What is religious history?

[I wrote this little article in 2008, for an Institute of Historical Research project called Making History, on the development of the discipline in the twentieth century. Re-reading it now, it seems to stand up well enough, and so I republish it here unaltered, although there are nuances I might now add. The plea in the final paragraph for a reconnection of the churches with their own past foreshadows in a pleasing way some of the concerns of this more recent thread of posts.]

Perhaps even more so than in other areas, the social and religious changes of the British 20th century had profound effects on the very scope and purpose of religious history. Three major questions regarding the nature of the history of religion were posed, and answered in several different ways: the first of these was over what religion itself was.

What is ‘religion’?
At the beginning of the 20th century, the basic subject materials of religious history were clear. Ecclesiastical history was concerned with monarchs and their bishops, religious law, councils, liturgies, and the high politics of international religious conflict and diplomacy. This history, the ‘company history’ of the institution of the church, dominated the field.

Since then, the field of vision of what constitutes ‘religion’ has widened very markedly. To take the English Reformation and Civil War period as an example, work such as that of Christopher Hill, particularly in his Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England,(1) shifted the focus away from the centre toward the locality, to examine the nature of religious activity in local communities. This renewed attention to the local was carried on in the work of scholars such as J. J. Scarisbrick and more recently Eamon Duffy; the religious experience of the individual Christian and the local church has become at least as legitimate a field of enquiry as diplomatic relations between Canterbury and Rome.

In addition to the recovery by social historians of the view ‘from below’ has come the effect of the growing use of anthropological concepts in analysing human behaviour, and with it an ever wider definition of ‘religious’ behaviour. The work of Keith Thomas, in his Religion and the Decline of Magic,(2) put the multifarious array of Christian and pre-Christian rites and practices by which early modern English people sought to make sense of and control their lives at the centre of his inquiry; practices that traditional ecclesiastical history had portrayed as mere pagan superstition. Across all periods, the growing bodies of research on matters as diverse as the use of amulets to ward off the bubonic plague in the 17th century or the public reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, all witness to the widest possible definition of what constitutes the religious.

Which religion?
Another question, to which the answer is much less clear in 2008 than it was in 1908, is ‘which religion’? The answer at the beginning of the century was clear for historians of England: the Christian religion, and supremely the Church of England. The political and social importance of the established church meant that the Nonconformist churches received relatively little historical attention, and that given to English Roman Catholics was often unjustly unfavourable. Since then, work on early modern England has recovered the stories of those groups who either existed uneasily within or were detached entirely from the institutional church; the work of Christopher Hill is once again seminal in this regard, and in particular his The World Turned Upside Down.(3) In the modern period, work by scholars such as David Bebbington has restored a sense of the social and political importance of British Dissent, and as the temperature of popular anti-Catholicism has cooled, a more balanced picture of the development of the English Catholic community has begun to emerge.

The very late 20th century has also seen the beginnings of an effort to make historical sense of the fact of increasing contact between the world religions, and growing religious diversity within Europe and America. The work of Bernard Lewis and others has opened up the field of the military, economic and cultural interaction of Christianity and Islam in southern Europe in the medieval and early modern periods. Work on this area has been drawn upon in the continuing contemporary debate over the Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilizations’. Closer to home, the work of understanding immigration, race relations and their religious implications in Britain and other European countries since the 1950s is only in the last few years beginning to be done.

Finally, religious historians have in the very recent past begun to address the issues raised by globalisation, and the shift in gravity in world Christianity from its cradle in Europe to the southern hemisphere. Not for nothing is the 20th-century volume in the recent Cambridge History of Christianity entitled ‘World Christianities’:(4) religious historians are continuing to grapple with the mutations of originally colonial churches in newly independent nations, and the simple fact of the numerical dominance of the churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America over their mother churches in Europe.

By whom, and for whom?
At the beginning of the 20th century, religious history was by and large written by scholars sympathetic to Christianity. Some were clergy: Mandell Creighton combined historical scholarship with being successively Bishop of Peterborough and London, and J. R. Green wrote his Short History of the English People (5) while librarian of Lambeth Palace. Even those of more limited commitment to the church tended to function, in Winston Churchill’s image, as flying buttresses; supportive but external.

In the 20th century, the business of writing the churches’ contemporary history also remained for many years a clerical pursuit. Archbishop Randall Davidson’s biographer was his chaplain George Bell, later to be Bishop of Chichester. Part of the controversy surrounding Humphrey Carpenter’s 1996 biography of Robert Runcie (6) centred on the author’s apparent lack of sympathy with the subject; the book disturbed long-established conventions regarding the manner of writing episcopal biography.

Since the early part of the century, the historical profession, along with the rest of the population, has been steadily secularised, such that it is now probable that the majority of religious historians approach their task from no particular faith position. The gradual migration of the bulk of historical scholarship away from the rectory and indeed the theological college to the university, coupled with the well-documented general methodological professionalisation of the discipline, has hastened the process.

It is now the case that the historian who is also a committed believer will scrupulously eschew any analysis not fully justified by the sources. Indeed, as Euan Cameron has recently observed, most ‘conceal their belief stances so thoroughly in their writing that readers find it difficult to discern what the author believes, if anything’. This change has almost certainly produced more objective and balanced scholarship, and has certainly avoided the worst excesses of partisan historical writing of previous centuries. At the same time, it could be argued that the contact between current scholarship in religious history and the churches (those whose ‘family history’ it is that is being written) is at a low ebb. It is perhaps time for meaningful dialogue between the churches, theology and church history to begin again.

1. Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (London, 1964).
2. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London, 1971).
3. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (London, 1972).
4. World Christianities c.1914 – c.2000, ed. Hugh Mcleod (Cambridge, 2006).
5. J.R. Green, A Short History of the English People (London, 1892–4).
6. Humphrey Carpenter, Robert Runcie: the Reluctant Archbishop (London, 1996).

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