History, truth, and evangelicalism


In the life of an academic, some things get written but never see the light of day. I wrote the following while in grad school (at Duke University) as an entry into an essay contest for the InterVarsity conference “Taking Every Thought Captive,” held in Mundelein, Illinois, in Spring, 2000.

It didn’t win, and I moved on to other things. But it represents some of my excitement about the discipline of history, and some of my frustration with the ways evangelical laypeople and evangelical scholars were handling history. I would modify my opinions now about some of the things I say here, but my heart for the discipline of church history remains the same:

History, truth, and evangelicalism

Behold, Thou dost desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part Thou wilt make me know wisdom
[Ps. 51]

This paper is a meditation on the uneasy relationship of evangelicals with the discipline of history—in particular, the history of the church.  In it, I will address what historical inquiry and historical honesty can—and should not—mean to evangelicalism.  In the end, I am suggesting that historiography must be pursued, at least by some, as a ministry to the church.

* * *

On April 20th, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Cassie Bernall was asked by a young man pointing a gun, “Do you believe in God?”  As the book written by Cassie’s mother tells it, “She Said Yes.”  And was shot to death.  During the next few days, as a shocked nation sifted through the psychic rubble of the Columbine massacre, the news of Cassie’s stand for Christ spread swiftly.  Youth groups across the country made the riveting account of her final act the theme of rallies and perorations.  Cassie’s story—not only her martyrdom, but her conversion after a troubled youth marred by drugs, rebellion, and witchcraft—challenged thousands of teen-agers to commit or rededicate their lives to Christ.  Within six months of her death, her mother’s book sold a quarter of a million copies.

Clearly, martyrdom holds a magnetic attraction for evangelicals.  Adrift in modern lifestyles crammed with presumptive comforts and imperative conveniences, evangelicals need martyrs.  And here was one, not only standing at our suburban doorstep, but bearing testimony—as it turned out—of a classic evangelical conversion from a life of visible sin and despair to one of vibrant faith.

Yet, a problem arose. Other versions of the events of September 20th, 1999 soon cast into question the account as it had first been reported.  Several people testified to having heard another girl, a survivor, receive the question and return the answer attributed to Cassie.  In short, it became unclear whether Cassie Bernall had actually taken the martyr’s stand at all.

The reaction to this development, both from those close to Bernall and increasingly from evangelicals across the country, was threefold.  First, to bristle at the suggestion that events could have been otherwise than the communal narrative now held.  Second, to question the motives of those bringing forth this new version of events.  Third, and most disturbingly, to suggest that it does not matter whether Cassie said yes or not.

It doesn’t matter?  When a quarter of a million books have been sold that proclaim on their covers, She Said Yes? Of course it does matter, and to be fair, most of those evangelicals who have followed this story no doubt know that it does—just as (on a larger scale) many evangelicals recognize that conservative portrayals of a “Christian America” smack of mythmaking.  Nor, again to be fair, are evangelicals alone in their wishful proclivity to bend the past.  Ask historian Nell Irwin Painter.  Painter wrote a biography of Sojourner Truth, the nineteenth-century abolitionist and protofeminist whose famous “Ar’n’t I a Woman” speech has become an anthem of modern feminism.  Upon bringing to light persuasive evidence that in fact that speech had been concocted by a contemporary journalist, Painter found herself met—among her highly-educated colleagues no less—by a wall of denial.  Her conclusion, and my point: The need for symbolic, motivational history is strong indeed—often, sadly, stronger than the truth.  And when a cultural group becomes marked, as evangelicalism is, by a synthesis of exhaustive (and exhausting!) pragmatism and strong ideology, it may much too easily conclude that the spread of its world-shaping message warrants using any and every rhetorical tool of persuasion—including historical hagiography or demonization.

As thinking and moral beings, we do possess defenses against this damaging conclusion. One defense is the rational awareness that historical events must be confirmed by evidence before they may be treated as truth, and disconfirmed before they are denied. Another defense is the awareness of moral precedents—that is, the abundant examples of the moral power both of history misused and of history well-used.  Take for example the holocaust of the Jewish people at the hands of Hitler’s regime.   Standing out among modern reactions to this historical episode are one that was particularly damaging, and one that was particularly redemptive.  The first has been the response of those few people so filled with the necessities of hatred that they have denied the events even occurred.  The second, the response of the great church leader who, filled with another, holier kind of necessity, admitted with tears the silent complicity in those all-too-real events of his own Catholic church.  Each response has borne consequences according to its kind.  Out of the hatred of the deniers has come more hatred.  But out of John Paul II’s contrite admission has come, in some parts of the world at least, a tangible healing of Catholic-Jewish relations.

So, we may easily see not only that historical accounts must be confirmed or disconfirmed according to canons of evidence, but that uses of history can carry powerful consequences.  For these two reasons at least, if not out of regard for the truth itself, we should recognize that we may not re-engineer history to fit our ideals.  For, whatever the motive, once we have sacrificed one truth we are well on our way to sacrificing all of God’s truth.

On the other hand, if we can bring ourselves to read history openly, without heavy-handed manipulation, we may find ourselves engaging with difficult truths that force us to grow in wisdom and discernment.  We may find history, by the superintending Spirit of Christ, exercising on us an almost Scriptural function—holding up to us a mirror of who we are and how we should live.  (On which more shortly.)

The problem—not only misuse but disuse of history

But we would seem unlikely, as evangelicals, to discover this powerful spiritual and moral function of history any time soon.  As bad as is the occasional evangelical misuse of history, perhaps even worse is our sheer indifference—or even aversion—to historical narrative. Note, for instance, that the fat catalogues of popular Protestant book-distribution houses offer only a few meager historical works, bobbing in a sea of popular bible-study materials and self-help manuals. Note, further, that most even of those few historical offerings serve as ancient-studies adjuncts to the massive evangelical industry of Biblical studies.  Now compare this with the historically rich catalogue of a popular Catholic publisher or distributor.  Put simply:  evangelicals are not sure what to do with history.  Between the inerrant Word of God and the pressing therapeutic needs of real congregations, history seems an obscure and distracting pursuit, suited only to aged researchers in their moldering archives, and their pale-faced, bespectacled young protegees—in short, to those unsuited for real action, and thus relegated to reading and telling stories.

This evangelical aversion to historical narrative is two-sided:  one side sees narrative as misleading, the other as irrelevant. To many evangelicals of scholastic or fundamentalist bent, stories seem to lie.  They seem mealy-mouthed, uncertain, complex—unlike the simple, precious truths of the gospel.  They seem to lead us astray (never mind that the Bible is one long epic tapestry, woven in threads of smaller stories and narrative accounts).

To many of warmer, pietistic bent, the interpretive complexities of historical narrative seem not so much deceptive as unnecessary.  Why spend such energy getting at the truth of events long past, when what matters is a present experience with Jesus?  Should we not just simply join hands with our brothers and sisters, pledge ourselves at the altar of God, and move out to spread this message of God’s love abroad?  As traffickers in narrative, evangelical historians stand in the empty middle of a church culture torn between fundamentalist scholasticism and subjectivist pietism—with few from either side much interested in hearing their recondite tales.

Roots and fruits of evangelical ahistoricism

What, then, are the roots and fruits of this allergy to history?  The first root is pragmatism.  For the very reason that we are so wholeheartedly committed to bringing every human into the church, evangelicals seem on the whole unwilling to face the truth about the thorough humanness of the church. Our mission-centered pragmatism, as energetic and effective as it can be, leaves little room for soul-searching.  “Don’t confuse us with facts,” we seem to say.  “Or if we are to bring ‘facts’ to the table, let them be for the purpose of arguing someone into the kingdom, or dissecting some dangerous cult, or defending the gospel against some Christians with whom we disagree, or forwarding a political agenda—in short, bringing someone, somewhere, to decision or action.  But anything that might confuse issues or slow down action, leaving us ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’—away with it.”

The roots of this impatient pragmatism lie in our history.  This is part of our problem, of course.  Not reading our history, we don’t see our attitude towards historical thought for what it is—that is, an attitude peculiar to the particular culture within which American evangelicalism was formed, only one of many cultures within which the gospel has flourished around the world.  American evangelicalism today is marked by certain characteristics in its birth-matrix—which was not so much established, state-church Puritanism, as the nineteenth century’s sprawling, brawling, and burgeoning religious marketplace.

The second nineteenth-century root of evangelical ahistoricism is a naïve primitivism, joined with an excessive biblicism.  In a new world that seemed a tabula rasa—on which, as our Great Seal proclaims, the novus ordo seclorum (new order of the ages) might be inscribed—our spiritual forebears sought to bring the Protestant Reformation to its logical, final fruit in a Christianity stripped of all historical accretion, the same pure Christianity practiced by the first churches, and recorded in the Acts and the epistles.

We need to face the truth spoken a decade ago by Nathan Hatch, that the abstract principles of primitivism and Biblicism, thrown up by evangelical Protestants in the democratic, common-sense, anti-traditionalist years after the Revolution, were then—and are still—“roofs without walls.”[1] Even the Protestant churches that today appear most staid and stable still live amidst the resulting shambles of liturgy, governance, theology and instruction that their divinity schools are hard pressed to cobble back together.  American Protestant churches of all stripes—but especially evangelical Protestants—live in drafty churches, missing the walls of a rich and sustaining past.

Our attempt to build theological and ecclesiological edifices supported only by thin frames of “traditions” several generations and a couple of maverick leaders deep, and then to send out from these shaky structures armies of religious activists, has caused several serious and well-known problems. First, this transparent pose of primitive pristinity has closed the ears of intelligent academics and students—who know better—to the claims of Christianity. Second, our ignorance of the rich, powerful traditions of the faith has intensified the lonely individualism of some young Christians who upon conversion feel cut adrift in a pop world armed with nothing but a flaccid pop Christianity.  Some of the more sensitive and intelligent of these, upon finding their hold slipping from a neatly-packaged, historically disincarnated evangelical God characterized more by rules and regulations than mystery and power, have “jumped ship” into Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Third, in our naïve and pushy pragmatism, we have been too ready to make God an American, or a Republican, or a conservative, and to cast all others into the reprobative outer darkness.  An honest look at the Civil War, during which both sides claimed the imprimatur of God, should give us pause here.

What historical inquiry and historical honesty can mean to evangelicalism

Against the defensiveness, divisiveness, and fragility of a faith cut adrift from its historical moorings, let us pose the benefits of the faithful practice of a historiography for the church.

First, faithful history can reveal truths about the humanness, the incarnate nature, of the historic church.  Her besetting sins of primitivism and pragmatism have convinced evangelical Protestantism that it somehow stands apart from (and over against) all culture, the perfect image of an ideal form.  This unrealistic de-incarnation of the church has fed an unwillingness and even inability to allow for the cultural differences between historic expressions of the church. Good history-writing can overcome this excessive idealism, without compromising the central truths of the faith.  In particular, as Christians facing the checkered past of the church, we may come alive to the truth that the church is now and has always been not only a mixed field of wheat and tares, but a congeries of individual believers who are each in themselves simul justus et peccator (at the same time justified and sinful).  In that realization, we may begin to lay aside our swords of criticism and dissension, and the iron of reprobation from which these are forged, and experience the real transforming power of God’s forgiving love in our midst.

Second, faithful historiography can also recover long-buried affinities between confessions and between denominations. The mutual respect arising out of a sympathetic presentation of the Christian “family history” can provide a strong foundation for ecumenism—far stronger than the denatured liberal theology or fuzzy-headed parachurch activism that have rooted past ecumenical attempts.  This is already being demonstrated in the current rapprochement between Catholics and Lutherans, and in evangelical efforts to establish similarly improved relations with Rome.  But among evangelical denominations still riven by old family disputes, reunion (even civility) still seems, at times, a long way off.

Third, although some may fear that the kind of honesty about our past required by rigorous historical study may mean loss of face and respectability in academe and the wider world, I believe the reverse is true.  When presented not as prickly apologetic, but as part of a balanced, honest self-exploration of past failures, narratives of the church’s triumphs in God’s name and strength may earn a public hearing not available in recent memory.  But this will not happen without those darker, more difficult kinds of honesty with which such celebrations must be paired.

Now, to complete the case for what we might with appropriate qualifications call “redemptive historiography,” I want to look briefly at a few other ways—besides its attitude towards history—that evangelicalism has been “marked” by its history.  In particular, I want to look at the marks left by evangelicalism’s incubation and hothouse growth in the intensely competitive, voluntaristic, democratic religious environment of the early republic, and by its subsequent rise to a custodial national dominance amidst the heady progress of the Victorian age.  I do so with an end to suggesting the salutary, healing value of a popular-level evangelical awareness of such historical marks.

On the positive side of the ledger, the two formative nineteenth-century American cultures mentioned—early-republican and Victorian—helped inscribe in evangelicalism a powerful relational, emotional piety; a deep commitment to the practical injunctions of the gospel; a lively expectation of the return of Christ; a passion for evangelism and missions; a legacy of thoroughgoing social reform; and long practice in concerted, ecumenical effort. On the negative side one might count a naïve totalistic common-sense epistemology; a suspicion of academic inquiry; a tendency to make black-and-white moral and social judgments, and offer simplistic social solutions; a retraction of Christian responsibility from the public to a new “private” (individual and familial) sphere; a domestication and immanentization of God; an overrealized eschatology (and, elsewhere in the culture, an escapist apocalypticism); and a divisive sectarianism.

Clearly, although the massive growth of nineteenth-century evangelicalism has left to its children enduring strengths, it has also left behind significant downsides—some perhaps as serious and debilitating as the nominalism that resulted from the coerced mass conversions favored by the kings of early medieval Europe. By opening the history of this formative period—among others—to modern evangelicals, we may hope to reinforce the gratitude of evangelicals for those divine strengths preserved and passed on in our collective history.  We may also hope that members of the individual evangelical churches dear to each of our hearts will begin to see how their shared roots in the competitive nineteenth century spurred each church to make its claims for uniqueness and superiority both clearly and boldly.  Perhaps then, they may both better understand, and more readily shuck away, the excesses of apologetic defensiveness, salesmanlike exaggeration, prickly sectarianism, moral simplism, and spiritual presumption that arose with evangelicalism’s bold rise, and have dogged us ever since. These are some of the benefits we may hope from academically-trained historians who treat their historiography as a calling and a ministry to the church, and who tell skillfully—and both sympathetically and critically—the stories of our collective past.

Where are the historians?

But here we run up against a puzzle.  Given the potential power of trenchant, effectively-presented historical narrative to address some of evangelicalism’s most troubling issues, why are academically-trained historians of evangelical conviction not, by and large, already speaking to the faithful, and pressing these points?

Sadly, the evangelical aversion to history seems to have discouraged many faithful historians from communicating the fruits of our academic labors to the church.  We are perhaps too aware not only of the barriers within secular universities, but of the barriers within the church, that impede the exercise of a historian’s vocation as a ministry.  On the other hand, we are pleasingly aware of the new place for the study of religion within the discipline of history (and particularly within the field of American Studies), carved out by the generation of Christian scholars gone before.  As a result, we find it on the whole easier to talk to the academy about matters close to the heart of the nation and the world, than to the church about matters close to the heart of Christ.

Of course, some Christian historians are called to speak primarily to the academy—for God no more makes all historians teachers of the church than He makes all converts full-time ministers.  But many scrupulous and faithful scholars go beyond this modest claim, insisting that the special vocation of a Christian historian lies exclusively in treating the same subjects everyone else is treating, only with sanctified probity and excellence.  While a truth lurks in this formula, as stated it provides a convenient retreat from an urgent calling for too many young academic Jonahs, daunted by the challenges of history-as-ministry.  This must not be!  In fidelity to our Protestant conviction of the power not only of the Word but of words, we must believe that faith impinges on the historian’s vocation in other ways than the excellent but somehow spiritually neutral presentation of essentially secular messages. And one of those ways is through the responsible, discerning telling of the church’s history to her own people.

A few more words are worth saying about this telling—first, about some ways in which it should not proceed, and second, about its deeper theological significance.

What historical inquiry and historical honesty should not mean to evangelicals

First, historical inquiry for the church should not mean retreating to the mere (though useful) history of theology or ideas; nor should it mean reducing all religious phenomena to social or cultural causes.  We may as well get comfortable, at the outset, with the idea that all human actions are overdetermined—that is, multicausal.  This will help us look at the many sides of religious life as a complex unity, rather than as a set of mutually exclusive options, or even a hierarchy of relevant and less relevant or irrelevant motives—with intellectual or social motives always given causal preference. Academics—historians especially—are resented for complicating issues.  Yet truth is complicated.  Humans are complicated.  Politics are complicated.  Religion is complicated.  The pretenses of simplicity we have inherited from our Victorian forebears, while helpful in spurring people to action, ultimately rest on false premises.

Second, neither should church history mean making forays into the past to dredge up “heroes” to inspire some present agenda of action, however sanctified and Biblical that action may seem.  If we discover Christians laudable for their entire witness, not just for their “usefulness” to modern agendas, and if we properly attend to the fact that they, like all Christians, had real flaws, then we may portray them in ways ultimately valuable for the church.[2]

Third, we should not consider it the duty of historical honesty to cry perpetual mea culpas to the current secularist portrayal of the church as overwhelmingly intolerant, persecuting, violent, and greedy.  These aspects of our history must be faced.  But so too must the real “surpassing greatness of His power”[3] that has often marked the path of the church in the world.  To return to an earlier example, John Paul II was hardly signaling, by his apology to the war-era Jews, meek capitulation to every ill-willed, heathen charge against Catholicism.

A theological postscript

I want to offer one more reason evangelical historians should be open to a calling to speak to the church.  That is, that the compelling presentation of historical narrative can serve a powerful theological function for the church.  Specifically, it can help us understand again that a theology of relationship with God is a theology of messiness. It is in the messiness of history and biography—in God’s real, historical actions in human lives and human culture—that the surpassing greatness of God’s power becomes most evident.  That greatness does not reside in the tempting certainties of Scriptural rationalism or pietistic experientialism. Where, in modern evangelical lore, is the drama and the moral bravery of a Christian vision that faces the true complexity of life, the true depth of sin, even in the church, and thus understands the true power and freedom of the gospel of God’s grace?  In a wealthy, self-confident Western society, we find it easy to believe that we are wounded only lightly, and thus can be healed with sloganeering, sinners-prayer theology or a jolt of good feeling at the altar.  History opens both the true depth of our woundedness and the true majesty and power of God’s healing work in the real, messy lives of real people, living in real, sinful communities and societies.  This is a majestic and awesome God—not God the cash machine, the dispenser of good feelings and Biblical bromides.

We see the same problem reflected in another arena kindred to history—that of literature.  Here, too, evangelicals are few amidst the non-Christians, ex-Christians, and theologically liberal Christians; and for the same reason: evangelicals are disinclined to face the complexities of life.  They have followed their Victorian forebears in papering over the “hard places”—in hiding away (for example) our embodiedness and emotionality, and the conundrums these aspects of our being inject into the Christian life.  In so doing, these modern Victorians have belittled the saving, sanctifying power of a loving, personal God, who meets us in the midst of life’s confusion.

Enough then of history as an adjunct to Biblical Studies or a source of arguments for ethics or evangelism.  Let us return to the stories of the church for the richness of what they reveal about us as real people, and about our God as a God who triumphs both over sin in all its depth, and over the Enemy of our souls in all his complex wiles.  Let us even, without fear, read the historical writings of non-believers as they touch the church—even where those writings treat the church harshly, for “he who hates reproof is stupid.”[4]

What would this mean to the way we do history as Christians, if we believed in this deep theological and spiritual power of chronicle and narrative?  What would it do to our historiography if we turned from it either as a secularized, academic practice, or as a cobbled-up support for our favorite evangelistic and social action programs, and began to see it as the potential source of deep theological insight into the nature of the church today?

In short, what if we as historians allowed ourselves to reflect at times on history as the story of “the surpassing greatness of the power” of our Lord—a power incarnated and working not only within churches, but in the midst of culture, around the world?  This providential assumption does not admit of historical proof, and we must not be distracted by trying to prove it historically.  But as Christians writing and talking to the church, we must make it.  And then, having made it, we must keep it before our eyes as we work.  Of course, this will require lifting those eyes not only from the parade-ground of nationalism but from the shop-floor of religious activism and apologetics.  Small loss.  In return, we will finally be able to speak to the church clearly, truthfully, and confidently, about the many wonderful, conflicted ways millions of people over time have sought to constitute the body of Christ on earth, and about some of the concrete, historical consequences of those ways.

This sort of radical refocusing is not easy.  For one thing, in order to move towards such a theologically powerful history in a secular academic setting, we must bear up under the feeling of intellectual nakedness before a cynical and sharp-eyed secular guild.  We must also be prepared to weather the unenthusiastic and even hostile reactions of our Christian family, as we try to speak to them honestly and with wisdom about those things of which it is difficult and painful to speak, as well as those that call for celebration.

Only one thing can nerve us for a walk down this two-sided gantlet of cynical secularists and skittish saints:  a deep, convinced sense of calling.  We must know (or as the Wesleyans and Pentecostals among us would say, know that we know that we know) that the church not only can but must hear us, and that our past insistence on speaking primarily to the guild has been distracting us from a higher calling.  How long has it been since we have seen a book like H. Richard Niebuhr’s Kingdom of God in America? How long will it be until we see one again, as evangelical Ph.Ds in history grind out their careers in scholarly meetings and disputes that touch little on matters close to the heart of the church?  Granted the church ought also to be concerned with those areas where its history illumines the concerns and culture of the nation.  But this smaller truth can too easily amount to a comfortable evasion of other, deeper and ultimately more important truths, which committed, theologically-informed Christian historians should be equally competent to investigate.


[1]Hatch’s image, borrowed from John M. Murrin, may be found in his Democratization of American Christianity, 63-66.

[2]One example of this balanced approach is Ruth Tucker’s group biography of Christian missionaries, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya.

[3]Eph. 1:19; borrowed effectively by Kenneth Scott Latourette in his History of Christianity.

[4]Prov. 12:1 [NASB].

2 responses to “History, truth, and evangelicalism

  1. Canadian,

    I was with you right up until the last line. But despite the individualism you point to, which I agree has led to all kinds of ridiculous things among Protestants, these are still my people.

  2. Thoughtful article.
    When I began allowing church history to speak on its own terms, it caused me to face many questions I had never faced. It also answered many questions long unanswered. What seems troubling though, is the tendency for us evangelicals to pick and choose nearly any practice or belief from this history as it suits us. If we like the creed, we use it (even if most evangelicals would not believe it’s closing lines); if we like Councils 1-4 but not 5-7 we will appeal to what we agree with; we may trust the church about her ancient Christology but dismiss her sacramentality and ecclesiology and even her scriptural canon. Everything is optional in our western, democratic, individualitic minds. So eventually, those of us who want to let history have a corrective influence on our generation are faced with the question of authority. Do we decide what the church is to practice and believe from our own reading of scripture, or is it passed on providentially as a gift by the Spirit who leads her into all truth? Is schism even a sin in the Protestant mind? Yet looking closely at Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy have also been troubling in some regards as well. Messy was an appropriate word in your essay, in more ways than one. Anyway, thank you for your efforts in highlighting those that have gone before us. But just so you know….sometimes Newman’s dictum becomes overwhelmingly palpable as a result.
    “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

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