Humility in the Study of History

Just before Thanksgiving one year, I received an email from a mother whose daughter had been disturbed by her teacher’s negative comments about the way the Puritans had related to the Native Americans. The teacher had recently become aware of information that prompted his comments. The mother voiced her concerns to the teacher, and the teacher cited a couple of websites to justify his statements.

Now American history is not my field, but I have long had an interest in the history of Native Americans, which continued into my college years. As a freshman, I took a course about Puritan society in New England. When I read the mother’s email, I consulted the only course book I had saved: New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians 1620-1675 by Alden T. Vaughan. I read the information that the teacher had consulted and compared the websites’ perspectives with those expressed in my book. The websites contained information by multiple authors, but the views of the Puritans’ relations with the Native Americans ranged from extremely critical to moderately critical. My course book, while making clear that the record was not pristine, generally approved the Puritans’ dealings with the Native Americans. How can historical assessments differ so dramatically?

The generalizations we reach as we look at the world around us, including historical data, are largely based on what we think likely. And what we think likely depends largely on our worldview. For example, any historian will embark on a study of the Puritans with some preconceived notion of what the Puritans are like and what kinds of things they are likely to do and why they are likely to do them. This creates an obvious problem. Any historian has a sense of what is likely before he examines his first piece of evidence. And given that much of the work of a historian is the formation of generalizations, any piece of evidence contrary to the historian’s preconceived sense of the likely can be dismissed as exception. But, as counter-information mounts, the historian needs to be willing to abandon his preconceptions and make the necessary adjustments in his thinking. A willingness to give up even our treasured preconceptions, if the data warrants it, is the hallmark of integrity. In order to have integrity, one must have humility (a willingness to change perspectives when called for) and one must know oneself, including one’s inner drives.

In our time, it is not uncommon to find historical accounts written in advocacy of an agenda. These are instances where the historian is so intent on furthering his agenda that he ceases to be evenhanded in his assessment of the historical data. The critical accounts of the Puritans’ relationship with the Native Americans that I read on the websites had all the earmarks of being agenda-driven. Certainly, the Puritans were not faultless in their dealings with Native Americans, but my reading has lead me to conclude that in comparison with the way the whites related to Native Americans in other places and in other times, the Puritans were remarkably humane.


[This edited excerpt is from “History Lesson” by David Crabtree. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


One thought on “Humility in the Study of History

  1. It’s so easy to be guided by our prejudices. This is a good reminder that whatever the field, we should find truth outside of our own predisposed ideas.

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