Just finished A Brief History of History: Great Historians and the Epic Quest to Explain the Past (The Lyons Press, 2008) by Colin Wells. It is a quick review of all those names you have heard a time or two (Thucydides, Tacitus, Guicciardini, Ranke, Burckhardt, Turner, Braudel, etc.) woven together into a narrative. Favorite quote: “History is everywhere; we live in it.” The comments in the book that are worth discussing at an LDS blog concern the challenges of writing Church History.
First, let’s clarify the term “Church History.” In the LDS world, the term means Mormon history, but to anyone else it means the institutional history of the Christian church. But producing Mormon history raises some of the same problems as writing Christian history, so this is certainly a discussion of interest to most readers. Discussing problems with doing general Christian history offers the advantage that there are a lot more people doing it and the field has had two thousand instead of two hundred years to mull over the problems.
Here are comments included in the discussion of Eusebius, the first real historian of Christianity.
Being a Christian meant accepting that certain events actually took place in the past, a historical element inherited from Christianity’s parent faith, Judaism. Just as Jews looked to their “historical” covenant with God, so did Christians look to their “historical” incarnation of God. But Christianity went further, because it also invested itself in ensuring the proper interpretation of those events. This was new, and it means that Christianity trespassed into history’s turf in a way that Judaism did not. (p. 45.)
If the practice of history is studying source documents and other reliable evidence to determine what did or did not happen in the past (and how it all hangs together), it seems problematic to approach history with the conviction or required assumption that “certain events actually took place in the past.” That difficulty seems as true for the writing of Mormon history as for the writing of Christian history. In fairness, it might be true for writing any history, secular as well as religious, but the problem does seem more acute for religious history.
Then there is the narrower problem of Protestant bias. The book has a short discussion of the Magdeburg Centuries, whose editor, Matthias Flacius
hoped to endow Lutheranism, whose greatest vulnerability was its novelty, with a shield of historical legitimacy, and he based the whole argument on Germany’s divine destiny. Flacius’s authors … raked over the entire history of Christian doctrine in minute detail, century by century, seeking to prove that everything good and true in it was really Lutheran and everything bad and false was really Catholic. (p. 135.)
There are two problems here. One is the common but invalid practice of cherry-picking the historical record for items that favor your agenda, nation, or church, while ignoring (or, even better, deploying against opponents) contrary evidence. A second problem is the reflexive anti-Catholic bias that was an integral part of Protestant scholarship until relatively recently. That bias certainly seems to have carried over to early Mormon scholarship, in particular the assumption that “the great apostasy” needed no more support than an allusion or two to early Roman Catholicism.
I’m sure you are all aware that this is not a new topic. There are plenty of published articles that grapple with the problems of writing religious history, whether Christian or Mormon. I have two collections on my shelf: Faithful History (Signature, 1992) and Richard Bushman’s Believing History (Columbia Univ. Press, 2004). But the short quotations above do touch on some central problems: assumptions controlling facts; cherry-picking the historical record; and sectarian bias. Professional historians, of course, receive training in graduate school that conditions them to avoid these errors. Alas, not all Mormon history is written by professional historians.