HOW SHALL WE STUDY HISTORY?

By DANIEL WALTHER, Principal,
Seminaire Adventiste Du Saleve, France

The Ministry, August, 1939, pp 11-12.

WHAT is history, and what does it mean to us? History is not primarily the story of man and his achievements, but is, instead, the story of what God has wrought among men. History is at best the story of facts concerning nations in general and individuals in particular. Carlyle, in the preface to Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches,” made this rather pessimistic statement: “By very nature it is a labyrinth and chaos, this what we call human history; an abatis of trees and brushwood, a world-wide jungle, at once growing and dying.”—Vol. I, p. 6, London, 1888.

For us, history is the indispensable sequel to prophecy. Prophecy without intensive and intelligent study of history is mere theory. History offers proof of the divine statement. History is an unimpeachable acknowledgment that God is truth. History is the laboratory of the Bible student. At times, history is also a light, enabling the informed student to see back as far as possible. For him there exists a world unknown to the profane, and if he sees clearly, he is also to witness.

Of course, history is subjective—the historian sees the past from his own viewpoint. Sometimes his eye is so exerted that he sees too much, and he is unable to overlook the detail. He does not have judgment enough to discard that which does not lead to a clear, complete vision. Quoting Carlyle again: “By wise memory and by wise oblivion, it lies all there! Without oblivion there is no remembrance possible.”—Id., pp. 6, 7

History should not be an old curiosity shop in which a dead past is preserved, in which odds and ends of valuable objects are mixed with rubbish and piled up in an inextricable heap, in which the atmosphere is moldy and dust laden. History must be living, fresh, throbbing. In the nineteenth century, the historian had the ambition to rediscover the past, to blow off the dust from the archives, to do away with the skeletons, and to raise up in youthful, blossoming beauty that which had been. And he did it with understanding and respect.

In some instances, source material is so abundant, and the exacting demands of research work so great, that a scholar is compelled to confine his investigations to a very short period. For many years, perhaps a lifetime, he studies just a few years of a period. He is well informed on that short span of time, but he practically ignores the rest. Even at that, it is impossible for him to know entirely that one short period of time.

LET us now observe seven underlying principles concerning the study of history which should be observed by the true student of this subject.

1. The Christian historian has his preferences. There are personalities and periods which he particularly likes to study—just as the company of some men is more agreeable to him than that of others. Yet he is to search for truth, the entire truth. He is to discover the marvelous chain of facts and events that prove that God’s will is operative among men. He will not pick out part of the facts, but will be led “into all truth.” How wonderful and how necessary, for instance, is the intelligent, thorough study of the advent movement fostered in the early centuries of our era. Is there anything more urgent than to try to discover all that has any reference to our movement through the centuries past?

2. History is the art of understanding clearly and interpreting soundly these principles of a practical value. Settings vary, but basic principles prove changeless. In his studies, the student must free himself from historical traditions. He is to have the courage of his convictions, and is not necessarily to follow beaten tracks. He is to respect the work of predecessors, but he cannot allow himself incessantly to repeat and use trite, lifeless, worn-out statements and arguments. He is to be fearless in his appreciations of values, even if they should not be in harmony with the traditional, customary historical interpretation. If he is sure of his point of view, then he is to state it, no matter what the world may think. Fear of not falling in line with others, and a tendency to conclude on the identity of conclusions, makes many a work of history worthless and insipid.

One frequently hears the expression, “History repeats itself!” This is both true and false. All depends on the definition of repeat. If “repeat” means an exact repetition of a previous event or fact, then the slogan is wrong, (Page 11) for there are no two facts exactly alike. In this sense, history does not repeat itself. Nor do the same causes always lead to the same effects. If, on the other hand, “repeat” refers to underlying principles, to the eternal vicissitudes of the human heart, then we find similar happenings in various nations, and it is true that history repeats itself.

3. The study of history is important for teachers and ministers. They should devote special attention to the outstanding problems of ancient and modern figures. But why study only the history of wars, diplomacy, territorial expansion, and destruction? Is there not also a history of peace, construction, invention, art, economy, society? We are not to gather facts just for the sake of collecting antiquities important enough to be put in a museum where they may or may not be noticed by unconcerned visitors. There must be a practical, fruitful side to the study. The present must never be left out of sight when studying the past.

4. The historian is not to be superficial. He is to strive for access to all sources, of what ever kind they may be. He is to “examine all things.” Some “historians” use history as a means of defending a dogmatic viewpoint. They look for historical facts to warrant their theory. But history is not to be exploited for the benefit of a national, social, or religious argument. To use history as such an instrument is to become recreant. The true student is not a propagandist of some preconceived idea. History is not the valet of some dogma. True history can prosper only in a country where there is freedom of thought and speech.

5. Nothing must ever be used that is not absolutely true, and no truth is to be omitted in order to insist on a preconceived argument. Sometimes facts that do not entirely enforce a specific argument are discarded. But there is an elementary, essential, intellectual honesty which cannot with impunity be neglected. The historian must be reliable. He is honorbound to disregard all calls, save the cry for truth. He is to quote all his references, and he must do it with a scrupulous accuracy.

6. When studying certain phases of history, particularly with reference to our movement, some fear that our faith might be weakened. Some fear that an intensive study of certain records and documents might change our view point of the truth. Some are being discouraged to study too closely certain chapters of history lest they discover disquieting facts.

But if truth cannot stand the test of historical research, then it is not truth. Our cause has nothing to hide, and nothing ought to be hidden from our cause. There must be a loyal and complete study of all available material. We should rejoice for the honest way in which our leaders are conducting their efforts in this direction. Prayerful and attentive study can only strengthen our belief and broaden our faith as we behold the beautiful panorama that shows so clearly the men of God through the ages as they struggled for truth. That study discloses to us the fact that in centuries past there were many witnesses, yet unknown to us, who had the same faith, who fought the same spiritual foes, who harbored the same great hope as we have today.

7. Our study of history ought to be thorough and methodical. We ought not to draw conclusions too hastily. There must be patient, pains taking effort and the utmost carefulness in our appreciations and statements. There is perhaps no study in which there is so much dilettantism. Anyone with a little education, it seems, can sit down and read history books, and perhaps write some. But if there is not personal labor and investigation, then our work will be well-nigh worthless. If we merely depend on secondary sources, without finding out for ourselves, we will not derive any great satisfaction.

History must be the workshop where the preacher and the teacher love to be. History is an inexhaustible storehouse of experiences which gives the minister and the teacher unlimited material.

In living with men of old, we learn, as Emerson states it, “to read history actively and not passively.” In studying men of God of all ages, we also learn a lesson of humility. In studying history, we are to fight doing so in a mere routine way and with laziness of mind. How inclined we are to be satisfied with easy conclusions; how astute is our mind when it wants to avoid effort. History offers the intelligent and vigilant student one of the greatest pleasures of the spirit. But these intellectual pleasures are the fruit of a long, patient, personal effort.

This is true especially for the one who studies history through the word of God—the student’s true revelation. In the divine Word, indeed, “the curtain is drawn aside, and we behold, behind, above, and through all the play and counterplay of human interests and power and passions, the agencies of the all-merciful One, silently, patiently working out the counsels of His own will.”—”Education,” p. 173.

* * *

IN research, one must not forget the whole in the study of the part. The searchlight sweeping the whole must balance the spotlight and bring out the details of a given point. We must both extend the horizon and concentrate the field of observation.

* * *

BE it not forgotten that in countries now violently hostile to Christianity, it Was the perversions of Christianity that turned men from the genuine—the gross departures of Roman and Greek Catholicism, or of a messageless, decadent Protestantism. The beauties of the genuine have been rejected because of the caricature of the false.

The Ministry, August, 1939

http://www.adventistarchives.org/docs/MIN/MIN1939-08.pdf

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