Christian History Home > 2001 > Issue 72 > Modern Pioneers: Herbert Butterfield
Modern Pioneers: Herbert Butterfield
Scientific and Christian
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"It was the fallacy of Whiggish history!" The student concluded her history paper triumphantly, and the history professor, nodding in agreement, gave her an A. For decades the accusation resounded in colleges and universities of the English-speaking world to refute the dominant way of doing history. Little did most of the accusers know that they were calling on the rhetorical power of Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979).
Butterfield's Whig Interpretation of History made his name as a historian. When he published it, he was a Cambridge fellow, barely 31, slight of build, and very shy. His book, really just a rambling essay, was similarly unimposing. Readers found it difficult to fathom, yet somehow provocative and compelling. The very strangeness of the phrase "Whig interpretation of history" lodged in the memory.
Butterfield defined Whiggish history this way: "What is discussed is the tendency of many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present."
Though Butterfield had in mind the English Whigs who drew a straight line from the Magna Carta to their own sense of liberty, his observation also fit others: capitalist historians who justify the domination of the industrial West, American historians who chronicle the sure rise of the United States to world power, liberal social historians who trace the triumph of the middle classes, and evangelicals who deem themselves the direct descendents of Paul, Martin Luther, or any other key figure.
In place of the straight-line story, Butterfield modeled historical study as the analysis of complex interactions over time among diverse people and movements. For instance, the achievement of greater freedom of religion in Britain derived not from Protestant doctrines or the progress of the Reformation, but from the interactions of Catholics, the several Protestant groups, and Anglicans. If heroes could be found, they were the Dissenters and Catholics who continued to worship God their own way in the face of domination by the Church of England.
There is the clue to Butterfield's own religion. Butterfield was a Dissenter, a Methodist to be precise, and when he wrote Whig Interpretation, he was still spending several Sundays a year preaching in Methodist chapels around Cambridge. Although he never said so, he had constructed his criticism of "Whiggish history" from the perspective of his religious experience outside the center of the English state and religion.
Butterfield strove to keep his religious and academic worlds separate. He wrote and lectured astutely on European history, eighteenth century Britain, and the history of political thought. His Origins of Modern Science (1949) helped define the field of the history of science. But he told no one of his weekend preaching. He counted the relationship with God as just about the most intimate thing there was in life, something you do not go on about in public.
All of this changed when, in 1948, the faculty of divinity at Cambridge asked him to deliver a series of lectures on history. He would have to go public in his own university about the intimacies of religion. In an environment where many historians were derisive of any linkage of history and religion, he felt he was ruining himself for life.
But all was not lost. The lectures attracted 1,000 students over two months, and the bbc arranged for him to re-present them on national radio. The book version, Christianity and History (1949), helped stimulate a renewal of Christian views of history in the twentieth century.
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