Monday, July 24, 2017

Restoration Leaders on the "Untaught Question" about the Lord's Supper

Regarding the Lord's Supper, should churches invite all in attendance to participate, permit only members in good standing to partake, or serve the Supper to all and leave it to individuals to decide? In 1861, this question and larger, related issues were addressed in the pages of The Millennial Harbinger by three important leaders of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement: Isaac Errett (pictured here), Robert Richardson, and W. K. Pendleton. [1] Their teaching as well as their references to contemporary practices of the congregations they knew provide a window on what some, certainly not all, restorationists of the Civil War era thought about this aspect of the Lord's Supper.

What was the historical background to their discussion? According to Lester G. McAllister and William E. Tucker, young Alexander Campbell and other reformers of the early first generation defended "close communion," which in their circles meant "the practice of admitting only believers baptized by immersion to the service of Communion." By contrast, Barton W. Stone and like-minded Christians in Kentucky did not forbid "defective believers" from participating in the Lord's Supper. Eventually, Campbell's outlook changed and his position moved closer to the one held by Stone.
As Campbell moved into maturity, he modified his view and joined some of the followers in shifting from close to open communion. The impulse to reflect the oneness of God's people around the Lord's Table was stronger than the will to hold fast to an exclusivist interpretation of New Testament Christianity. [2]
Such were the competing principles with which the first and all subsequent generations of restorationists have had to grapple. Is the Restoration Movement primarily motivated by Christian unity or doctrinal purity? Or, as McAllister and Tucker put it, "Is the church primarily an inclusivist or an exclusivist community?" [3]

Before examining the specific comments of Errett, Richardson, and Pendleton about the Lord's Supper, it would be best to establish the specific context in which they were written. Apparently, the three responses were occasioned by a letter from a certain "Bro. Hawley." According to Richardson's reply, a discussion had emerged "among the brethren in Detroit in regard to the question of open or close communion." The reference to Detroit provides an important clue. It is most likely that the author was Richard Hawley (1815?-1884). He attended the inaugural, 1849 meeting of the American Christian Missionary Society in Cincinnati and was elected one of its officers. Among the officers of the ACMS, he served as one of twenty vice presidents, who were geographically distributed. Hawley represented Disciples in the State of Michigan. [4]

"Bro. Hawley," as his name appears, sent the same letter or a similar one to both Errett and Richardson, who then responded in the pages of the Harbinger. W. K. Pendleton, then a co-editor of the magazine, also offered his reflections on the issues.

Isaac Errett

In his response written from Harrodsburg, Kentucky, Isaac Errett began by acknowledging that the plea of the present reformation was to bring back the conditions that presumably existed among the churches of apostolic times. However, because "the church has not yet half recovered," he wrote, the people of God were "scattered and divided" among the various Protestant sects. Consequently, Christians of the Restoration Movement, immersed as believers, were compelled "to recognize as Christians many who have been in error on baptism, but who in the spirit of obedience are Christians indeed. (See Rom. ii. 28, 29)."

Referring to the various sects who had taught much truth over many generations, Errett insisted that it would never do "to unchristianize those on whose shoulders we are standing, and because of whose labors we are enabled to see some truths more clearly than they." Therefore, in regard to the Lord's Supper, the standard practice was "neither to invite nor reject particular classes of persons, but to spread the table in the name of the Lord, for the Lord's people, and allow all to come who will, each on his own responsibility."

Errett reported his impression that "fully two-thirds of our churches in the United States occupy this position," with those churches that were originally Baptist being "rather more unyielding." He concluded with words of both conviction and generosity: "For myself, while fully devoted to our plea, I have no wish to limit and fetter my sympathies and affections to our own people."

Robert Richardson

For his part, Robert Richardson argued that because Christianity in apostolic times was not divided into organized sects, the question at hand, being "anterior to the apostacy," could not be discussed or decided on the basis of Scripture. In other words, because the first-century church was presumably united on all essentials, the New Testament did not contain an answer to the question of whether a church should permit unimmersed believers to participate in the Lord's Supper. Therefore, "we neither discuss nor determine this question. We simply leave it to each individual to determine for himself. It is really, as the brethren . . .  say, an 'untaught question'."

Citing Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 11:28--"But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat . . . ,"--Richardson asserted that the practice he advocated was "precisely in the spirit of this injunction, and we very properly forbear to decide the question either way, and consequently neither invite nor prohibit."

Like Errett, Richardson noted that the Scotch Baptists "are especially rigid in regard to this matter." Yet, he could vouch for them as "generally faithful and pious brethren" and thus suggested that "great forbearance" should be extended to those congregations.

W. K. Pendleton

In his follow-up "Remarks" on the question, editor W. K. Pendleton expressed his doubt that "the subject is one likely to develop any very serious controversy among the brethren." He approved what he referred to as the "almost universal" custom in Stone-Campbell churches to deny any authority "to exclude from the Lord's supper any who, by their walk and conversation, and in their own hearts, approve themselves as the Lord's people." Pendleton called on his readers to remember that "we are laboring, not to introduce a totally new church, but to restore the things which are wanting in one already existing; not to overthrow what is good, buy to teach the way of the Lord more perfectly."

Pendleton concluded with a revealing flourish. In the following purple passage, there can be no doubt that the essential question was not "Who should partake?" The basic matter at stake was the question of who should be regarded as a believer?
If Peter had been left to his Jewish prejudices and exclusivism, he would doubtless have refused to admit Cornelius to baptism. It was the overwhelming evidence of his reception by God that compelled the apostle to say, 'Who shall forbid that he shall be baptized?' So ought it to be with us. Can we deny that God has recognized and is still recognizing the truly pious and full of faith and good works in the many divisions of professed Christians, as really and truly his people? Will any one take the absurd position that the noble list of illustrious men who have been the light and ornament of religion in the ages that are past, and whose piety and learning are still the admiration and glory of the Lord's people--that all these, because of an error, not on the significancy or divine authority of baptism, but what we must be allowed to call its mode,--that all these, because of such an error, must be pushed from our ranks as reprobate--torn from our Christian affections, as heretics--thrust from the communion of the body and blood of the Saviour, whom for a long life they so truly loved and devotedly served, and counted no more worthy of our Christian fellowship than so many heathens and publicans! The conclusion is too monstrous for any but the hide-bound zealot of a cold and lifeless formalism. I should feel that I had injured the Christianity which I profess and which I love, could I recall that even for a moment I had allowed by head so to interpret its pleading mercy, or my heart so to restrict its wide-embracing charity.
Such a vigorous defense of a generous restorationism clearly indicates that second-generation leaders of the Stone-Campbell Movement had much more than the Lord's Supper to discuss. The essential nature of the restoration plea and the position of the movement in the larger world of Christendom was the real issue.


[1] The responses from Errett, Richardson, and Pendleton appeared under the title "Communion with the 'Sects'" in the The Millennial Harbinger dated December 1861, Vol. 32, 711-714. This material was reprinted in Benjamin Lyon Smith, The Millennial Harbinger Abridged, Vol. 2 (Cincinnati: Standard, 1902), 239 and following.

Lester G. McAllister and William E. Tucker, Journey in Faith: A History of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (Saint Louis: Bethany Press, 1975), 237.

[3] The approximate birth and death dates for Richard Hawley are taken from McAllister and Tucker, Journey in Faith, 240. For Hawley as the ACMS representative from Michigan, see The Millennial Harbinger Abridged, Vol. 2, 400.

[4] McAllister and Tucker, Journey in Faith, 240.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Alexander Campbell's Four-Part Series "On the Breaking of Bread"

In their quest to rehabilitate what Alexander Campbell referred to as "the divinely authorized order of Christian worship in Christian assemblies," early leaders of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement identified weekly communion as a central practice. [1] For example, when Thomas and Alexander Campbell and like-minded believers established the Brush Run church in Washington County, Pennsylvania, in May 1811, "their first act of worship was the observance of the Lord's Supper, which they resolved to celebrate weekly thereafter." [2]

In February 1825, Alexander Campbell inaugurated a series of articles titled "A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things," which he published in his monthly magazine, The Christian Baptist. The completed series included thirty-two installments. Four of the earliest articles, numbers six through nine, were subtitled "On the Breaking of Bread." [3]

Campbell began his series on Christian communion with an indictment of the monthly, semi-annual, and annual observances of the Lord's Supper within the various branches of Protestantism. Neither the frequency nor the demeanor of those observances met the standard of the New Testament. Campbell's complaint likely includes a veiled reference to the yearly summertime festal communions held by the Presbyterians, the denomination of which he and his father were former members. He notes especially that some believers had turned the Lord's Supper into a morose affair, a somber observance. [4] By contrast, he wrote:
It was the design of the Saviour that his disciples should not be deprived of this joyful festival when they meet in one place to worship God. . . . He did not assemble them to weep, and wail, and starve with him. No, he commands them to rejoice always, and bids them eat and drink abundantly. [5]
The heart of the series involved the question of frequency. Campbell well understood that the New Testament contained no explicit command that Christians should observe the Lord's Supper on a weekly basis. This led him to highlight the significance of approved examples in biblical interpretation. Campbell noted that the New Testament
does not altogether consist of commands, but of approved precedents. Apostolic example is justly esteemed of equal authority with an apostolic precept. Hence, say the Baptists, shew us where Paul or any apostle sprinkled an infant, and we will not ask you for a command to go and do likewise. [6]
Passages from three chapters of the New Testament represent the scriptural centerpiece of Campbell's argument for the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper: Acts 2, Acts 20, and 1 Corinthians 11. In the first of these, Acts 2:42 describes how the earliest Christians in Jerusalem "continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers." Campbell noted that "the first congregation organized by the apostles after the ascension of the King, did as steadfastly attend on the breaking of bread in their religious meetings, as upon any act of worship or means of edification." [7] Thus we learn "that the breaking of bread was a stated part of the worship of the disciples in their meetings." [8]

Based on the first half of Acts 20:7-- "And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread"--Campbell insisted that "above all, we ought to notice that the most prominent object of their meeting was to break bread." [9]

From 1 Corinthians 11:20, Campbell argued that when Paul reproved the church at ancient Corinth for their abuse of the Lord's Supper, by implication he pointed to the central place of communion in Christian worship. Paul wrote, "When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper." Campbell, in order to make his point, offered a comparison. If a man hired workers, but later found them idle, he might say to them, "You did not come here to work." Thus, although indirectly, in 1 Corinthians 11:20 Paul identifies the the Lord's Supper as an essential part of Christian worship. [10]

Campbell concluded his series "On the Breaking of Bread" by pointing to early church history as a verification for his conclusions about the frequency of the Lord's Supper. He emphasized that while the New Testament foreground has no authority, it is useful as an answer to those who say, "Innovation!" in reaction to authentic New Testament teaching. The following brief passage includes two disclaimers regarding the authority of tradition. It also provides two reasons for studying church history:
We lay no stress upon what is no better than the traditions of the church; or upon the testimony of those called the primitive fathers, in settling any part of Christians worship, or Christian obedience. Yet when the scriptures are explicit upon any topic, which is lost sight of in modern times, it is both gratifying and useful to know how the practice has been laid aside, and other customs been substituted in its room. There is, too, a corroborating influence in authentic history, which, while it does not authorize any thing as of Divine authority, it confirms the conviction of our duty in things Divinely established, by observing how they were observed, and how they were laid aside. [11] 
At the end of the third of his four essays on the Lord's Supper, Campbell offered the following synopsis of his position on the topic. It serves as a good summary for this blog post as well:

"To recapitulate the items adduced in favor of the ancient order of breaking bread, it was shewn, as we apprehend--

1. That there is a divinely instituted order of christian worship, in christian assemblies.

2. That this order of worship is uniformly the same.

3. That the nature and design of the breaking of bread are such as to make it an essential part of christian worship in christian assemblies.

4. That the first church set in order in Jerusalem, continued as stedfastly in breaking of bread, as in any other act of social worship or edification.

5. That the disciples statedly met on the first day of the week, primarily and emphatically for this purpose.

6. That the apostle declared it was the design or the primary object of the church to assemble in one place for this purpose, and so commanded it to the churches he had set in order.

7. That there is no law, rule, reason, or authority for the present manner of observing this institute quarterly, semi-annually, or at any other time than weekly.

8. We have considered some of the more prominent objections against the ancient practice, and are ready to hear any new ones that can be offered. Upon the whole, it may be said that we have express precedent and an express command to assemble in one place on the first day of the week to break bread. We shall reserve other evidences and considerations until some objections are offered by any correspondent who complies with our conditions." [12]


[1] "Order of Worship"Christian Baptist, Vol. II, July 4, 1825, p. 164. Along this line, another of Campbell's phrases was "the ancient order of worship in the Christian church." See Ibid.

[2] Paul M. Blowers and Byron C. Lambert, "The Lord's Supper," in Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 489.

[3] The first installment in Campbell's series titled "A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things" appeared in The Christian Baptist dated February 7, 1825. The final, thirty-second installment was published in the issue dated September 7, 1829. Campbell published The Christian Baptist from 1823 to 1830.

[4] "On the Breaking of Bread. No.--IChristian Baptist, Vol. III, August 1, 1825,  pp. 174-75. For more about the origins and history of festal communions and camp meetings, see Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001). For the famous 1801 Cane Ridge Revival as a Presbyterian festal communion, see Paul K. Conkin, Cane Ridge: America's Pentecost (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), a book that owes a good deal to Leigh Eric Schmidt's 1987 Princeton PhD dissertation, and to Marilyn J. Westerkamp, Triumph of the Laity: Scots-Irish Piety and the Great Awakening, 1625-1760 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[5] "On the Breaking of Bread. No.--I," Christian Baptist, Vol. III, August 1, 1825,  p. 174.

[6] "On the Breaking of Bread. No.--II," Christian Baptist, Vol. III, September 5, 1825, p. 179.

[7] Ibid., 181.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] "On the Breaking of Bread. No.--III" Christian Baptist, Vol. III, October 3, 1825, p. 187.

[11] "On the Breaking of Bread, No. IV," Christian Baptist, Vol. III, November 7, 1825, p. 194. I note that Churches of Christ historian Everett Ferguson offers much the same rationale for, and caveats regarding, the study of Christian history in the introductory chapter of Church History: Early and Medieval, 2nd ed. (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1985).

[12] "On the Breaking of Bread. No.--IIIChristian Baptist, Vol. III, October 3, 1825, pp. 187-88.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Alexander Campbell, Early Church History, and the Breaking of Bread

Alexander Campbell concluded his 1825 series "On the Breaking of Bread" by pointing to early church history as a verification for his conclusions about the frequency of the Lord's Supper. He emphasizes that New Testament foreground has no authority. However, he writes, it is useful as an answer to those who say, "Innovation!" in reaction to authentic New Testament teaching. Notice in the following brief passage the two disclaimers regarding the authority of tradition. Note also the two reasons given for the value of studying church history. As soon as I read this, I was taken back to Everett Ferguson's booklet in the Way of Life series on Early and Medieval Church History, where Ferguson makes similar points in favor of this kind of study, in church "Bible classes" no less:

"We lay no stress upon what is no better than the traditions of the church; or upon the testimony of those called the primitive fathers, in settling any part of Christians worship, or Christian obedience. Yet when the scriptures are explicit upon any topic, which is lost sight of in modern times, it is both gratifying and useful to know how the practice has been laid aside, and other customs been substituted in its room. There is, too, a corroborating influence in authentic history, which, while it does not authorize any thing as of Divine authority, it confirms the conviction of our duty in things Divinely established, by observing how they were observed, and how they were laid aside." (A. Campbell, "A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things, No. IX, On the Breaking of Bread, No. IV," Christian Baptist, Vol. III, November 7, 1825, p. 83).

Friday, July 14, 2017

Brevard S. Childs on the Message of Habakkuk

Brevard Childs was a first-rate biblical scholar, a real master of the various critical analyses so basic to his craft. But he did not consider any of the methods as an end. He understood them as means.

It seems to me that Childs was really a bit of a preacher, a believer in Christ who was convinced that the ultimate goal of even the most intricate Bible study was to reveal the message of the sacred text so that the people of God might be instructed and edified to His honor and glory.

I wrote that while preparing my Bible class for next Sunday. This is from the conclusion of Childs' discussion of Habakkuk:

"Righteousness is not judged by human capacity to understand the mind of God in world history, but rather in a faithful response of obedience which lives in God's promise. The prophet's testimony (3:18f.) witnesses to this faith which rejoices in God's salvation and awaits the end in spite of a human situation which oppresses the people of God (3:17)." --Introduction to The Old Testament as Scripture, p. 453.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (5th and Final)

In this fifth and final post, I want to say a few things about the future of microhistory. If recent discussions of theory and methodology, and just the production of historiography itself are any indication, then it seems that microhistory has a promising future. For example, a recent unigram search of Google Books indicates an exponential growth in the occurrence of microhistory from the 1980s up to the present. Kim Tolley’s new microhistory, cited at the beginning of the first post, is one of many.

Positive signs also turn up in one of my own subfields of study, the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. The authors of a recently-published survey textbook, The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History, make the following generalization:
A shift away from macro-history began in the 1970s, especially rejecting history written from the standpoint of dominant institutions or socio-political elites. Instead, the focus was on “micro-histories” and the stories of outsiders and marginalized groups, especially immigrants, racial minorities, and women.[1]
Among the few works of Stone-Campbell history that fit this generalization, at least two stand out: Daisy L. Machado’s Of Borders and Margins: Hispanic Disciples in Texas, 1888-1945, and Edward J. Robinson’s To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius.[2]

To summarize this entire series then, microhistory grew out of the interests of European social historians and was developed in Italy beginning in the 1970s. Its initial concern was to use “microscopic” methods to verify, correct, and supplement macrohistory, whose generalizations might be misguided or incomplete. In this way, microhistory could serve the goal of the Annales school to present “total history.” Since its inception, some examples of microhistory have been criticized for their dependence on the methods of cultural anthropology, or for their indulgence in anecdotalism and antiquarianism. Nevertheless, works described by their authors as microhistories, as well as other works that exhibit some of the characteristics of the microhistorical method, have grown in popularity among historians. At least one advocate of microhistory, namely, American historian Richard D. Brown, does not consider this trend a scholarly fad. Rather, he sees it as important to the foundation of history itself.

Of course, Brown’s overall concern relates to much more than the usefulness of microhistory. For example, in a much more general way French social historian Arlette Farge has responded to the question of the relationship between truth and historiography. She takes a mediating approach, one that argues that while no historian ever produces “the definitive truthful narrative,” no historian worthy of the name can ever disregard truth, or fail to care about what is true.[3]

Here, there is a discernible correspondence between Farge’s position and that of Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis. In his series of lectures titled The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, Gaddis observes that historians have always known that arriving at historical consciousness means one has learned “that there is no ‘correct’ interpretation of the past” and that “the act of interpreting is itself a vicarious enlargement of experience.”[4] At the same time, Gaddis rejects the extreme conclusion that because “we have no absolute basis for measuring time and space” we therefore “can’t know anything about what happened within them.”[5]

Both Farge and Gaddis would agree, it seems, that historians can and should identify many things that are true, while at the same time recognizing that one’s interpretation of a set of facts is just that: an interpretation.
[1] D. Newell Williams, Douglas A. Foster, and Paul M. Blowers, eds. The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013), 5.

[2] Daisy L. Machado, Of Borders and Margins: Hispanic Disciples in Texas, 1888-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Edward J. Robinson, To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007).

[3] Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 95-96.

[4] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 10.

[5] Ibid., 34.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (4)

If the method known as microhistory is both legitimate and productive, then what microhistories stand out as the best examples of this subfield? What features distinguish them as good models? Above all, what do microhistories uniquely accomplish?

Here, pride of place belongs to Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. The key to the success of Ginzburg’s work as a microhistory is not his story of the now-celebrated Menocchio, so much as it is his demonstration that Menocchio’s case was not purely unique. There was also, as Ginzburg tells us, a “rustic in the Lucchese countryside who hid behind the pseudonym Scolio.” Much like the main character in The Cheese and the Worms, Scolio “projected onto the written page, elements taken from oral tradition.”[1] Like Menocchio, for example, Scolio was convinced that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all preached some version of the Ten Commandments. The two men also shared what Ginzburg calls “a common store of traditions, myths, and aspirations handed down orally over generations.”[2]

Ginzburg next introduces yet another peasant radical, Pighino (“the Fat,”) who was likewise a miller. The author notes that sixteenth-century millers had, at best, mixed reputations, and were well known for their radicalism. Dealing with a wide variety of people, they worked in out-of-the-way places, where people freely exchanged ideas much as they would at “the inn and the shop.”[3] These were the places where the cultures of “peasant religious radicalism” and of “peasant egalitarianism” were kept alive.[4] Consequently, Ginzburg argues, we should reject any assumption that “ideas originate exclusively among the dominant classes.” What is required of historians is a “more complicated hypothesis about relationships in this period between the culture of the dominant classes and the culture of the subordinate classes.”[5] This represents what should be regarded as the most significant contribution that Ginzburg’s work offers to the historiography on the period. Not only does the book relate a compelling story, more importantly, it shows us a part of the past we would not otherwise have seen and signals why it is important for us to know that part.

Since the advent of microhistory, Americanists have also employed this methodology, but often in ways that deviate from or go beyond what Ginzburg and his cohort were trying to do. In a 2003 article titled “Microhistory and the Post-Modern Challenge,” American historian Richard D. Brown identified three types of works that can be called microhistories. First, he cites investigations of certain locales over a long period. Alternately, scholars have given such works labels like “the new social history” and “community studies.” Significantly, perhaps surprisingly, Brown places in this category a book published as early as 1963: Sumner Chilton Powell’s Puritan Village: The Formation of a New England Town.[6]

Brown identifies a second type of microhistory that he calls “intensive community analyses” designed “to illuminate and explain particular events.” Examples of this category are Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (1974) and Robert A. Gross’s The Minutemen and Their World (1976).[7]

Third, Brown notes that there are many works that merely give a voice to extraordinary but little-known people from the past. It is at this point, with the third possible category, that Brown draws a line. He insists that microhistorians should “be eager to test and refine standing generalizations.” He agrees with pioneering microhistorians like Giovanni Levi who believe that, ideally, microscopic observations should “reveal factors previously unobserved”; and with Jill Lepore when she asserts that microhistory must not be confused with a celebratory biography of someone from the past who, simply because of his or her qualities or experiences, everyone should know.[8] Microhistorians are trying to discover big things.

As noted earlier, when it comes to Americans, without calling their works microhistories, a large number of scholars have produced books and articles that Brown would include in his expanded definition of the type. Perhaps the best example is Alan Taylor’s 1995 work William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize. As the reader soon learns, this is much more than a thick biography of land speculator William Cooper, the founder of Cooperstown and Ostego County, New York. By detailing and contextualizing Cooper’s aspirations, his rise to wealth, and the fortunes of his family, Taylor is able to shed new light on the politics and demographic character of what was in the 1790s the western frontier of New York. As Taylor shows, although Cooper’s humble background would suggest an interest in Jeffersonian republican politics, he did not favor the style of authority connected with the title “Friends of the People.” Instead, Cooper, whom Jefferson himself once called “the bashaw of Ostego,” hoped to become one of the few genteel “Fathers of the People” in his community, a style much more in keeping with the outlook of the Federalists. But it was not to be. Above all, the rise of Jeffersonian politics at the local level, part and parcel of the republican revolution of 1800, undermined Cooper’s dreams for himself and his heirs, including his son the novelist James Fenimore Cooper.[9]

Another possible nominee is Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age. Ask any well-informed American what the 1920s were all about, and the answer will likely include flappers, speakeasies, dancing the Charleston, Republican presidents, the Harlem Renaissance, and the growth of jazz. Arc of Justice reveals that the answer should also include the presence of deadly racism in America, even in a northern city like Detroit. Boyle sets out to tell the story of a black medical doctor, Ossian Sweet, his family and friends, and the incident and subsequent trial that made him a significant historical figure. A fine piece of journalistic and popular history, this book does not begin with a thesis statement per se. As Boyle continues, however, it appears that his purpose is to drive home the point that although the saga of Ossian Sweet is a compelling story, one that should be told, of greatest significance is the story's context, an American racism that often seems to recognize no restraint or limit.[10]

This last work brings us back to the question of boundaries, the definition of microhistory. In 1993, Carlo Ginzburg expressed his conviction that “the reconciliation between macro- and microhistory” should not at all “be taken for granted.” In fact, it “needs to be pursued.”[11] With approval, he pointed to the opinion of Siegfried Kracauer who saw in Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society the perfect approach. According to Ginzburg, that approach was “a constant back and forth between micro- and macrohistory, between close-ups and extreme long-shots, so as to continually thrust back into discussion the comprehensive vision of the historical process through apparent exceptions and cases of brief duration.”[12] This naturally raises a question: in order for a work to be a microhistory, is it necessary for the author to intend it as such? From the foregoing, it seems clear enough that one distinction between the two sides of the Atlantic is that Europeans like Ginzburg are more likely to answer that question with a “Yes,” while Americans like Brown are more likely to say “No.”

In fact, Brown sees microhistory, including what might be called its indirect or implied forms, to be an effective response to what he styles “the post-modern challenge.” He begins by noting that historians are often slow to adopt new trends in scholarship. Unlike scholars in other academic fields like sociology and literary studies, historians are wary of embracing theories or methods that might soon turn into yesterday's fads. Yet Brown confesses that he is “a convert to microhistory, and an evangelical one at that.”[13] He observes that as early as the 1890s, Henry Adams, whom he describes as a proto-postmodernist, complained that the field of history had become hopelessly subjective. It was, according to Adams, “a sort of Chinese Play, without end and without lesson.” As a discipline, history was “an inextricable mess.”[14] Brown responds to this, as well as to similar criticisms coming from more recent scholars, by acknowledging that history is indeed “a subjective construction derived from ‘facts’ that were selectively recorded to serve a wide range of purposes, and which often survive by chance.” It is also true, he admits, that historians select from the universe of facts according to their own logic and intentions. “The very subjects we choose to recover . . . are based on our politics broadly conceived, our judgments of what is important, and the tastes of our audiences.”[15]

Still, Brown is not yet ready to give up on history. To begin with, there are many things that we can know and confidently claim about the past. For example, he asks, where is the American historian who will assert that in the early republic “women, blacks, Indians, or the poor controlled the levers of power and ran the state”? The same principle works for positive assertions as well. Thus, we can state without fear of serious challenge that the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787.[16] When it comes to such matters of fact, mountains of consistent evidence permit historians to make claims that compel the assent of every reasonable person. Of course, more serious kinds of questions appear and multiply whenever historians begin to make claims, as they invariably do, that are more intuitive. Any work of synthesis, for example, is by definition a scholar's creative projection. And, even those historians who never attempt a grand synthesis routinely engage in the same kind of activity. In fact, those historians who do not carry on such work thereby welcome the criticism that they are the sort of scholars who know “more and more about less and less.”[17]

This is precisely why Brown advocates the microhistorical method. He envisions it as the very type of scholarly work that can produce an effective response to the post-modern challenge. Again, works of history, invariably synthetic to one degree or another, are open to the criticism that historians piece together their narratives in much the same way that clever defense attorneys spin alternative stories about crimes. But how can historians avoid these kinds of suspicions? After all, historical narratives and especially works of synthesis simply cannot make the claims they make without standing “on a footing of disparate monographs.” This is critical because, for the sake of the credibility of their work, historians need to be able to convince others that “history deserves its status as an authoritative source of truth.”[18] Now that “fake news” is an everyday expression, could historians have anything more important to do?

[1] Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 112.

[2] Ibid., 117.

[3] Ibid., 119

[4] Ibid., 123.

[5] Ibid., 126.

[6] Richard D. Brown, “Microhistory and the Post-Modern Challenge,” Journal of the Early Republic 23, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 10.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[8] Ibid., 14. Here, Brown cites two important works: Giovanni Levi, “On Microhistory,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991): 93-113; and Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (June 2001): 129-44.

[9] Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Knopf, 1995).

[10] Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (New York: Picador, 2004).

[11] Carlo Ginzburg, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things I Know about It,” trans. John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi, Critical Inquiry 20, no. 1 (Autumn 1993), 27.

[12] Ibid. Later, Ginzburg points to Siegfried Kracauer as having been ahead of his time. Kracauer, he writes, “had already foreseen” that “the results obtained in a microscopic sphere cannot be automatically transferred to a macroscopic sphere (and vice versa)” (33).

[13] Brown, “Microhistory and the Post-Modern Challenge,” 1-2.

[14] Ibid., 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 4.

[17] Ibid., 8.

[18] Ibid., 10.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (3)

In this third post, I take up some of the criticisms of the subdiscipline known as microhistory. What sorts of challenges have microhistorians had to face?

First, according to some detractors, microhistorical investigations run into problems that result from their dependence on cultural anthropology. Along this line, Karl Appuhn explains that at least some of the Italian microhistorians were interested in the possibility of deciphering “the historical variations in people’s lived experience of the world” by employing the methods of cultural anthropology, particularly the work of Clifford Geertz.[1]

Obviously, unlike anthropologists, historians cannot directly observe the people they want to study. However, they might accumulate “tiny, seemingly trivial bits of evidence” that would “eventually, the microhistorians hoped, enable them to assemble the data into coherent models of specific small-scale social interactions.”[2] From these, microhistorians could then, like Geertz and other cultural anthropologists, “draw much broader conclusions.”[3] This procedural model has generated one objection in particular: anthropologists exercise a good bit of latitude in their interpretations. And, when applied to history, this threatens to degenerate into relativism, to cast doubt on the conclusions of historians, to erode the authority of the discipline.[4]

Reaction to Roger Darnton’s popular book of 1984, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, provides a specific example of this angle of criticism.[5] Not long after Darnton’s work was published, critical discussion, especially about his Chapter 2, “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin,” appeared in the pages of the Journal of Modern History. Both Roger Chartier and Dominick LaCapra argued that Darnton’s borrowings from anthropology led him to use texts in ways that, to those practiced at close readings, seemed more than a bit too easy. As LaCapra expressed it,
Reading for Darnton is a rather cozy hermeneutic process in which meaning is fully recoverable even when it is asserted to be polysemous or multivalent. The focus on message and “worldview” facilitates this unproblematic hermeneutics of reading, for there is little attention to be paid to the composition, work, and play of texts. . . One difficulty in Darnton’s precipitate turn to anthropology is the implicit assumption that emulating the procedures of the latter discipline (as Darnton via Geertz understands them) may provide a “quick fix” for the difficulties encountered in historiography. The result would be that the position of the historian in his or her exchange with the past need not be interrogated.[6]
In this way, both Chartier and LaCapra insisted that primary texts are more complicated than Darnton seemed to recognize or appreciate.[7]

A second, more general criticism of microhistory is that at least some practitioners indulge in mere anecdotalism or antiquarianism. To put it bluntly, not every odd ball or outlier from the past represents a significant group of people or some aspect of history that has since become lost.

Regarding this category of objection, in 2006 Naomi R. Lamoreaux published an article in which she offers a few significant pointers that microhistorians should take to heart. An economist and historian at UCLA, Lamoreaux begins by noting that those who advocate for microhistorical approaches are right to complain about the tendencies of macrohistory to flatten out the particularities of the past. She worries, on the other hand, that some examples of microhistory veer “too far in the opposite direction toward antiquarianism.” The purpose of her comment, she writes, “is to suggest how approaching the study of ordinary men and women from the perspective of . . . ‘historical economics’ carries the potential to avoid both of these pitfalls.”[8]

Lamoreaux observes that some historians seem to value the work of merely “complicating” some aspect of history. By contrast, she notes, economists “do not see why making an analysis more complicated should necessarily be considered a good thing.” She insists that microhistorians
must also be able to demonstrate how putting the additional evidence back in leads to a very different understanding—an alternative model or narrative. In other words, “complicating” an analysis in order to underscore its limitations should be only the first step. It is important also to “resimplify”—to fit the evidence into a new interpretive framework.[9]
But how might that be done? How can historians “approach the task of resimplifying—that is, of showing that a complication leads to a new narrative or model?”[10]

At this juncture, Lamoreaux introduces a bit of jargon from the world of economics: exogenous and endogenous factors. These terms point to the fact that “[t]here is always an inside and outside to a story: there is always something external to the dynamics of the story that sets its events in motion.” Among those who speak this language, one common name for exogenous events is shocks.[11] Lamoreaux notes that along with other economists, she is mystified that any historian who shows how an individual in the past had agency—made what have to have been real choices and decisions—is thought to be making a contribution to what we know. How is that necessarily more than merely stating what should be obvious? Or, as an economist might ask the question, how are these studies anything more than investigations of mostly or entirely endogenous factors?[12] This is the very sort of observation that generates the criticism that microhistorians might be doing nothing more than relating anecdotes or indulging in antiquarianism. Lamoreaux insists that in order for microhistory to be something other than that, microhistorians must present a conversation between exogenous and endogenous factors, a dialectic that might generate an “additional twist,” one that would complicate “a conventional interpretation that can generate an important new analytic narrative.”[13]

What seems obvious enough is that neither of these criticisms noted here necessarily strikes at the heart of what microhistorians attempt to do. These are indictments not of the method itself, but of particular mistakes or misapplications. To the extent that they might clarify and correct, they should thus be treated as guidelines and helpful reminders.


[1] Karl Appuhn, “Microhistory,” in Encyclopedia of European Social History from 1350-2000, ed. Peter Stearns (Detroit: Gale Group, 2001), 1:105.

[2] Ibid., 106.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 107-08.

[5] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984). Significantly, in his “Acknowledgments,” Darnton states that his book “grew out of a course” on history and anthropology that he taught at Princeton with Clifford Geertz, who, writes Darnton, “taught me most of what I know about anthropology” (xiii).

[6] Dominick LaCapra, “Chartier, Darnton, and the Great Symbol Massacre,” Journal of Modern History 60, no. 1 (March 1988): 104-06.

[7] Before LaCapra waded into the conversation, it was begun by Roger Chartier, “Text, Symbol, and Frenchness,” Journal of Modern History 57, no. 4 (December 1985): 682-95. Robert Darnton responded to Chartier in “The Symbolic Element in History," Journal of Modern History 58, no. 1 (March 1986): 218-34.

[8] Naomi R. Lamoreaux, “Rethinking Microhistory: A Comment,” Journal of the Early Republic 26, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 555.

[9] Ibid., 556.

[10] Ibid., 557.

[11] Ibid., 558-59.

[12] Ibid., 559.

[13] Ibid, 560.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (2)

Any explanation of the character and procedure of microhistory as a discernible methodology must begin with the story of its earliest practitioners and advocates. Who initiated the microhistorical method, and why?

In 1993, seventeen years after he first published the original, Italian version of his now-classic work The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, Carlo Ginzburg, with tongue in cheek, claimed to know “two or three things” about microhistory.[1] He recalls that he and some of his Italian colleagues associated with the journal Quaderni storici began using the expression microhistoria in either 1977 or 1978.[2] They saw themselves as pioneers.

What were they setting out to do? Ginzburg explains that in his case, he was studying Inquisitorial trials “in an attempt to reconstruct, in addition to the attitudes of judges, those of the men and women accused of witchcraft.”[3] In his archival research, he hit upon the remarkable, intriguing story “of a sixteenth-century Friulian miller who was tried and condemned to death by the Inquisition.”[4] He notes that in the Introduction to the original 1976 edition of The Cheese and the Worms, he “took issue with an essay by [Francois] Furet in the Annales in which he asserted that the history of the subaltern classes in preindustrial societies can only be studied from a statistical point of view.”[5] The book that Ginsburg had by then produced was, in effect, a practical response to Furet: “In reducing the scale of observation, that which for another scholar could have been a simple footnote in a hypothetical monograph on the Protestant Reformation in Friuli was transformed into a book.”[6]

But what exactly was the significance and utility of The Cheese and the Worms and other works like it? As Ginzburg details, what he and others were discovering was that a close-up look permits historians “to grasp what eludes a comprehensive viewing.”[7] In other words, a narrow, even microscopic probe can lead to a necessary revision of a standard macrohistorical narrative. Ideally, then, microhistory holds the potential to contribute substantially to what twentieth-century social historians called “total history.” As I see it, this was and is one of the method’s great promises.

Karl Appuhn captures the essence of the approach when he writes that microhistory “is a historical method that takes as its object of study the interactions of individuals and small groups with the goal of isolating ideas, beliefs, practices, and actions that would otherwise remain unknown by means of more conventional historical strategies.”[8]

Appuhn further explains that the earliest microhistorians were responding to a perceived weakness in the way that scholars had come to practice social history. Instead of establishing and describing “the broader economic, demographic, and social structures” that traditional social historians took as their subject matter, practitioners wanted to “rediscover the lived experience of individuals.” The goal was to reveal how those individuals interacted with those very same structures.

And this was no mere novelty. The outlook of the microhistorians included an indictment: “Their criticism of traditional social science approaches” was not that social science was not possible or desirable. It was, rather, that social scientists had made “generalizations that do not hold up when tested against the concrete reality of the small-scale life” that they claimed to describe and interpret.[9] By going in the opposite direction, from small to large, microhistorians believed that they could recover some of “the lost peoples of Europe.”[10] Along this line, an essential move was to assume that the past is absolutely foreign to us. Whatever similarities might appear to exist between the past and the present must be ignored in the interests of discovering the unique features and dimensions of past societies. As Ginzburg described it, the process begins with “making the past dead.”[11]


[1] Carlo Ginzburg, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know about It,” trans. John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi, Critical Inquiry 20, no. 1 (Autumn 1993): 10-35.

[2] Sometime after Ginzburg began to speak of microhistoria, he learned that others had already employed identical terminology, but in ways that were quite different from what he and other Italian microhistorians had in mind. He notes, for example, that George R. Stewart, an American, was apparently the first to microhistory. In fact, the word appears in the subtitle of Stewart’s 1959 book about Pickett’s Charge, the failed and fateful attack at Gettysburg led by Confederate Major General Edward Pickett. As Ginzburg discovered, Stewart’s work, which is replete with minutia about the incident, highlights the notion that if Pickett’s Charge had only succeeded, then Gettysburg would also have turned out differently, and thus the Civil War would have turned out differently. In this way, according to Stewart, a single incident had impacted all subsequent world history. See George R. Stewart, Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959). Ginzburg also points out that in 1968, Luis González, a Mexican scholar, used the term in the subtitle of a 400-year history of his home village, Pueblo en vilo: Microhistoria de San José de Gracia (Guanajuato, Mexico: 1968). But Italian micro-historians of the 1970s and 1980s did not recognize their approach in books about seemingly-small events that made an incredible difference, studied in minute detail, nor in long-term studies of a single village, etc. By microhistoria, they meant something quite different. Ginzburg, “Microhistory,” 10-13.

[3] Ginzburg, “Microhistory,” 21-22.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid. The passage he refers to here can be found in the English edition, Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), xx.

[6] Ginzburg, “Microhistory,” 22. Ginzburg notes that none other than Fernand Braudel was among the first to express his disapproval of microhistory. This was because he identified it with what he had previously condemned as histoire événementaielle, the “history of events.” By that expression Braudel meant “traditional history,” or the “so-called history of the world” which was nothing more than stories “dominated by protagonists who resembled orchestra directors.” Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 26.

[8] Karl Appuhn, “Microhistory,” in Encyclopedia of European Social History from 1350-2000, ed. Peter Stearns (Detroit: Gale Group, 2001), 1:105.

[9] Georg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), 108.

[10] Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero, eds., Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe: Selections from Quaderni Storici (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991). As one of my teachers, Professor Stefano D'Amico, pointed out to me, due to the work of diligent microhistorians featured in this collection edited by Muir and Ruggiero, many of those peoples are no longer so lost.

[11] Appuhn, “Microhistory,” 106.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (1)

Kim Tolley, a professor of education at Notre Dame de Namur University in California, describes her recently-published monograph, Heading South to Teach, as a “microhistory,”[1] one that relates “the life and times of Susan Nye Hutchison (1790-1867) a northern farmer’s daughter who taught in North Carolina and Georgia during the era of religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening.”[2]

Tolley explains that at one level, her work is about a seemingly-ordinary woman who did some extraordinary things. But at another level, she writes, “this book is about the significance of religion and education in antebellum American society and culture.”[3] Tolley offers a bit more information about the microhistorical method.[4] Still, upon reading Heading South to Teach, which is a fine piece of work at any rate, would even a credentialed historian know if the book does what a microhistory is supposed to do? Is the label appropriate in this case?

These kinds of questions have cropped up partly because microhistory has not always been well defined. While it may be that some of the imprecision is unavoidable, even preferable, it is also true that implicit definitions of the term have not always been consistent or well understood.[5]

The purpose of this series is to respond to a few central questions about microhistory. First, where did this approach come from? What kinds of goals were associated with the origins of microhistory? Second, what sorts of misunderstandings and criticisms have accompanied the rise of microhistory? How might those who see the potential of this method eliminate typical misunderstandings and respond adequately to the hard questions? Third, what are some of the works that stand out as solid examples of the microhistorical method? What features distinguish them as good models? Finally, what seems to be the future of microhistory? Going forward from 2017, how might this approach serve the goals of historians?

Again, that's what this series is all about. Interested in microhistory? Stay tuned.


[1] Kim Tolley, Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815-1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 11.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Ibid., 11-12.

[5] On the variety and vagueness of social history, see Harry Ritter, Dictionary of Concepts in History (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 408-11.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Van Halen, before Anyone Outside Southern California Knew Who They Were

Not long after I'd completed comprehensive exams earlier this spring, I wanted to read something entirely different from what I had been poring over for months. So, I read Greg Renoff's book, Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal (Toronto: ECW Press, 2015).

The book starts with the early lives of the original members of Van Halen, and ends with the 11-month world tour that followed the release of their first album in 1978. During that tour, Van Halen usually opened for Black Sabbath, and they blew them off the stage every night. Renoff reports that the experience sent Ozzy and the rest of Black Sabbath into something of a depression. They were getting whipped every time they performed.

If, like me, you bought the first VH album and wore it out, then you simply have to read Van Halen Rising. Some of the more interesting aspects of this one-of-a-kind book:

Renoff has a PhD in American history. So the guy knows how to do research. Speaking of which, he conducted scores of interviews with people who "were there," and he quotes them on almost every page. I don't know the historiography of Van Halen, but I'd bet there's nothing else about the band that matches this book for its depth of research and attention to detail. This seems to be one reason why Renoff decided to write it. He's a fan, and nobody had told the story like this.

One of Renoff's main points is that with soft rock, easy listening, and disco (Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, the Bee Gees, etc.) dominating radio play and record sales in the late 1970s, there was no reason to assume that hard rock or heavy metal was going to survive. The author argues that Van Halen almost single-handedly "saved heavy metal."

Anyway, Renoff was trained to make an argument, and that's his. But that's not the heart of the book. What makes the work stand out is the way that Renoff acts like an ethnologist (seriously) detailing the backyard parties and dive-bar gigs that VH played for years on end before they were discovered by people outside of Southern California. And that dominance of all sorts of styles besides hard rock? That led record executives at the time to think that no new hard-rock bands could break through. So why sign them to a contract? That's why Van Halen were local heroes to teenagers and bikers in places like Pasadena and Hollywood for years before anyone else knew who they were.

All the while, whether they were playing for hundreds of kids in someone's big backyard, or for a dozen roughnecks at a bar on a rainy night, Van Halen always acted like they were playing Madison Square Garden. So when they exploded onto the world stage, it all seemed so natural because they'd been practicing hard for such a long time.

A few other details: Renoff makes the case that if there was an insecure member of Van Halen, it was their virtuoso guitar player, Edward Van Halen. On the other hand, David Lee Roth (who back in the day was simply "Dave Roth"), musically the weak link in the band, had all the confidence, charisma, and showmanship. And this rubbed off on all the others, especially Edward. Renoff suggests that had it not been for Diamond Dave, Alex and Edward Van Halen might have become two of the greatest undiscovered musical talents ever. When the brothers first met Dave, they played all of their gigs pretty stiff and wearing sneakers, worn out jeans, and flannel shirts. Dave is the one who taught them that they couldn't be just great musicians. They had to do more. They had to dress and act like rock stars.

From the other side: Going into the studio to make the first record, Roth realized that when it came to recording an album, his stage presence wasn't going help him much. He understood that if he didn't do something to improve his mediocre singing, next to the virtuosity of Edward Van Halen's guitar playing, Roth was going to sound terrible. So he took private singing lessons (insisting that anyone who knew about them should call them "voice lessons"). The guy devoted himself to practicing every day. And by the time VH recorded the first album, Dave's singing had improved. All along, he remained the perfect persona for fronting Van Halen.

Oh, and Michael Anthony? The last of the four members to join the original group, Anthony has always been rock solid on the bass guitar, and was easily the best singer and strongest voice in the band. He's the reason that VH was able to do all of those nice three-part harmonies, a feature that made the band stand out from other big-rock acts. Anthony was always the high tenor, and in the studio and on stage, he never missed a note. When the band was recording their first album, producers and engineers focused on how whiz kid Edward's guitar sounded. Anthony has since regretted that no more attention was given to the bass tracks. At the time, he didn't know any of the tricks for perfecting his own sound in the recording studio. So there are parts of the original record where he doesn't like the way the bass sounds.

Anyway, there's so much more to this book. So if you sometimes think of yourself as "the atomic punk," then you'll probably want to read it.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Reformation History: New Interpretations, Trends, and Perspectives

From the sixteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, almost all interpreters agreed that the Protestant Reformation began in 1517 with Martin Luther’s acts of “heroic individualism.” As Bernd Moeller has described it, this now-outdated story of the origins of the Reformation pictured Luther as “a great sage, a kind of spiritual colossus, who attains his Reformation breakthrough, draws the broad consequences, and then drags people with him as he strides through history handing out his truths right and left.”[1] But sometime during the mid-1900s, scholars began to conclude that “Luther as sage and Wittenberg as Jerusalem” was an insufficient historical paradigm. Other people and places—like Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich, John Calvin in Geneva, and a number of lesser-known leaders and locations—were vital to the rise of Protestantism in the sixteenth century.[2] This change contributed to a new situation in which, over the past fifty years, Reformation historiography has not only grown more diverse, it has also grown in volume at an impressive pace. My purpose here is to describe and analyze some of the newer Reformation historiography, especially in regard to terminology, chronological scale, the rise of social history, what is called “deconfessionalization,” and revisionist interpretations that have emerged within the last forty years.


As Euan Cameron has observed, what people have for hundreds of years called the Reformation was actually “a series of parallel movements; within each of which various sorts of people with differing perspectives for a crucial period in history combined forces to pursue objectives which they only party understood.”[3] The majority of today’s Reformation scholars would agree with Cameron’s assessment, and this raises a question: If what we are describing was never a unified movement led by a single leader who proclaimed a consistent set of teachings, is the singular term, Reformation, the most appropriate descriptor? Clearly, Cameron, who titled his own work The European Reformation, believed it was perfectly acceptable to combine his conclusion about “parallel movements” with the standard singular terminology. However, beginning in the mid-1990s, at least a few historians took such thinking to heart as they gave titles to their books. For example, Carter Lindberg titled his 1996 textbook The European Reformations. Regarding his choice of the plural, Lindbergh did not elaborate. He simply explained, “I view the Reformation era as a time of plural reform movements.”[4] Significantly, his coverage begins in the late fifteenth century and runs to the early seventeenth century, and includes a chapter on “Catholic Renewal and the Counter-Reformation.” In 1999, three years after Lindberg’s book first appeared, James D. Tracy published Europe’s Reformations 1450-1650. For his part, Tracy explained the plural by asserting that “we can best understand the historical significance of the Protestant movement by viewing it . . . as the high point in a series of ‘reformations’ that convulsed the Latin or western half of Christendom from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries.”[5]

In an interesting twist on this theme, Diarmaid MacCulloch has written about the singular Reformation in a book that includes coverage of those reforms that were introduced even by popes and the Counter Reformation.[6] In contrast to MacCulloch’s approach, scholars like Bernd Moeller, Berndt Hamm, and Dorothea Wendebourg insist on an exclusive sense in which the terms Reformation and Protestant go together. C. Scott Dixon also subscribes to this view and explains specifically:
[W]hen I mention the Reformation I mean the Protestant Reformation, and not only the Protestant Reformation of Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin but the reformations of all the groups of western Europe that consciously broke away from the Catholic church in the early modern period in the wake of the Luther Affair.[7]
Thus, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, one of the unanswered questions of Reformation historiography asks whether expressions like Catholic Reformation and Counter Reformation deserve sections in a survey text about the Reformation.


The term reformatio and its cognates were commonly used during the late medieval period to speak of reform impulses or movements in any number of different areas: the law, politics, and the academy, for example. Thus, when Luther and Zwingli preached a message of reform, they were using language that had long since become familiar. Reform was part of the atmosphere into which all sixteenth-century reformers were born.[8] Yet, by the end of the century, the Reformation had come to mean, specifically, the well-known movement most closely associated with Luther. Indeed, during the year 1617, any number of centennial sermons celebrated Luther’s triumph over the papacy and error. Also by that time, the Reformation had become an embattled, confessionalized expression among Protestants. For example, in his History of the Religion of the Reformed Churches (1721), Jacques Basnages de Beauval insisted that the first reformer was Zwingli, since he had preached against the abuses of Rome as early as 1516.[9] Thus, another reason for the diversity of the secondary literature relates to the question: When did the Reformation begin and end?

Scholars who have taken up the task of establishing chronological boundaries for the Reformation have followed one of two distinct patterns. The first maintains a focus on Martin Luther and especially seminal events from his life, most notably his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. In this arrangement, end points might be identified with the death of Luther in 1546, or with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which provided a secure legal standing for Lutheranism in the Holy Roman Empire, or in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia marking the end of the Thirty Years War and the beginning of a more secular approach to political life.[10]

Those who espouse the alternative chronological framework insist that we cannot possibly understand specific memorable events of the Reformation without an appreciation for the much broader historical contexts in which those events occurred. Within such contexts, an upheaval no longer seems to have been so sudden, and a breakthrough appears as the natural result of pressures that had been growing over a relatively long period.[11] One remarkable such treatment is Peter G. Wallace's 2004 work titled The Long European Reformation: Religion, Political Conflict, and the Search for Conformity 1350-1750.[12] Wallace begins by describing late-medieval Christendom. In the wake of the first appearance of the Black Death and the ensuing devastation, he writes, survivors were motivated to pursue the ideal model of apostolic Christianity. Such motivations set the stage for an emerging Reformation whose values were eventually integrated “into the belief systems of common Christians.”[13] Indeed, by the middle of the eighteenth century, “the original goal of religious renewal could be documented all over Europe.” However, also by that time Reformed Christianity “had become pluralistic rather than unitary, and popularly inspired as much as officially determined.”[14] Wallace justifies his decision to tell the story of a European Reformation with roots that reached down to the Middle Ages and with ramifications that reached far into the eighteenth century. Europe’s experience of the Black Death had the effect of redoubling the calls for “spiritual renewal and structural reform.”[15] Four hundred years later, a new era began when the dynamic ideologies of Europe’s future— “democracy, nationalism, socialism, capitalism, and racism”—identified a time when “secular ideologies grounded in worldly interests” took over.[16]

Social History and “Deconfessionalization”

Two additional factors have contributed to the diversification and to the growth of Reformation historiography over the last half century. Conveniently, Philip Benedict specifies both of these in his 2002 work, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism. Benedict introduces this fine piece of scholarship as a survey of “the history and significance of Reformed Protestantism in Europe from its origins until the end of the age of orthodoxy around 1700.”[17] He points out that no single author has attempted anything similar since John T. McNeill wrote The History and Character of Calvinism, first published in 1954. Since then, writes Benedict, the broad field of history and a specific part of that field, the corner known as Reformation studies, have each gone through what he describes as a dramatic sea change. What is the nature of that change?

First, in general, historians no longer report only those events surrounding “elite actors.” Instead, they now incorporate “the actions and aspirations of ordinary men and women.” Second, fifty years following McNeill’s book witnessed what scholars have called the “deconfessionalization” of Reformation history. Benedict explains that, before, “most church history was written by members of the church in question eager to explore a critical moment in the formation of their religious tradition.” But since then a new scene has emerged where it is not uncommon, for example, for Roman Catholic scholars to offer “sympathetic and penetrating studies of Protestant theology.”[18] Clearly, Benedict hopes that his book will be a good example of both trends. He not only subtitles his work A Social History of Calvinism, he also describes himself as “a total outsider, an agnostic, nonpracticing Jew raised in a secular household.”[19]

Was There a Reformation? If So, Was it Good?

A related, but quite different approach to elongating the Reformation almost completely avoids the term. In the preface to his 1985 work, Christianity in the West, 1400-1700, John Bossy announces that he intends to describe “a way or ways of life and the features of Christian belief which seemed most relevant” to people at that time.[20] One can hardly help noticing that the dates of Bossy’s title place one foot on either side of what, according to long-standing tradition, marks the beginning of the Reformation. The author does not doubt that the Reformation was “an event in human life,” and he suggests that paying attention to both its background and foreground permits “some kind of purchase on the event.”[21] Part of what Bossy rejects, however, is the idea that “medieval Christianity was a burden which most of the population of the West was delighted to shake off,” and “that Christianity was brought to the people of the West during and after the sixteenth century.”[22] To the contrary, the basic outline of the Christian gospel, interpreted and mediated by the likes of Augustine of Hippo and Anselm of Canterbury, was known, inculcated, assumed to be true, and practiced by all echelons of society for many hundreds of years before any so-called Reformation. What is more, Christianity in the West during the Middle Ages functioned very well and consistently as an organizing principle for society. As Bossy puts it,
Christians of the late medieval West did not need reformers to tell them who their saviour was; not the pope, nor the learned Fathers of the Council of Constance who finally settled the Schism in 1417; not even, in the end, the hierarchical Church itself, but Christ.[23]
He agrees that “[s]omething important happened to Western Christianity in the sixteenth century,” and that the term Reformation can be used to describe it. What Bossy objects to is “the notion that a bad form of Christianity was being replaced by a good one.” Further, the Reformation, although “a necessary concept in the history of the Church as an institution . . . does not seem much use in the history of Christianity.” Why? Because the typical understanding of the Reformation “is too high-flowing to cope with actual social behavior, and not high-flown enough to deal sensitively with thought, feeling, or culture.”[24] In short, much like the so-called revisionist historians of the English Reformation, Bossy does not wish to celebrate anything that was supposedly won in the episode known as the Reformation. Rather, he laments what, between 1400 and 1700, was lost.

Along this line, he points out that “of those words whose meaning undoubtedly changed” from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century, “several represented ideas and institutions at the heart of Christianity.”[25] The term satisfaction, for example, “had shifted “from meaning atonement to meaning (accept in duelling classes) contentment and gratification.”[26] Again, up to about the year 1400 “the word ‘religion’ . . . had for centuries usually meant a ‘religious’ rule or order and those who followed or belonged to it.” By the time of Calvin, the term meant “the primary posture of the Christian community, or of the individuals who composed it, towards God.” Still later, by 1700, “the world was full of religions, objective social and moral entities characterized by system, principles and hard edges.”[27] Bossy ends with the summary assertion that before the seventeenth century, “Christianity” meant “a body of people,” but that since then the word has meant “an ‘ism’ or body of beliefs.”[28]

Judging from the persistent historiography that Bossy’s tour de force represents, it seems clear that what can be called Whig-Protestant interpretations of the Reformation will continue to be challenged. At the same time, however, revisionist laments will have to contend with what Patrick Collinson described as “the perception that those living through these events had of an almost total transformation,” and that it was good. To drive home his point, Collinson quotes a sixteenth-century Englishman who wished that God might bless his elderly uncle, “and make him to know that which in his tender years he could not see, for the world was then dark and we were blind in it.”[29]

Over the last half century, then, names for the Reformation have grown in number, while a much broader time frame now makes it seem more like an historic era than an episode. The name of Martin Luther, though still very important to historians, is now more often accompanied by the names of other reformers and members of their personal networks. In addition, the rise of social history has led to the deprivileging of theology and religion in Reformation studies, which are now produced by historians of all religious persuasions. Not surprisingly, the growing variety of topics and scholars means that Reformation studies now exhibits a wide array of sometimes-competing interpretations.


[1] Bernd Moeller, Imperial Cities and the Reformation, trans. H. C. Erik Midelfort and Mark U. Edwards, Jr. (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1982), 13, as quoted by C. Scott Dixon, Contesting the Reformation (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 1-2.

[2] Dixon, Contesting the Reformation, 3.

[3] Euan Cameron, The European Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 1.

[4] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), xii.

[5] James D. Tracy, Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 3.

[6] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation (New York: Viking Penguin, 2004).

[7] Dixon, Contesting the Reformation, 13-14.

[8] For an insightful discussion of the terms reformatio and renovatio reaching back to the period of the Gregorian Reforms, see John W. O’Malley, Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 16-20.

[9] Dixon, Contesting the Reformation, 8-10.

[10] Ibid., 15.

[11] This was certainly the opinion of Elizabeth Eisenstein. She argued that even if Luther and Zwingli had never lived, something very much like the Reformation that we know would have occurred due to the invention of the printing press. See Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), chap. 6, esp. 208.

[12] Peter G. Wallace, The Long Reformation: Religion, Political Conflict, and the Search for Conformity, 1350-1750 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

[13] Ibid., 7.

[14] Ibid., 166.

[15] Ibid., 218.

[16] Ibid., 222.

[17] Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), xvii.

[18] Ibid., xviii.

[19] Ibid., xxv.

[20] John Bossy, Christianity in the West, 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[21] Ibid., 7.

[22] Ibid., viii.

[23] Ibid., 3.

[24] Ibid., 91.

[25] Ibid., 167.

[26] Ibid., 169.

[27] Ibid., 170.

[28] Ibid., 171.

[29] Patrick Collinson, The Reformation: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 9.

Works Cited

Benedict, Philip. Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Bossy, John. Christianity in the West, 1400-1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Collinson, Patrick. The Reformation: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2006.

Dixon, C. Scott. Contesting the Reformation. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Reformation. New York: Viking Penguin, 2004.

O’Malley, John W. Trent And All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Tracy, James D. Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Wallace, Peter G. The Long European Reformation: Religion, Political Conflict, and the Search for Conformity, 1350-1750. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.