Do Historians Privilege “Change Over Time” Over “Continuity?”

ChangeOverTimeBack in January 2007 historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke wrote a piece in Perspectives on History titled “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?”  In this essay Andrews and Burke synthesized the concepts that historians use to make sense of the world into five “C’s”.  They are change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency.

Over the years I have managed to get a lot of mileage out of this piece.  I discussed the 5’c of historical thinking in the introduction to my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction in 2011 (which will appear in a revised edition in 2016) and I elaborate even further on these ideas in my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past in 2014.

If I were to add another “C” to the historical thinking toolbox it would be continuity. Andrews and Burke mention continuity as part of their discussion of “change over time.” They write:

The idea of change over time is perhaps the easiest of the C’s to grasp. Students readily acknowledge that we employ and struggle with technologies unavailable to our forebears, that we live by different laws, and that we enjoy different cultural pursuits. Moreover, students also note that some aspects of life remain the same across time. Many Europeans celebrate many of the same holidays that they did three or four hundred years ago, for instance, often using the same rituals and words to mark a day’s significance. Continuity thus comprises an integral part of the idea of change over time.

Whether we think about continuity as part of change over time, or describe it as a 6th “C,” I think most historians agree that is should be an important part of their thinking as they try to make sense of the past for their audiences.

This leads me to the question in the title of my post.  Do historians tend to privilege change over time over continuity?  I ask this because I have been part of a few social media conversations over the past week in which these issues have been raised.

The first conversation took place in a social media exchange over Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-seller The Culture of Narcissism.  I spent some of my Memorial Day weekend re-reading Lasch with Donald Trump in mind.  As I read I kept asking myself what parts of Lasch’s analysis were unique to the late 1970s context in which he wrote and what parts of his analysis of narcissism were still relevant today, almost forty years later.

In the end, without going into details (you can find my tweets at #narcissism or @johnfea1), I found a great deal of similarity between the “culture of narcissism” of the 1970s and today’s “culture of narcissism.”  Yes, narcissism today has been greatly enhanced by the internet and social media, but many of the ideas Lasch put forth are still relevant.  In other words, I saw continuity between the past and the present.

A couple of historians, however, wanted to dismiss my argument about continuity.  They argued that Lasch is dated, overrated, and no longer useful.  Someone even questioned why I was reading him, as if his work, written in 1979, could say nothing to our contemporary culture.  When I said in this post that “things have not changed much,” one scholar, invoking change over time, called the phrase “baloney.” It seems here that my critics privilege change over time over continuity.

The second conversation took place over Twitter. (Always difficult to tackle these kinds of complex issues on Twitter, so what I say below should be taken with a small grain of salt).  I was discussing Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs with some scholars of Jefferson and some American religious historians.  In the process we got into a debate over the meaning of Christianity.  (Again, this is probably not the kind of debate that should take place over Twitter!).

Several folks in the debate appealed to change over time.  In other words, Christianity is always changing and redefining itself.  Jefferson, with his rejection of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the resurrection, still believed he was a Christian.  He was expanding the definition of Christianity, a belief that changes and has changed over time.

As I said in the debate, I have no doubt that Thomas Jefferson thought he was a Christian. This is a historical statement that I would agree with.  See my chapter on Jefferson’s religion in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  It is entitled “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus.”

But I also think Jefferson was wrong to think he was a Christian.  Yes, I am more than willing to admit that this is a theological statement, not a historical one.  By suggesting that Jefferson was not a Christian some might say (although no one did in this debate) that I am inappropriately bringing my own beliefs about what is a Christian to bear on this conversation.  In other words, the fact that I am an orthodox Christian has crept into my work as a historian.  Maybe.  But if this is the case, I also wonder if the progressivism of many in the historical profession also functions as a type of theological or ideological view of the world that shapes their approach to the evidence.

To put it differently, and perhaps more historically, this debate also seems to have something to do with the tension between change over time and continuity in historical writing.  A historian who emphasizes change over time might argue that Jefferson is simply expanding the definition of what it means to be a Christian.  Thus to question Jefferson’s definition of Christianity could be a form of discrimination.

A historian who emphasizes continuity, however, might argue that there are certain beliefs that all Christians have embraced through time–non-negotiable or common-denominator beliefs such as the resurrection or the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the teachings of the Nicene Creed–that have always defined what it means to be a “Christian” and continue to define what it means to be a “Christian.”  Those who want to embrace an ever-changing definition of Christianity over time, without any continuity, are at risk of stripping the label “Christian” of any real meaning.  (I am sure some might be pleased with such a development).

So back to my original question:  I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.

Just some thoughts here.  Still working on all of this, particularly as it relates to the relationship between history and theology.  But I do think its an issue worth thinking more about.

7 thoughts on “Do Historians Privilege “Change Over Time” Over “Continuity?”

  1. Good stuff all around. It seems that when we write history we can work with change over time and continuity simultaneously, much in the way that Jen suggests above. When I wrote my history of the American Bible Society I tried to argue that the ABS had always championed a two-fold mission (one spiritual and one national). I tried to trace this thread throughout the 200-year narrative. But anyone who reads the book will also see that the ABS changed over the last two centuries. (Of course it did). In this sense change over time and continuity seem to work together.


  2. I like your point, Ann, about progressive/lefties frustrated with the lack of meaningful change. I didn’t mean to exclude other groups from seeking continuity in history, despite my “especially” w/r/t traditionalists and conservatives. So I may update my document accordingly. (Aside: The document is meant to introduce students to various concepts of historical thinking, with brief provocations, in paragraph form, under each concept.)


  3. I think part of understanding contingency and context is to see continuity–that, in some circumstances, the events that occur lead to some larger trend that changes little. I think you can see change and continuity simultaneously, if that makes much sense–it’s what I’m working on right now, evaluating the ways institutions evolved from 19thc roots to 20thc professions (huge change) while at the same time maintaining troubling gender constructs that lead to all kinds of ramifications (continuity).


  4. Great point, Ann. I would imagine that the same could be said about historians of race. I think I wrote this post because I was interested in your point in the first paragraph–“I’d argue that change is always privileged over continuity by most historians.” Why is this the case? I wonder if it is possible for historians to have an apolitical conversation about this.


  5. I think it depends on your definition of “progressive” as to whether or not progressives privilege change over continuity. I’d argue that change is always privileged over continuity by most historians.

    Women’s and gender historians and historians of sexuality, I think, privilege continuity over change because these things haven’t changed as dramatically as politics & economics over the past 250 years or so. (Or, at least not as much as most of us would have hoped!) I also think that historians of race are much more attuned to continuity over change. So I’d disagree with Tim’s point above: it’s not just conservative historians who reject or resist the force of change who may see more continuity vs. change. It’s also those of us on the left who are frustrated that we see so little meaningful change and so many powerful and powerfully unjust continuities.


  6. So back to my original question: I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.

    Yes. Few know they are proceeding from a set of philosophical assumptions that may or may not br true.

    The Enlightenment [for lack of a better term] assumption is a belief in human progress, if not the perfectibility of man himself. Thus President Obama spoke the other day of “moral evolution.”

    To the classicist–and many Christians both Thomistic and Calvinistic–human nature is the only constant in human history, and the story is not very good. As Zhou en-Lai apocryphally said of the French Revolution, “it’s too soon to tell.” So it is with modernity’s theory of history: We are but 75 years from the Holocaust, which occurred in the cradle of modern philosophy [Kant, Hegel]. We are but another 75 from perhaps the final breaths of Christendom in Europe.

    The very possibility of “human progress” or “moral evolution” is not self-evident. it’s the modern conceit, an unproved assertion.

    For those of us who maintain that it was Christianity that was the engine of whatever human progress there has been, the moderns who consign it to the sidelines in favor of “reason” pose an implacable obstacle to the inquiry. [As we each have learned.] One need not accept Christianity’s truth claims to give it primacy in “moral evolution,” and that’s why many “Christian historians” are turning to Christopher Dawson these days for a little fortification.

    The Lord of the Flies always stands ready to reclaim what is his.

    Drawing on St. Augustine, Dawson
    saw the conflict between the City of God and the City of Man in
    every age, from the simple dualism between Christian civilization
    and barbarism in the pages of Bede to the sharp inner tensions
    seen in the writings of Pascal. Although recognizing its
    divisiveness, Dawson had kind words for the reformers’ zeal for
    the Gospel, as it provided an impetus for a reinterpretation of
    the Catholic faith that gave rise to the Baroque era and the great
    works of the counterreformation.

    In a passage evocative of contemporary problems, Dawson described
    the fundamental challenge to Christian culture as “the revolt
    against the moral process of Western culture and the dethronement
    of the individual conscience from its dominant position at the
    heart of the cultural process.” The medieval insight concerning
    the central importance of the rationality and freedom of the
    individual personality, an insight that is a hallmark of Western
    thought, is in danger of being overwhelmed by a re-absorption of
    the individual person to a collective identity, whether it be
    based upon nationality, ethnicity, or gender.

    When Western society no longer emphasizes moral effort and
    personal responsibility, Dawson questions the very survival of
    civilization as Christendom has known it for a thousand years.
    Modernity is not merely a return to a pre-Christian paradise, as
    some New Age adherents would claim; rather, it is a sudden
    wrenching of the course of history. Instead of a slow reversal of
    the past millennium, Dawson says, “Neo-paganism jumps out of the
    top-story window, and whether one jumps out of the right-hand
    window or the left makes very little difference by the time one
    reaches the pavement.”

    It was the Christian synthesis of freedom and community that made
    modern democracy and political liberty possible, a relation that
    was not well understood by the dominant Whig school of history in
    his day nor by the various critical theories of our own…


  7. John,

    Here’s what I wrote about “Continuity” in a document I distribute to students/participants at the start of every course and seminar I teach (i.e. My own 12 Cs):
    11. Continuity: Many people, but especially traditionalists and conservatives, look to history for indications of continuity. Historians emphasize change over time as a bread-and-butter aspect of historical thinking, but major human endeavors (e.g. philosophy, law, and religion) ponder essential aspects of human life. And perhaps some changes are so minimal that the appearance of continuity is important. This entry acknowledges both the search for continuity as well as the chance that some changes are minimal. The idea of ‘tradition’ is subsumed in continuity, though judgments about traditions vary (e.g. to be celebrated, to be approached skeptically or problematically).

    – Tim


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