Why Do We Study Church History?
“It was a pleasure to burn.” That’s the famous opening line of one of my favorite novels, Fahrenheit 451. In this reversal story set in the near future, the firemen are tasked with starting fires, rather than putting out fires, in particular they burn the books. Not just some books, but any and all books. Books were burned because people didn’t want to be bothered by the ideas in them. They didn’t want to be made to cry and think and feel anything. Thus “It was a pleasure to burn.”
That same phrase could have described the church in the 1500s. Not only of books (though there were plenty burned) but also of heretics, or anyone labeled a threat to the control of the church in power at the time. Sunday I mentioned two famous men in the history of the spread of the gospel in England: Hugh Latimer and Nichola Ridley (you can read their stories on pp.85-89 of The Weekly Historian). These men were condemned to death on October 16, 1555, by burning at the stake, for their efforts to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. As they were being led to the fire, Ridley was distraught and in agony, crying out “Lord have mercy on me.” Latimer, while the fire was starting to burn around him, cried out his famous last words: “Be of good comfort Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out!” These two stood as witnesses, giving testimony to the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the same call, to be a testimony, that we saw being passed on to us through John the Baptist last Sunday (John 1:19-51). We’ll see this again this week as we study John 2:1-12.
Montag, the main character in Fahrenheit 451, himself a fireman, is rattled by this same quote. He’s called to a house to burn an old woman’s books, but she won’t leave, choosing to burn with her books, quoting Latimer’s words in defiance of the firemen. This unsettles him deeply, sending him on his own journey of discovery and his eventual escape from the city. As the book ends, and as Montag looks on from outside the city, watching the city burn at the end of a world war, the man next to him says, “When they ask us what we’re doing, you can say We’re remembering.”
Why do we study church history? To remember. To remember we are standing on the shoulders of a great cloud of witnesses, to find encouragement to stand firm in the midst of trials, and to help others remember that God loves them and that Jesus Christ died for them. Keep praying for your neighbors, for those in our community, for those all over PRP, Valley Station and Southwest Louisville who need to know the love of Jesus Christ!