Thursday, October 8, 2009

The role of an historian

In preparation for our upcoming study of Jonathan Edwards', Charity and It's Fruits, I've been reading George Marsden's biography, Jonathan Edwards, a Life. I've started to read this book three times in the last year, checking it out from the library on three separate occasions before finally admitting to myself that I'll need to own a copy if I'm ever going to get through it. I'm so glad I did, as I know I'll be referring to it time and time again, and for that reason feel the need to do my share of underlining and margin notation as well.

I bring all this up really as an excuse to share a bit I really like from the author's Introduction. Marsden is explaining that Edwards is an eighteenth century figure and encouraging his readers to be careful to let that context "shape their understanding of him". He goes on then to briefly sum up what he considers to be the role of a responsible historian, words I wish more current historians, with their frequent revisionist tendencies, would take to heart:

"The most fascinating question that framed this book is 'What was it like to live in western New England in the first half of the eighteenth century?' (or 'How was that time different from our own?'). This second version of the questions suggests, of course, a twenty-first-century viewpoint. My task as an historian is to make intelligible the outlook of another time, which demands taking into account the various perspectives of readers and also what has transpired since the eighteenth century. Yet it would be a failure of imagination if we were to start out - as today's histories sometimes do - by simply judging people of the past for having outlooks that are not like our own. Rather, we must first try to enter sympathetically into an earlier world and to understand its people. Once we do that we will be in a far better position both to learn from them and to evaluate their outlooks critically."

It is only right and humble to take into consideration a person's historical, geographical, and religious context when we evaluate their decisions. We must always remember that we, too, are to a certain extent the product of our times and circumstances - and must never engage in criticism without first remembering and acknowledging that we may very well have responded similarly had we been placed by Providence in a similar situation.

7 comments:

Disjecta Membra said...

Very well said!

Disjecta Membra said...

P.S. You need to adjust your bio to include Agnes.

N. W. Rozier said...

I have just finished reading Calvin's biography, "Here I stand" on Luther, and am now reading "William Tyndale" with my next one being "Edwards" by Marsden. I am actually very excited to get to it. I am thinking of putting down "Tyndale" to pick up "Edwards". The version of "Tyndale" that I am reading is a real beating. I would be very interested to hear more of your thoughts on "Edwards" as you go.

Laurie M. said...

I loved Here I Stand, it was beyond informative; I found it to be devotional and inspirational as well. If you haven't already, you can check out my labels to find several posts related to that book.

I'm enjoying the Marsden book much more now that I own my own copy and don't feel pressured to read it in a limited time. I will likely post more about it in the future, though I didn't set out to do that. I'll be starting, Lord willing, a lengthy series through Charity and It's Fruits next week. Edwards had been very influential in structuring my theology. Like John Piper after him, he tends to answer the kinds of questions I ask, and puzzle over the kinds of things I puzzle over.

Thanks for stopping in!

scott said...

Excellent Quote - thanks for posting this - look forward to reading along with your progress through Charity and It's Fruits. And am hoping you post few more excerpts from Marsden's biography. I am reminded to keep in mind both your advice concerning current historians revisionist tendencies and Marsden's to "first enter sympathetically into an earlier world and to understand it's people..." before "evaluating their outlooks critically."

Laurie M. said...

Thanks for stopping by, Scott. I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts. I see you are a friend of Judy's - quite a remarkable lady.

David Porter (aka Boomer in the Pew) said...

Laurie,

I have been picking away at this book for some months. I haven't given it its due, with all the other texts on my desk, but thus far I have immensely enjoyed it.

I think you will really like the love letter to his 13 year old bride-to-be.