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The past and its sins

Controversy over author G.A. Henty raises the question: How should we teach history?

The past and its sins

G.A. Henty

Robin Rayne Nelson/Genesis Photos

The Bearden family reads Henty.

In a Christian school classroom the day before their Gettysburg battlefield visit, students called out reasons North and South took up arms against each other: “To end slavery.” “To stop the South from seceding.” “To protect states’ rights.” Which of those loomed the largest?

With Lee in Virginia, a 2.5-hour audio drama based on a novel of the same title by British author G.A. Henty, features some familiar voices: Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings), Kirk Cameron (Left Behind), Brian Blessed (Star Wars), and Chris Anthony (Adventures in Odyssey). It also minimizes a familiar reason why brother fought against brother: The drama portrays the North fighting to preserve the Union, and the South to preserve states’ constitutional rights, but neither side primarily struggling about the issue of slavery.

The audio and the book have some significant differences. The audio drama portrays black slaves as intelligent. Henty portrays them as clownish. For instance, one slave does not understand why he can go west by heading toward the setting sun: “That very useful about the sun, sah; but suppose we not live in de west de sun not point de way den.” The same character insists, “Me not sea-sick, massa; de sea have nuffin to do with it. It’s de boat dat will jump up and down instead of going quiet.”

Regarding slavery, though, both works cast the central tension as not between owner and slave but between devoted slaves whose benevolent owners recognized their human dignity, and a minority of extreme racists whose unforgivable brutalization of black slaves made every owner seem a Simon Legree.

“If you’ve ever wanted to teach your family about the Confederate flag and the real Civil War, then I have the most important message that you may ever hear,” says actor John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark) in a 60-second video ad for Heirloom Audio Productions, which put out With Lee in Virginia. The ad has generated racism-related concerns that influenced Heirloom’s advertising arrangements with organizations including the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).

According to Bill Heid, executive producer of With Lee in Virginia, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and several other big TV channels refused to run the ad, saying the subject matter was too controversial. HSLDA distributed an email ad, but on Jan. 11 Suzanne Stephens, HSLDA vice president of marketing and communications, said the video “provoked a strong negative response from our members. Based on the concerns expressed by our members with this video and with racism in G.A. Henty’s novels, we decided not to advertise any more Henty-related materials.”

HENTY. That name is big in many homeschool reading lists. Becky Bearden homeschools all six of her children, currently in grades two through 12, in Woodstock, Ga.,—and the family reads Henty novels aloud. “We love With Lee in Virginia,” Bearden said, referring to the audio production and book: “It’s one of our favorites.” Bearden and her sister-in-law bought copies of the audio program as a package special last Christmas after listening to Under Drake’s Flag, another Henty/Heirloom work.

Heid says the Heirloom audio’s elimination of stereotyping, and its sympathy for the slaves, makes With Lee in Virginia a story about reconciliation and redemption. Bearden views the novel the same way and says it “portrays the ugliness of slavery, but it also portrays the beauty of love and devotion.” Her kids, she added, all understand slavery should have been eliminated.

For Marci Ytterberg of Halfmoon, N.Y., ethical and moral shortfalls in literature serve as teachable moments. If Henty’s books offer her daughters a few when she home-schools them, so be it. Her daughters read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which many schools have banned for its use of a racial slur.

Glen Peterson, 55, has not listened to Heirloom’s productions but is “familiar with G.A. Henty and has read nearly every one of his books” to his son and daughter, who enjoy Henty’s signature framework: inserting a young man into a historical setting where he learns, overcomes, and accomplishes something through character development.

Peterson listed more than a dozen favorite titles while walking to his living room, in which he and his wife have hosted a home church for nine years in Redmond, Wash. Many Henty books on his shelves are “almost falling apart they’re so old.” He finds a 1903 hardcover and turns its yellowed pages, pointing out an inscription to its previous owner and notes scribbled in the margin.

Heirloom’s With Lee in Virginia preserves the character development process Peterson loves—and adds to it. The drama’s Christian producers (Heid and John Fornof, a former writer and director of Adventures in Odyssey) took license by incorporating explicitly biblical overtones—particularly where slavery and racism loom.

Most notably, Henty protagonist Vincent Wingfield, the son of a Virginia plantation owner, frees his slaves (who universally admire their master) in the book’s final pages. The slaves will eventually gain their freedom, Wingfield reasons, so better to transition sooner than later. Heirloom’s version of Wingfield frees his slaves upon growing convicted by the Bible’s testimony that all are equal as image bearers of their Creator and that stealing another man is wrong (Exodus 21:16).

WITH LEE IN VIRGINIA has also garnered criticism because it emphasizes points that Confederates stressed: high tariffs and federal encroachments upon state sovereignty.

Peterson says he “was raised in Seattle, like any kid in the North”:  “The Civil War was right vs. wrong, black vs. white. … But I’ve come to appreciate the Civil War was in some ways different from the way I was taught—very complex. There was a constitutional question involved.”

Discussing complex race-related issues in their historical context helps to educate balanced children, says Idora Price, an African-American with 25 years of homeschooling experience: “I love Henty for giving you the feeling of being there, [and bringing up] issues regular people faced that history books would not touch on.” She and her husband avoided whitewashing history’s evils, without leaving out the good, “as so many textbooks do.”

The Price family lived in Virginia while several of their children were studying the Civil War, so they visited multiple battlefields. During a re-enactment one spring, two of her sons ran down a hill at Bull Run carrying flags. Price said her children “did not grow up with personal experiences of racism, so they don’t carry baggage based on any kind of inferiority complex, or air of entitlement. I believe this is because of two things: studying history in its context, not the current politicized view of history, and studying history in the context of a biblical worldview.”

Heid asks regarding slavery: “What do you do if you’re born into a culture where this sinful institution is like a tumor that is part of your body? … It’s unfair to pull people out of history, like a [Ulysses S.] Grant or a Robert E. Lee, and crucify them because they had slaves in their households.”

He calls on Christians to oppose racism, which he says only Christ can remove:  “A Christian should be tougher on slavery than non-Christians. … I talk about other sins. I see racism as a sin, so why wouldn’t I talk about that?”

—Michael T. Hamilton is a World Journalism Institute graduate

Michael T. Hamilton

Michael T. Hamilton

Michael is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course.


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  • Wanda C
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    Janet BWhile I agree that the American form of slavery was sinful, there are forms of it that the Scripture allows. BTW, I don't think you can put slavery in the same  category with murder, God condemns murder. Slavery is not  murder.

  • Wanda C
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    Laura W.I am sure there was  man-stealing, but I think the majority of the slaves came from African tribes who held defeated enemy soldiers as slaves (the Bible allows this). These soldiers were brought to the coast to sell.

  • Wanda C
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    Bustawillie,Both. It is hard to imagine anyone wanting to own slaves. But I do not think Scriptures condemn certain forms of it.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but practically all of the slaves in the American South became slaves because of someone back along the supply chain kidnapping a freeman and "falsely selling" them, did they not? If it wasn't that individual personally, then it was one or more of their ancestors. So wouldn't the way to right that wrong be to free them, and give them whatever help they need to make a new life for themselves?

    And for what it's worth, yes, many in the North were far too content to profit from the inhuman treatment of their fellow men and women, and willing to look the other way if it lined their pocket. There's plenty of blame to go around.

  • servant
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    Brendan,  I'm not sure what you mean when you say "pro-South, revisionist history." Can you clarify or expound upon that a little?

  • OlderMom
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    Maybe we should stop calling anything racism because right now it is a word like "rape" that is being used for so many things that it is losing its meaning.  Meanwhile, we could just use the word "sin" for the things the Bible calls sin, and for things that the Bible doesn't call sin, figure out if there is something wrong with it or not.  Because at this point in our history, using "racism" seems to stop discussion and start the name-calling.How will the next generation learn about slavery at all if fear of blacklisting stops today's authors from writing anything thoughtful?

  •  bustawillie's picture
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    Wanda's husband, are you arguing from a Christian perspective, or are you just saying that making a case against slavery is not clearly mandated, biblically? It is difficult to imagine a case in which a follower of Christ would prefer the slavery of others over freedom for them.

  • Janet B
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    “What do you do if you’re born into a culture where this sinful institution is like a tumor that is part of your body? …"Excellent question.  Like today, with abortion. Or Euthanasia. Last week, a good boy being raised in a Christian home made an innocent comment about how people who were dying and in pain should be "given something to put them to sleep."The only difference between today and pre-Civil War south is the type of inhumanity we practice as a culture.

  • Wanda C
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    D Oliver,According to Mathew Henry, 1 Tim. 1:10 is referring to man stealers. John Calvin says: 10For robbers The Latin word plagium
    was employed by ancient writers to denote the carrying off or enticing
    the slave of another man, or the false sale of a freeman. This has nothing  to do with legitimate slave ownership. As for comparing slavery to divorce, I know of no verses in the New Testament that relate the reasons for divorce with reasons for slavery. Paul only encouraged slave owners to treat their slaves with compassion, and encouraged slaves to serve their masters with humility. Northerners also owned slaves, and most sold theirs to Southerners when Northern slavery was abolished. Not to mention the millions Northerners made off of the slave trade and the millions made by Northern cotton mills, using cotton grown and harvested by slaves. The sinfulness of American slavery was that it was based on race. While slavery is not an ideal situation, and the goal would be to free slaves, one has to be careful of calling all slavery sinful. BTW, This is not  Wanda,  but Wanda's husband.

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    Sin is the currency of the left, and it is profitable.

    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    Wanda,Sure,  the OT seemed to accommodate some forms of slavery.  Just as it accommodated some forms of divorce - due to hardness of heart. However, Paul puts slave traders in with fornicators, sodomites, liars, and perjurers. (1 Tim 1:10).  We should  not sugar coat the sins of our fathers.The slavery instituted in the antibellum south was especially wicked and was perpetrated in the name of our Lord..  Doug Oliver

  • Wanda C
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    Slavery is not intrinsically sinful, God would not have told Abraham he could buy slaves if it were.(Leviticus 25:44)--"As
    for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male
    and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you." (Wanda C's Husband).

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 05/10/2016 02:56 pm

    I confess that alarm bells go off in my head every time I hear someone say that they will teach about "the Confederate flag and the real Civil War," because those words generally come from a mouth connected to a brain that believes in a pro-South, revisionist history.  However, I have not read the book in question, and I do not know what Mr. Rhys-Davies actually believes, so I reserve judgment about this particular book and broadcast.However, I do hope that the families in this article also have their kids read the Lincoln-Douglas debates at least, in order to allow real-life to speak for itself.

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Wed, 06/08/2016 11:32 pm

    I'm surprised any one would use GA Henty as a source. Although his stories are a light and entertaining read, they are very formulaic and one begins to doubt the authenticity of such stories, especially given the number that he cranked out.

  • Wanda C
    Posted: Wed, 06/08/2016 11:33 pm

    Hans,Really?Deut. 21 says:10When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13and
    put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has
    lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month,
    then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14If
    you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must
    not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her. This is God's directive to Israel. Are you saying that God is condoning rape? Also, this directive is about treating her honorably as a wife, and not treating her as a slave. Toby Comeaux

  • Wanda C
    Posted: Wed, 06/08/2016 11:33 pm

    Laura WOne has to decide whether or not to define things according to Scripture. It cannot be said of God that He encourages or commands people to sin. Slavery cannot be sin if God has personally told Abraham he can buy slaves. While that does not automatically mean that we can do it, yet in and of itself it cannot be called sin. ( I also said American slavery was sinful) Man stealing is sin, and the Bible makes a distinction between slavery and man stealing. As far as enemy soldiers are concerned, of course women and children  are not included. I did say there was man-stealing. Yes we are now called to spread the Gospel instead of conquering lands, yet Jesus and Paul never condemned Christian slaveholders. The goal is to free any slaves and not to purchase anymore. Yet Biblically defined slave holding cannot be called sin.

  • James
    Posted: Wed, 06/08/2016 11:33 pm

    I think it's wrong to equate, as Heid does, Robert E. Lee's ownership of a slave holding operation and Ulysses S. Grant's holding of a slave for two years. In 1859 Lee presided over and ordered the beating of runaway slaves Wesley Norris and his Sister Mary. In 1859 Grant freed William Jones, a slave who he acquired from his Father-in-law in 1857, at a time when he could've have used the money gained by 'selling' Jones. The difference is stark.   

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Wed, 06/08/2016 11:33 pm

    Laura, I would guess that Wanda's husband wouldn't have a problem with that either, considering that Deuteronomy 21 not only permits enslaving young women of captured enemies, but also making them into wives, which is essentially to say to rape them. Obviously their consent is irrelevant, given that they are forced into marriages after watching their husbands and brothers be slaughtered by the Israelites. Of course, the law also provides an out; if the enslaved "wives" of the Israelites are no longer pleasing to the men, the men can divorce them. Too bad the "out" isn't for the actual victims--the women. So that's why I despise Wanda's husband's approach to Scripture; you can use it to justify all sorts of horrors.If you're interested, Mark Noll's book, America's God, does a great job of discussing the complex problem of slavery in the context of American Protestantism, drawing a contrast between different approaches to Scripture.With regard to the Henty book and the general issue of the Civil War and slavery, it seems to me that Christians are particularly vulnerable to the misimpression that people's actions are the result of their ideas. Quite often as humans, we justify our way of life with the way that we articulate a framework of ideas, but our actions precede temporally and logically the defense. So we ought to be very cautious when we make the Civil War about a "constitutional issue," for example. For the most part, people aren't usually willing to die over constitutional questions, even if they think strongly about them. But when you threaten an entire economic system that helps put people's bread on the table? Yeah, that's worth fighting and dying for. So yes, the legal questions about federalism versus states' rights are meaningful, but they are really the philosophical backdrop to the main issue, which really is slavery. That should not be sugarcoated.

  • RMF
    Posted: Wed, 06/08/2016 11:33 pm

    I think any argument that uses Scripture to justify any kind of slavery is just a bad argument that is going to lead people to believe that the Bible is full of error. Men are born free by the will of God, end of story. We may be slaves to Christ but not to each other.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Wed, 06/08/2016 11:33 pm

    Perhaps initially, but once there was such a compelling economic reason to go "defeat enemy soldiers" and capture them, was it really any different from kidnapping? And do you mean to say that all the women and children who were brought over in chains were also combatants? Supposing that during WW1, the European nations decided that they could raise some extra cash for their war effort by selling America enemy POW's as slaves, plus the inhabitants of any villages they happened to move through on the way--would that have been any different?Also, the nation of ancient Israel also had authorization to remove and kill the ungodly peoples who were living in Canaan at the time, and that doesn't give us license to try the same thing today--why would it be any different when they were allowed to take some of them as slaves? Even if the situation was analogous, I don't think we should assume that the allowance made to them applies to us.