Among the assigned readings for my last historical methodology colloquium meeting was an article by Harry S. Stout responding to some things that fellow evangelical historians David White and Iain Murray had said of his writings on George Whitefield. As I read through the article, I was surprised to find myself recognizing the framework of a familiar debate. From Stout’s response:
What about Mr. White’s central complaint that I dwell on Whitefield’s foibles and shortcomings? I object to the word ‘dwell’ for I believe I pay considerable respect to Whitefield’s strength of character alongside the criticism, particularly the mature Whitefield. But beneath this issue is a deeper issue. In fact, there are two different models for Christian history-writing, each with its own legitimately theological justification . . .
[In the first] tradition of history writing, any historical fact or quality that is not salutary or praiseworthy is forgotten for the larger spiritual sake of propagating the gospel. This history-as-propagation is history in the service of witness, and secondarily, history in the service of theology . . . Early historians of the church dwelt on martyrs and the faithful, never acknowledging that there were cowards who renounced their faith . . .
This same perspective informs such works of hagiography as Cotton Mather’s Magnalia or of Mr. Murray’s biography of Jonathan Edwards. One reads Mather in vain for any ambivalent consideration of the Puritans’ expropriation of Indian lands, or wars of national extermination. In the case of Mr. Murray’s biography of Edwards, one reads in vain for any consideration of Jonathan Edwards’s bill of sale for Negro slaves, or Sarah Edwards’s purchase of a slave from the Rev. Joseph Bellamy. These do not reflect well on the subjects, so they are left out. The omissions are justified out of loyalty to the faith and its propagation. (Henry S. Stout & Iain H. Murray, “Reviewers Reviewed,” Banner of Truth March (1995): 8-9)
Stout goes on to talk about the second method of doing Christian history, by telling the entire story with “warts and all,” and he insists that this was the approach of the biblical writers, citing the Bible’s examples of patriarchs and prophets doing less than praiseworthy things. This is Stout’s preferred method of doing history, and the one for which he’s being criticized by those who would prefer to leave out the not-so-faith-promoting bits where possible.
This article took me somewhat by surprise. Evangelical critics of Mormonism routinely point out that LDS leaders are quite fond of leaving out and glossing over the objectionable parts of the church’s history—a criticism I wholeheartedly agree with. Yet this article leaves me wondering: how often have we bothered to point those fingers back at ourselves and examine the way we’ve been doing history? How often have we been guilty of the same “whitewashing” which we accuse Mormons of?
I have no idea, but I intend to find out. And I happen to be a big fan of “warts and all” history.
(I have uploaded the PDF of the entire article here if you would like to read the whole thing. It is only five pages long and includes Iain Murray’s reply).