In 1939 Frederick John Foakes Jackson* published A History of Church History: Studies of Some Historians of the Christian Church (W. Heffer & Sons Ltd: Cambridge). His final book–he published it at age 84–it surveys in fourteen chapters just what its title suggests using biographical and bibliographical lenses.
Foakes Jackson studied under Bishop John Lightfoot at Trinity College, Cambridge and likely he first read church history under Lightfoot. He returns full circle to his teacher in the final chapter of this final book under the title “The Books Recommended by Bishop Lightfoot.”
The entire book though is somewhat of a tribute volume to Lightfoot. Foakes Jackson not only ended the book with a very kind nod to his teacher, he prefaced it with a subdued compliment to Lightfoot’s erudition and personal magnanimity. After three unsuccessful attempts at gaining a scholarship to study at Cambridge, Foakes Jackson obtained in 1880 the Lightfoot Scholarship in Ecclesiastical History. From there his teaching career launched and sailed for the next six decades. The Preface to A History of Church History contains the reply Foakes Jackson received when, upon learning of this award he wrote a note of thanks to the Bishop. The closing line of the reply reads: “I trust you will take up some portion of history and make it your own that you may give it in due time to others.”
Take up…make it your own…give it to others. I imagine Foakes Jackson at near ninety rereading the treasured letter from the patron who enabled his early university career.
There is wisdom here from Lightfoot and Foakes Jackson. As church historians, or congregational historians, or teachers in congregational settings, or preachers, we stand in a tradition. We are not the first to undertake the task of sorting out our past. We are not the first to stand before a class or congregation. We are not the first to write or research or sift or evaluate or craft the product of our study. We are not the first and we will not be the last. We have neither the first nor the final word. But we have our word, and with that a responsibility to pay close attention to those who precede us, add to it in our own way with criticism, insight, research and commentary, and then hand it off again. Just as our predecessors entrusted the work to us, we entrust it to others. We have responsibility to look backward at the tradition we have inherited; likewise we bear a responsibility to pass it forward after we make our contribution. We care about the past, we steward our gifts and resources in this moment, and we care about the future. We receive, we give. We take up, make it our own, and then give it away.
This inspires me to be responsible with what I receive. It inspires me to take seriously and steward wisely the opportunities and resources available to me. It underscores for me the reality that I am part of a community, one that ‘right now’ as much as it is past/future. For some of us the community may be a professional guild, or it may be the Wednesday night regulars, but there is a community. It encourages me to submit the fruit of my work to the good of the community.
* Wikipedia will get you started; follow the links there to good and useful information about FJFJ.