Stolen History

The Uist people knew what they had lost, and they wept.

Alexander Carmichael's passion for Celtic lore led him to collect dozens of traditional songs, prayers, and chants from the island peoples in the north of Scotland.

In the middle of the 19th century, Carmichael, a British government official, traveled the islands among the Uist people, listening to their stories and songs, eliciting their traditions and lore, and enjoying their gracious hospitality. Toward the end of the century he published a collection of these songs, chants, and prayers called Carmina Gadelica.

In the foreword to his anthology Carmichael explains that he was only able to collect a fraction of what was available, and that for two reasons. First, the old people who still remembered the songs could not recall them completely. They were distant memories by that time and had all but passed out of usage. Second, people who did know the old songs were reluctant to sing them, but not because they were selfish or shy.

When the Reformation finally reached the Scottish isles, sometime toward the end of the 17th century, the Protestant ministers who came as missionaries there encountered a people steeped in Christian faith and in the cherished lore of their pre-Christian past. In some cases, these two narratives had become entwined, and this syncretism was expressed in some of the songs, prayers, and chants which the people used throughout the day, for everything from milking their cows to putting out the fire at night.

The Protestant ministers, rather than seek to understand the people and their ways, simply demanded that they stop singing the songs. School children were beaten if they were discovered singing in Gaelic the old runes taught by their parents for centuries. Men who owned fiddles, pipes, or harps had them confiscated and burned, to discourage the tradition of gathering in homes for songs and stories unto the wee hours.

The Protestant ministers were so effective in suppressing the history of these peoples - both their pre-Christian and Christian pasts - that the generation among whom Alexander Carmichael traveled reflected the loss of their culture and traditions and even the reluctance to express it before someone from the outside, for fear of who knows what.

The Protestant ministers stole the history and culture of the Uist people, much of which dated back to the days of Colum Cille, Aidan, and Cuthbert (5th-8th centuries). From what survived, and what Carmichael managed to publish, we can assemble a portait of a people who lived their faith throughout the day, sincerely, genuinely, and deeply, but who were, at the same time, never very far from their most ancient roots.

Protestant Christianity nearly stamped that out, and all in the name of a particular view of the faith of Jesus Christ.

The difference between the Uist people under the Protestant ministers of the 17th century and many American Christians today is that the Uist people knew their history was being stolen. Even two centuries after the fact, as Alexander Carmichael coaxed the stories and songs out of the old people, his hosts and sources wept to recall the destruction of their culture and history in the name of the Lord.

The same thing is happening today, only most American Christians don't recognize it, and, for that matter, don't really seem to care.

In many churches, anything "old" or "traditional" has been jettisoned. Only what is new, hip, and contemporary gets any play. This is true not only in worship music, but in liturgies, the ministry of the Word, the attitude toward doctrine, the understanding of discipleship, and the very structure of the Church.

If you're a Christian, you are the heir of a vast, rich, and powerful heritage of theology, culture, liturgy, and spiritual and ecclesiastical life. And you probably don't even know it. Your history has been stolen by pastors who think every thing old is tainted by being old, and only new things should be used for the life of faith in our day.

The Uist people knew what they had lost, and they wept.

We don't weep, because we aren't even aware of everything that's been taken from us.

Will this be the year, believing friend, that you begin to demand of your church leaders that they give you back your history?

Related texts: Psalm 78.1-8; Rom. 15.4; Hebrews 11

A conversation starter: "Pastor, why do we do everything according to a contemporary mode in this church? Are we leaving out some very important aspects of our Christian history?"

T. M. Moore, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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