How Things That Were Never Going to Change Have Sometimes Changed Anyway

By Craig Harline ( originally posted at )

In March at BYU I gave a talk, or more accurately for a guy who can barely use Power-Point, a multi-media extravaganza, involving at least 10 non-fancy slides with absolutely nothing moving around on them. The topic was the title above.

For those who want to skip the movie and just read the book, I thought I’d post here a (believe it or not) condensed version of that talk, focusing on the main points, without all the low-tech effects. Of course, the post won’t be nearly as exciting, but some of the clips used at the live talk didn’t make it to the youtube version anyway because of copyright issues (you’ll still see some phenomenal pictures of phenomenal 1970s bellbottoms, however, which certainly I thought would never change; the talk is at: I start talking at about 9 minutes.)

POINT 1. When you study Really Old history in Really Distant Places, like I do, you have to explain a little more than usual what in the world your study is good for. Contrary to popular opinion among friends and family members, studying Really Old History is not just good for becoming a whiz at Jeopardy or other parlor games that make you the life of any party. It’s not even just good for coming up with a lot of solemn platitudes you can then utter about History (like never repeating mistakes of the past—not true, by the way).

No, what studying Really Old History is most good for is the insight it can offer into life right now. And maybe the most fundamental such insight is some perspective on how things change, especially in my favorite realms of study: religion and culture.

POINT 2. Anyone halfway paying attention in life is familiar with cultural change, of course, as we see it happen right before our eyes, from one generation to another, with older generations usually lamenting the decline of just about everything and younger generations usually rejoicing at all the progress they’ve brought to the world—not only in obvious ways like hairstyles and clothing and music but also in abstract things like morals.

Then the younger generation becomes the older generation and the lamenting starts all over again, with the new oldies insisting that the changes they made were necessary and obvious while the changes going on with the new youngies are REALLY bad, in fact are probably the worst changes in the history of the whole world and signal that the end is near.

(This is where you want to get on YouTube and watch the two forbidden clips that essentially bookend the talk: Mama Cass belting out “There’s a New World Coming,” and then Archie and Edith Bunker singing “Those Were the Days.” These are the twin theme-songs of every generation: the first when you’re young, the second when you’re old.)

POINT 3. What studying Really Old History does is to help us see beyond generational change and prejudice. Most of us make our judgments about the religious and cultural change we witness, and even about the entire history of the world, based on the really short and egocentric perspective of our own lifetime. But a closer look at change over the long haul lets us see that change and lamenting and rejoicing are pretty constant, and knowing this can save us a little fretting, or at least let us have better-informed debates over proposed changes in our own world.

For one thing, long-term study of change helps us see how hard it is to judge what constitutes progress and decline, or which generation is superior to another. You’d have to lay out all the deeds and values of every generation to do that. And even if you could lay them all out (highly doubtful), then which generation’s standard of right and wrong would you use to judge things? Every generation is pretty sure of its superiority, and yet every generation has, usually without knowing it, accepted as right things which previous generations thought were wrong, and vice versa.

To settle that argument, you could of course trying bringing in some objective judge of right and wrong, which in the West has meant especially the Christian Bible. But that can be tricky too, because interpretations of the Bible have changed dramatically over time. Scholars have tried explaining change with some dreary-sounding theories like “cohort replacement” and “informational cascades.” I’m in the early stages of developing my own ideas, but so far I’m thinking that it might be more helpful to understand change not as decline or progress but as a sort of reconfiguration, or as the Book of Acts puts it, a time of refreshing.

People start seeing old things differently, and seeing new things, because they ask new questions, often because of new conditions around them; then they work their new way of seeing into a new system of right and wrong.

POINT 4. There have been countless such reconfigurations over time, and I’ll start with a few simple ones in western Christian culture alone to illustrate.

Example: language. My mother sometimes washed our mouths out with soap when we used slang words she thought were bad, so imagine my surprise when I learned decades later that some of the slang words she used herself were originally obscene, which of course she didn’t know. Or how about the phrase Good Grief, so wholesome that even Charlie Brown says it? Turns out it’s just another minced swear word. There are hundreds of such words, and most of us say some of them regularly without thinking ourselves wrong for doing so, which I know because I and the rest of the historical police hear you.

Example: lefthandedness. For centuries this was seen not as just another hand but as the evil hand. The Latin word for left is sinister, the French word for left (gauche) is crude, and so on. Any child who preferred the left hand was unusually willful and deliberately perverse. Religious rituals favored the right hand, a toast of ill-will was a left-handed toast, a subtle insult was a left-handed compliment, ambidextrous didn’t mean using both hands equally, it meant having two right hands. Right wasn’t just directional, but moral, clear into the twentieth century, until people began to view lefthandedness as just another form of handedness. Lefthandedness itself didn’t change, but how it was seen changed.

Example: polyphonic music. What?! Yes, the church long preferred plainchant, everyone singing the same note and same word at the same time. Polyphony, or singing different notes and different words, was worldly. But around 900 some church composers started believing it was possible to incorporate polyphony into religious music. Many churchmen resisted, especially when third and sixth intervals were involved, which were seen as sensuous and “not conducive to holy thoughts.”

Yet eventually the single most famous piece of polyphony in the Christian West became also the single most famous piece of religious music too: Handel’s Messiah. Even though people are singing and playing all sorts of notes at the same time, even though all sorts of thirds and sixths are undoubtedly going on, even though Handel himself considered it a secular work and had it performed in concert halls instead of churches, most of us upon hearing it are not likely to run out and renounce religion but instead regard it as a supremely religious work—because our sense of right and wrong in religious music is different from that of the Middle Ages.

POINT 5. Beyond these changes were bigger ones that really did seem to turn the world upside down, and signal the end, and shake the foundations, and tear up the roots (root of course being the root meaning of the word radical), or whatever metaphor you want to use. These sorts of changes weren’t just in fashion or music or technology, but in what people had been sure had always been right and wrong.

Such changes were long unimaginable, yet they occurred anyway. Most won’t seem that radical to us; in fact they might make us chuckle or smirk because they seem so obviously right. But we can think that only because earlier generations made them part of a new configuration of values that eventually became part of our own configuration, without our even realizing it. At one time, these unimaginable changes were every bit as big as any unimaginable change in our own world, and were enough to make people start fainting, like during Khruschev’s secret speech of 1956, because this just couldn’t be happening.

Example: the famous dream of Peter in Acts. A voice that he takes to be God tells him to eat animals which Peter believes God has said not to eat. He was so astonished he had to be told three times to eat up. Peter took it all to mean that the Gentiles weren’t as unclean as he’d thought, in fact that “God had put no difference between us and them.” When other Jesus-following Jews heard the news about Gentiles, they were astonished too, including James the brother of Jesus.

Example: Paul. He also had revelations about the Gentiles, that he also took to be from God, but his went further than Peter’s, and further than what James the brother of Jesus envisioned too: to the latter, it was fine for Gentiles to convert, but they would have to follow Jewish law too. But to Paul, going to the Gentiles meant adapting to them, in regard to divorce, and diet, and circumcision, for instance. Many Jewish followers of Jesus were horrified, and debates broke out, as they always do when change threatens. Conferences were held, agreements were struck, Paul continued on, and his version of things gradually became the most popular.

But the story wasn’t over. Elaine Pagels’ new book on Revelation shows that followers of Jesus were still arguing with each other for generations, and that one of the loudest critics of Paul’s disciples was none other than their fellow Christian, John of Patmos, the Revelator. John had a vision too, a famous one of the end of the world. But that end wasn’t in some distant time: it was in John’s own Roman world. It was falling apart and God was about to take out his wrath on it, and why? Not just because of the wickedness of pagan Rome, but also because some alleged followers of Jesus (such as Paul’s disciples) had compromised with worldly Rome and corrupted true religion. Even though the book of Revelation and Paul’s epistles ended up happily under the same New Testament cover, Pagels argues that they reflect two competing visions of what Jesus’s message meant: to John, Paul’s sort of change, which most of us have inherited, was unthinkable.

Example: Sunday. Gentile converts could of course play the moral-superiority and moral-decline card too. They just had different ideas than John about what it was. One thing they insisted on, for instance, was not using the word “Sunday” to refer to the first day of the week. Modern English-speaking Christians have no problem saying “Sunday,” or calling Sunday the Sabbath. But many ancient Gentile Christians would’ve been horrified that we use either term. Sunday, the day of the Sun, was a pagan day, and to say it was to compromise with Rome. Real Christians should call it the Lord’s Day (still used in most Romance Languages for Sunday). And certainly the Lord’s Day was not the Sabbath, which was for Jews only, and which fell on the Roman Saturday (also reflected in most Romance languages).

Views started changing after 600, as Christianity moved into Germanic northern Europe. Speakers of Germanic languages, including English, just kept using the term Sunday, because to them it didn’t have an un-Christian connotation. Also, Christians had decided that one way to show their superiority to Jews was to observe their own special Lord’s Day even more rigorously than Jews observed their Sabbath; some even began calling the Lord’s Day a sort of Christian Sabbath. By the sixteenth century, English Puritans insisted that the Sabbath had actually been transferred to Sunday by divine decree. And so for English-speakers Sabbath and Sunday came to be synonymous, and religious, and good. But ancient Christians might regard us as complete heretics for saying either one.

Example: Usury. Even more stunning to ancient and medieval Christians would have been the Christian acceptance after 1500 of lending money at interest, and that churches would someday be filled with bankers. Usury was prohibited in the Christian west on the basis of various Old Testament texts, and violating that was not just another sin but one of the hugest sins. Then as more and more cities emerged after 1000, so did more and more merchants, and so did the need for more credit—causing some to rethink apparently unchangeable views of usury, and to develop a new set of values around it.

One of the leading reinterpreters of the relevant biblical texts was John Calvin, who used a historical argument: conditions in sixteenth-century Europe were different from those in ancient Israel. The implication was huge: something that had been assumed to be a lasting ideal might simply have been a temporary one. If that was true of usury, was it true of other biblical precepts too? In any case, by 1650 all Protestants agreed, and by 1750 Catholics did too. Future generations would be mostly unaware usury had even been a controversial issue in the past. But Christians before 1500 would have been stunned by the change, or by the later idea that fair interest rates and prices should be determined by some invisible hand rather than Christian morals.

Example: the Earth-Centered Universe (yes, a moral problem). For almost 2000 years, the Christian west accepted that the earth was at the center of all things, and that heavenly bodies were perfectly smooth crystalline spheres. This was based on Ptolemy and Aristotle, and on six or seven texts of the Bible. But in 1540 Nicolas Copernicus said that putting the sun at the center of the universe explained heavenly motion better than leaving the earth at the center did. Galileo agreed, and popularized the idea; he also had the novel idea to turn the newly invented microscope (in modified form) to the heavens. Most weren’t interested in doing so, because it was assumed that the heavens were already understood.

Galileo saw that the sun had spots, and the moon’s surface was irregular, and Jupiter had moons, all of which were impossible. He couldn’t simply reject what the Bible said about such things, but he did reinterpret. Though the Bible could never err, he said, its meaning was not always obvious. Also, the Bible must be interpreted in light of new knowledge that emerges: “I declare that we do have in our age new events and observations such that if Aristotle were now alive, I have no doubt he would change his opinion.” Maybe the writers of the Bible would too.

Some churchmen were interested in Galileo’s ideas, but insisted he present them as merely a theory, rather than reality. Most, however, insisted that putting the sun at the center of the universe was “without any doubt against scripture,” and anyone who said otherwise were proud “men of the world.” This wasn’t just a scientific matter, in other words. Another cardinal famously refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, fearing it was a trick: it simply COULD not be true. The church condemned Galileo in 1633, and placed his writings on the Index of Prohibited Books. But the new universe won over most educated people by 1700, and others by 1900. In 1992 Pope John Paul II declared that Galileo had been right, and commended him for “adjusting scriptural interpretation in light of new knowledge,” unlike the theologians of his day.

Example: Slavery. Maybe the best reason not to argue that an idea or practice should continue just because it’s been around a long time is slavery. Slavery had been around forever when some western Christians began to oppose it in the eighteenth century, setting off a debate in the US that lasted into the Civil War. The most striking thing about the debate to us might be that those in favor of slavery had the best biblical arguments on their side. Both Old and New Testaments assumed the existence of slavery, and never condemn it. They condemn only masters who treat slaves badly. “The Bible teaches clearly and conclusively that the holding of slaves is right,” said advocates of slavery, who could cite numerous passages specifically saying so.

Those against slavery weren’t simply going to ignore the Bible, of course, no more than Galileo or Calvin would have. But they didn’t have any passages on their side to specifically condemn slavery. Their strategy instead was to emphasize passages about human relationships in general, such as the Golden Rule. They also might use the historical approach: biblical passages in favor of slavery reflected the understanding of past societies rather than of some enduring practice. Or they relied on “the general tenor of scripture” being against slavery.

Example: Racial Mixing. After slavery ended, former slaves and their descendants were still treated as inferior people, even by many northerners opposed to slavery, based on various biblical passages taken to mean that races should not mix in any intimate way—housing, schooling, eating, or especially marriage. The last was said to be contrary to nature and to God’s will. Such views lasted long: even when the Supreme Court finally struck down laws against interracial marriage in 1967, 81% of Americans still opposed such marriage. In a couple of generations momentum had turned: by 2011, 86% of Americans approved of interracial marriage, and within another generation or two many people will likely forget how unacceptable it used to be, or imagine that only bad people opposed it.

POINT 6. All the changes mentioned so far would, again, not impress modern Christians as tremendously earth-shattering. Most now regard them as obviously good and necessary. But if it’s hard to imagine how big these changes once were, and how much debate they provoked, we can at least grasp this: by accepting these changes ourselves, we, like those who made the changes, accept some things in the Bible as written, and reject other things, even though we may not think about it.

This is also true of big changes contemplated and debated in more recent decades. I won’t spend as much time on these, precisely because there is not consensus about them in the Christian west. But in short, some Christians have found ways to reconcile changes in these areas into their beliefs, while others contend it’s not possible.

Example: Evolution. Many Christians in the late nineteenth century thought that evolution was completely incompatible with the Bible, but other Christians said it depended on how you read the Bible. The Creation account may have simply reflected understanding of the time. Or it wasn’t even meant to be scientific, but was a morality tale to show that God was above nature, not within in. But many American Christians despised this sort of fancy Bible-reading; in fact evolution seems to have been the last straw, because biblical literalism arose at the same time. 46% of Americans, most of them Christians, still don’t believe in human evolution, though 32% of Americans, most of them Christian too, believe that evolution was God’s way of doing things.

Example: Just About Anything to Do With Women. Women shouldn’t study too much, for example, said educators and moralists from the middle ages on, because, said one seventeenth-century Frenchman, their brains might explode, plus it didn’t suit their nature, which was for bearing and raising children, plus if women cared too much about learning, they would neglect home and family and society would crumble. Women shouldn’t lead or preach in churches either, said others, because the priest represented God, and God was a man (even though the orthodox God had no body, parts, or passions). Women couldn’t run the 10,000 meters either, much less the marathon, or pole vault, or usually play full-court basketball, because their bodies weren’t made for it.

On some women’s issues there’s still lots of fuss, of course, but on those I’ve mentioned we wonder what the fuss was about, and have even forgotten there was one. I’m surprised, for instance, by how many of my female students feel the need to declare that they are not feminists, making me wonder what they mean by the term, since these students regard such feminist ideals as equal opportunity at school and work and in sports as good things.

Final Examples. Vaccination was so controversial when it emerged in the 18th century that it could provoke shootings and bombings. Those against insisted that deliberately giving someone a disease had to be ungodly, while Christians in favor insisted it was a gift from God.

The argument over birth control that began in the 19th century went much the same way: it seemed to be against life, and to be playing God, said opponents, while a lot of Christian women showed at least by their actions that they considered it to be a gift from God.

This of course was related to changes in sexual mores generally and changes in understanding of homosexual relations as well, the latter of which went from 40% approval in 2001 to 54% in 2012, with perhaps predictably a huge gap between the younger and older generations.

And there is arguing over the proper Christian approach to the environment. And more.

For all of these subjects the Bible is used by both or all sides, with those having specific passages on their side insisting they be read at face value, and those without such passages emphasizing texts about human relationships and dignity or the “general tenor” of scripture.

POINT 7. These are a lot of subjects, but there are many more, and there will doubtless be many more in the future. My purpose isn’t to suggest that every change or potential change is necessarily good, or that every single thing will necessarily change, or to say what’s the right way to think about this proposed change or that, but to offer some perspective on current debates over change.

We don’t have to feel like we are being uniquely and cosmically picked on because of current changes in our own time that might make us feel threatened.

We don’t have to conclude that the changes we see in our lifetime are the worst ever in history, but can actually go study a little history and see pretty fast that worst ever has a lot of company, at just about any time.

And we can get out of the centuries-old habit of insisting that the old days were always better; even in the Old Testament, people were saying that, prompting the author of Ecclesiastes (7:10) to comment, “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.” Just like Carly Simon said, these are the good old days. President Hinckley said it too: when asked whether the Fifties were better than today, he said, “I think the fifties were a good time and I think this is a great time. I don’t think we’ve retrograded.” The point isn’t that there aren’t awful things around us, but that we’re not unusual that way: they are always there. So are good things. The point is to make the best of our particular situation.

Speaking as a historian, change in our understanding seems to be one constant we can count on. And speaking as a believer, maybe that’s the way it should be. How dull it would be, and how little we would learn, if the point of life was only to jump through hoops already set up for us, rather than for us to help create life.

There’s nothing wrong with having a system of right and wrong, obviously; and old systems shouldn’t be casually discarded just because they’re old. There’s nothing even wrong in liking our particular system, or in disagreeing with others over what changes should occur.

But seeing a big picture of change over time should make us more inclined to disagree with each other humbly, with an attitude that we might be wrong and others right, because all that past big change should make us reflect that maybe all the things we’re so certain about might also end up someday floating away like white puffs of dandelion on a summer breeze. In fact it’s a good bet that future generations will shake their heads not only at what we were doing with our hair, and pants, but with what we were thinking about this or that.

POINT LAST. Mormons are of course familiar with change too. We’ve argued over every one of the topics I’ve mentioned starting with slavery, and have seen change in every one as well. Charles Harrell of the BYU faculty just published a book that shows changes in Mormon doctrine from beginning to present, and just weeks ago dozens of changes were made in LDS scriptures to make historical context more clear. But this doesn’t have to disturb us: Mormons don’t officially believe in inerrancy, and change doesn’t necessarily mean errancy; in fact the belief in continuing revelation could make Mormons in theory more radical believers in change than most others.

But even to us change can feel threatening, as was evident in probably our two most radical changes, ending polygamy and the priesthood ban. Growing up, I knew little about polygamy, just vague impressions that ending it hadn’t been a big deal and was obviously necessary and not very many people had been involved anyway, which turned out to be all wrong. But I remember the change to the priesthood ban well and that it was indeed a big deal, and experienced change within myself. So did many other people of my then-young generation, so I wasn’t particularly heroic or virtuous for doing so. But older Mormons like Spencer W. Kimball were.

The process he went through is described in an article in BYU Studies from 2008, by his son Edward. President Kimball had thought about the ban since 1961, and had been against lifting it. But after he became prophet in 1974, he started reconsidering. He knew by now that Joseph Smith had ordained black people; he knew about the complications the policy was causing in Brazil, where the church was growing fast; but most of all he began questioning his own assumptions. During the first months of 1978, he went almost daily to the temple to pray about those, and was in great torment.

“Day after day…I went there when I could be alone. I was very humble…I was searching…I had a great deal to fight…myself, largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it and defend it as it was.”

Defend. Fight. The usual language and posture we associate with the religious hero standing up for truth. Yet President Kimball was the hero in this whole matter not because he stood up for his old beliefs, which he like Peter assumed had come from God, but because even at his age he was willing to reconsider them. Unlike the cardinal who wouldn’t look through Galileo’s telescope because he might not like what he would see, President Kimball looked.

He later wrote about the incident, “Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired….” Or as President Hinckley later put it, “He was not the first to worry about the priesthood question, but he had the compassion to pursue it and a boldness that allowed him to get the revelation.” And also just like Peter, he was astonished when it came.

Most everyone I knew was thrilled about the change, and pretty predictably within a generation or so young people didn’t understand what a big deal it had been. In a few more generations, I wouldn’t be surprised if they forget altogether. Today when younger people hear older Mormon people occasionally express some of the old attitudes, they are stunned, because they can’t imagine that anyone holding those attitudes could possibly have ever been a good Mormon. But when you start thinking that changes in the past which agree with your own inherited views were obvious and necessary ones, you’re on the road to thinking that you’ve figured everything out—and to not being willing to reconsider your own perhaps shortsighted views. As a historian and a believer, I find President Kimball’s more humble attitude a much better one, as we debate possible changes in our world.

That’s what History, including Really Old History, is especially good for.

Born and raised in California, Craig Harline is a historian of European religion and culture. His most recent book, “Conversions” (Yale, 2011) was a finalist for the Mark Lynton History prize administered by the Columbia University School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.

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