Book Review: The Essential Historiography Reader

The Essential Historiography Reader
by Caroline Hoefferle
Prentice Hall, 2011
308 pages (paperback)


The sixteenth-century History of the Reformation in Scotland tells the story of the struggle Protestants encountered in bringing religious change to the nation. One hero stands out, John Knox, a particularly brave soul who, while feeling he was too lowly of a tool to do great things for God, nevertheless spoke his mind and challenged authorities. The pious figure is depicted as God’s prophet in Scotland and is unforgettable—for some today, he is still a role model.

One could easily admire the nobility of our hero’s character, that is, until it is remembered that it is Knox himself who wrote the history. It is Knox who is controlling what we see and how we see him.

Understanding the historiography behind such a book is essential for knowing how to approach it as a resource. Caroline Hoefferle, associate professor of history at Wingate University, provides a handy tool for doing just that with her new book, The Essential Historiography Reader. In this text she introduces the subject of historiography to students and provides a fantastic reminder that there has never been one perspective on how to approach the discipline of history.

The graduate-level history courses I teach are for seminary students. Many are second-career students, often without a background in the subjects they are studying. For the seminarian in a professional master’s program (e.g. Master of Divinity), learning about the history of Christianity is more of a crash course in the big picture. While this reader is aimed at the beginner undergraduate history student, it still works for this type of seminary environment.

Historiography, a “critical examination of the various philosophies, theories, and methods which have been used by historians over time,” as Hoefferle defines it, is rarely the focus of the professional seminary degree. In my classroom, I introduce historiography as a way of helping the student understand the issues involved when engaging the history of Christianity, a subject near and dear to their personal identities.

There is a temptation in theological education to approach history as did Knox, that is, with the “heroes of the faith” perspective. I want my student to ask questions of their methodologies and to understand their own presuppositions. I want them to know that history is not theology.

Given that, Hoefferle’s book provides a great look at those theories and philosophies that inform the histories we read. The introduction to The Essential Historiography Reader provides a brief, but helpful overview of the questions, concerns, and perspectives one might bring to the study of history.

“Our personal philosophy of the meaning of life, of our role and responsibilities in life, and of how the world really works…has an impact on our historical philosophy,” writes Hoefferle, “and our historical philosophy helps to determine which historical theories and methods seem most reasonable to us.”

Hoefferle’s goal is to “help students to understand the theories, philosophies, and methods which have shaped the historical profession in the United States and to think critically about the histories they read as they begin their careers in history.” This is by nature non-comprehensive, but does provide for a good overview of discussions of historiography within European and American contexts.

The reader is divided into two parts, with the first tracing “contemporary American historical traditions to their roots in ancient Greece,” explaining “how the profession of history emerged and developed in Europe and America through the nineteenth century.” The second part narrows in on changes in historiography in the United States from the time of the nineteenth-century.

Each chapter begins with an introduction. For example, chapter one covers early Greek, Roman, and Christian histories within a few, manageable pages. The introduction to chapter one is quickly followed by readings from Herodotus, Thucydides, and Bede. There is nothing burdensome about the readings and each is an appropriate length. After each reading there are three to four questions on the selection, which are helpful for classroom discussions. For example, after a reading from ecclesiastical historian, Bede, one question asks: In what ways is this history “providential”?

This caught my attention when I originally began examining the volume. The idea of history as a distinct discipline is something of a nineteenth-century phenomenon. For centuries, however, the historian of Christianity was primarily a theologian.

In a seminary context, students often want to know “what” God is doing in an historical event. In other words, the providential view appears to be assumed. When I lecture on the politics, corruption, and the empirization of Christianity at Nicaea, they sometimes want to know about God’s intentions during that time. Who are the good and bad guys? Those same students are disappointed when I tell them that any discussion of God’s intentions—as if I can read a deity’s mind—is not history, but theology. No one ever found a post-it from God saying, “Stopped by to preserve the truth. Sorry I missed you. Catch you on the flip side.”

Years of reading biblical stories, where God and his enemies are often clear characters, have pushed Christians to read God’s intentions into everything. And while I know that my lack of an answer frustrates them, as an historian I’m equally frustrated by such misconceptions of history and how often theology and history are confused. “Similar to politicians,” as Hoefferle writes, “religious moralists often view history as essential for providing role models to reinforce good morals and acceptable religious beliefs.”

What I like about Hoefferle’s reader is that the material is relevant to these concerns when necessary. “If we believe that the meaning of life is to fulfill God’s plan for us,” notes Hoefferle, “then we may see the hand of God in the workings of the past and have a ‘providential’ philosophy of history.” For others, she writes, agency in history may be “social, economic, or cultural forces.”

Having been raised in the church, I understand why Christians jump to the idea that they have a divine eye on history. I understand why the vocabulary is providential and why history is read so as to tell their own stories as approved by God. I was there once and my past writing reflects it (and that is for another post). But before they exit the program and rotate that tassel over, I want them to know that history and theology are unique disciplines with different questions and different expectations.

Hoefferle’s readings include names like Machiavelli, Marx, Frederick Jackson Turner, Michel Foucault, and Edward Said. Material on idealism, empiricism, romanticism, social history, postmodernism, and multiculturalism help provide a good introductory foundation for discussion. There are three appendices, with “Appendix A” offering “The Critical Analysis of Historical Monographs.” This includes a series of questions to ask about the author, topic, method, thesis, and theory. At 308 pages, it is worth the buy.

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