Editorial: Herstory still exceptional

The writer is a church pastor and regular columnist for The Journal.

By Melvin Rhodes

DEWITT, Mich.--As readers of this column are aware, I also write regularly for publications of the United Church of God, based in Cincinnati, Ohio. I contribute to the church's flagship magazine The Good News and to the monthly World News and Prophecy.

Before articles appear in any of the UCG's literature, they go through an editorial-review process. Up to a dozen people receive copies of an article to read, comment upon and, if necessary, edit. This way standards are upheld and inaccuracies avoided.

Before sending articles in to The Journal, I endeavor to put my column through a similar review process, sending it to people whom I feel are qualified to comment on a particular topic, thereby ensuring accuracy and the maintenance of a certain standard.

I mention this because an article of mine in The Journal of Jan. 31 dealt with the subject of history, with special emphasis on the role of England's Queen Elizabeth I in the development of the religious freedoms that the English-speaking world has enjoyed above all other nations.

Then, in the Feb. 28 issue of The Journal, appeared a rebuttal to my article by Joseph R. Chiappone. Here I would like to respond to Mr. Chiappone's article because I believe a response on my part is called for.

The origin of the word

I will begin by addressing the question of the origin of the word history. Mr. Chiappone was the second person to point out that the dictionary said something different from my article on this issue.

I do not question the veracity of the dictionary on this matter, but I would like to point out that the idea that the word history in the English language originates in His story (the story of Jesus Christ) is a widely held one.

I was taught history in England by an Oxford University history graduate who had a master's in the subject. He taught our class what I related in the article. I also showed my article to an eminently qualified historian on this side of the Atlantic who had been taught the same thing. There must be an explanation somewhere. Perhaps one of our readers would like to look into this matter some more?

On the central issue of Elizabeth's contribution to history, I would like to make the following comments.

It was the American author Michael H. Hart who included Queen Elizabeth I in his book The 100, published in 1992. The book contained brief biographies of the 100 people who, in Mr. Hart's estimation, had most changed the world. Ninety-eight of the people were men.

The other woman was Queen Isabella of Spain, she who sponsored Columbus's voyage of discovery. If Isabella had never lived, I am sure that eventually somebody in Europe would have discovered the Americas, maybe not in 1492, but no doubt soon afterward.

This would leave Queen Elizabeth, in terms of her impact on history, the most important woman who ever lived--not just the woman of the millennium, but the woman for all time. (If you disagree, Mr. Chiappone, please nominate another.)

If Elizabeth had not lived, I am not so sure that somebody else would have come along to lay the foundation of England's greatness and, thereby, the spread of the freedoms that have been a part of the English-speaking world for four centuries.

Amazing loyalty

At the time of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897, often considered by historians as the zenith of England's power, the American ambassador to the Court of St. James at the time wrote:

"It was an explosion of loyalty that amazed John Bull himself. What a curious thing--there has been no King in England since Elizabeth of special distinction--most of them far worse than mediocre--only the foreigner William III of any merit--and yet the monarchical religion has grown day by day, till the Queen is worshipped as more than mortal."

These are sentiments with which I agree.

Elizabeth was the last real monarch England had, in the sense of actually ruling and leaving her indelible mark on the nation. After her childless death, her cousin's son, James, was brought in from Scotland to be the king of the soon-to-be-named Great Britain. Neither he nor his three descendants were any good as monarchs, his son even plunging the country into a bitter civil war fought in a desire by Parliament to restore the ideals of the Elizabethan age. (For an extensive account of this, read historian Paul Johnson's The Offshore Islanders, 1972.)

Elizabeth was an exceptional leader. Just compare her with recent political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic as you read the following extracts from historian Alison Weir's recent biography The Life of Elizabeth I.

Her education

"Henry VIII may have neglected his younger daughter in many ways, but he did ensure that from the age of six she should be educated as befitted a Renaissance prince. Katherine Parr made it her business to supervise the education of her stepchildren and engaged the best tutors for Elizabeth, among them William Grindal and the celebrated Cambridge scholar, Roger Ascham.

"Ascham and his circle were not only humanists, dedicated to the study of the ancient Greek and Latin classics and to the education of women, but also converts to the reformed faith, or Protestants, as such people were now known, and it is almost certain that Elizabeth was fired by their ideals at an impressionable age.

"She had a formidable intelligence, an acute mind and a remarkably good memory. Ascham declared he had never known a woman with a quicker apprehension or a more retentive memory . . . He delighted in the fact that she could discourse intelligently on any intellectual subject.

"Like most educated gentlewomen of her day, Elizabeth was encouraged to become the equal of men in learning and to outdo 'the vaunted paragons of Greece and Rome.' The curriculum devised for her was punishing by today's standards, but she thrived on intellectual exercises and had a particular gift for languages, which she enjoyed showing off. As queen, she read and conversed fluently in Latin, French, Greek, Spanish, Italian and Welsh. She had read the New Testament in Greek, the orations of Isocrates and the tragedies of Sophocles, amongst other works. Her interest in philosophy and history was enduring, and throughout her life she would try to set aside three hours each day to read historical books.

"Elizabeth was also skilled at many of the traditional feminine pursuits of the English gentlewoman. In youth, she was adept at needlework and is known to have embroidered book bindings. Ascham testifies to the beauty of her work and the hours she spent engaged upon it. Her talent as a calligrapher is evident in the many surviving examples of her . . . hand that survive . . . and [she] could play the lute and virginals with virtuosity as well as sing and write music. She was an excellent horsewoman and one of her favorite forms of exercise was to go hunting. At other times, she enjoyed walking outdoors, or shooting with a crossbow. Above all, she passionately loved dancing."

Xenophobic desire

I am not here to claim that Elizabeth was perfect, nor that her countrymen were all decent hard-working people committed to their new faith and filled with a zeal to extend their new freedoms to the rest of the world.

They were motivated by a desire to be free of Rome, for most people more the result of xenophobia than out of religious zeal. The pope had divided the world into two, giving half to Spain and half to Portugal, the two greatest seafaring nations of their day.

If Elizabeth and her subjects had not defied this edict, then the Americas would have come under the rule of the Iberian Catholic powers. They might well be independent today but would continue in the same cultural, political and religious traditions. Hence the conclusion that without Elizabeth America, as we know it, would not be here today, a conclusion others have come to elsewhere before my article in The Journal.

Henry VIII broke with Rome for the basest and most selfish of reasons. Elizabeth's predecessor Mary Tudor was a devout Catholic who wanted to crush the new reformed church movement and restore the authority of the Church of Rome. Elizabeth's four successors were all closet Catholics. There wasn't anybody else who would or could have done what Elizabeth did, making the break with Rome final and building up England's defenses so that the Continental Catholic powers could never again threaten her independence.

Significant contribution

All history is open to interpretation. Always many questions, ifs and maybes remain when it comes to the past. There is room for speculation, as there has been for four centuries, over Elizabeth's reputation as the Virgin Queen.

Many theories on this are extant, including the one Mr. Chiappone related in his article and a different one in Alison Weir's book that I found interesting.

But we have to distinguish between historical fact and historical theory. The fact is that Elizabeth I made a significant contribution to history, the extent of which may be debated, as can be her motives. But we should be thankful that she lived.

Of course, God could have raised up somebody else to liberate our ancestors from Rome. In the same way He could have chosen somebody other than Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. But He didn't.

Elizabeth's background prepared her ideally for her time and for the need to lead the English people away from Rome's central religious control, just as Moses' background in the Egyptian court prepared him ideally for the responsibility of leading the Israelites out of pagan Egypt.

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