The past five days I have had the privilege to attend three conferences that are all held in conjunction with one another. The main group is the American Historical Association (AHA) that meets annual at the beginning of the New Year. In conjunction with this meeting is the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History (ASCH), and immediately following these two meetings was a one-day meeting of the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians (ASDAH). The picture on the left is of David Trim giving the concluding address at the ASDAH meeting hosted at the General Conference (GC) of Seventh-day Adventist headquarters. Not everyone may realize that the GC Archives, and Dr. Trim in particular, plays a vital role within the denomination by both preserving and promoting church heritage.
One of the most interesting sessions I attended at AHA/ASCH was the plenary session on the “Other Civil Wars” that occurred during the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865). While the designation of “other” is, as some of the participants pointed out, problematic because it assumes that the American Civil War was some how normative, the reality is that a very significant aspect of history is learning the ability to see and understand the world from another perspective different from our own. Cultural imperialism and colonialism some how tend to assert a picture of triumphalism, yet by learning from other perspectives we are better able to recognize our own presuppositions, and to therefore (hopefully) be able to better appreciate the world in which we live by becoming more respectful of those who see the world from a very different viewpoint.
Perhaps the most interesting paper session for me was at ASCH titled “Religion and the Civil War” chaired by Mark A. Noll. There was a blockbuster panel of famous historians, all of whom have published numerous books on the American Civil War: Harry S. Stout, Allen C. Guelzo, James M. McPherson, George Rable, and Laurie Maffly-Kipp. Each person brought unique perspectives and the discussion afterward was particularly illuminating. My personal favorite was Stout’s paper because he reflected on how the thing that he would change the most, since writing his book Upon the Alter of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, is his perspective of Abraham Lincoln and religion. Most historians agree that Lincoln was not a particularly religious person, especially before the Civil War, but as the Emancipation Proclamation hung in balance, religious sensibilities guided him in his decision about what he should do. Another interesting aspect of the discussion centered around the questions like: “why is it important that we know about Abraham Lincoln’s religion?” and “What does this tell us?” In reality, many people try to make Lincoln into their own image to bolster their own faith: skeptics like him because in many ways he was skeptical, and conservative Christians want to claim him as their own, too. At the end of the day, no doubt, the situation will continue to be debated. If nothing else, it demonstrates how much of history is interpretive, and even some of the most well-known and published historians disagree at times over historiography. Not only do we need history, but we need historians because collectively within the profession we hold each other accountable, challenge each other, and therefore the historical process (historiography) continues.
Last, but certainly not least, was the ASDAH meeting held on Monday, January 6, 2014. The theme was “Adventism and Adventist Historiography: Sesquicentennial Reflections.” Since the papers are going to posted on the GC Archives web site I’m not going to summarize the individual papers, but I can say that they were overall a stimulating bunch of papers with excellent discussions. Perhaps most notable was a discussion over Adventist historiography that cited Ronald L. Numbers, who published Prophetess of Health in the 1970s. During the discussion afterwards there was a friendly debate that I found illuminating within the context of the larger philosophical debate about faith and scholarship: what role do historians play within the church? Is it possible to be both religious and a historian? I believe both are possible as demonstrated by a number of Christian historians, and that Adventists furthermore can be both committed to their faith, while at the same time they can recognize that the tools of history allow for greater honesty and accuracy. Historians highlight not only the triumphs but also the tragedies of the past. Thus Adventist historians collectively serve a vital role within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And history helps us to become more honest with who we are and to better understand our own unique identity and purpose.
On a personal note I was particularly gratified to hold for the very first time a copy of The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia. Dr. Jerry Moon and Dr. Denis Fortin, from Andrews University, were “snowed in” due to the recent weather, but they were able to join us via Skype and they reflected on how the project came together. As a graduate student I had the privilege to assist in the development of the project so it was personally very rewarding to see this project finally come to fruition.