Methods in History: Learning a Few New Tricks

I hate to apologize for not writing anything meaningful lately because then I have to admit that it’s true, but I am going to do it anyways. Sorry for all these short posts to the notepad but that’s about all I have time for lately.

I’ve got a backlog of articles I want to write, the problem isn’t having ideas for things to say (God helps us all if that day ever comes). No, quite simply the problem is too little time.

But anyways, before this turns into a sob story I am going to tell you what I am working on. I’ve begun a tutorial on Methods in Mission History with Jehu Hanciles, a Fuller professor who did his PhD at Edingburgh and studied under Andrew Walls. At first glance you may not think this sounds like a “fun” class but let me reassure you it’s been good so far.

The only thinking I have done about the process of historical research is with my reading of Alasdair MacIntyre, which was mainly philosophical in nature. So the reading this quarter is both illuminating and challenging.

This past week alone I’ve read over 400 pages in historiography and history from these books:
What is History – E. Carr
Patterns in History – David Bebbington
Church History – An Introduction James Bradley
In Defense of History – Richard Evans

I also have begun reading Thomas Hamm’s Quaker’s in America, which is very insightful and will probably be a major text for my paper in this class.

The Carr book is fabulous and from what Richard Evans says, has been a standard in historiography since it was first published in 1961. It is written well, and he clearly presents his ideas, which happen to be very interesting. For Carr historical events don’t become such until they are accepted as facts by the historian. So my wearing blue jeans today isn’t a matter of historical fact until a historian writes about it and draws significance from this ‘event.’

Another interesting idea he discusses in his book is that “no document can tell us more than what the author of the document thought.” As the primary sources get read, we the readers and researchers reenact the stories and thoughts of the people we are reading about. For the first major book I’ve read in this field I found it very engaging.

What I like about Evan’s book is that he covers the “History of History,” well at least from the medieval period on and writes for the purpose of challenging post-modernity’s relativist influence in the historiography. Evans argues against Carr (and Collingwood another famous historian) this view (represented above) is too limited. It’s not hard to see that documents can in fact reveal more than the author was thinking about at the time.

He says,

“The gaps in a document-what it does not mention-are often just as interesting as what it contains. A statistic in a document can look quote different from what its author thought when we put it together with other statistics of which the author was unaware (79).”

So this is all very interesting you see, things that have never crossed my mind and I am really enjoying it. As I continue working through these issue of how to do history I hope to gain the skills necessary to do historical research on American Quakerism. This quarter I have to write two papers, one that is 20-30pages and deals with my seminar on MacIntyre, the other is for this history class. For the history paper I am currently planning on focusing on the changing practices within Evangelical Quakerism during the WWII years.

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Wess

...is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

3 thoughts on “Methods in History: Learning a Few New Tricks”

  1. This is really interesting Wess.

    I haven’t read Car, so this may be an ignorant question, but how does he understand ‘historian’? Like you blogging about your blue jeans does that count as historical fact yet? I have heaps of time for http://www.indymedia.org where regular crew like us can become journalists and get our take on evens “out there” and I have been involved with protests that have been talked about on indymedia and then taken up by mainstream media. I guess I’m asking is the same true of Car’s take on history or is “Historian” an official channel that legitimises history? If so was George Fox’s journal lagit history before picked up by other historians? How about the Gospels?

    What I find fascinating about Quaker process the cleck is involved in recording a history in the making but are you saying Car’s take is that it’s not made until it’s legitimated elsewhere?
    For the record I think your blue jeans should be a matter of history (particularly is an attempt at plain dress for the 21st century)

  2. Jarrod good question. Carr’s main point is that certain events become historical, over and above other events, because of the person selecting them.

    History is a matter of selecting some events, characters, etc, and not selecting others. Those events that get “selected” and written about are then put to a larger community of people, whether it’s the academics or the popular masses and if those ideas get accepted as “true” and get used/cited in other places then those initial events – Carr would argue – become historical fact.

    For instance in America we’ve had tons of school shootings, but there are only a couple that get talked about, researched and written about in any kind of “popular” sense. It’s because those specific events, caught the attention of historians and researchers in a way that stood out above other shootings. Those writers and thinkers then elaborate, explain and generalize their findings about that event – and it becomes a part of history (so to speak).

    It’s basically just saying that a “historical fact” is something that a majority of people know and accept as true. I think that that Gospels fall under this category.

    If the Quakers died out in the 10 years or so after Fox’s death then I don’t know if his journal would be all that big of a deal. It may not have been cited anywhere, but a few obscure dissertations, and left to rot in a library in England somewhere. But as it stands Quakers have been turning the world on its head because of their passion for Jesus – and this my friend makes history!

    So maybe someday – someone will talk about our jeans, cords, beards, flip-flops, and thrift store shifts as the post-modern’s simple dress – or maybe not. I guess it depends on if we can change the world in the process. But thanks for the vote! 😉


    Oh finally about the clerks process, I think you are right. What the clerks writes down, and what he or she doesn’t write down is in one sense the historical process working.

    So it’s important to study the historian in so far as it will give us a clue into who it is that is doing the selecting. That clerk is going to pay attention to certain things and let other things fall to the wayside, while you or I would choose something different. And when, in 100 years, someone goes back to those records containing information about some Australian Jesus-radical speaking at their yearly meeting — some of things will not have been recorded and will be lost to history. And somethings will be remembered in those records – that will be the history available to those future generations.

    So I hope they wrote it all down, or better yet recorded it so nothing was lost!

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