Thirty years ago, evangelical Christians could claim perhaps one prominent American historian. Today, it's easy to name half a dozen well-known scholars. Dozens of self-consciously evangelical professors and graduate students all but guarantee that the next generation of historians will have a strong Christian presence. For Christians anxious to win respect in academia, the field of history tells a story of success. But so what? To succeed, some would ask, must you sell your soul? Must you agree not to mention God except as an abstraction?
The debate began in 1991, when Yale's Harry Stout, a prominent evangelical, published a biography of revivalist George Whitefield. Stout emphasized Whitefield's use of techniques to influence crowds, an emphasis that went exactly opposite the traditional Christian notion that Whitefield depended entirely on the work of the Holy Spirit to convert sinners. Stout's portrait scandalized some, particularly readers of the conservative Calvinist Banner of Truth magazine. Iain H. Murray, editorial director of the Banner of Truth Trust, wrote that Stout's portrait of Whitefield was "barely recognizable" and that Stout (and others of a "new approach to evangelical history") had failed to write history from "the standpoint of supernaturalism."
Stout responded to the criticism, writing in Banner of Truth that professional historians "agree to settle for something less than ultimate explanations," and that the academic "canons of evidence and interpretation" leave no room for notions of providence and the work of the Holy Spirit. Westminster Seminary historian D. G. Hart (to whom I am indebted for an account of the fracas) summed ...1