A Historian is a Missionary to the Past


The news from Northern California in the United States keeps getting worse. As I write this from Switzerland, wildfires that have already devastated areas of cities like Santa Rosa continue to spread. Over 5,000 houses and other structures have been destroyed, over 40 lives lost with many more still missing. The winds have picked up again today, with more people being evacuated by the hour. Firefighters are being mobilized from other states across the country to keep battling the several separate fires. The above photo is from a memorial to firefighters in Tacoma, Washington who have been killed while serving. We honor those today that are battling these monster fires, placing themselves in maximum danger.

As we remember all those suffering today in these fires, and those battling them, I’m also thinking of all the precious memories that are being lost represented in photo albums, family heirlooms, priceless objects that are a link to the past. I saw one lady interviewed who had evacuated, grateful of course for her life, but having lost all the physical remembrances of her family life together. Memory is such an exceedingly precious thing, and when it is lost, whether in the loss of memory of a person as they age or die, or in the loss of artifacts in times of war or natural disaster, it is a tragedy.

One of the functions of studying history (and writing about it) is to recover lost memories. Identifying those that have lost their voice, or never had it recorded, and bringing it to the attention of a new generation so it may be remembered and celebrated. Recently my new book on the Church of the East monastic mission in Asia, Many Monks Across the Sea, was published by Regnum Press in Oxford. As a dedication, I remembered the Asian church across the centuries: Dedicated to the imperishable memory of the innumerable company of martyrs of the Church of the East who lived and died in the light of eternity. This was originally in the 1928 book on the Church of the East published in South India by John Stewart, and it expressed beautifully in my opinion the remembrance of so many in Asia throughout history that may not be known specifically by name.

According to the French historian Henri Marrou, “A Historian is a missionary dispatched to the past to strike a hyphen between the past and present.” And I would add to that quote, the hyphen is also linking the past and present with the future. Historians recover a memory that has been lost or may need to be re-evaluated or addressed more fully in light of new evidence. As I have written several times in this blog, the history of the Asian church, especially pre-1500, has been highly neglected or ignored. In some cases, this is because of evidence like documents being destroyed by fire or simply the lack of quality preservation due to climate issues.

Precious memories lost. The fires devastating Northern California are doing that right now to many physical representations of history, including actual human beings that have been killed. Much of it seems unrecoverable. Yet there are many examples throughout history where whole libraries have been destroyed, often by war, but historians have not given up in reconstruction efforts. In two weeks I’ll be going to the nation of Sri Lanka, where in the North especially a devastating and destructive civil war resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. One of the largest libraries in the country, in the city of Jaffna, was destroyed in the war. Yet in recent years a rebuilding and recovery effort has gone on to replace the books lost from other sources. Perhaps not all the priceless documents will be replaced, but many will.

Historians are missionaries dispatched to the past, to recover and remember, bringing the lessons and stories to the present and informing the future. This is a strong part of my calling. It is a form of firefighting, of seeking to stop the destructiveness caused by fires of ignorance or the victors in history eliminating or downplaying the histories of the oppressed.

My thoughts and prayers are with the many firefighters in the frontline battling these blazes, and all the people who have lost loved ones and precious memories of many kinds. Let us join in a prayer for them today.

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