Challenges of Church History

February 18, 2011 | 12 comments
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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.

12 Responses to Challenges of Church History

  1. Ardis E. Parshall on February 18, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    I think that professional historians would not agree with your concluding lines. Even the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct of the American Historical Association acknowledges:

    Few fields are more accessible or engaging to members of the public. Individuals from all backgrounds have a stake in how the past is interpreted, for it cuts to the very heart of their identities and world views. This is why history can evoke such passion and controversy in the public realm. All manner of people can and do produce good history. Professional historians are wise to remember that they will never have a monopoly on their own discipline, and that this is much more a strength than a weakness.

    But I do think they would agree with you that biases and logical fallacies are problems to be guarded against, and that such problems can and do affect the quality of written (etc.) history.

  2. Ray on February 19, 2011 at 12:27 am

    Some of the silliest histories I’ve ever read were produced by professional historians; some of the most amazing histories I’ve ever read were written by generally unschooled non-historians.

    Having said that, the absolute worst religious histories I’ve read were written by non-professional historians, followed closely by professional historians who wrote only to prove their preconceived ideas. It is possible for that to happen – and it happens on a fairly regular basis.

    Iow, I think your points are valid, but I believe they cross professional boundaries far more than most professional historians want to admit.

  3. Bob on February 19, 2011 at 10:14 am

    I think blogs like ‘The Juvenile Instuctor’ are doing a fine job with Mormon History. Mormon History has come a long way from the time it was controlled mostly by the GAs.
    I think ‘Challenges of Church History are: getting it right, getting the GAs and general Church membership to accept it’s right.

  4. Mr Q&A on February 20, 2011 at 3:59 am

    I recently watched a documentary on Abraham Lincoln. The basis of the Documentry was to reveal that “Good Ole Abe” was not the idealised sainted figure we know today.

    They focused on who he was, his mistakes, the poor decisions he made, whilst we focus on who he became & what he achieved.

    I think that whilst it is really important to have access to a warts & all picture, I prefer the fairy tale ending.

  5. Clark on February 20, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Fairy tale ending? He got assassinated. You must have been reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales rather than the Disney versions.

  6. Mark D. on February 20, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    Warts and all pictures are important – in fact they are invaluable to demonstrate what obstacles some historical figure overcame, or managed to do great things despite personal weaknesses. The problem is when people get the idea that they are out to conduct character assassination, that there were no great figures in history, only corrupt small minded individuals who happened to wield the lever of power in the right place at the right time.

    That short of history I positively despise – without ample justification it is a far worse crime than making someone look like a saint when he was not.

  7. Kristine on February 21, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    “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)”

    That’s a pretty big “if,” Dave. And I think Ardis is right to raise questions about your last couple of sentences–amateurs and professionals face mostly different variations of the same problems. Professional or academic training probably contributes as many biases and blindspots as it eliminates.

    http://saltlakemormonstudies.wordpress.com/2009/12/23/kristine-haglund-every-member-an-historian-remarks-from-the-slmssa-december-lecture/

  8. Dave on February 21, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Ardis, note that I did not say professional training makes historians immune to the problems I mentioned — it trains them to avoid such errors but doesn’t guarantee individuals won’t nevertheless do that sort of thing sometimes. Still, training counts for something. Historians tend to write better history than amateurs; Mormon historians tend to write better Mormon history than Mormon amateurs.

    I enjoyed your remarks, Kristine. I will go re-read them. In the meantime, you are welcome to offer an alternative 25-word definition of history. I’m sure you are not going to say it consists of ignoring evidence and using unreliable evidence to write narrative that doesn’t hang together.

  9. Kristine on February 22, 2011 at 12:13 am

    :) No, I wasn’t going to say that. Just maybe wanting to qualify your definition’s optimistic implications about what can be known.

  10. Ardis E. Parshall on February 22, 2011 at 11:17 am

    Dave, note that I did not say that you said that … etc. The thrust of my remark is toward your “Alas,” where you regret that any Mormon history is written by other than professional historians, whom you apparently define as those who receive training in graduate school.

    The AHA and I vehemently object to your “alas.”

  11. BHodges on February 23, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Alas, not all Mormon history is written by professional historians.

    I save my “alas” for cruddy history, be it written by professional or non.

  12. Dave on February 23, 2011 at 11:41 am

    I think you are reading too much into my “alas.” Having just pointed out in the previous sentence that historians get some training and encouragement to avoid the errors of practice that I pointed out in the balance of the post, I did not want to leave the impression that those errors were not relevant to Mormon history. (Because not all Mormon history is written by trained historians.) What I had in mind was whoever it is that writes LDS curriculum materials, but I decided not to put that in the post.

    And, of course, I recognize that it would be oversimplifying to think that all trained historians avoid tendentious writing (exhibiting some of the problems referred to in the post) and that all the rest of us who try our hands at historical narrative necessarily fall into those errors.

    There is only so much qualifying one can put into a blog post without spoiling the main point one is trying to make. Perhaps I leave too much unsaid. On the other hand, I am on record endorsing the three-paragraph rule, so I always try to keep my posts short and focused.