Yesterday I received Otto L. Bettmann’s book The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible (1974). When I wrote and produced the first volume of my three-book series God and Government, some of the images I used came from the famous Bettmann Archive collection of photographs and prints. Bettmann’s book is a collection of some of the archive’s images with commentary about how there was a lot of bad stuff going on in our nation post-civil war.

Those who claim they want to return to these supposedly long-lost halcyon days don’t have a sense of history. We blot out the negative and dwell on the positive. It helps to keep us sane. The following email I received some years ago is typical of selective remembering:

You know it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know this world is in terrible, terrible shape. The people have become wicked in my 62 years, going from my childhood when you could leave your doors open day and night and not worry about anyone coming in that didn’t belong in that house. When children could walk to the corner grocery store and buy a Coke for 5 cents. Teenage girls could walk home from school or a girl friend’s house after dark and not have to worry about being forced by some pervert into a car or behind a building to be raped and killed. When we as kids could play dolls, jump the rope, hopscotch, the boys playing with cars or marbles and we dreamed to big things when we grew up. Yes, those were the good old days. And you know something, we could still reach the American Dream and help our neighbors as we reached it. Mr. DeMar, I don’t know how old you are. I do know you have showed how stupid you are, and that you are teaching false doctrine from the Bible or maybe you’re teaching false doctrine from a false Bible. Either way, Jesus is coming very soon. I’m not going to quote any Scriptures. There are too many to prove you wrong. Satan has you bound and your eyes blinded. I pray God will send the Holy Spirit to you to reveal that you have been deceived, that your eyes will be opened wide so you will know without a doubt that we’re in the very last days before our Jesus returns.

The writer of Ecclesiastes puts the past in perspective when he writes: “Do not say, ‘Why is it that former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this” (Eccles. 7:10). Matthew Henry’s (1622–1714) comments on this passage are helpful: “The supposition is a foolish reflection upon the providence of God in this world…. One is so much a stranger to the times past, and such an incompetent judge even of the present times, that he cannot expect a satisfactory answer to the enquiry and therefore he ‘does not enquire wisely.’”

Authors Carl Olof Jonsson and Wolfgang Herbst write, “Perhaps because we are to such an extent ‘strangers to the past,’ we easily read into the events of circumstances of our own day a distinctiveness and uniqueness that may not actually be there.” ((Carl Olof Jonsson and Wolfgang Herbst, The “Sign” of the Last Days—When? (Atlanta: Commentary Press, 1987), x.)) Our memory of the past is selective. We tend to block out the bad and remember only the good. Television shows like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best are not the best ways to view the past:

The 1950s may not be as innocent—or Christian—as people of faith recall. [Gary] Ross believes. “Each era has its own false nostalgia. We all put a picket fence around something. For my generation it was the fifties, and for other generations it will be something else.” Certainly, those of us born after the fifties cannot imagine returning to a place and time we never visited except through reruns. Perhaps conservatives and Christians are calling America to return to a place that only existed in the movies, on television, in Hollywood’s version of history. ((Craig Detweiler, “Opportunity Lost,” Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture, eds. Spencer Lewerenz and Barbara Nicolosi (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 38.))

Utopian Dreams of a Clouded Past

The following is some of what I wrote in response to her letter. I was born in 1950. Everything I know about history prior to 1950 has come by way of reading, discussions with people who were there, and modern media presentations of events captured on film. The last two only go back so far. I’ve read how bad things were when hordes of soldiers raped and pillaged, when tyrants ruled by whim, when cheers went up from the crowds when another head dropped in the basket after Madame Guillotine did her work, when mass starvation was the consequence of utopian revolutions that went inevitably bad, when people died of simple infections because antibiotics had not been discovered, when polio struck the healthy until Jonas Salk developed his vaccine, when the Black Death killed tens of millions of people. I could go on, but you get the picture.

You mention dolls and automobiles. My mother grew up without ever having a doll or the ability to buy one. There were no supermarkets in her day. The corner store (there were two in her neighborhood) had only the bare essentials. Today, you can have meals delivered to your home by ordering online or by a cell phone that you can carry with you to make calls from anywhere in the world.

My father told us how he had to walk to get a 50-pound bag of flour so his mother could make bread and pasta for the family. Baking took all day. I can remember the mechanical washer and wringer that my grandmother used to wash clothes. The wet clothes were hung outside on a line to get them dry. Yes, those were the good old days of drudgery, sunrise to sundown chores that never went away.

You mention houses with doors and locks. Do you realize how modern it is even to own a home with indoor plumbing and central air and heating? The light bulb was invented in 1879. Before that time, it was candles, kerosene lamps, and dangerous natural gas. ((Natural gas does not smell. Trace amounts of a chemical called mercaptan are added to the gas that’s piped into homes. It has a distinctive rotten egg or sulfur-like odor. That so-called gas smell is added to the gas so it can be detected. Prior to the addition of mercaptan, a gas leak in a home could be fatal since no one would know it was happening.))

The first manned flight did not occur until 1903. We landed a man on the moon in 1969. Some of the people alive in 1903 were alive in 1969. Today, a person can fly across the country in less than 5 hours and across the ocean in less than half a day. Christopher Columbus set sail from Southern Spain on August 3, 1492 and arrived in the Bahamas on October 12th—more than a two-month voyage.

You wrote me an email that I received in seconds after you clicked “send.” No paper, stamp, envelope, or postman needed. Not a single science fiction writer ever conceived of the internet. Then there’s the telephone, first invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. Now we have cell phones that are minicomputers and so much more. Who in the nineteenth century thought such things were even possible? Not even Jules Verne or H.G. Wells envisioned them.

The Galveston hurricane of 1900 killed 8000 people. Katrina killed 1833. What made the difference? We have technology that can track storms. You and I can turn on the Weather Channel and see the path of the eye of the storm. You can check weather radar on your phone.

Humorist P. J. O’Rourke says, “When you think of the good old days, think ‘dentistry.’” Gary North writes, “The greatest invention of the modern world is anesthetics. Prior to 1844, in preparation for an operation, you drank booze until you passed out—hopefully. Then the physician—‘sawbones,’ he was called—got started hacking away.”

On August 26 of this year, I had a calcified stone stuck in my left ureter removed by a laser. I never felt a thing because I was under anesthesia. The procedure itself is a marvel of medicine. You can have the “good old days” of just a hundred years ago. Consider some of the following:

  • The average life expectancy in America was 47. “The U.S. Census Bureau projects that 114,000 Americans will be centenarians in 2010, a number expected to swell to 241,000 by 2020.” ((Kathleen Fackelmann, “Centenarians increase in age and numbers,”USA TODAY (October 24, 2005).
  • Only 14% of the homes in the U.S. had a bathtub.
  • Only 8% of the homes had a telephone. Up until a few decades ago, phones were tethered to the wall by an electrical cord. You never owned your phone, and there was only one phone company.
  • A three-minute call from Denver to New York City cost $11, if you could get through. Today, there are no charges for long distance calls. We make them all the time. Also, no need for an operator to make these calls.
  • There were only 8,000 cars in the U.S. and only 144 miles of paved roads.
  • The average wage in the U.S. was $0.22/hour.
  • The average American worker made between $200–$400/year.
  • A competent accountant could expect to earn $2000/year, a dentist $2500/year, a veterinarian between $1,500–$4,000/year, and a mechanical engineer about $5,000/year.

[These economic numbers have to be adjusted for inflation. But even so, most people today are doing much better financially than they did a century ago and have access to many more lower priced commodities. Taxes also have to be factored in since there was no income tax Amendment until 1913. People making less than $3000 paid no Federal taxes.]

  • More than 95% of all births in the U.S. took place at home.
  • The five leading causes of death in the US were:

pneumonia and influenza
heart disease

What’s America’s most publicized health risk? Obesity! Diet solutions is a multi-billion-dollar industry because we have too much food. What a great problem to have.

Does this mean that some things in the past were not better? Not at all. There are some bad things going on today, many of which can be fixed and are being fixed. This is especially true in education. Dr. Gary North writes the following in his article “The Good Old Days.”

“In 1910, only 6% of all Americans had graduated from high school.” Today, millions have graduated, but is their education equal to sixth grade in 1910? In the best high schools, of course it is. I’m talking about the typical high school. I’m talking about the typical graduate.

My friend Bertel Sparks taught at Duke Law School for years. For his entering students, he passed out an essay on property written by [the English jurists William] Blackstone. It was from “Commentaries,” published in 1765. It was the law book for English lawyers. He had them discuss the essay in the following class. They always had great difficulty. The essay was over their heads.

Then he would hold up the source of the essay: the Sixth McGuffey Reader. He said this exercise stomped the arrogance out of them early.

The areas where things are worse are the result of abandoning the Christian worldview and turning these areas over to civil governments. North writes again: “Think taxes. Things are much worse. In 1910, there was no federal income tax. There was no FICA tax. Think government regulation. Think crime. Think divorce. Things are worse.” Consider, however, that one of the reasons men divorce their wives today is the same reason they divorced their wives in Malachi’s day: “older men were deserting their first wives [‘wife of your youth’: 2:13–16] to marry younger, more sexually attractive women.” ((Larry Richardson, “Divorce and Remarriage Under a Variety of Circumstances,” Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, ed. H. Wayne House (IVP: 1990), 218).)) Homosexuality and other sexual sins were a reality in the New Testament era (Rom. 1:18–27; 1 Cor. 5:1–2; 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10).

But it’s not the end of the world as my 62-year-old emailer claimed. In fact, her view is part of the problem. Christians have abandoned culture, and as a result, we are suffering the consequences of our pietism and quietism.