It has become one of the most common refrains. When Vladimir Putin acts like an international bully, geopolitical leaders are quickly dismissive of his thuggish behavior as being on the “wrong side of history.” Closer to home, when Christians and other religious conservatives maintain that marriage is between a man and a woman, you can count on a chorus of voices declaring confidently that these old bigoted views are on the “wrong side of history.” The phrase is meant to sting, and it often does. It conjures up pictures of segregationists clinging to their disgusting notions of racial supremacy. Or pictures of flat-earthers warning Columbus about sailing off the edge of the world. The phrase seeks to win an argument by not having one. It says, “Your ideas are so laughably backward, they don’t deserve to be taken seriously. In time everyone will be embarrassed who ever held to them.”

No doubt, the “wrong side of history” retort is rhetorically powerful. But it also happens to be intellectually bankrupt. What’s wrong with the phrase? At least three things.

First, the phrase assumes a progressive view of history that is empirically false and as a methodology has been thoroughly discredited. Today’s historians often warn against “Whig history,” a phrase coined by Herbert Butterfield in 1931 which has come to refer to historiography which assumes the past has been an inexorable march from darkness to light and from ignorance into enlightenment. Whig history has in common with Marxist views of history a confidence in the rationality of man and the inevitability of progress. But of course, history is never that neat and knowing the future is never that easy. The Whiggish approach, with its presumption of enlightenment and progress, is not the best way to understand the past and not by itself an adequate way to make sense of the present.

Second, the phrase “wrong side of history” forgets that progressives can be just as dimwitted as conservatives. To cite but one example, Thomas Sowell, in his book Intellectuals and Race, demonstrates that it was progressives in the early twentieth century–often applying Darwin’s biological theories to other disciplines–who championed eugenics and racial determinism. Many of the elite intellectuals of the day accepted “scientific” theories about innate mental differences among the races, and it was leaders on the left who argued for eliminating the “inferior stock” of mankind through restricted immigration, institutionalized, and mass sterilization. If there is a “wrong side of history” there are enough examples in history to tell us that anyone from any intellectual tradition could be on it.

Third, when applied to Christians, the “wrong side of history” argument usually perpetuates half-truth or outright falsehoods about Christian history. For example, the church did not object to Columbus’ voyage because it thought the earth was flat. That’s a myth that has been erroneously believed since Andrew Dickinson White, the founder and first president of Cornell University, authored his influential study, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom in 1896. The “sundry wise men of Spain” who challenged Columbus did not do so on account of their belief in the earth’s flatness, but because they thought Columbus had underestimated the circumference of the earth, which he had.[1] Every educated person in Columbus’ day knew the earth was round. Jeffrey Burton Russel argues that during the first fifteen centuries of the Christian era “nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical, and by the fifteenth century all doubt had disappeared.”[2] Sphere by the title of the most popular medieval textbook on astronomy which was written in the 13th century, and generations before Columbus’ voyage, Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly, chancellor of the University of Paris, wrote “although there are mountains and valleys on the earth, for which it is not perfectly round, it approximates very nearly to roundness.”[3] Centuries earlier, the Venerable Bede (673-734) taught that the world was round, as did Bishop Virgilius of Salzburg (8th c.), Hildegard of Bingen (12th c.) and Thomas Aquinas (13th c.), all four of whom are canonized saints in the Catholic Church.

And while it’s true, shamefully true, that Christians in the South, some of them good Calvinists, defended chattel slavery, we need to put this sad fact in context. By the nineteenth century, slavery had existed for a long time, and it was usually not promoted along ethnic or racial lines. Africans had more slaves of their own than were sent to the New World. Muslim slave-trading began centuries before Europeans discovered the New World and continued longer, being legally abolished in Saudi Arabia only in 1962.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Christians have no complicity in the evils of slavery, but we must remember that it is chiefly owing to Christians and Christian nations that slavery was eradicated. The overthrow of slavery (after near universal slavery for almost of all of recorded human history) came about from two main factors: the rise of nation states (so it became too dangerous to go raid other peoples) and Christian opposition to its practice. For all its grave faults, European imperialism is largely responsible for ending slavery. Starting in the 19th century, the British stamped out slavery in their Empire, which at that time covered a fourth of the world. They destroyed slave trading ships, made slavery illegal, and blockaded islands and coasts until slavery was shut down. Thomas Sowell, the African-American economist writes, “It would be hard to think of any other crusade pursued so relentlessly for so long by any nation, as such mounting costs, without any economic or other tangible benefit to itself.”[4] And the crusade was championed by Christians, William Wilberforce chief among them.

Furthermore, it’s not as if nineteenth century Christians were the first ones to object to slavery. This is why the analogy with the church’s view of homosexuality falls wide of the mark. The church has always believed homosexual behavior to be sinful. The church–and not the whole church–can only be found to be supporting chattel slavery in a relatively brief historical window. Even if we look at slavery of any kind, it’s not as if Christians never spoke against the institution until the nineteenth century. As early as the seventh century, Saith Bathilde (wife of King Clovis III) became famous for her campaign to stop slave-trading and free all the slaves in the kingdom. In 851 Saint Anskar began his efforts to halt the Viking slave trade. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas argued that slavery was a sin, and a series of Popes upheld the position. During the 1430s the Spanish colonized the Canary Islands and began to enslave the native population. Pope Eugene IV issued a bull, giving everyone fifteen days from receipt of his bull, “to restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands…these people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without exaction or reception of any money.”[5] The bull didn’t help much, but that is owing to the weakness of the church’s power at the time, not indifference to slavery. Pope Paul III made a similar pronouncement in 1537. Slavery was condemned in papal bulls in 1462, 1537, 1639, 1741, 1815, and 1839. In America, the first abolitionist tract was published in 1700 by Samuel Sewall, a devout Puritan. Meanwhile, Enlightenment bigwigs like Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu all supported slavery.

I am not trying to rewrite history here and make the record of the church into one long string of unbroken heroism. But since we get the impression from so many folks, Christians and non-Christians alike, that the church has been an unmitigated disaster on social issues since the beginning of time, we should take the time to get the rest of the story, in context and un-sensationalized. Christians as individuals have been wrong about ten thousand things. Christians collectively have probably been wrong about just as many things. But to suggest the whole church has always at all times and in all places been wrong about something is an audacious claim. As Christians we ought to fear being on the wrong side of the holy, catholic church more than fear being on the wrong side of Whig notions of progress and enlightenment.


[1] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 121.

[2] Ibid., 122.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005), 123.

[5] For the Glory of God, 330.

Portions of this blog post have been taken from my chapter “The Historical: One Holy Catholic Church” in Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion (Moody 2009).

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19 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with the “Wrong Side of History” Argument?”

  1. Excellent piece! Thank you brother caring and for writing. May God grace us all to respond to such slanders in Colossians 4:5-6 fashion. Soli Deo gloria!

  2. Andy says:

    “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!” – Nikita Khrushchev

  3. Paul Reed says:

    “And while it’s true, shamefully true, that Christians in the South, some of them good Calvinists, defended chattel slavery, we need to put this sad fact in context. By the nineteenth century, slavery had existed for a long time, and it was usually not promoted along ethnic or racial lines. Africans had more slaves of their own than were sent to the New World”

    Well that certainly changes things. We should have had a government program that promoted more minority-ownership of slaves. Also, those Calvinists who defended slavery were correct — find somewhere in the Bible where slavery should be outlawed. Everywhere in the Bible slavery is mentioned, you see it being regulated as a normal human institution. Paul even wrote a letter about an escaped slave, and nowhere mentions that slavery is wrong.

  4. Doug Rogers says:

    Kev: Thank you for sounding this trumpet !

  5. Curt Day says:

    This post, with its stereotyping of progressives and declarations about Marxism, seems to be as much an apologetic for conservatism as it is for Christianity. And therein lies the problem: the conflation of the two.

    If we are so confident that we are saved by grace, why be afraid of the mistakes of the past. For example, while Kevin stops with Christianity’s complicity with slavery by mentioning its role in “eradicating” it, Christianity also played a major part in country’s manifest destiny and the ethnic cleansing of America’s indigenous people. Christianity also played a major role in the segregation and discrimination of the Jim Crow era. Christianity played a major role in the building of European and American empires that atrocities abroad. And we could go on.

    The problem with the wrong side of history argument is whose historical account is on the wrong side of. And the problem with applying this to the same-sex marriage issue is that not enough distinctions are being made. There are Christians who believe same-sex marriage is wrong but believe society should allow it. While other Christians talk as though unless one opposes same-sex marriage in society, one does not believe it is a sin. Guess which side wins the hearts and minds of those who believe in equality and freedom of religion?

    Perhaps Christian writers should find a new angle to cover regarding same-sex marriage. And the same goes with some of the tragic decisions our spiritual ancestors have made in the past.

  6. Nate says:

    @Paul Reed you’re talking about the epistle of Philemon, and you’re wrong about Paul:

    Philmon verse 15 (ESV):

    “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you [Philemon, the ‘owner’] for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother – especially to me [Paul], but how much more to you [Philemon], both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it – to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.

    So yeah, Paul was pleading for the release of the slave, the slave most likely wished to stay with Paul. It is apparent in Paul’s letter that he does think slavery, particularly of another believer, is distasteful. How you can read that epistle and not take away that even Paul thought the practice was terrible is beyond me, and I guess the calvinists of years ago, just didn’t read it, like you. Furthermore, the only reason there were levitcal laws (Old Testament) written on slavery was because they were necessary, as slavery was a common practice and issue during the time of levitical writing, much of the levitical law was written because of local common practice and issues. If you really want to push the issue it is easy to argue that following the rules of treating others as yourselves and to serve not be served which Jesus was extremely clear about would easily tear down levitical laws on slavery. However, slavery during that time period and slavery from 2 centuries ago are quite a different set of circumstances, and that is a discussion for another day anyways.

  7. Paul says:

    This is important if we are to be discussing the same issue here:

  8. Chad Herring says:

    I would argue that in many situations there are some unequivocally “wrong” sides of history. Anyone educated knows that slavery was an economic institution, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong and that people shouldn’t recognize that their ancestors were whip crackers… Also what was that “some of them good calvinists” bit? What side of history are Armenians on? Our moral belief cannot dictate our political belief, they are separate and I believe in democracy very strongly, it is the best way for people of different beliefs to get along. I don’t see how offering homosexuals a marriage license and tax break is so awful to God, especially if they’re going to be together regardless. I’m also positive Jesus was anti-slavery, but I think he was smarter than to make a political statement like that and lose some of the more influential members of his audience.

  9. Rustifer says:

    Why ought morality be grounded in a person? Why ought that person be God?

  10. coagec says:

    I agree with the overall theme that the church has not been on the “wrong” side of history as many progressives like to claim. The church has sought to be on the right side of God’s story, but as the church is comprised of flawed people even though redeemed, it’s not surprising that the church (or more correctly segments of the church) has been in error in various issues throughout history. That does not discredit the church, but it should cause the church to reexamine its positions and values periodically to see if they conform to scripture and not to cultural influences. I believe homosexuality is one of the area the church should engage in reexamination. As a gay evangelical Christian who believes in traditional sexual ethics, it pains me to see the church compromise its effectiveness in spreading the gospel through less than scriptural approach to homosexuality. For too long, the church treated homosexuality as a particularly damnable sin, if not in doctrine, most certainly in practice. By having the conservative cultural value of the traditional family be equated with a biblical mandate, the church has lost touch with other equally God-honoring ways to live, including celibacy and deep friendships. While today’s culture of elevating homosexual relationships to a God-blessed union certainly misses the mark, the church does not provide a credible grace-filled alternative to most because of the judgmental attitudes and focus on the traditional family unit. I have no doubt that God is moving in the church to make it conform to His story with regard to homosexuality and singlehood/marriage. I pray that we would respond sooner rather than later so that our witness will not be compromised by our current state. I write my blog in hopes of prodding the church towards a more scripturally faithful approach towards homosexuality. Confessions of a Gay Evangelical Christian

  11. anaquaduck says:

    Homophobic is another modern classic ad hominem/name calling tactic to belittle. When it comes to slavery a lot depends on the master…whom & why you serve them & wether the conditions are just or unjust. I figure many modern employment contracts probably amount to legal oppression in the first & third worlds.

    Homosexuality has been celebrated in the past also although I am not sure about legality & government. The Bible is clear…God is against it as He is with many things. To build a world with godlessness is to invite ruin, its why the earth is earmarked for destruction before the new heaven & earth are brought into existance.

    As much as the wrong side of history may posses a bit of sting it seems to me a mighy & empty boast also. Modern philosophy will often seek to blame religion as something bad & outdated & point to medical & scientific breakthrough, but often they forget the contaminations, failures & tragedies.

  12. Nathan KC says:

    Curt Day, you are conflating historical acts with Christianity as well. let us not forget Christ’s words when He said “many will say to me “Lord Lord’….and I will say “depart from me, I never knew you” – simply because one identifies as a Christian, or even does something in the name of Christ, does not equate it with Biblical Christianity. I don’t have a problem with the truths you are calling out regarding past atrocities, but be careful not to equate the underlying ideas or motivations that drove them with what anyone with more than a smattering of theological wisdom and a relationship with Christ would call actual Christianity – especially when you accuse the author of doing the same :)

  13. Mike Steffan says:

    Mr. DeYoung,

    Did you really end that article by stating that Christians should fear being on the wrong side of the Catholic church, or am I reading that wrong?

  14. Pip Brandy says:

    This case of “gay marriage” and the right side of history has a curious analog in slavery that is easy to miss. Technically, when the colonies were founded in the early 1600’s, slavery was not legal for the simple reason that it had been outlawed in England for centuries prior to that (slavery itself was never legal on English soil, even during the highest tide of slavery). Although Africans imported into the colonies were generally treated the same as white indentured servants at the start, they did have a harder time asserting their rights. Regardless, lifetime servitude was not something originally enforced against Africans by virtue of their being Africans.

    Sadly, in what would become one of many precedents in US history of courts taking matters into their own hands, Slavery was slowly imposed, most famously with the first fully “legal” slave, awarded to…wait for it…an African who himself was a former indentured servant and had prospered and owned other indentured servants in turn, including whites and blacks( This happened in 1654 and was wrought by a county judge. From that time on, Slavery was, you guessed it, on “the side of history” and was to remain so for the next 200 years.

    Suffice it to say, this current move to redefine yet another fundamental institution of man’s relationship to man is heading down a similar path. Christians, above everyone else, need to know the real parallels in history that are relevant for this evil – those on the side of “gay rights”, and using the courts to get them, are the ones on the wrong side of history, not just eugenics, but even Slavery itself. We need to know our own history better to be able to warn others of being on “the side of history.”

  15. Josh V says:

    Hi @Mike Steffan

    If I understand you correctly, then I think what Kevin means is the universal Christian church (little ‘c’), not the Roman Catholic church. Like in the Apostles Creed.

  16. Jenny says:

    Mike Stefan,
    Kevin was referring to the catholic (small c) church, not Catholic as in Roman Catholic.

  17. Emily says:

    @Mike Steffan – He said to fear being on the wrong side of the catholic church. Lowercase “C”. Meaning, universal. He means we should fear being on the wrong side of Christ’s bride, the church, as a whole. Not the Roman Catholic (uppercase “C”) church.

  18. Mike Steffan says:

    Thank you all for the clarification. I didn’t catch the lower case “c” and I’ve never heard the universal body of Christ referred to as the “catholic church” by a protestant….guess I need to get out more. :-)

  19. Curt Day says:

    Perhaps, but to many nonChristians, we are Christianity. This is especially true when churches chime in.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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