Jared Burkholder’s “Open Letter to the Bartons”

jared-burkholderJared Burkholder teaches and writes history at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana.  I have been to Grace. It is a great Christian college.  I also think it is fair to say that Grace is not a bastion of secularism, liberalism, atheism, or paganism.  Having said that, it is not pure enough for David Barton, the political activist who uses the past to promote his political agenda that the United States is a Christian nation. Grace did not make his list of acceptable schools.

Over at The Pietist Schoolman,  Chris Gehrz’s Christian history blog with a wide readership among evangelicals, Burkholder has published “An Open Letter to the Bartons.” Here is a taste:

Dear David (and now Tim) Barton,

Maybe you can clarify something for me. Why do you continue to insist that because you read primary sources you have a unique voice when compared to professional Christian historians like me, who you say fail to make use of original sources?

I am hardly the first to be annoyed by this, but suffice it to say this is utterly incomprehensible to me. Primary sources are to historians what hammers are to carpenters; what keyboards are to composers; what language is to writers. They are the tools of our trade, the most basic implements we learn to use.

We wrestle with their complexity. We wade through mountains of them. We have realized that using them with integrity requires difficult work and a whole lot of time. Often, we don’t just read and use primary sources, we live in them. We spend so much time with them they become part of our present reality. They show up in our dreams at night and in the space of our daydreams. We ask other people for grant money so we can go and see them. We cross oceans to handle them — maybe just to decipher the notes in the margins. We struggle with foreign languages so we can break their codes and take courses in paleography to learn how the ancients made their letters. Visit any of our classes and you’ll find we not only use original documents for our research, we assign them to our students. We might print out digital photos of documents crammed into our hard drives from our research trips so students can practice with them. We take joy when we inspire in our students the same sense of awe we ourselves feel every time we step into the archives.

Read the whole thing at The Pietist Schoolman.

I offer this for some additional context.


2 thoughts on “Jared Burkholder’s “Open Letter to the Bartons”

  1. Some Christian Fundamentalists, especially those who aspire to be historians, view primary sources the same way they view Biblical texts: as inherently pure and truthful. They make no attempt to analyze Biblical texts or understand them within any historical context. Therefore, they view original historical texts at face value without the need to analyze beyond the surface. They view such texts in an almost fetishistic way. And, if you are a university trained historian you’ve been trained by Godless atheistic, communist, liberal, puppy kicking, monsters. So, there’s that too.


  2. This business about “original sources” goes beyond Barton. I think it’s a theme among certain kinds of conservatives. Many years ago I got into an email exchange (bad idea!) with someone at Focus on the family about (yup!) was America founded as a christian nation. After a few volleys I finally just said, see Marsden-Hatch-Noll’s book on the topic, and was amazed at the scorn this fellow had for them. His point was, he had read in the primary sources, and he didn’t need to listen to them.

    I get the feeling that these folk believe universities just indoctrinate grad students with liberal ideologies, but if regular people would just look at the primary sources, common-sense will validate everything they believe to be true.

    If you probe, you find these folk a) have very detailed ideas about what they believe grad students do, and b) have absolutely no idea what grad students do.


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