Thinking Historically

I am by training a historian, and I try my very best to look at the past from the perspective of a historian, especially when I’m trying to find relevance for the present. That is, I try my best to not simply cherry pick statements and ideas from the past and bring them forward as if they didn’t emerge from a particular set of events and experiences. But, of course, not everyone looks at the past in this way. Just as there are those who proof-text the Scriptures, the same is true of history – especially when someone is interested in making a polemical point – such as that America is a Christian nation. When such claims are made, we need to make sure we’re all on the same page as to what we’re referring to.

This is a preface to a set of points that historian (and evangelical Christian) John Fea makes in his new book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (WJK, 2011). Now, I’ll be writing a review soon, but he set out a series of 5 points about thinking historically that I believe needs to be heeded by all, whether professional historians or not. He draws these 5 statements from historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke. Each key word begins with a C for easy memorization:

  1. “Historians must see change over time.” That is, historians start with the premise that things change and that one of their responsibilities is to tell us about how things have changed over time. One of the things they do is remind us that there is a gulf between us and the figures/events of the past! 21st Century America is a very different place from 18th century America, and we need to remember that this is true.
  2. “Historians must interpret the past in context.” When a historian reads a document, like a letter written by George Washington, the historian must keep a close eye on the context in which the letter was written and read. What were the philosophies, practices, cultural artifacts of the day? Thus, as Fea writes: “The words of the founders, for example must always be interpreted for the perspective of the eighteenth-century world in which they were uttered or written” (p. xxiv).
  3. "Historians are always interested in causality.” History isn’t just about the “facts,” as if why something occurred didn’t matter. I’m a historian of the Nonjurors. This small group of high church Anglicans separated themselves from the main body and developed some interesting liturgical ideas. Now, why they came into existence is quite important in understanding why they did what they did liturgically. The why question matters!
  4. "Historians are concerned with contingency.” Good historians understand that things don’t happen in a vacuum. One event is connected to other prior events. History is a contingent reality. Religious events are often influenced by political and social matters. We need to recognize this if we’re to understand the usefulness of a historical example. 
  5. “Historians realize that life is complex.” History, like life, is messy. It’s difficult to simplify the story, so we must be comfortable with complexity. And no story is more complex than the one that deals with the question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation. It all depends on what you mean by nation, Christian, and America – and even the word “founded.” (Fea, pp. xxiv-xxv).

If we are to understand the realities of the role of religion in American society today and throughout the history of the nation, we’ll want to keep these 5 C’s in mind: Change, Context, Causality, Contingency, and Complexity. Just letting “texts speak for themselves” simply won’t give us an accurate picture, and if we’re to deal with this issue we need as accurate a picture as possible!


Scott Bailey said…
Bob, this is a fantastic post commenting on brilliant insights from these historians.

In fact, I will be using the five 'c's to summarize my MA thesis this week. Thank you for this!

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