John Fea on David Barton and Historical Practice

by Jason A. Kerr

John Fea, a historian who teaches at Messiah College (home also to Samuel Smith, a wonderful Miltonist), has been on the front lines of the controversy surrounding David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies (which, full disclosure, I have not read). As Fea notes in this recent column, Barton’s publisher pulled the book after a slew of historians—many of them both politically and religiously conservative—dismantled its claims to accuracy. Fea then goes on to write about the lessons we might learn from the affair. Chief among these is that people who would use the past for present purposes can’t—or shouldn’t—claim to be doing history.

I’m highly sympathetic to this idea, but I think that the balance can be tough to strike. After all, academic publishers have to make money, too, so even the most un-presentist historical work in Fea’s sense has to have some rhetorical purchase on the present. There’s a difference, of course, between allowing that a topic is of present interest and framing one’s discussion of that topic with an eye to accomplishing present aims rather than understanding the past on its own terms.

For what it’s worth, I think that Fea’s recent Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? strikes the balance wonderfully. I may attempt a full review on this site at some point, but Fea’s major accomplishment in the book, beyond his even-handed treatment of the subject, is how masterfully he orients his rhetoric toward the present (rather heated) conversations on this subject in a way that allows him to make a case for the value of the kind of historical approach he advocates.

In my own case, laying aside my partisan sword seems like a necessary precondition to achieving the stated aim of this site: “toward informed public uses of the past.” That said, I don’t think that “historian” (again, in Fea’s sense) is a fundamentally unpolemical position. Rather, Fea’s own skillful advocacy—and the pushback that he and others have gotten from Barton—suggests that this, too, is one position among many, in need of being argued for.

The challenge here is this: to what extent can one use the past in making this argument? That is what Herbert Butterfield tried to do in his influential The Whig Interpretation of History. In a different, more nuanced way, it is also what Fea tries to do in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? By showing (quite persuasively) that the past was more complex than either partisan side makes it out to be, Fea effectively advances his own argument in favor of recognizing complexity and “thinking like a historian.” After all, Barton says, in addressing his critics, “Their real objection is that I make history uncomplicated.” No wonder Fea likes Jim Cullen’s comment, “Maybe there is such a thing as Truth.” The Truth in this case is that real life is messy and complicated, and that anybody who tells you otherwise is selling something. (Ok, so even the people who tell you this are selling something.) All I’m saying is that even if this is the Truth—and I think that it is—then sticking up for it in the present is a polemical enterprise for which the supreme messiness of the past is an extremely useful tool.


I was surprised, in looking through the footnotes to Barton’s response, to find a reference to Richard Baxter. Here is the context:

Sadly, many of today’s academics miss the big things in history and focus on the miniscule. They would have fit well into medieval times, when the scholars of that era vigorously debated what they believed to be the compelling issues of that day – such as how many angels would fit on the point of a needle, 13 or whether God in His majesty could create a rock so big that God in His power could not move it. They were completely out of touch with society and even accelerated its decline by remaining focused on meaningless trivia and minutia – or as Jesus said, they were able to find what they believed to be the microscopic speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye but completely miss the obvious plank in their own.

That footnote 13 points to “Richard Baxter, The Reasons of the Christian Religion (London: R. White, 1667), p. 530.” Here’s what Baxter says in the cited place:

And abundance of our writers of Physicks, Metaphysicks and Logick, do tell us, that Angels have Materiam metaphysicam,  and in a certain sense may be called corporeal. And the summ of all is, when they determine the questions about their localityextension, or quantity, that they have their ubi; their quantity and extension (which are the properties of bodies) suo modo, vel modo metaphysico, as bodies have them modo suo physico; being not immense or infinite any more than bodies. (How far the name of nature belongeth to them, see Fortunius Licetus de natura primo-movante.) And Schibler with others, maketh the difference of extension to be this, that Angels can contract their whole substance into one part of space; and therefore have not partes extra partes. Whereupon it is that the Schoolmen have questioned how many Angels may sit upon the point of a needle?

This is another case in which Barton’s reliance on primary sources—or at least what appear to be primary sources—is inadequate. In fairness, Barton is not trying to present himself as an expert on Baxter in the same way as he is with Jefferson. Nevertheless, I find that his use of Baxter plays into issues at stake in the broader controversy. Of interest is the fact that Baxter, rather than raising the famous question himself, attributes it to “the schoolmen”—that is, to the great medieval scholastic theologians like Aquinas and Scotus. In other words, Baxter is self-consciously in conversation with a tradition whose principal works appeared between three and four hundred years earlier. (I don’t think that Barton is being fair to the scholastics by using this one-liner to condemn them, but that is another discussion entirely.)

There’s also the matter of context: Baxter writes the cited passage as part of an extended defense of the incorporeality of the human soul, in the course of which he discusses approaches to the question of angelic corporeality. To use modern parlance, Baxter’s doing a kind of literature review, not so much (at this point in the work) trying to offer his own take on the subject.

These things being the case, Barton’s citation of Baxter as a scholar of the medieval era, and by implication the originator of this question, is misleading. Baxter himself, in the passage cited by Barton, does not see it that way. He, like Barton, is talking about someone else’s discussion of the matter. Besides, 1667 is well beyond the later bound of “medieval” in most people’s eyes.

Even so, there is a wrinkle. Baxter, in general, was earnest rather than ironic (and that to a fault). In this passage he seems to me to be altogether earnest in his discussion of the question. Thus, in some sense, he was engaging in—and at a minimum he was engaging with—scholastic philosophy. Baxter was hardly alone among men of his time in doing this; as Carl Trueman ably shows with respect to Baxter’s contemporary (and occasional arch-nemesis), John Owen, theology could be impeccably Reformed and nevertheless seriously engaged with the scholastics (John Owen: Reformed Catholic and Renaissance Man [Ashgate, 2007]). All this is to say that one typical rationale for distinguishing between the medieval period (Catholicism) and its early modern successor (Protestantism)—the discarding of scholastic convolution in favor of scriptural simplicity—doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. (In a similar vein, much recent historiography has shown Luther’s continuity with medieval tradition. A good instance is Peter Harrison’s discussion of the polemical relationship between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science [Cambridge, 2007].)

Thus, Barton is right to cite Baxter as someone discussing this question, but in the process he glosses over pertinent facts in which he is likely to have an interest. Does he, for instance, really want to lump the thoroughly Protestant Baxter, who was deeply committed to the principle of scripture sufficiency, in with the Catholic schoolmen? Does Barton, by this citation, wish to dismiss the author of the still-in-print Reformed Pastor? Baxter, moreover, lacked a university education, and could be fairly self-conscious of the fact. (He was an impressive autodidact who amassed not one, but two significant personal libraries, the first having been confiscated to pay a legal fine for religious nonconformity. Barton has an admirably similar passion for personal libraries.) How justly can Baxter be compared to the modern “academic elite” Barton is attacking? I don’t know how to respond to such questions, because Barton doesn’t go there. Instead, he uses Baxter, on the basis of one line in a body of writing comprising several million words, to tar modern academics without really telling us what he thinks of Baxter or why (though what he thinks of the academics is clear enough). Simply citing Baxter as a “primary source” isn’t even remotely close to sufficient.

Now, there are a couple of ironies in my nitpicking Barton’s footnote as I have. The big one is that in doing so I’m probably guilty of pointing out a speck of sawdust in his eye and ignoring the plank in my own. Such, at least, is the rhetorical corner into which Barton would paint his critics. (The danger with such paint jobs, as I’ve learned from sad personal experience, is that they tend to redound ironically upon the person doing the painting, but isn’t that Jesus’ point? This isn’t to exculpate myself—only to say that in the give-and-take everybody gets a little dirty.)

An even bigger irony, though, is that Barton and his defenders point to the extensive documentation of The Jefferson Lies as irrefutable evidence of its historical bona fides. My point—and Fea’s—is that documentation itself is not enough. Nobody’s questioning in this case that Barton used primary sources: the entire controversy turns on his use of those sources. Barton suggests that “academics … simply don’t like what the self-evident documentation actually proves.” Not quite: as an academic, I believe, rather, that documentation per se is never, not ever, self-evident. Human interpretation occurs, no matter how much it may be in our interest to deny it (and I certainly feel like it is in mine from time to time). Discussing the ethics of interpretation—which is to say, the ethics of historical practice—first requires admitting (problematically for Barton) that interpretation not only occurs but is both inevitable and necessary.

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