A Christian Case for Activist History


Editor’s Note: This is part 2 in our Lyceum Disputation series from various historians considering competing visions of historical methodology. See Part 1 here and stay tuned for further installments. As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.


Alex DiPrima is not alone in his dislike of “activist historiography.” The venerable historian Gordon Wood complained in 2008 about historians who tried to “inject politics into history books.” “When politics comes in the door, truth flies out the window,” he wrote. “Historians who want to influence politics with their history writing have missed the point of the craft; they ought to run for office.”[1]

But just because Gordon Wood shares DiPrima’s opinion doesn’t make it true – nor does it make it Christian. The view that “activist historiography” is not real history is at odds with the way that most historians have written for the past 2,500 years, and it does not comport well with the Bible’s method of recording the past. Instead, it reflects a particular view of history that is rooted in nineteenth-century assumptions about neutrality and objectivity that many professional historians today have abandoned.

Where Did the Idea of Politically Neutral Objective History Come From?

Before the nineteenth century, historians often made no secret of their political agendas. The earliest historical chronicles that we know of from the ancient world were produced in royal courts for one purpose: supporting the power of the monarch. In the courts of Egypt and the Mesopotamian city-states and empires, powerful monarchs commissioned scribes to tell of their military exploits, always by emphasizing their victories and omitting any mention of their defeats.

Perhaps the Bible could have challenged this tradition by offering a more neutral or objective historical narrative, but it did not. Instead, the Bible countered the royal chronicles of the ancient Near East with a God-centered prophetic narrative that challenged the pretensions of powerful kings while highlighting the experiences of the marginalized, such as impoverished widows who welcomed the Lord’s prophets. Unlike the ancient Near Eastern royal chronicles of the time, the Bible’s historical record of its monarchs provides lengthy coverage of each of the kings’ failures, because the purpose of the record was to celebrate God’s glory, not the king’s. No other ancient culture produced this type of prophetic history, but it would become a model for some Christian historians in the future.

For nearly two millennia after the Bible was written, historians in the Western world wrote narratives of the past in order to offer moral insights, celebrate the achievements of saints or military leaders, or connect their own country’s story to a larger story of God’s interaction with humanity.

But in the early nineteenth century, German historians such as Leopold von Ranke professionalized the craft of historical inquiry and challenged traditional assumptions about the purpose of historical writing. The purpose of historical writing was not moral pontification, Ranke believed, and it was certainly not to discover God’s purposes. History instead must be scientific, which meant that it must adhere to rules of evidence and interpretation. The historian was supposed to act like an objective scientist, sifting through original evidence in order to arrive at new knowledge and morally neutral interpretations.

As Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the earliest of the new German professional historians, wrote in 1821, “The historian’s task is to present what actually happened. The more purely and completely he achieves this, the more perfectly has he solved his problem. A simple presentation is at the same time the primary, indispensable condition of his work and the highest achievement he will be able to attain.”[2]

The mid-twentieth-century historians that DiPrima references to support his assertions that historians should be objective and scientific in their approach were shaped by Rankean assumptions about historical methodology, because those assumptions were near-universal in the historical profession from the 1820s through at least the 1960s.

But the nineteenth-century German historians were not as neutral or objective as they imagined. Like nearly all other chroniclers of the past who had gone before them, they believed that history had meaning, and if they did not find this meaning in God’s purposes, they often found it in national greatness or political achievements – a meaning that was inevitably shaped by their own political presuppositions.

Why the Historical Profession Abandoned the Rankean View of History

As long as the historical profession in the United States and western Europe was dominated largely by a homogenous group of people – namely, white men from the upper middle class who shared a similar political commitment to democracy and centrist liberalism, and who had a strong interest in the same historical genres, such as political or economic history – it might have been possible for them to believe that they were writing objective historical accounts that any fair-minded objective historian who read the same sources could duplicate.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, a younger generation of American historians whose social consciences were formed in the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War challenged the historical approach of their elders. The primary purpose of historical study was no longer to explain how the nation rose to greatness but to reveal the lives of the less privileged, a move that challenged the power structure, just as the civil rights movement had. Social history replaced political history as the dominant historical genre in the academy. And all historical studies, whether political or not, had to take account of race, class, and gender as primary categories of analysis.

Some of the people who pioneered this new approach were women and people of color whose own experiences made them uniquely cognizant of inequities that fell along gender and racial lines. Historical study, they believed, was a way to challenge injustice. Although many of the people making this argument were secular, some of those who were practicing Christians or religiously observant Jews found inspiration for their approach to history in the Bible’s prophetic tradition.

The leading academic American historical studies of the second half of the twentieth century often had clear political implications. William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) argued that US foreign policy was not driven by idealistic or humanitarian goals but rather by commercial interests – an argument that inspired a generation of young diplomatic historians who opposed the Vietnam War. William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983) suggested a new way of understanding the relationship between humans and their natural environment. Joan Wallach Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” (1986), one of the most widely cited historical articles ever published, advanced the cause of gender equality by arguing that gender is a fluid social construction. Historians of African Americans used their scholarship to reveal systemic racism and give voice to those who resisted oppression; historians of gay and lesbian history were invariably proponents of LGBTQ rights; labor historians were usually strong supporters of labor unions. Gone was any pretense that historians should be detached observers rather than activists, because for a younger generation of historians, the advocacy of equality was a moral cause that was inseparable from the craft of historical writing.

In the view of many late twentieth and early twenty-first century historians, objectivity in historical writing was impossible to achieve anyway, and the nineteenth-century historians who had imagined they achieved it were simply deluding themselves. Peter Novick’s seminal work That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (1988), which was widely assigned in graduate seminars, suggested that the best historians could hope to do was to attempt to be honest with their source material and meticulously document their research with proper citations. But they could not be expected to leave their politics or their values at the door when writing history. Nor did most even want to.

What made historical scholarship trustworthy was not a strict neutrality or purported objectivity but rather a painstaking use of source material and an effort to be honest with those sources. As long as historians treated their sources and their historical subjects fairly, they were free to argue as forcefully as they liked for a particular moral or political position.

From such a vantage point, “activist historiography” is hardly distinguishable from other historical writing. Numerous leading works of scholarship published today (at least in modern American history) advance a clear political agenda, not because the authors are necessarily political activists in search of evidence to support their position, but because they see history primarily through the lens of race, class, and gender, and believe that explorations of inequality (including inequities that are at the heart of contemporary political debates) are central to the historian’s task. Last year, for instance, the two books that received the Bancroft Award (which is generally considered the highest prize offered for scholarly books on the history of the United States) made little secret of their relevance for contemporary political debates about structural inequities. Claudio Saunt’s Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory chronicles a past injustice that continues to reverberate in the present. The other 2021 Bancroft prizewinner, Andy Horowitz’s Katrina: A History, 1915-2015, explores, according to the Amazon promotional blurb, “the relationship between structural inequality and physical infrastructure―a relationship that has shaped all American cities” and “offers a chilling glimpse of the future disasters we are already creating.”

Assessing Christian Activist History

What should a Christian think of all this?

Perhaps a Christian could legitimately question some of the political agendas that the academic study of history currently serves. But a Christian should also recognize that the antidote to contemporary secular assumptions in the historical profession is not necessarily a Rankean view of objectivity, which carried with it its own set of non-Christian assumptions – not least of which is the idea that the story of human beings in all of their divinely created complexity could be objectively captured in a narrative created by a finite and fallen human being. In fact, long before Christian “activist” history became in vogue, some Christians in the historical profession already realized that the abandonment of a secular-minded objectivity as goal of academic historical writing opened new opportunities for Christians whose understanding of the spiritual dimension of their historical subjects and a divine teleology for all of history would have never met Ranke’s approval. George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997) suggested that Christian scholars might have a unique methodological approach that a pluralistic academy should welcome.

To a large degree, that has happened. Christian historians have asked questions that might never have occurred to scholars outside of their faith traditions. Mark Noll’s America’s God probably could not have been written by anyone who was not a Calvinist Christian. John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom gains its power precisely because of its author’s intimate familiarity with Catholic ways of thinking about American ideals. And my own book Defenders of the Unborn is not the sort of history of the pro-life movement that a pro-choice advocate would likely have written. Even if we didn’t write with a partisan agenda, the questions that we ask and the historical phenomena that we choose to examine inevitably reflect our own experiences and beliefs.

Some historians (myself included) have gone further by also writing prescriptive historical analyses for the church. Robert Tracy McKenzie, a professor of history at Wheaton College, wrote We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy (2021) to caution Christians about the heretical assumptions about American democracy that we can too easily adopt when we forget that we are a “fallen” people. John Fea wrote Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (2011) to caution Christians against Christian nationalism.

Are these works “activist” history? They were certainly written with an ideological purpose in mind. But they were written not by partisan hacks in search of historical evidence to fit their presuppositions but by seasoned historians who recognized that they had discovered something in their historical research that Christians needed to hear.

This is also true of the scholarship of Jemar Tisby, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, and Beth Allison Barr, all of whom are professional historians who wanted to share insights from their historical research with the church. Like many other books written by current academic historians, their scholarship focuses on issues of racial and gender inequality, with the hope that revealing the evils of the past might help us think more clearly in the present.  

Yet if the approach of Tisby, Du Mez, and Barr is very familiar to people in academia, it is largely unknown to many non-academics in the church, even to those who are history buffs. And it sharply grates against the prevailing political ideology in most predominantly white American evangelical churches, which are characterized by conservative politics and a color-blind view of race that resists examinations of structural racism. Most popular historical writing that evangelicals have read in the last half-century does not critique the power structure but instead inspires admiration for great political and military leaders. Books such as David McCullough’s 1776 or James McPherson’s histories of the Civil War define what many people think of when they hear the word “history.”

This may be beginning to change. This week, for instance, the number-one bestselling book of US history on Amazon is Tiya Miles’s All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family’s Keepsake. The second bestselling book in that category is Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. Both books focus almost entirely on the experiences of enslaved African Americans and their descendants.

But if popular ideas about what constitutes legitimate history are shifting, the change is not yet complete. The idea that the history of the United States should make structural racism central to the narrative has generated a backlash among conservative state legislators who have prohibited public school teachers from teaching “critical race theory” in their states. The battle has also entered the church, as the acrimonious debates in the Southern Baptist Convention and its seminaries last year demonstrated. And in that cultural battle, it may appear to many on the right that Tisby, Du Mez, and Barr are on the wrong side.

How should a Christian think about this? A Christian should admit, I think, that historical writing has always been shaped by the historical narrator’s values and agenda, and that it has never been as objective as some nineteenth-century historians imagined. A Christian should also recognize that “activist” history is widely accepted in the history profession today – at least if it conforms to the ideological values that are pervasive among academic historians. Jemar Tisby’s claim that the American white Protestant church was “complicit” in racial injustice or Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s claim that white evangelicalism has for decades been infused with patriarchal values that oppress women would raise few eyebrows in the historical profession. Nor would their decision to center their historical narratives on a call for justice to address these wrongs. Perhaps Gordon Wood might object, but his complaints about politics in the writing of history are not widely shared in the profession these days.

But if this approach is not a violation of professional norms, is it nevertheless a violation of biblical principles or the Christian tradition? Actually, it is probably much closer to the biblical norm than Ranke’s “scientific” historical approach ever was. The Bible’s historical narratives were not detachedly objective but rather prophetic. They had as their goal a change in the hearers’ (or readers’) lives. And while I certainly don’t think that Tisby or Barr are inspired by the Holy Spirit in the way that the Old Testament prophets or the New Testament apostles were, I do think that they and other similar historians are trying to do something very similar to what the anonymous writer of 1 and 2 Kings was doing – that is, honestly using source material to present a historical narrative that convicts God’s covenant people of sin, indicts many of the powerful, lifts up some of the oppressed, and perhaps even explains why divine displeasure has fallen on a covenant community because of its sin. If both the ancient Greeks and Romans and the medieval European historians thought that historical writing could provide moral instruction, Tisby and other “activist” Christian historians are following in the steps of this longstanding tradition, and they are infusing it with their biblical values.

They’re probably well qualified to do this. Tisby, after all, holds an M.Div. He was a popular writer about Christian theology before he became a professionally trained historian. It seems unfair to ask him to abandon his moral insights now, just because he has completed graduate coursework in history.

I agree with DiPrima that there are valid questions that one could ask about the Christian “activist” scholarship he criticizes. If it closely accords with the agenda of one political ideology, are Christian historians in danger of confusing that ideology with the gospel? On the other hand, one could ask a similar question about the conservative politics of the predominantly white evangelical church: If the church’s politics closely accord with the agenda of one political ideology, is the evangelical church in danger of confusing that ideology with the gospel? Both questions should be asked. We need to critically examine both our own assumptions and the assumptions of “activist” historians such as Tisby, Barr, and Du Mez. But if someone wants to argue against their findings or believes that they have misinterpreted the historical evidence through selective use of the sources, they should not simply criticize them for writing “activist” history; they should instead examine the historical sources for themselves and write a counternarrative pointing out where they got it wrong.

Such a dialogue, I believe, would be useful for both the church and the academy. As a historian who is also an evangelical Christian and church member, I believe that the predominantly white evangelical tradition in the United States could benefit greatly from the historical insights of scholars who point out areas in which the church really does need to repent of past and present wrongs. But at the same time, I worry that historians who adopt the academy’s focus on inequities that fall along racial, class, and gender lines may lose sight of the larger problem of original sin if they do not remain in conversation with good orthodox theology. As Christians, we know that our ultimate problem is not alienation from other humans but alienation from God, so the injustices that we study as historians are merely cultural manifestations of a larger sin problem. Dialogue with the church – especially when approached with a spirit of humility and a willingness to learn – will keep us from placing too much emphasis on our own historical knowledge. And the church’s dialogue with historians will keep the church from developing a myopic, ahistorical perspective that might otherwise blind Christians to the ways in which the church’s past experiences shape its present reality.

Listening to both our sources and our critics, after all, is what good historians do. We follow the sources and use those sources to create a narrative that represents the past as honestly as we can. We listen to those who might disagree with our findings and consider alternative perspectives. And if the past reveals insights that might illuminate issues in the present, we present those insights to the public – sometimes even with exhortations that might get us labeled as “activists.”


Editors Note: The London Lyceum publishes a range of original pieces and book reviews from various faith traditions and viewpoints. It is not the mission of the London Lyceum to always publish work that agrees with our confession of faith. Therefore, the thoughts within the articles and reviews may or may not reflect our confessional commitments and are the opinions of the author alone. Rather, we seek to generate thinking and foster an intellectual culture of charity, curiosity, critical thinking, and cheerful confessionalism.


[1] Gordon S. Wood, The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), 308.

[2] Wilhelm von Humboldt, “On the Historian’s Task,” History and Theory 6 (1967): 57.

Author

  • Daniel K. Williams

    Daniel K. Williams (PhD, Brown University) is Professor of History at the University of West Georgia. Dr. Williams's research focuses on the intersection between politics and religion in modern America. He is the author of God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (Oxford University Press, 2010), Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press, 2016), and The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship (Eerdmans, 2021).

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