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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