This is a matter that burdens me because there is a lack of appreciation of history among us as Africans. We study history primarily to pass our exams and the moment we do so, we throw it away as if it was a can of worms that we had used to catch the fish that is now in the frying pan.
Why still play with worms when you have already caught the fish?
Well, the truth of the matter is that the fish that we catch using history is not the passing of exams. It is the ability to serve God better. The more we know our history the better we are at serving God in our generation. That is why history is so vital and cannot be done away with.
A good example of this is what the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:6–12. Referring to the history that is recorded for us in the Old Testament, he wrote, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’
“We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.
“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall”. These are, indeed, very sobering lessons from history.
You may say, “But this is sacred history and it is different from secular history.” That is a very big mistake. All history is God’s story. His moral government is the one that is in control of all of history. That is why we are being warned to take heed. God will treat us in the same way!
Knowing history enables us to avoid the mistakes of the past as we seek to live out our Christian lives. As one hymn writer said, “Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.” History tells us of human beings who tried to take moral short cuts and paid for it dearly.
Knowing history also challenges us to strive harder than we may be currently striving. It points us to individuals who laboured against worse odds than we are facing but who persevered until they achieved great feats, which we benefit from today. We want to emulate such people.
There are many other ways in which knowing history better equips us to serve God, but let me at least add one more. It gives us a long-term perspective on life. It enables us to see ourselves as part of a chain of what God is doing. We become more patient and humble.
What matters, then, is whether we have a true record of history.
That is where we have the greatest challenge in Africa. We do not record history. For instance, the last biography that was ever published of a Baptist leader in Zambia was written in 1956, i.e. 61 years ago. Imagine how much data we have lost between that time and now.
It is my prayer that as the African Christian University develops, we will ensure that the history of the various disciplines is taught to students so that they can see where they are coming from in that particular discipline and how to contribute to the development of Africa through it.
Initially, that will be quite a challenge because we will want to collect African data. What we largely have is data from Europe and America. Yet, once we learn to do this, it will transform our understanding of where we are in God’s story and we will be equipped to serve him better!