History “thrown into divinity” – some thoughts on faith, the past, and the historical profession

By December 11, 2009


One of Max Weber’s more evocative phrases is the “disenchantment of the world.” I like it because it does not refer only to the numbing birth of bloodless bureaucracy, to humans in increasingly rationalized aggregate, but also to us as individuals of mind and creativity. The lucid organization of the world as a place human comprehension might master changed our vision, our psyche, and our imagination. The Enlightenment was thus a revolution of the aesthetic and the numinous as much as of knowledge and epistemology.

I want to talk a little bit about how this applies to history, by which I mean not only the sort of narratives and analyses of the past that humans accept as authoritative, but the extent to which we ascribe existential meaning and use to them. We today expect history to be constructed according to a certain set of principles, ways of running the wiring and cranking the engine that we learned from the Enlightenment. But here, I want to float the notion that history may not be a car in the first place.

Jonathan Edwards, who still somehow manages to be underestimated, spent much of 1739 writing a thirty part sermon series (why don’t we have these?) that eventually, when gathered together with his notes, crossreferences, and plans for expansion became his unfinished masterpiece, A history of the work of Redemption. [1] Edwards was distressed that many of his contemporaries seemed to understand history as a series of causes springing from human effects; as the temporal manifestation of human decision making – and, for many of these interlocutors, destined toward progress as humans learned the lessons of the past, cultivated the virtues of their predecessors, and avoided their faults. The space of history was thus the space where human beings worked out their own possibilities. As David Hume, for instance, wrote, history should “distinguish exactly what is owing to chance and what proceeds from causes,” and that once this was known, “a state which should apply itself to the encouragement of the one would be more assured of success than one which should cultivate the other.”[2] Edward Gibbon exemplified this form of history, assailing Christianity itself for smothering the humanist virtues of Rome. Further, he built his work on his determination “to draw from the fountain-head; that my curiosity, as well as a sense of duty, has always urged me to study the originals.” [3]

Gibbon’s confidence that better sources inevitably led to better truth, because they would provide greater insight into human motivation, would have seemed to Edwards to miss the point entirely; the New England divine subscribed instead to Augustine’s explanation for the rise and fall of the Empire – that human discipline, failures, and successes were at best proximate illustrations of the will of God, made manifest in the material. [4] Events themselves were of less import than that to which they gestured; the accuracy of their reproduction in historical narrative secondary to the eternal meaning of which they were particular avatars. Instead of locating the key turning points in history around economic or political developments, the sorts of facts that could be documented in primary sources, the Work identified instead “special seasons of mercy,” consisting of revivals, times of conversion, and other religious events, as the pivots that drove redemption history forward. [5] Later, the great Lutheran thinker Paul Tillich would provide a modified version of this notion, presenting history divided between the quantitative mundane time of humanity and the qualitative moments of kairos, when the eternal ruptured into the temporal. [6]

But rather than Tillich’s compromise, the centerpiece of Edwards’s argument in his great work was that theology and history were inseparable; that there was no moment in time in which God’s guiding force was absent. He described the Work as a new way of thinking about God; a “body of divinity . . . thrown into the form of a history.”[7] The historical realm existed because God had elected to work out the redemption of mankind in temporal space; therefore, history was to be understood as the projection of God’s will in the form of time, a sort of divine drama that illustrated God’s mercy for human comprehension. It was inevitably teleological, and thus the sort of causality that Gibbon and others located in human agency was not only trivial, but theologically problematic.


Leopold von Ranke, the German often cited as the patron of the modern historical method, the man who famously declared that if all the evidence were assembled, the past could be perfectly known, also believed that such a perfect record would reveal undimmed the face of God in history. But unlike Edwards, who was perhaps the best Calvinist in American religion, Ranke was a Hegelian. Edwards believed that God’s hand in history overwhelmed human agency; Ranke believed that the progress of human history itself manifested the immanent divine will.[8] Edwards believed that the variety of history practiced by Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, and other Enlightenment historians, with its emphasis upon sources and human agency, obscured rather than dimmed our understanding, because it could shine no light upon the cosmic forces that made up actual reality and transcended the paltry progressions of human history. Ranke, though he embraced a metaphysics of the past, rooted his history firmly in the agency of humanity.

But the Americans who adopted Ranke’s exhaustive methods in the late nineteenth century, his stress upon sources, footnotes, and original sources, discarded his broader historical theory in favor of his emphasis upon human action. They stressed that the sources revealed nothing but themselves.[9] They were Baconians, building from particulars to generalities, relying upon empirical sources only, and, more than anything, shunning a priori hypotheses about transcendent forces of any kind. They called themselves scientists, believing that keeping an open mind and assembling sufficient evidence would eventually lead to comprehensive and definitive results. While many historians embraced arguments that placed their own civilization at the end of a long road of historical development, they shunned Edwards’s “superstitious” convictions about how history worked, reliant upon seemingly a priori assumptions and non-verifiable evidence to demonstrate that God, chaotically, intervened in the orderly progression of cause and effect. And while no serious historian today is as optimistic as Ranke, believing that sufficient evidence can create perfect knowledge of the past, nor as confident as his “scientific” successors in the possibility of definitive results, their methods linger.

The tension between empirical history and divine agency played out most dramatically in the Roman Catholic church at the end of the nineteenth century, when a group of thinkers called the Catholic Modernists, most prominently Albert Loisy and George Tyrrell, argued that dogma – the core principles of the faith, that authoritative knowledge of God granted through revelation rather than human reason – was subject to the influence of history; that it might evolve over time, and different ages taught different things based upon their circumstance. [10] This seemed to strike to the heart of orthodox belief in the sovereignty of God over history, giving human agency power over the divine’s ability to reveal itself and subordinating sacred history to the scientific history of Ranke’s American disciples. Pius X silenced the Modernists in the 1907 encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis, which asserted that “God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject.” [11] The divine could not be located through the references, citations, and primary sources of the Enlightenment.


The modern historical profession descends from Gibbon and Ranke; it is a method of knowing, and more, a language, equipped to communicate particular things. Gibbon on one hand, and Pius X on the other, drew lines circumscribing what it is capable of describing, and continue to stare suspiciously over the barricades at each other. We can see this in salvos each side flings at the other.

Those who seek to do professional history sometimes sneer at evangelicals convinced that dispensationalist readings of the Bible reveal God’s intentions for human futures, or at Mormon apostles who declare about their own faith’s past that “some things that are true are not very useful,” and express bafflement at historians’ desire to “publish something new” instead of simply acknowledging God’s hand in the world. [12] To a historian raised to treasure scraps of primary sources this is heresy, but it expresses no sentiment Jonathan Edwards would not have approved of, and there is no shortage of academic admirers who will defend ardently the complexity and power of that man’s mind. But of course, he is safely dead, and we can therefore pretend his peculiar readings of history bear no claim upon us beyond their curiosity.

On the other hand, of course, we might say that the popes and apostles are defending a form of history that does not, according to modern standards, hold up. It fails to meet the empirical measure of truth which many of us (looking at you, Dawkins) have come to identify that completely with truth itself, but on a more serious level it denies the basic notions of the human condition that underlie modern history. If we have learned anything from the past that historians give us it is that human choices matter, and to surrender our claim over our own fates – for modern academic history is nothing if it is not a resounding assertion of human agency – is to turn our backs on our own nobility. It is to deny that we have anything to teach ourselves, to say that our mistakes and our triumphs are equally meaningless. And of course, Edwards would, with iron nerve, assent to that. But for us it is harder.

I am soon to be a professional historian, and that because I find meaning in it. And that is precisely it; our responsibility is to understand not only the past, but to recognize the variant powers different ways of telling about it, different categories of understanding it, hold over human minds. Religious historians particularly must recognize that the vast part of humanity does not live in the clean and sterile time of modern historical method; rather, the bulk of humanity today and in the past live in what some critics call with derision “faith-promoting history.” The sacred intrudes in their world, God is present to them, and cause and effect does not work in ways that history as we write it has room to hold. If we are to tell their stories, we must understand the cycles of their time.

That is, there was for Edwards a Calvinist way of history, centered upon God’s sovereignty and imagining this world as a stage on which the drama of redemption is enacted. There was for Pius X a Catholic way of history, in which the eternal divine and the human meet in the traditions of the Church. And when Dallin Oaks or Boyd Packer speak of the past in terms that make historians recoil – the infamous true but not useful formulation – they may be enunciating a Mormon way of history.

So. How might professional historians assimilate these notions? For the past three decades, Edwards’s descendents – George Marsden and Mark Noll, among others – have been writing evangelical history – that is, both history of evangelicalism and history with evangelical characteristics. Though they have abandoned Edwards’s fatalism, his aesthetic and mood persists; their work is suspicious of human pride, doubtful about human ability to understand God, and skeptical of certainty of any form in their tradition; their narrative, though they do not use these words, is the tragic and even sinful corruption of religious humility. [13] More boldly, Robert Orsi is the most prominent Catholic historian calling for a reconsideration of the presence of the sacred in human life, wondering “what words or categories of interpretation are there for phenomena” like Marian apparitions, answered prayers, or divine appearance – things which, demonstrably, vast swaths of humanity believe influence their decisions and behavior. For Orsi, the point here is relationship; listening; influence; presence. [14] What Mormon historians should find in these examples is nothing so petty as proof, one way or the other – for indeed, as Leo knew (and Orsi too) the language of modern history is useful for many things, but documentation of the supernatural is not one of them. To live in both worlds is to live with constructive tension, to recognize that the tools of the one cannot fully grasp the other. But that tension is, and must be, always one of dynamic engagement. History is an ongoing conversation, not a definitive proclamation; this is what the scientific disciplines of Ranke failed to grasp. And as Mormons began to think about what our own ways of history might be like, the demand that sacred history makes upon the secular should force our own historians into dialogue.

1) Much of what I have to say about Edwards particularly has been influenced by Avihu Zakai, Jonathan Edwards’s Philosophy of History (Princeton: Princeton, 2003)
2) David Hume, “Of the rise and progress of the arts and sciences,” in Essays: moral political and iterary (London: Longmans, 1898) 174, 176.
3) Gibbon, History of the decline and fall of the Roman empire (NY Macmillan 1914) xlvi.
4) For Augustine’s arguments, see City of God IV:33.
5) A History of the work of Redemption. John Wilson.,ed (New Haven: Yale, 1989) 143.
6) Paul Tillich A history of Christian thought (Harper 1968) 1
7) Jonathan Edwards, Work, 62.
8 ) See, for instance, Ranke, The Theory and Practice of history, trans, George Iggers (Indianapolis: University of Indiana, 1973) 119.
9) On this transition, see Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: the objectivity question and the American historical profession (NY: Cambridge, 1988) 33-35.
10)John Henry Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) eloquently reconciled historicism with the unfolding of “doctrine” – systematic organization of knowledge about God – but dogma was a different issue entirely.
11) Pascendi dominici gregis, XLIX.
12) Boyd K. Packer, “The mantle is far, far greater than the intellect,” BYU Studies 21:3, 5.
13) For more on this see my long ago blog post here.
14) Robert Orsi, “Abundant history: Marian apparitions as alternative modernity,” Historically Speaking September/October 2008, 13; see also his Between Heaven and Earth: the religious worlds people make and the scholars who study them (Princeton: Princeton, 2004) 5-6.

Article filed under Comparative Mormon Studies Intellectual History Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. I think the term “faith-promoting history” is a poor one to stand for an approach to writing history that somehow takes faith or religious experience into account. The term, as I encounter it, stands at best for a willingness to censor faith-threatening facts or events, and at worst a willingness to falsify the historical record to protect or promote faith. It is, I think, a label that some may apply to others, but no one applies to their own work.

    Comment by Dave — December 11, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

  2. This sounds like the introduction for a spead in Dialogue! Thanks, Matt, for your thoughts. How do you have time to do this while writing a dissertation, too?

    So, if Noll and Marsden have some charactertistic evangelical themes in their scholarship, what do you think are some LDS themes? Noll and Marsden’s themes that you mention seem pretty safe in an academic environment that encourages critique, critique, critique. I’m not sure how well-received some LDS notions might be, like eternal progress. What do you think?

    Comment by David Howlett — December 11, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

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  4. Wow, we’ve gotten a few funny trackbacks (like the one from the AARP on the welcome thread for Joel), but kudos to Matt for picking up one for a mattress company. Hilarious!

    Comment by David G. — December 11, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

  5. A nice synthesis, Matt, of historical theory, the history of Christianity, Christian theology, and LDS thought. I think it interesting that circumstances have now changed so much that, as you said in conclusion, the sacred now makes demands of the secular. Historians who acknowledge the sacred must now strive to re-enchant the world.

    Comment by Ryan T. — December 12, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

  6. It would be interesting to look at all the different ways that Mormons see God in history, from popular conceptions, to general authorities, to the professionals. Both Mormon history and larger events.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 12, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

  7. Same, Steve.

    Interesting post, Matt, thanks. In a post elsewhere I talked a little about Mormon history in a way similar to the way Loisy and Tyrrell evidently pictured things. They appear to have seen God as interacting with humans through their conceptions, or “after the manner of their language” if you will. I argued:

    Religion is not an abstract body of specific doctrines, but a fundamental part of how humans view themselves in the world. [and how they view their history, etc.] Such an examination of religion carries the risk of making the sacred profane, like dissecting a dead frog on a school desk. But it also carries the possibility of sacralizing the seemingly profane. “Once we begin looking for religion within the profane world rather than outside of it,” Orsi notes, “we begin to discover realms of religiosity that are not limited to those times, people, places, objects, and events that seem extraordinary; we begin to see religion as potentially interwoven with all other aspects of human existence,” (Robert A. Orsi, “Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World We Live In?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 42, no. 2 (June 2003), 140).

    This approach should be particularly appealing to Latter-day Saints, whose religion embodies what Terryl Givens calls the “blending and blurring of sacred and secular categories,” (Terryl Givens, “The Paradoxes of Mormon Culture,” BYU Studies vol. 46, no. 2 (2007): 191-192). This blending was apparently easier and more acceptable for Joseph Smith to execute. Leonard Arrington noted the difficulty of writing religious history for Mormons…:

    “The professional in us fights against religious naiveté—believing too much. The religionist in us fights against secular naiveté—believing too little. And if this internal warfare weren’t enough, we have a similar two-front war externally—against non-Mormons who think we LDS historians believe too much, and against super-Mormons who think we believe not enough,” (Leonard J. Arrington, “Reflections on the Founding and Purpose of the Mormon History Association, 1965-1983,” Journal of Mormon History 10 (1983): 101).

    I think, in retrospect, I was incorrect in saying it was so easy for Joseph Smith. He spoke about sometimes speaking as a man and sometimes as a prophet. He also spoke of people flying to pieces “like glass” when thing were taught against their traditions. But it poses the same dilemma of tracing the hand of God in history, even for prophets.

    Comment by BHodges — December 14, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

  8. […] am recently, and demonstrably, interested in the ways in which Mormons think about what history is, and how it is manufactured, […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » “Some things that are true are not very useful:” a vindication. — April 1, 2010 @ 12:40 am


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