What is a religious historian?

An unanticipated benefit of my decision to begin reading books on Mormon history, faith, and culture is that it is provoking me to think about what it means to be a religious historian?

My doctoral studies combined two academic disciplines, which at that time were entitled historical theology and church history. One dealt primarily with ideas and the other with institutions. Despite my intention to become a religious historian, I gave little attention to the nature of historical research and writing. The one book on historiography that I remember reading was Robin Collingwood’s The Idea of History. His ideas have guided me in my labors ever since.

The need to be clear about the character of religious history is especially evident as soon as one begins sampling the literature purporting to give historical accounts of Joseph Smith and the Mormon movement. One reason is that from the beginning works about the movement have tended to fall into two categories: pro-Mormon and anti-Mormon. It is difficult to find books that seem fair to the people inside of the movement and faithful to historiographical principles to those on the outside.

A second reason is the unique character of this movement: “Mormonism, unlike other modern religions, is a faith cast in the form of a history.” For this reason, Jan Shipps writes, secular investigation of that history has seemed like “trespassing on forbidden ground,” and until fairly recent times few people have been able to do so in ways that have been acceptable inside and outside of the movement.

One of the most interesting aspects of Jan Shipps’ book Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons is that several of her essays discuss historiographical issues constructively. In part, this is because as a non-Mormon writing sympathetically about Mormon faith and life, Shipps has had to develop theoretical clarity and methodological effectiveness in order to do her work. Especially important is her essay “Remembering, Recovering, and Inventing What Being a People of God Means: Reflections on Method in the Writing of Religious History.”

Shipps points out that there are two audiences for histories of religion: “the members of communities of believers—in common parlance, the church,” and “the general public that has increasingly been represented by academia.” One conclusion comes easily: religious historians are the people who write for the “church” audience; academic historians are those who write for the general public.

Both kinds of historical writers work with “essentially the same historical sources, the same data sets,” but their purposes differ. To state the difference in a simplistic manner, religious historians seek to describe and interpret faith communities so that these communities are sustained by the story, while academic historians seek to describe and interpret with disinterested evenhandedness. Shipps points out that “these two groups of historians pose different questions and thereby produce distinctively different accounts of what happened.”

She also distinguishes between two kinds of religious historians. Denominational historians “employ the canons of the profession in gathering evidence; determining whether each source from which data are to be drawn is authentic and, if so, whether it is trustworthy; and deciding where each piece of evidence fits in the overall context of the community’s history.” These writers could easily be considered a special kind of academic historians.

In contrast, are confessional historians, writers whose “main purpose is not discovering new information about the past—that is, recovering history—but strengthening the chain of corporate memory by writing an account that stretches from the very day in which the history is being written back through time to the point of beginning and then returning by moving forward through the ages to the present.”

While I would like to think of myself as an academic historian, the fact is that my work is close to what Shipps calls denominational history. I pay attention to the nature of religious experience, faith, and practice, and I hope that my writing can help people be informed about religious belief and practice and be favorably inclined toward it. Even so, I intend to write in ways that are faithful to the canons of academic history and that make sense to the general public rather than to believers only.

Telling the story of the interaction of fact and faith is a continuing challenge.

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One Response to What is a religious historian?

  1. Dave says:

    This is helpful! Just a day ago I worked on defining how to take the writing I am finishing up on the Doctrine of Discovery. Shipps work fits well when thinking about this. For what I have done (and if I would choose the word “history” to describe the type of writing) I think I would settle in the confessional history realm.

    I look forward to your thoughts on Mormon history.

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