Not all history is created equal. The simple truth is that a lot of history that gets written is pretty shallow. It can be shallow in its depth of research, in its understanding of the context, in its understanding of the scholarly conversation, or in many other ways. If we are interested in some historical question we can do an internet search and we will likely get a lot of different histories, some better and some worse. What makes one better than the other?
I was recently recommended a book written by a truly superb historian about how he does what he does. Reading on the practice of history is one of my favorite things and so I picked up the book. It was so captivating that I read it the first day it arrived. It was incredible for its insight into the depths of serious history.
The historian is Robert Caro and the book is Working. Caro’s historical writing has won a mountain of awards and has been recognized by some of the best historians as the gold standard. Caro’s first book was an in-depth look at Robert Moses, the man who is largely responsible for the way that New York City looks and functions today. The Power Broker was published in 1975 and vaulted Caro into international recognition (and his first Pulitzer). It is not often that a 1,300 page book becomes a best seller, but that’s what this was. Caro has gone on to write a multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson (he is currently writing volume five, the first four volumes total more than 3,500 pages). The third volume, Master of the Senate, on Johnson’s time as leader of the US Senate, won Caro his second Pulitzer.
What makes Caro so great? How does he do what he does? What does it take to write great history? His book gets at those questions, but the overriding reality is that he is incredibly dedicated to his craft. His first book took him seven years of full-time work to write. The Lyndon Johnson books have consumed his time for nearly fifty years. He has spent years in archives (the Johnson archives have in excess of 32 million pages of documents to look through), years interviewing people (thousands of interviews, some people dozens of times each), and even moved to different areas of the country for years so that he could understand the place and people better (it took this kind of interest for many locals to eventually open up about their first-hand knowledge). This is long-term, patient, and diligent work. This is very different from the type of historical research that a google search might find, where someone read for a couple hours one afternoon and now “understands” the “true” history. In other words, not all history is created equal.
Caro’s work reminded me of an interview I saw years ago with another great historian, Peter Brown. Brown is well-known as the historian of “late antiquity.” You may wonder what late antiquity is. It is the name historians give to the time period when the ancient world (antiquity) transitioned into the medieval world (4th to 6th century AD). Actually, it was Brown who gave it this name and, through decades of work, successfully showed why it needed to be understood on its own terms. His scholarly output is amazing. In a way similar to Caro, Brown has gone the extra miles to understand the people and places he has written about. Brown has travelled extensively through the Mediterranean world and has mastered not just the written documents but the artifacts as well. To maximize his travels and his study he has learned more than twenty languages. This is a huge amount of work. How does he do it? The interview I linked to above gives a brief glimpse into the daily routine of a scholar such as Brown. “Every day, he wakes up at 4 a.m. He then studies up to three languages, each for an hour, using books and recordings… Next, he takes a walk in a local park… Finally, he reads historical texts intensively, relaxing the pace of his schedule as the day wears on.” This sort of routine has yielded incredible results over the space of half a century. Brown is one of those rare few scholars whose work has created a new field of studies: late antiquities.
My point in sharing these snippets is simple: the time you have spent immersing yourself in the history of something is indicative of your level of historical understanding. Isn’t the same true for other disciplines, such as playing a musical instrument or learning a craft? This is a window into what a true scholar and expert does. I’ve heard some say that our social media age has democratized expertise. That is true in the sense that in the short barbs that get thrown back and forth on social media the best expert and biggest fool get equal voice. Often, the winner (if there is such a thing) is the one with the loudest contingency/mob behind them. Yet, I would like to think actual expertise and understanding matter. There is an old truism that says just because you won or lost a debate does not mean you are right or wrong, it just means you either did or did not have more information at that one moment in time than the other person. Social media takes such a notion to absurdity, but the point runs true in other arenas of conversation. Real understanding and expertise takes time. It takes patience. It takes consistency. It means we are not satisfied with those simplistic explanations. It wants to know the truth. Now, we don’t need to and can’t be experts at everything. But we need to remember the difference to be able to distinguish actual experts from frauds. And, if we are going to claim to be an expert in something, then we need those virtues of patience, consistency, diligence, and love of truth.
We all have met that person who has the unsavory habit of interjecting themselves into a topic or conversation so they can force in contrary evidence and set everyone on the straight and narrow. We all cringe when the proverbial “Well, actually…” rears up unwelcome. If you have spent any amount of time on social media, you know how ubiquitous this is. And how annoying. How can someone be so arrogant and selfish?
The problem with being frustrated about this is that we are often the one to interject (or we want to) and correct the abject stupidity in front of us. Of course, when we interject it is to defend truth and set reality back on its course. If you have spent any amount of time on social media, you know the nonsense that is out there. Your correction is sorely needed. How can you let such madness go unchallenged?
We could make several observations about these tendencies, but I want to a point out how this coincides with the practice of history. Further, I think that history—done well—offers help here. Historians are usually categorized among the “Well, actually…” crowd. It’s the historian’s job to remind us that history is complex. Sure, it’s annoying. But often this is necessary. Simplistic answers to complex questions rarely satisfy. Convenient quotes often twist historical facts. And basing an action or movement on an inaccuracy breeds bigger problems. Sometimes adding complexity is beneficial.
Recently, I have come across several examples of this beneficial corrective to problematic or simplistic history. I want to present one of these in order to demonstrate how complexity leads to benefit.
(Mis)Quoting the French
My example is from the recent book by Robert Tracy McKenzie, We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy. McKenzie begins with the famous quote from the nineteenth-century French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville: “America is great because America is good.” Tocqueville came to America in the 1830s with express purpose to observe what made American democracy tick. The above quote is one piece of longer quotation:
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers—and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forests—and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her rich mines and her vast world commerce—and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it probably is. It has been quoted by political figures such as Ronald Reagan, John Kerry, Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, Michelle Bachmann, Charles Coulson, Rush Limbaugh, Colin Powell, Ben Carson, and many others (see McKenzie’s prologue for more). The problem is that it’s fake. Tocqueville didn’t say it. What’s worse, as McKenzie shows, is that it is terrible misrepresentation of what Tocqueville argued. As a matter of fact, it is nearly exactly the opposite of Tocqueville’s view. That this quote is fake is a fact that historians have pointed out since at least when Eisenhower evoked it.
McKenzie’s book is not just an effort to correct the record on the quote, that is just the springboard. Rather he shows that Tocqueville was a devout student of democracy with a deft understanding of its dangers and hopes, which he laid out in his famous book, Democracy in America. McKenzie argues that Tocqueville saw within democracy the capability of tyranny, particularly when the collective majority has an uncontrolled desire for something that the minority possesses. “In a democratic society, ‘the omnipotence of the majority’ can readily become ‘the tyranny of the majority’” (204). McKenzie adds complexity not just in a historical presentation of Tocqueville’s work but in the historical background to 1830s America. He lays out the notion of democracy that the founders held and then contrasts it with that which prevailed in the 1830s in the era when Andrew Jackson was president. While the founders held that democracy was the best form of government and also recognized that the people were not naturally virtuous, Jacksonian democracy was a faith that “democracy is intrinsically just” and that “we are individually good and collectively wise” (12).
The complexity McKenzie offers is important. A false quote has been repeated over and over again because it was useful to someone, not because it was true. The historical facts are that Tocqueville and the founding fathers had a different understanding of democracy than the quote recognizes. In fact, he actively warned against the idea that the fake quote puts forward. The historical change to Jacksonian understanding (which McKenzie calls the “Great Reversal”) is a fundamental shift in the understanding of democracy. This is McKenzie’s purpose: to recognize the various philosophies of democracy and realize the differences between them is a shift in how trustworthy the human heart is.
The complexity that McKenzie provides means that a view of democracy that fails to see the latent danger in the democractic system is incomplete. The founding fathers saw this danger, as did Tocqueville. They still believed in democracy as the best option available, but they were unwilling to set aside their convictions that people (even—or especially—the majority of people) have a tendency to mistreat others because their own desires blind them. Tocqueville saw this as the danger of democracy. Christians have traditionally called this fallenness. A faith in democracy to automatically produce the best result needs the complexity that McKenzie is pointing out.
I’ll leave McKenzie’s work there, though much more could be said. It is a book well worth your time. He uses this historical presentation to challenge contemporary Christians who have forgotten the theological idea that we are a fallen people. As you can perhaps gather, he will chastise politicians (former President Trump at the center) as well as Christians.
History and Virtue
Complexity has a few benefits. In most instances, not only is complexity helpful, but it is also necessary to avoid error. If someone appeals to the false Tocqueville quote, it does damage to their credibility (if one knows the problem with the quote) or it does damage to the one listening (if they accept the quote as genuine). An interjection of complexity would help. When we receive correction and someone demands we see more complexity, we should learn to accept such correction as grace. In fact, I would say this is vital even if quite difficult. Finally, when we insist on more complexity in others, we need both to be thorough (don’t correct if you don’t have your facts straight in the first place) and gentle. Proper historical practice requires we do our homework and gentleness is a virtue. In so doing, we build others and ourselves. Understanding and clarity only help.
Perhaps the biggest problems with allowing complexity are that it is hard and it cuts both ways. We are just as susceptible as anyone else to want things to be simple. But good history is complex. It requires us to build virtue. Patience, humility, love of truth, love of others, and grace are all intellectual and social virtues. They are also central to good history. And this is my point. History done well builds virtue. Complexity, when offered or received well, is a benefit.
There are a few figures who left behind a significant heritage for their denomination. Sometimes, these figures become lost as time and denominations move on. Irah Chase is one of those figures. The denomination he influenced was the early American Baptists (and the North more than the South). The area he influenced was theological education. More than a historical curiosity, Chase influenced the nature of Baptist theological education.
Born in Massachusetts to a farming family, his own delicate health meant he was not cut out for life on a farm. He was educated at Middlebury College where he received a liberal arts education and made friends with a local pastor named Nathaniel Kendrick (who would go on to be another significant figure in Baptist education, being the first professor of theology at the theological school of Hamilton, NY). Chase related that when he finished his studies in 1814 an important experience gave direction to his life. It happened on September 11, 1814, that the Battle of Lake Champlain (the last British attempt to invade during the War of 1812) was near to Chase’s home. He could hear the war and then walked among the wounded and dead with his father. The firsthand experience of the cries of agony and the general aftermath of battle and war turned his eyes toward gospel ministry. “The actual view which I then had of some of the evils of war, and reflection on the source of various wrongs inflicted by men upon each other, in disregard to the authority of God, were adapted to remind me of the great remedy which the gospel proclaims, and to confirm my purpose of preparing myself to labor in promoting its influence.”1
Chase enrolled at Andover Theological Seminary, being by his own description the only Baptist student at the congregational school. While there he was a member of the church pastored by Thomas Baldwin in Boston and became convinced of the need for Baptists to have their own theological school. At this time, Baptists claimed Brown University as their only school of higher education, and it was not a theological school. The scandal was even greater because of the size of the country and the growing influence of the Baptists. Chase felt that the energy that Baptists were then demonstrating meant that the time was right to act. Chase and some others in the Boston area even drew up some plans for a theological school and what it might look like.
These plans took time to come to fruition. Chase was ordained to ministry and called to be a temporary evangelist in western Virginia (an experience which again solidified his conviction for the need of an educated leadership) before receiving two offers to join new Baptist schools. One of these was Waterville College in Maine and one was a theological school in Philadelphia headed up by William Staughton. Chase was more intrigued by the idea of a theological school and by its placement in the middle states and so moved to Philadelphia. This school was short-lived, moving to Washington, D.C. in 1820 to be part of the Colombian College. Chase was never pleased with this arrangement as he recognized the financial difficulties the Colombian College was having as well as the lack of attention on the theological school meant the school never developed. Chase was able to take an extended trip to Europe for theological education in 1823–1824, but when he returned, he soon made the decision to look for a better form for a theological school.
The idea of having a theological school in the middle states still made sense, since it could service the entirety of the country. After trying both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., Chase thought some about New York City, but there was now a theological school attached to the Literary and Theological school in Madison, NY (under the direction of Nathaniel Kendrick, Chase’s old pastor). This meant that the New York Baptists were committed there. Chase was then drawn to his old environs of Boston. There was great enthusiasm among well-to-do Massachusetts Baptists, and in late 1825, a new theological school was born in the Western outskirts of Boston: Newton Theological Institute.
Newton was the first stand-alone theological college in the United States. It became perhaps the most influential Baptist seminary throughout the nineteenth century producing more denominational leaders than any other Baptist school. It was Chase who was the architect of this school, and this deserves attention. While Newton long retained prominence, some parts of its makeup were controversial among Baptists. This is a key point of the Chase legacy.
While at Andover, Chase studied under the famous biblical scholar, Moses Stuart. Stuart is known for his method of biblical interpretation and his insistence that biblical interpretation ought not be influenced by theological systems. This method is often described as biblicist and it is certainly what Chase learned. What this means can be helpfully illustrated through Chase’s design for theological education. At the Philadelphia/Washington school, they had three professors: Staughton taught Divinity, Alva Woods taught Church History, and Chase taught languages and biblical literature. As Chase’s biographer described it: “This arrangement was after the old mediaeval fashion of theological schools, and assigned no place to a chair of Biblical Theology, nor scarcely any sign of an approach to a conception of an idea that it enfold. The professorships of divinity, generally, taught systematic theology as a series of propositions set forth by some standard writer, and on some accepted formulary of doctrines that had already acquired the weight acknowledged authority,—propositions based on abstract and speculative principles, logically reasoned out, and supposed on an aggregate to constitute a science of religion.”2 This method was not what Chase had learned under Stuart and was not his preferred. The critique is that this somehow predisposes the interpreter to what the Bible must say, and so they are spoiled as an interpreter before they even begin.
When he went to Newton, Chase was able to upend this design, despite being fully aware that it would fly in the face of how Protestants had always performed the task. “Instead of allowing the student to have his mind subjected to a logically-compacted system anticipatory of what he would find in the Scriptures, and thus prejudging what he ought to find, to constrain him to become thoroughly grounded in the original Scriptures themselves, and to make him, like Apollos, mighty in those Scriptures by a conscious mastery of their meaning, their scope, and of their applications, according to those fixed principles of interpretation that would stand the test of the severest scrutiny like pure gold tried by the fiery crucible” (23).3
This was not just a new method of interpretation, but a new method of theology and theological education. The Newton curriculum replaced systematic theology (divinity) with biblical theology, with Chase being the professor of biblical theology. He used the textbook of Storr and Flatt, translated and edited by Schmucker (of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg) because it also followed such a method. This method was self-consciously a new one. Newton was largely modeled on Andover, but this was a major departure, as was Newton’s decision to not adopt any confession of faith as a standard. In another writing, I have referred to Chase’s method as one of “biblicist theological reasoning.” By this I mean: “(1) utilize a scientific approach to Scripture, to (2) resist allowing any theological system of statement to influence biblical interpretation, to (3) utilize any source of truth, and to (4) build a positive theology from this basis.”4 This method was passed on to many thousands of students over the years by Chase, by Chase’s protégé, Barnas Sears, and by Sears’s three most influential students, Alvah Hovey, Ebenezer Dodge, and Ezekiel Gilman Robinson (these three men collectively taught theology to all Northern Baptist theology professors through the end of the nineteenth century).
While Chase was pleased to utilize such a method, not all Baptists were. Southern Baptists founded their own seminary in 1859, in part because they did not approve the method of Chase (some other reasons were because they did not like the Northern ethos and did not like the option of sending their young men to the schools of other denominations). Augustus Strong noted in the 1890s that Chase’s method had always been uncomfortable for many Baptists and was a prime reason many pastors sent their young men to alternative schools.
Irah Chase was a chief architect of Baptist theology in the Northern United States throughout their founding. It was not without its critics, yet Chase’s vision for theological education dominated the landscape among early American Baptist seminary professors and gave shape to what was Northern Baptist theological method.
Irah Chase, “Rev. Irah Chase, D.D.: An Autobiographical Sketch,” The Baptist Memorial and Monthly Record 9, no. 2 (1850), 73. ↩
William Hague, A Discourse on the Life and Character of Rev. Irah Chase, D. D. (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1866), 21–22. ↩
Hague, Life and Character of Rev. Irah Chase, 23. ↩
Matthew C. Shrader, Thoughtful Christianity: Alvah Hovey and the Problem of Authority Within the Context of Nineteenth-Century Northern Baptists. Monographs in Baptist History (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2021), 31n65. ↩
It’s been a long road, but I just published my dissertation in book form. Considering all that’s gone into this, it’s rewarding to see the end product. It has also given me cause to reflect on the process behind this moderate-sized dissertation-turned-book. In what follows I would like to give the (very short) narrative of the six and a half years that has led to this academic, historical monograph. I think there is value in showing what the historical process looked like. It wasn’t something that I spent a few hours on each week for a couple months. It was immersive for many years. The work of doing this kind of history (academic) is difficult, but very rewarding. This post is a short narrative of some of that process. It is meant for those who might be considering this kind of study or for those who are simply interested in the behind-the-scenes work. Of course, not all histories will follow this exact process, but this is what went into mine.
Before I begin I should note that my focus here is solely on the historical academic process. Much more than what I will say below has gone into this project. That would be the personal cost that I, and many others, have invested. Chief among those who have sacrificed are my wife and kids. That side of things is another tale to tell, but one I do not intend to tell at this time or in this venue.
To narrate the academic process I am going to first look at what the dissertation process looked like for me before moving on to the publishing process.
When I began my doctoral work I did not have a topic nailed down. I knew I wanted to write on my own theological heritage and I knew I had interest in the nineteenth century. One of my profs, Doug Sweeney (who became my primary advisor), advised that I take a look at American Baptists because they had not received much attention in this time period. That prod led me to begin outlining the major Baptist thinkers from the North. I chose the North because it is my more direct heritage. What I found really surprised me. There were very few works that gave sustained attention to this time and area. I explored the options and came up with a basic question: what was the character of nineteenth-century Northern Baptist theology? There were many ways to try and explore an answer, but I kept coming back to Alvah Hovey because his life (1820–1903) and his academic career (1849–1903) span very important times, he was incredibly influential, and he left behind mountains of materials. I ran these ideas past the three church history profs at TEDS (Doug Sweeney, John Woodbridge, and Scott Manetsch) and received encouragement that I was on to something. I was excited that I had a topic, but the reality was that I was far from a proposal. This was the Fall of 2014.
Once I knew I wanted to write on Hovey I began working on the idea in earnest. This included reading as widely as I could into Baptist history in the nineteenth century, American religious history in the nineteenth century, theology in the nineteenth century in general, and diving into Hovey’s substantial corpus. I reached out to a couple scholars who at least knew about Hovey and interacted with them, I wrote class papers on various aspects of Hovey’s thought, and I got myself started in archival research. When I began working on the Hovey papers I connected with the library that held them (Andover Newton Theological Seminary, in Boston). Their archival librarian (Diana Yount) was incredibly gracious and sent me several rolls of microfilm to work through (which were only Hovey’s correspondence) and she warned me that the Hovey papers were “daunting” (12 linear feet of archival space is a lot to work through). I read and read and read. I took notes and asked questions about everything I was reading. I spent hours and hours at the microfilm reader discovering new pieces to the puzzle. I spent days and weeks looking at old (from the 1800s) newspapers and magazine. I sat down with my advisors often and threw ideas around. I talked to classmates about what I was trying to get my mind around. I wrote and delivered papers on Hovey in about 5 different classes. I still have several Moleskine notebooks filled with notes from all of these things. This was the slow work of history. I enjoyed it all, but you also have to try and build something with all this.
I took to the task with a lot of energy because I was excited to uncover something new and contribute my findings to Baptist history. What I found out pretty quickly was that I was wandering without a compass. I had a pretty hard time relating my subject to other studies because there was such a dearth of work on nineteenth-century northern Baptists. There was no standard textbook on what nineteenth-century Northern Baptists were like. Even the larger Baptist history books hardly touched this area. Even though Hovey was extremely influential in his day and left behind dozens of books, he was not even mentioned in most standard Baptist history books. The entire time period has been largely overlooked. I had to plow new ground and then make sense of it, largely on my own. It was a lot of reading, thinking, writing, and then re-reading, re-thinking, and re-writing. There were a lot of dead ends. There were a lot of books and articles that I wished existed, but did not. It was a slog. But the process of historical research cannot be rushed.
Perhaps the biggest struggle was to construct a formal dissertation proposal that connected what I wanted to write on with other works on Baptist figures and nineteenth-century America (and, of course, a proposal that satisfied all the institutional demands of my school). In particular, I needed to find the focus of my project and connect it with existing scholarship. This was a big deal and really hard for me. My breakthrough came when I took out a sheet of paper and started drawing bubble diagrams of all the disparate ideas about Hovey that I had. I tried several times and finally found “authority” as the center. I still have the picture I took and sent to my wife in great excitement (she was of course excited for me…she’s a saint). When I shared the idea with my advisors they also rejoiced with me that I had found a central topic (having advisors who suffered and rejoiced with me along the way was invaluable). Finding the center allowed me to focus my work and start to make real progress. I was required to write proposals for two different classes before this point, but I now had something substantial to connect with. I wrote several further proposal drafts for both my advisors and also for a group of classmates that would meet at my advisor’s home once a month for academic discussion. Once my primary advisor gave me the nod, I was able to schedule the formal hearing (Oct 24, 2017). I am grateful to have had an advisor who forced me to produce a quality proposal. I had to know what I wanted to ask, how it related to other histories, and how I was specifically going to fulfill my project. To put the hard work of organizing your project at that stage saved me much work later on.
After the proposal you normally attain candidacy status and begin writing your dissertation right away and that is the last part of the PhD, at least at TEDS it was this way. For me, I found out when applying for candidacy that I had to take one more class (this is another story…suffice it to say that there are always hoops you must jump through). This put my start a little behind, but I did use the paper for that class in the dissertation, so it worked out ok. By the summer of 2018 I had finished this last class, drafted the first two chapters (with approval from my advisor), and moved away from Chicago to Colorado.
By this point, I had a large part of my research complete. I had read most of Hovey’s works that I had my hands on (and some of them I had read several times), I was familiar with the other primary works (of nineteenth-century Northern Baptists), and I was up to speed on the secondary literature (which my comprehensive exams helped solidify). I also had notes upon notes documenting what I had found and where. It was now time to take a research trip to the Hovey archives. The archives had been recently moved from Andover Newton to the Yale Divinity School library in New Haven, Connecticut, so that’s where I went. I spent five days scanning everything from Hovey’s hand that I could in the restricted time I had. His archives were so large that I had to be quite selective even though I had a full work week and was able to scan thousands of pages a day. Fortunately I had a guide of his archives and could plan my week ahead of time. Over the next several months I worked through these scans (literally thousands of Hovey’s own hand-written pages) to add substance to the claims of my research. Fortunately, I did not discover anything that upset my ideas; rather, it reinforced what I wanted to argue. I had done so much work on Hovey that I knew what I wanted to say, I just had to do the work of composing it all.
During the Fall of 2018 I worked through the Hovey papers, wrote two more chapters, and was on the job hunt. In January 2019, my family and I moved to Minnesota to work at Central. I also applied for May 2019 graduation (when I had about half the dissertation written). Once in Minnesota I was able to crank out chapters five, six, and seven in quick succession to complete my dissertation. I defended April 24, worked through all the formatting changes, and then graduated May 10. That was a great day.
Now what? Finishing the PhD was an accomplishment in itself. To leave the dissertation as it was would have been completely fine. But I had been encouraged all along to have publication in mind. So I tried to have that in mind throughout and to work in that direction once done. I sent out a couple email feelers to try and get feedback from some other scholars connected with the Baptist publishing world to hear their thoughts. As it happened, I never heard back from any of them. That combined with a very busy life made me put the idea of publishing on the back burner. I knew I needed to edit the dissertation anyway, but I wasn’t ready to do it. But then COVID hit in March 2020, which drove me to look harder at publication.
I reconnected with my advisor and he helped by writing a reference for publishing my dissertation. I looked into a couple publishers that focused on Baptist studies, and decided to try the Monograph in Baptist History series with Wipf and Stock. I sent my dissertation to the series editor, who gave me a kind review and said he would be happy to have it as part of the series. At that point I did two things, I began the formal process with Wipf and Stock (another proposal) and I began editing the dissertation for publication. It had only been a year since I finished, so there wasn’t much literature to add, but I had the chance to smooth a few things out, add a little, and make it more of a book rather than a dissertation. In all, the book is not substantively different than the dissertation. The proposal took time but was accepted and I had a book contract in hand. I then needed to submit the final document, edited according to their house style. That took a lot of careful, detailed work. There were further edits for the copy edit and the typeset stages, both with more careful, detailed work. Then I created an index (again, a sustained effort at careful, detailed work) and then the book hit production in April 2021. The publication process was an alternation of furious editing activity and then waiting. In all, I think I read and edited the book about a dozen times.
The project I began in the Fall of 2014 has now made it into book form in Spring of 2021. Six and a half years of study, writing, and editing. And now I have a book to hold in my hands. There were times when things moved really slow, times when it was pretty steady progress, and times where I was at a dead sprint. From the beginning of the project to now, I’ve written easily a hundred pages that didn’t make the cut (and all those wonderful footnotes that no one will read), read tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of pages, and have hundreds of pages of scribbled notes and questions. To hold the finished product and flip through it causes me to remember the entire process. It’s been rewarding and satisfying.
A lot went into this one historical monograph. Writing this kind of history is slow and difficult, but it has been worth it. The historical process itself was the fun part. This process has been the constant asking of questions (which has been more fun than I expected), searching for answers (which don’t always exist), sifting of materials (the slow work of doing history), taking notes along the way (probably the most important step), writing (sometimes fast but usually slow), and editing (over and over again). As I’ve outlined above, it basically started with a question: what is the character of nineteenth-century Baptist theology? This book is a small dent in that question, but one I’m proud of. I’d like to see more done to answer that question. There are many books and articles that I wish existed, they would have made my process much easier. But that gives me something to continue working on. That would definitely be a bigger project that builds on the work I did for this dissertation. That’s where my research eyes are now focused. Which has me excited to jump into the historical process all over again.
This Fall I am teaching a survey course of church history that spans the beginning of the church through the Reformation. At this point in the semester we are starting to discuss the Medieval Era. The Fall of the Roman Empire in the West during the fifth and sixth centuries is one of those massive turning points in wold history. This is true not just because one of the greatest empires in world history collapsed, but also because one of the greatest migrations happened. Europe as we know it today was forged in these fires of change and upheaval.
The short version begins with the most recent Disney movie: Mulan. Well, Mulan may be more legend than history, but it is true that the Chinese repelled the Huns to some extent, sending them across the plains of Central Asia toward Europe. As they moved further West, they began to terrorize the Germanic tribes. This forced one tribe, the Visigoths (West Goths), into movement. The Visigoths crossed the Danube in 375 (at the permission of the emperor Valens) and learned quickly that they did not get along well within the empire. They won the famous Battle of Adrianople in 378 (where Valens died). This shocked the world as it was the first time the empire had lost a battle on their own turf to the Barbarian tribes. But it was only the beginning.
The Visigoths eventually went further West and invaded Italy. To defend the homeland, the empire pulled much of their forces from Gaul (modern France) and Spain. This was disastrous because the Visigoths were not stopped and took Rome in 410. And with Gaul and Spain weakened, the Vandals swept in to ravage this portion of the empire. This situation changed again as the Visigoths continued West into Southern Gaul and Spain, thus pushing the Vandals into North Africa by 429 (which they completely overran).
The Roman Empire in the West continued to exist through this time, but barely. The Huns, under their great king Attila, also invaded the empire and were only stopped by an uneasy alliance of Romans and barbarians at the Battle of Chalons in 451. But Attila still made it to Rome before his death in 453. Two years after that, the Vandals crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa and looted Rome. And by the end of the fifth century, the Ostrogoths (East Goths) also swept into Italy.
In a short span of time the Roman empire was effectively destroyed. The Eternal City had been sacked, looted, and ravaged by at least four groups of people. The Germanic tribes moved all over the world (and I don’t have space to discuss the Lombards, the Franks, the Slavs, the Saxons, the Angles, and the Britons). The world (at least in the West) was truly turned upside down.
Our Present Obsession with Presentism
While reviewing this history this week I was struck by two other simultaneous experiences. The first is our own historical moment. We live in an age of outrage over everything. Some of these things are deserved of outrage, but most are not. It feels like we are told often that the world is on the edge of a knife, the end of days has come, and Christ will come in our lifetime.
Of course, such pronouncements, like the events they are concerned about, are nothing new. This leads to my second experience. I am reading the inimitable Alan Jacobs’s new book, Breaking Bread with the Dead. I have not finished the whole thing, but a major point he makes helps in our moment. He decries the tyranny of the urgent that dominates in our day. He points out that our “temporal bandwidth” is especially weak. This speaks to the presentism — the inability to see the moment we live in (our now) in relation to the larger flow of history — that is destroying us. To illustrate, consider this thought experiment that Jacobs gives: can you remember the second-to-last thing that social media told you to be mad about?
The solution that Jacobs works toward is to add density to our temporal bandwidth. Our age lacks density, and the more we are attached to its demands, “the more weightless we become” (19). His basic argument is that the more you add to your awareness of history the more you will increase your own personal density. In effect, you will broaden your temporal awareness to include more than the immediate. You will then understand better our “now” in relation to the past and the future. Jacobs goes on to advocate several ways to do this, including reading more old books and experiencing more old art. If we can develop this density we will be more likely not to be blown around by the “mildest breeze from our news feeds.” In other words, we will allow larger truths and stories to keep us grounded in our moment. We will gain wisdom from those who have come before.
A thread runs through all I have outlined above. In our times of difficulty, we must not forget God’s providence. Theologian Millard Erickson defines providence as “the continuing action of God by which he preserves in existence the creation he has brought into being, and guides it to his intended purpose for it” (Christian Theology, 2004, 413). Now, I think our day is going through difficult times. But compared to many other moments in history, it is nothing more than average. The fall of the Roman Empire was on a different level. Even the twentieth century, with its world wars, was worse.
I want to close with a quote from one well-known Christian who lived through the upheaval of the twentieth century and who had a legendary amount of “personal density”: C. S. Lewis (for what it’s worth, Jacobs has a fantastic book on Lewis that is also worth your time). Lewis was drawn to think about his own time in relation to the earlier eras of time. He thought of two men from the fifth century who lived through the Barbarian migrations: Boethius (who was falsely imprisoned and executed by the Ostrogoths) and Augustine (who died while the Vandals were breaking down the walls of his city in North Africa). Unsurprisingly, these three saints of the past had wisdom to pass down on how to live through such moments. Lewis summarizes well why we must not move toward pessimism, but rather reflection upon God and his good work:
The classic expositions of the doctrine that the world’s miseries are compatible with its creation and guidance by a wholly good Being come from Boethius waiting in prison to be beaten to death and from St. Augustine meditating on the sack of Rome. The present state of the world is normal; it was the last century [the nineteenth] that was the abnormality.
C. S. Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. by Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1970), 22.
Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars (University of Alabama Press, 2017), 216 pages.
**Before we dive in, I should note that because I found the book so thought-provoking, I decided to engage a little deeper. This review is longer than normal and fairly academic in its engagement.**
There is a regular confusion over how African Americans tend to mix two seemingly contradictory ideals: generally conservative Protestant theology and generally progressive politics defined by racial identity. There are reasons for this, and Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews of the University of Mary Washington addresses some of the historical formulations of this phenomena. She delimits her study by looking at African-American Baptists and Methodists from about 1915 to the Second World War. The basic argument is that the conjoining of doctrinal fidelity and racial justice is older than normally thought. This goes back to the interwar years, at least. Theologically, the same hermeneutic that argued for conservative doctrine also argued for racial progress. This left African American evangelicals without a home in fundamentalism or modernism. As a result, “African Americans created their own traditionalist conservative evangelicalism” (2). The history is fascinating and the book well-written. Here is how Mathews tells the story:
She begins by considering the fundamentalist movement and their attitudes toward African Americans and racial discussions. Fundamentalism became a movement during an era when most whites took (at the least) a paternalistic view toward African Americans. Mathews argues that white fundamentalists did this for at least four reasons: (1) they did not want to challenge racial norms because (2) this would not have been strategically helpful to a fledgling movement, (3) as most white Americans they were largely unaware of the plight of black Americans, and (4) they had built in mechanisms that limited their social outreach. Many fundamentalist pastors were outspoken opponents of integration, they also regularly argued that black people in general were deficient in understanding and leadership, which then led many to compartmentalize and limit black contributions because whites did not trust black intellect. Fundamentalists were already marginalized in the 1920s and being counter-cultural was simply not on their mind. For these reasons, Mathews observes that fundamentalism was largely a white phenomena.
With the understanding of white fundamentalist views toward black Christians, Mathews then considers African American interactions toward white fundamentalists. African Americans kept a close eye on fundamentalist/modernist debates. They realized that modernism was also largely a white phenomena. Black leaders could often appreciate when white leaders spoke against modernism and racial injustice, but they would then point out inconsistencies in how these white leaders would support other racist groups and ideals. Because what happened in the world of white America had extensive practical import on the lives of black Americans, black leaders could not afford to ignore what white leaders were doing and saying. Conversely, white leaders could afford to ignore, stereotype, and racial demean black people and leaders as it had little to no existential ramifications. In trying to make sense of the lay of the land, many black leaders felt, on the one hand, that they could work with some semblance of modernism because it was not full-blown modernism (that was a white problem). On the other hand, some black leaders claimed fundamentalists abandoned the Baptist heritage of “using religion to ameliorate social problems and their tradition of freedom of conscience” (59). In sum, black evangelicals were highly interested in the fundamentalist/modernist battles for two reasons: race and religion. They saw the importance of the doctrinal battle and normally sided with fundamentalist doctrine, but they also had to know where they stood at every moment in the eyes of white people because racial oppression was a real problem.
The distance between white fundamentalism and black Christians resulted in black Christians working out the theology of their unique experiences on their own. Many black leaders saw no need to be theologically progressive. They believed that conservative Christianity contained what was needed to also affect social change. Black leaders could not accept all fundamentalist doctrines either, because some were fairly novel, and black leaders could not appear to be reading their Bibles incorrectly. As a result, they refused to choose a side. African American leaders would use terms and phrases of both fundamentalists and modernists but would often interpret them in their own way. They tended to be conservative theologically but also include notions of racial equality. The question was not: which side supports whatever particular issue. It was: does Scripture support it? They tried to hold the past while accommodating to the future, a task which had perils, and which was already a first step to modernism. Mathews makes the astute observation that African Americans saw not a bifurcation between fundamentalism and modernism, but a continuum.
At this point the story takes its important turn. Mathews tells of the African American concern to uphold their traditional theology but also think theologically about their social situation. African American Protestants often mirrored white fundamentalists in their concerns over how modernism was affecting society. African Americans were often in support of social conservatism while also being suspicious of the racial prejudices of many social conservatism advocates. African Americans have a long record of many social justice activities. However, they could also deviate from traditionalist religious beliefs and social norms if it was conducive to their racial aspirations. The 1928 presidential election saw many African Americans realize that a concentration on a social issue that they normally would support (Prohibition) might mean ignoring a host of dangers to the black person. Therefore, many began prioritizing racial realities. The pressing needs of black people overruled much else politically. This was the major turning point of African American evangelicals away from the Republican party. The need for civil rights became more important than the need for absolute adherence to certain behaviors and beliefs. And there was a theological reason for this: racism (and racial progress) was a theological subject and to hold to racism (in its many forms) was to fall from orthodoxy.
African American theology dealt with a daunting task. “As African American Protestants wrestled with their understandings of modern culture and changes in theology, they were unified on another matter—the true Christian church embraced equality for all races and that equality was not present in the United States” (126). There was a growing realization that Christianity called for equality and charity which was found occasionally on both sides of the theological and political aisles. Common ground for many was found on racial, as well as other theological, lines. Black ministers shared a common frustration that the universality of Christianity meant segregation was a gross evil, which many whites were willfully ignorant. Importantly, black Christians did not see the racism in white conservatism as inherent to the theology. Black Christianity grew. And they insisted it was not Christianity that was problematic, the problem was white racism. The situation was becoming clear for many African Americans: American Christianity was a paradox. There was the assertion of liberty, freedom, and democracy while at the same time there was segregation, racism, and lynchings.
The historical dualism that sees fundamentalism and modernism as stark and wholly separate entities simply cannot account for the African American experience that Mathews writes about. Because of the imperfections of both parties, especially in the area of race, African Americans had to be more nuanced in their search for a home. Rather than seeing a dualism, African Americans saw a continuum. African American leaders between the wars charted a course that accepted traditional religious beliefs while also using that same hermeneutic for racial progress. This left them outsiders to fundamentalists and modernists alike. Theologically, black leaders never accepted certain theological tendencies of fundamentalism (such as dispensationalism and the indifference to racial issues). But modernism was not appealing either, it was a white heresy (and could also be indifferent to racial issues). The path was a narrow one between two unsatisfying (though not equally so) options.
Thus, Mathews’ thesis: “African Americans created their own traditionalist conservative evangelicalism” (2). African American leaders showed you did not have to choose only one side, there were a myriad of ways to respond. Mathews argues that Historians must see the complexity and not force black evangelical history into a box.
There is little doubt that Mathews has proved her thesis. In the first half of the twentieth century, when American Protestantism was fracturing along fairly clear lines, African American Christians did not find a home in either major category because race and doctrine did not allow it. Perhaps the best contribution of Mathews’ study is her recognition of a continuum between modernism and fundamentalism. The categories were not neat. Many histories of fundamentalism recognize something similar in the presence of moderates and the distinction between fundamentalist “come-outers” and “stay-iners.” But what Mathews contributes is the bald historical fact that large groups of Christians could not identify with either side, precisely because of the issue of race. Mathews’ chronicling of subtle, and oftentimes blatant, racism of many fundamentalist leaders is both undeniable and damning. It is a dark stain on fundamentalism.
Mathews also makes the point that when the Northern Baptist Convention was splintering during the 1920s and 1930s, African American leaders made astute observations about their relationship to Baptist tradition. At least some argued that white Baptist leaders of the time ignored “the Baptists’ heritage of using religion to ameliorate social problems and their tradition of freedom of conscience” (59). The idea that fundamentalists (as well as modernists) were inconsistent with significant pillars of their Baptist heritage is thought-provoking. I can agree that there was a pretty significant dissonance between fundamentalist attitudes toward engagement of social issues and that of their forebears. But it is also true that resistance to the social gospel was a theological reason for it. Likewise, on freedom of conscience, Baptists have traditionally allowed such an idea, but they have also insisted on standards of orthodoxy. The balancing of the two and the definitions of both are heavily debated. Still, this observation by black Baptist leaders is astute and worth continued discussion.
Overall, this is a must-read for those interested in American religious history, the history of black evangelicalism, and the history of fundamentalism. My own understanding of the history of fundamentalism is greater than my understanding of the history of black evangelicalism, and this book is written with its focus on the history of black evangelicalism. From that perspective, this is a welcome book that helps explain several of the reasons why black evangelicals resisted, and continue to resist, the categories that (mostly) white evangelicalism uses. On the fundamentalist side of the story, there is no hiding what was said loud and clear from the pulpit and from published sources, no less in their actions. Fundamentalism, like nearly all of American Protestantism, has a tattered history of racial indifference and racial prejudice.
The theological questions this book raises are still pertinent: Is race and racism a theological issue? If it is, how important is it in one’s overall theology and one’s lived experience? In other words, is it a doctrine where deviation from scriptural teaching is seriously problematic and requires some form of practical censorship? As Mathews shows, these questions have been discussed for quite some time among African American evangelicals. I don’t believe the same can be said for their white brethren.
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Vintage, 2010), 587 pages.
My guess is that many do not know to what America’s Great Migration refers. Reconstruction, the Great Depression, Progressive Era, Jim Crow, or the Early Republic are all recognizable eras and events, but the Great Migration is not as well known. This refers to a phenomena where “over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an existence in nearly every other corner of America” (9). This lasted from First World War all the way through the 1960s. Quite simply it transformed the South, the North, the Midwest, the West, and any other region of the continental United States you can think of, particularly the urban areas. The way that urban areas are even set up in most cities today reflects the phenomena that Wilkerson talks about. This is nothing new, but the depth of detail and the connection to real stories is unforgettable.
This was easily one of the best books that I have ever read. Everything about it hit the mark. Its writing was clear and compelling, even gripping at times. Its topic and content was incredibly interesting and important. Its research is meticulous and undeniable. The author knows well the literature surrounding her subject and deals well when interacting with other historians. More than that, she conducted more than 1,200 interviews with those who were a part of the event she writes about. The most impressive part is how she weaves together the scholarly historical study with the massive narrative evidence. Altogether, it is a stunning piece of history.
This is a work of narrative non-fiction. This means that the author writes history, but gives it not just through a lecture manuscript filled with annotated footnotes showing her scholarship. Rather, this book tells the story of the Great Migration through the lens of three main characters. The broader scholarly historical explanations are brought in at numerous points to give context to each of the three individual narratives. And during these broader explanations, she uses the many interview details she collected to bolster her presentations. The payout is that you are presented with living history while you follow three highly compelling stories. I can think of no better example of narrative non-fiction writing.
Wilkerson follows her three main stories from their early lives in the south, detailing the intense daily struggle they experienced. The story is that in the South after the Civil War, life for black Americans was very difficult, primarily through Jim Crow laws and customs. Segregation, sharecropping, harassment, vandalism, and the racial terror used to enforce Jim Crow were ubiquitous. Black Americans had to live by these written and unwritten rules under the specter of terror. Even answering a greeting toward a white person without proper etiquette could result in death. “Across the America South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as ‘stealing hogs, horse-stealing, poisoning mules, jumping labor contract, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks’ or ‘trying to act like a white person'” (39). Such a number should cause a shock, but it is almost certainly an under-representation. The individuals the author interviews all saw beatings, harassments, rapes, tortures, and lynchings that were not recorded. The reality of life for black Americans caused them to look North for other options (‘the warmth of other suns’) where they might build a new life. Many left the South with that hope.
The book then chronicles the various routes taken by Southern migrants to a variety of Northern, Midwestern, and Western cities as well as their struggle to establish themselves once there. The reality is that the “other suns” were not always terribly warm. The road to these new worlds were often difficult and dangerous. And even once the migrants arrived at a new city it was difficult to get a foothold. While segregation was not always lawful in these places, it was certainly present everywhere. The job options were limited for black migrants (despite the fact that many of them had more education/qualification than many of their white competitors), the education options were limited, and residential segregation limited even where they could live. City planners would determine which areas were to be white-only. Neighborhoods would have official and unofficial covenants disallowing black residents. And even when these options were not in place, harassments and vandalism could often overwhelm and ultimately drive away any would-be-tenant. Racial segregation permeated every aspect of life.
The end of the book recounts the drastically changed American scene one hundred years after the migration began and several decades after it ended. The three stories told show how, despite the difficulties of the new locations, the migrants were, by-and-large, quite happy with their choice to go. Their individual choices ultimately changed the landscape of American history. Indeed, the landscape is so changed that (much smaller) migrations are seeming to take place away from some of the urban areas of the North, Midwest, and West in a turnaround from what the three main characters lived through.
It can be very hard to read the details of this dark period of American history. But I would say that it is really important. The fact that so many Americans relocated has had an incalculable effect on life in America, both in the places they went and the places they left. It is pretty interesting to me that many history books seem to overlook this huge change of landscape. We might know that one hundred thousand people migrated to California during the gold rush or that three hundred thousand migrated out of the Midwest due to the Dust Bowl, but what about the over six million who relocated due to racial oppression of Jim Crow? But, as Wilkerson shows, this Migration had undeniable causes and effects. Such a massive moving of people and the cloud of racial prejudice that surrounded it on all sides has undeniably had many ripples that we continue to feel. How the South is now structured, how inner cities are shaped, how the suburbs came to be, where the urban manufacturing jobs are located, and the socio-economic situations of urban areas (along with other important realities of American life) cannot be explained apart from this story.
I cannot think of a better place to get acquainted with this era than this book. It is like having three walking tour guides through history. There are very few books that I have finished and felt I had read a masterpiece, but this was one. I would encourage anyone to pick this up and read it. It’s a compelling read, but it also has gut-wrenching moments. It is hard to read any story of torture and murder, but when it was racially based, and sometimes even geared toward minors, it will hit deep. But this is an hugely consequential part of the American story. Read the book. My guess is you will learn something new about the formation of America as we know it today.
Memorizing long lists of names, dates, and events is a frustrating yet common experience to history students. We can all picture a teacher standing like a statue by a chalkboard droning on and on while giving names and dates ad nauseum. This is not a good look for history. And, I would say that it is history done poorly. If the simple mention of the word “history” makes you want to fall asleep or cringe at having to put your memorization skills to the test, then you have not been properly introduced to what history can and should be. It is what I refer to as bucket-head history. There is an old (and bad!) idea that when you take a history class, your brain is like a giant bucket that the teacher is filling up with facts and dates. This will make history very boring. The bigger problem is that there are holes in the bottom of the bucket and the information being poured in seeps out. Or, as is true for many, there is no bottom to the bucket at all and it just goes in the top and out the bottom. Learning history like this is frustrating and ineffectual. There are better ways to think about history.
We have to start by recognizing that history is not just simply the past. History is better understood as the “remembered past” (to borrow a phrase from John Lukacs). This is where C. S. Lewis’s short essay, “Historicism,” is helpful. Lewis explained that if you take one moment of time and that one moment represents one drop of water, then think about the incredible complexity of that one drop of water. That one moment is beyond our ability to grasp. So much happens in every moment in just one person’s life that it is staggering to extrapolate that one moment and every person on the planet. Now consider the past. For Lewis, it is like “a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond imagination.” Imagine that roaring stream flowing over a waterfall. The historian is the one standing at the bottom of the waterfall, holding out a cup, and catching some of the past. The question is not whether historians can know the past comprehensively (that is beyond all possibility). The question is whether historians know anything about the past at all. Historians have no choice but to pick and choose a small sample of what happened and weave it together into a narrative.
Just to be clear, as an aside, this does not make me a relativist. There is a difference between historical neutrality and historical objectivity (as Carl Trueman has said) or between absolute truth and probable truth (as Richard Evans has said). When historical fallacies are avoided and positive evidence is correctly presented according to proper historical methods there there can be objectivity or probable truth.
To make history interesting the historian tells a compelling story. This presents history as coherent and explains causal connections. The good news is that this helpfully replaces bucket-head history. But there can be a danger on the other end. It is tempting to come up with a paradigm of what is happening in history and then let this hypothesis become the grand scheme to which all historical evidence must conform. Carl Trueman, in his book Histories and Fallacies, spends an entire chapter talking about these “grand schemes and misdemeanors.” Trueman gives an extended example of Marxism and its all-explaining theory. Marxism is a theory of everything which argues all history is understood dialectically in terms of class struggle. The purpose of discussing Marxism is to show it is a grand scheme that forces all evidence to fit. A thoroughgoing Marxist believes that all actions are ultimately driven by material class struggle. Historically speaking, it is really hard to prove that, despite the elaborate schemes Marxist historians create.
The fundamental problem with such an overarching scheme of history is that it fails Karl Popper’s falsifiability test. There is literally nothing that can prove Marxism wrong because the theory is controlling of all evidence. A non-Marxist might be able to present evidence that someone’s actions were fundamentally motivated by religion or by good-will toward others, but a Marxist would reject it. They have a category of false consciousness wherein someone thinks they are acting according to religion or something else, but in reality there is an underlying explanation of material class struggle going on. You can see that Marxism twists and distorts evidence to fit their preconceived scheme (you can also see how they call religion the opium of the masses). Trueman describes it as “an all-encompassing aprioristic view of reality into which the phenomena of history must be made to fit, whether by fair means or foul” (101). It is nonfalsifiable and, ultimately, a Procrustean bed.
I don’t think most conservative Christians are tempted toward Marxist explanations of history, but we are often tempted toward other grand schemes (what my former professor John Woodbridge called “paradigmatic history”). Several examples in church history can be given: the repeated recourse to calling conservative theology a child of Scottish common-sense realism, distinguishing Calvin from the calvinists, Harnack’s hellenization thesis, assuming a strong distinction between Antiochene literal exegesis and Alexandrian allegorical exegesis, and saying that church history “fell” after Constantine and has not recovered yet. This also does not mean that we cannot use some scheme or paradigm for historical understanding. But we must see those schemes as heuristic and not prescriptive. Problematic grand narratives are often all-encompassing and utilize fanciful schemes to explain contrary evidence away. Good history is always open to revision based off further evidence and proper historical reasoning (and I’ll say it again: that is not relativism).
Good history is not disjunctive, boring history and it is not paradigmatic history. The problem with such historical schemes is that they simply do not convince many who do not already agree. Eventually, a mountain of evidence and contrary explanations will collapse such explanations. And, they are not being fundamentally honest with the evidence. A better path is to have humility enough to admit we are prone to error and our understandings of history are never above correction. And there are other practical benefits to being able think this way. It is not just historical schemes that can be paradigmatic. It is easy to skim the political scene today and realize that many (on the left and the right) basically understand politics according to unfalsifiable grand schemes (one example would be reference to the “deep state” as somehow an explanation for contrary evidence).
Good historical thinking forces us to be honest with contrary evidence and honest with the limitations of our own explanations. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is not relativism. Solid evidence can be found and can be marshaled in favor of various historical narratives. Not all explanations are created equal and not all evidence is equally strong and convincing. The root problem, though, is us. Our limitations demand some humility and caution.
Nearly everyone agrees that history is necessary subject in school. We all agree that it is helpful to know history. But the truth is that we do not always agree on what it means to “know history.” Maybe a better way to say it is that we do not always agree on what it means to think historically. Books, books, and more books have been written on this subject. I want to mention just one piece of this puzzle, and also unicorns.
One famous article by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke distill historical thinking to five basic sensitivities. These “five C’s of historical thinking” are change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. If someone can weave these sensibilities into their thinking process, they are well on their way to good historical thinking. The categories are not too hard to understand. The problem is that they are unnatural and thus hard to learn.
When trying to understand anything we take our frame of reference (our knowledge, experiences, and habits of mind) and apply it to what we are confronted with in order to make sense of it. When someone travels to a new place they can make sense of a lot of what is happening, but definitely not all of it. This understanding can be complicated if they do not know the language. It can be complicated if the dominant religion is different. It can be complicated if we know nothing of the history of this location. It can be complicated for many reasons. If you live in Minnesota (which I have for about 16 months as of writing this) it takes some time to learn in what ways “Minnesota nice” is different than other kinds of “nice.”
We begin to overcome these potential misunderstandings by assuming we do not know what all these things mean (I’m still working on the Minnesota nice one). This is where we can apply the five C’s. The fact is that good historians are almost never satisfied with quick solutions when a new problem arises. They have the developed sensibility to think patiently and “cultivate puzzlement,” as Sam Wineburg mentioned in his widely referenced book: Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. The main point is that when we approach something new and different we have to realize that our frames of references are pretty limited in comparison to the vastness of human history. Epistemic humility is a basic assumption. We have to keep asking questions so that we can build a thick understanding of something. Hard questions almost never have easy answers. We cannot begin to truly know something until we first agree that we do not know everything about that thing. When criticized, many in our day like to retort that “you don’t know me!” And, based on the five C’s of historical thinking, they are probably right. Here Wineburg is pure gold: “Paradoxically, what allows us to come to know others is our distrust in our capacity to know them, a skepticism about the extraordinary sense-making abilities that allow us to construct the world around us” (24).
That brings me to unicorns. Wineburg relates a story from the travels of Marco Polo where he was confronted with a new animal. He did what we all do, he tried to make sense of it through his frame of reference. He was confused by this new type of animal, “which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo…[and] a single large, black horn in the middle of the forehead. They do not attack with their horns, but only with their tongues and their knees; for their tongues are furnished with long sharp spines.” Polo concluded he had seen a unicorn. The problem was that “they are very ugly brutes to look at…not at all such as we describe them when…they let themselves be captured by virgins” (quoted in Wineburg, 24). Polo’s problem was his frame of reference had to be expanded. To actually understand what he was seeing required he not assume he had a wide enough frame of reference to understand. Again, Wineburg is right: “Our encounter with history presents us with a choice: to learn about rhinoceroses or to learn about unicorns. We naturally incline toward unicorns—they are prettier and more tame. But it is the rhinoceros that can teach us far more than we could ever imagine” (24). We ought to cultivate the historical sensibilities that help us see the things of the past that are unusual to us. Without them we see unicorns instead of rhinos. This is what it means to understanding history on its own terms.
You may notice that throughout this article I explored rules of historical thinking and applied them to thinking in general. That is because these ways of thinking are really helpful in our general life. A little humility, a little sensibility about the unusual, and a little more patient, deliberate thinking would go a long way. That is the heart of why history as a subject has long been considered necessary to nearly every level of education. It is more than just the events and people of history that is important, it is the ability to think well about history that we are after. Good historical thinking is a necessary skill, but it has to be cultivated.
Part of my stay-at-home reading has been some old church histories. These have included Athanasius’s Life of Antony, Eusebius’s The Church History, and Bede’s A History of the English Church and People (normally titled Ecclesiastical History of the English People). In their own ways, each of these books have significantly shaped subsequent church history.
Eusebius is called the Father of church history based on his works, and The Church History is his most significant. Written in the early fourth century, this work chronicles the early church from the time of Christ through the time of Constantine’s consolidation of the Eastern and Western Empires. As you read through this book, a few things stand out: (1) The church survived truly terrible political leaders. (2) Those “who confessed unto death” were geographically widespread, were well-represented by all age groups, and were truly massive in numbers. These stories are not for the squeamish, but they are for all Christians. As Tertullian said, their blood was the seed of the church. (3) Devastating famines and plagues were regular. (4) The faithful were always ready to combat the heresies that were always close at hand. And (5) Eusebius is a careful historian who understood and utilized proper sources. These themes, his careful work, combined with his “triumphalist” attitude have made this an enduring work.
The Life of Antony is a very different read. Athanasius’s book is the archetypical Christian hagiography. This late-fourth century work was the first Christian work to lay out what a faithful life looks like from beginning to end. Antony was raised a Christian but looked for a deeper spiritual life. This book walks through his journey to find this deeper relationship with God. For Antony, the answer was living as a hermit and withstanding the incessant onslaught of demons by learning complete and total dependance on Christ and his resources. He sold all he had, denied all comforts and most food, recited Scripture (perhaps memorized all of it), knocked out Satan by the sign of the cross, and prayed constantly. He not only succeeded through these trials but he also helped others in their growth. The Life of Antony inspired countless Christians to take up the monastic life, which has proved to be one of the most important institutions in world history.
Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede is yet another kind of history. This fast-paced, eighth-century book is not only the earliest church history of England, it is the earliest history of England that exists. It chronicles the growth and development of Christianity in England from the first century up to the eighth as the local Celtic Christianity clashed with Celtic Paganism and with the Catholic Church. Names such as Alban, Aidan, Sigbert, Caedmon, and Cuthbert are all introduced here. As you read about the early inhabitants of “Albion,” the coming of the Romans and the Angles, the founding of churches, monasteries, cities, and kingships, recurrent plagues, and the struggle for Christianity as it fought paganism and syncretistic heresy it is easy to be drawn into the forests, mountains, and islands of a disunited Britain.
All three of these works are worth reading on their own merit, but together perhaps a few helpful thoughts can be drawn out. This brings me to a more recent book, Retrieving History, by Stefana Dan Laing. These older Christian histories, and others after them, were much more than simple presentation of facts and timelines, though they did that in highly accurate ways. According to Laing, these histories served two primary purposes. There was “a pedagogical intent to instruct the audience through the narrative by providing examples, and a providential purpose, as writers attempted to answer questions about what drives the action in historical events” (20). Laing then argues this was “accomplished via four characteristic features: narrative (narratio or historia), remembrance (memoria or anamnesis), imitation (imitatio or mimesis), and causation (aitia).” These old histories were written to help Christians in a tangible way. They were written in a lively manner (narration) meant to create a culture of remembrance leading to imitation of the good and learning from the bad. They were not afraid to explain what caused what, which could be natural or supernatural. God was not only in control, but also actively bringing about his purposes in the world.
Two things from these old Christian histories stand out: (1) the presence of the communion of saints that came before us and (2) the sovereignty of the God we worship. We don’t study history just so that we can claim that we know our history. These types of history are meant as examples to train us for future circumstances, be that everyday discipleship, plague, heresy, or even martyrdom. And, the God that proved himself faithful and made his church great through the ages is the same God we follow and worship. All things do work providentially toward his prescribed telos. Christian history is an essential. We must preserve this collective memory so that it will continue to carry forward our Christian identity. “As we remember our forebears, we ought always to look to their God, the God of history, of whom they bore witness, our great God who accomplished his work through women and men in every era to build up the church” (199). Amen.