An Apology For The Study Of History -- By: John Elliott Wishart

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 081:322 (Apr 1924)
Article: An Apology For The Study Of History
Author: John Elliott Wishart


An Apology For The Study Of History

J. E. Wishart

“Great abilities are not requisite for an Historian; for in historical composition all the greatest powers of the human mind are quiescent. He has facts ready to his hand; so there is no exercise of invention. Imagination is not required in any high degree; only about as much as is used in the lower kinds of poetry.” In these words on one occasion—and with similar expressions at other times, once at least in the presence of Edward Gibbon himself—Dr. Samuel Johnson expressed his contempt for a branch of literature which, strange to say, has always had a singular attraction for men of genius, from the times of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus to those of Carlyle, Macaulay, and Fiske, not to mention great poets like Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, Tennyson, and Browning. One of these, Lord Macaulay, grappled with the old lexicographer on the question and, in this battle of the giants, certainly had the better of the argument; indeed could hardly have been worsted even if his doughty opponent had been living to answer him. The most minute chronicler, he argues, cannot give all the facts, and if he could he would not thus exhibit a true picture. He who would make the dead past live again must know what can be known of the age with which he deals; he must select such significant incidents and movements as will best hold the mirror up to nature; he must by the spell of imagination and the glow of feeling clothe the dry bones with flesh and put spirit into them; and he must possess the reason and insight of a philosopher to explain the meaning of confused events and to draw lessons from them. It is a Herculean task and cannot be performed while “all the greatest powers of the human mind are quiescent.”

The dignity and worth of historical composition as a literary form are now generally admitted, and the view of Dr. Johnson must be set down as merely one of the preju-

dices of that remarkable man, who hated Scotsmen in the abstract though in a concrete case he was fond of James Boswell, the Scottish laird. The more vital question for us is whether this discipline has a right to the prominent place which it has long held in the theological curricula. We cannot assume that because it has been found valuable in the past its position will remain unchallenged in the future. It is, perhaps with some justice, regarded as a reproach to a seminary if it has not made changes in its courses. The modern demand is for the practical. Religious Education, Psychology, Sociology, are asking more time and attention. Biblical Theology threatens to usurp the place of Systematic Theology. The study of Hebrew is, in many institutions, fighting a losing battle, and the Greek ma...

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