The State of American History

By Herbert J. Bass | Go to book overview

The Moral and Theological Revolution of the 1960's and Its Implications for American Religious History

SYDNEY E. AHLSTROM

The essential mark of the truly modern historian -- as against not only the panegyrist, the annalist, and the mythmaker, but even such giants of the past as Gibbon and Thucydides -- is his awareness of a fundamental paradox that confounds the historian's task, an intrinsic difficulty that makes all history-writing a Sisyphean labor. This awareness was clearly stated at least as early as 1599, when Henri Lncelot Voisin, Sieur de la Popelinière, made the dual observation that, on the one hand, the historian is obliged to tell things as they actually happened (reciter la chose comme elle est advenue) but that, on the other hand, historians invariably represent events "not according to former times and customs but according to the age in which the writer lives."1 For the mid-twentieth-century historian this double acknowledgment has come to be virtually axiomatic. Despite his commitment to veracity, he recognizes that the circumstances of his existence have a great deal to do with his apprehension of the past; he knows that a new present always creates a new past. If nothing else, it lengthens the extent of recorded time which he must interpret. The passage of the years 1965- 1969, for example, added the Johnson administration to the world's collective past; and the historian must interpret not only these new events but their backward-moving reverberations.

At certain times, the course of events lays a particularly burdensome demand for reinterpretation upon the historian; and I would suggest that for the historian of religious developments the decade of the sixties has had this effect in several inescapable ways. These have been

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