Why study history? Over the years I’ve heard so many excuses for avoiding the subject. From fellow students, “It’s just a bunch of boring dates.” From adult friends, “It’s in the past and I live in the present.” From administrators looking for budget cuts, “It’s a luxury we can’t afford.” But the truth is, when we fail to preserve and understand our history, we lose an extremely valuable tool.

Well-written history is a story and therein lays its power. Narrative appeals to the emotions and imagination, which is an excellent way to reach a postmodern (and some say post truth) audience. But it can do much more than entertain. It transfers values from generation to generation. This role is sometimes muted by Adventism’s often intellectually reasoned approach to theology and eschatology that emphasizes exposition over experience. In this environment, education is vital to understanding theological truth and to the transfer of values and practice.

Community Story Telling

In contrast, less intellectual faith traditions, such as the Mennonites, emphasize experience through storytelling in order to transfer beliefs and values. As Shirley Hershey Showalter writes in Proclaim Peace: Christian Pacifism from Unexpected Quarters, “Peace churches have a theology that allows, even privileges, lived faith rather than propositional faith. When lives change through faith, people tell their stories to one another. As a community tells its stories, it develops a tradition capable of adaptation to each generation’s circumstances” (pg. 5). In the same book, Michael W. Casey continues the theme, “When narrative, history, and tradition are devalued, events and experiences quickly recede in the collective memory. A new generation that does not know what went before thus arises” (pg. 110).

Memory is constructed, not purely organic.

This brings me to my next point: Memory is constructed, not purely organic. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we make decisions about what to remember and how to remember involving all of our senses as well as both the rational and emotional parts of our brains. This is why memory can be trained or enhanced through mnemonic devices or sensory association, and why memories can be forgotten or suppressed. It is also why false memory can be created.

False memories are distortions of real memories or outright fabrications so vividly pictured in the mind, that one is positive they really happened. There are several theories about how false memory is created, but they all fundamentally involve a distortion of the truth during recall, whether from bias, rhetorical reshaping, or an attempt to create a coherent narrative from memory fragments.  Not all, perhaps not even most, false memories are a purposeful deception.

Why Is it Important?

In recent years, I’ve become very interested in memory studies and the relationship between remembered history (undocumented oral or written traditions) and the documented historical record. History is ultimately a search for truth. What really happened? What does it mean? Why is it important? And now for me, what caused the discrepancy between remembered history and the historical record?

The science and psychology of memory studies clearly shows us we cannot rely on the memory of the people we study. Their stories must be verified by additional sources. However, regardless of the veracity of their stories, they are important. They teach us what was valued by these individuals and by past generations. But when it comes to church history, relying too heavily on these stories distorts the truth as well, with the result that more emphasis is placed on maintaining tradition than on continuing to search the Scriptures for truth. Thus, the study of history, the search for truth in the historical record, is a correction to tradition.

Preserving the history of God’s work with His people is essential. In Deut. 11:18-21, God commands the Children of Israel to “lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul” and to “teach them to your children…that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied.” The immediate context suggests they were to teach their children God’s law. But if you look more closely, you will see that God refers to Israel’s history frequently as He delivers His law. Just a few verses earlier, God recounts Israel’s journey to Egypt, deliverance from slavery, and experience in the wilderness. Narrative is the method through which God Himself taught His law to the Children of Israel.

This article is the first in a new series for OUTLOOK Online which will feature stories from Seventh-day Adventist church history. Future posts will include the stories of both important Adventist leaders and unheard of members’ whose stories deserve to be told. It is my desire to purposefully construct a memory of documented historical truth that edifies the church, helping others understand the sources of our traditions and the reason for our faith through the stories of God’s people in the past.

Sabrina Riley recently resigned as library director and historian at Union College. She is currently a military wife, homeschooling mom, and independent researcher in Northern Virginia. Her current research interests include the Seventh-day Adventist Medical Cadet Corps, Union College-related entries in the new Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, and her family’s genealogy.