throckmorton and Coulter. Barton made sure to include an entire section in the new edition which was dedicated to chastising the authors of “Getting Jefferson Right.”

Academically trained historians read all the material surrounding a specific issue when there is a controversy, so I read both Barton’s book and Throckmorton’s. Then I read the second edition of “The Jefferson Lies,” which was published by the far right wing website World News Daily.

At first glance, the second edition was a far better version than the first with fewer obvious errors on the surface. I am in the process of studying both books side by side to see whether the critics are truly justified in their criticism of Barton’s work. To be fair to Mr. Barton, he has done our nation a great service by digging into the history of our founding. He has created a renewed interest in American history. People who are not normally readers are reading his books one after the other. However, almost all of his books are focused on the premise that the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation. Now it would be logical to assume that left wing Progressive university professors would come out and criticize any history book focused on Christianity and our founding. To the surprise of many, several Christian professors of history came out to give unflattering reviews of “The Jefferson Lies.” These Christian professors included Baylor professor Dr. Thomas Kidd, author of “The Second Great Awakening” and “Protestant Interest: New England After Puritanism” and Messiah College’s Dr. John Fea, author of “Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?”

Any historian worth their salt would never deny the incredibly strong influence that Christianity had during the founding. At the same time, they would also assert that the persecution of various groups in Europe by the Catholic Church, The Church of England and the very strict Puritan sects in New England, had a major influence on the framers of the Constitution. Jefferson, Madison and Thomas Paine went to great lengths to ensure that freedom of religion and the separation of church and state would be strongly embedded in that founding document.

This is evidenced in Madison's “Memorials and Remonstrance’s” in 1785, Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in 1786 and Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason,” in 1794. Dr. James Hutson (of the Library of Congress) wrote on the Liberty of Congress’ online exhibit regarding religion and the founding. He stated that our founders intentionally left out the mention of any specific religion from the Constitution to avoid the problems experienced in Europe. Said problems caused the mass exodus to the New World in the 17th century. We are a nation of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, etc. However, we were not founded as a Christian, Muslim, Catholic, Hindu or any other religious nation. The central tenet was that every American should be able to believe or not believe in a high power. Ben Franklin said that when we no longer have the ability to have liberty of conscience, we would no longer be free men.

When we allow ourselves to be led by those who would push an agenda that fits our narrowly defined worldview, we open the door to allowing other religions to do the same. In other words, others could then push their religious beliefs on Christians, for example. For this reason, our founders had the vision to write an irreligious Constitution that protected our right to worship as we please or not worship at all.

Once we allow one group to control our legislative process, the separation of church and state disappears. If you truly want to understand our past to chart a better future, read books that are written by historians who have dedicated their life to the scholarship of specific time periods in our history. David Barton does not hold an historical degree of any kind. His only higher educational credentials are those from religious institutions.

For information on the discovery of American and the first permanent English settlement in North America, read UCLA history professor Dr. Gary Nash’s “Red White and Black.” For a scholarly unbiased perspective on the Plymouth Colony read Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower: A Story of Courage and War.” For those interested in the Salem Witch Trials, I recommend Mary Beth Norton’s “In the Devil’s Snare.”

If Puritan New England is of interest, then read “A Midwife’s Tale” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich who coined the phrase, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” For the American Revolution read Benson Bobrick’s “Angel in the Whirlwind” Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life,” Joseph Ellis’s “A Revolutionary Summer” and “Founding Brothers.”

For information on how our socio-economic strata developed, read “Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States” by Michael Lind.

To learn more about how the middle class came about read “Empire of Liberty” by Dr. Gordon Wood of Brown University. To get a better idea of the issues that led to the American Civil War, read Dr. Daniel Walker Howe’s “What Hath God Wrought” and “Impending Crisis: 1848-1861” by the late Dr. David Potter.

For the seminal work on the Civil War, read Dr. James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” Columbia University’s Dr. Eric Foner’s “The Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” ( the movie “Lincoln” was based on this book).

These books will cover the same material covered in a freshman level college history course but in far greater detail. When we let others define our view of our past we also allow others to define our views without ever challenging them to be sure they are true. If we do our own research, we can spot a charlatan a mile away.

It took me some time but I have found that it is never a good idea to only read books that fit your worldview and/or confirm any kind of bias. In other words, it is always best to seek out a higher understanding of whatever topic is of interest by taking in information from actual experts.