Facts Are Stubborn Things

You Might Not Know What You Think You Know

Haymarket Square Riot 1886Historians are meant to deal in facts. Yes, facts are not brute and yes, they must be interpreted but that interpretation does not render them something other than facts. If there are no facts, there is no history but only politics and the will to power. That is nihilism and despair and those are not virtues. There are facts, however. In the general providence of God things happened for certain reasons, at a given time, with consequences. Those are the things that historians study.

It is interesting, however, to observe how often historians simply refuse to do their jobs, to get to grips with facts. There are reasons for this. One reason is that we too often rely on secondary sources or ostensibly well established accounts that have gone unchallenged for a long time. Another reason is that historians sometimes have personal ideological investments in the outcome of the story.

Loyal HB reader Jack Miller this morning sent me a fascinating article about a historian, Timothy Messeer-Kruse, who fielded a simple but troubling question concerning the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886. Messer-Kruse lectures on the riot and years ago he was giving his usual lecture when a student asked a very simple question.

“if what it says in our textbook is true, that there was ‘no evidence whatsoever connecting them with the bombing,’ then what did they talk about in the courtroom for six weeks?”

This is a great question if only because it’s an obvious question. Why hadn’t the professional historians asked and answered that question hitherto? The short answer is because the standard interpretation had so become an “article of faith” that the question never occurred to them. The evidence that the standard interpretation is unquestionable dogma is abundant. When Messer-Kruse challenged the standard interpretation he was shouted down. Note this. It wasn’t that his analysis and conclusions were shown to be logically faulty or that they failed to account for all the evidence. They were rejected a priori because the “establishment” knew that they could not be true. “Could” is a dubious word in historical scholarship. “Was” is a much more valuable word for historians.

I’ve seen this very phenomenon. In 1993–94 I was in a conference session on “confessionalism” (the rise of confessional identities in the late 16th century) in the sixteenth-century when someone in the session realized that it was not about “confessionalization” (the imposition of religious confessions in the period). He stood up and announced to us all that the very topic was illegitimate and that we had no right even to hold the session. He “knew” a priori, on the basis of an essentially religious dogma with an eschatology that determined how things “must” turn out, that the only question we could possibly discuss was how the proletariat are oppressed.

How did Messer-Kruse come to reject the standard story? In the course of his research he realized that the standard account of the episode, repeated in textbook after textbook, relied on a biased source. No one had gone back to look at the primary sources. The Renaissance Humanists had a slogan to address this problem: Ad fontes (to the sources). When Messer-Kruse examined all the primary sources, instead of relying of biased summaries and biased textbooks he found, contrary to his own expectations, that the received account is not true. It is not true that the anarchists were entirely peaceful, that they were railroaded, and that the trial was a sham. As it turns out, some of the anarchists were armed, violent, and guilty.

This is why there will always be revisionist historians. Much of what I do in class is to revise the “received” stories that my students bring with them to class. My research into the history of Reformed theology is revisionist. Every year I teach a seminar on Reformed orthodoxy and each time we look at the old account of Reformed orthodoxy—how “arid rationalism” corrupted Calvin’s warm, vital, biblical piety and theology—repeated time and again in textbooks and in surveys even now and then we look at primary sources. The cognitive dissonance created by the stark contrast between the primary sources and received story is so great, so manifestly obvious, that the only serious question concerns how we could have gotten the story so wrong for so long.

Finally, we should pay attention to the way certain quarters of the academy reacted to Messer-Kruse’s research. They did not welcome it with open arms. Like children they they stopped their ears and began chanting approved mantras. There is more of this in the academy than some would like to think. If such close mindedness shocks you then it should bother you that there is more it in our own circles than we might like to think.

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  1. Scott,

    You’ve recently written on the republication of the law at Sinai, which I would assume you consider a teaching that has, by and large, been absent from Reformed thinking for quite a while. What other important doctrines would you put in that same category, i.e. ones that today are fighting an uphill battle to regain the place they once held (16th-17th century) in Reformed Theology?

  2. I learned about the Haymarket riot last semester, who said the same thing that Kruse rejects. The class was all about persecuted peoples, women, minorities, and unions and how the US has consistently used propaganda to oppress people. That class should have been called ‘American propaganda and why we should have social justice since the civil war.’

  3. There is also a lesson here for Christians who are quick to distort history in order to promote a “cause,” such as the cause of “Christian America.” I’m amazed that David Barton, for instance, still has a following.

  4. Excellent piece. This sort of thing happens in theology, too. A good example is the alleged doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. If one dares to question it (as the likes of John Calvin, John Murray, and Lorraine Boettner have done), one finds oneself being accused of heretical thinking. It’s been believed since the early church fathers, so it “must” be true. Never mind what Scripture says (at the very least, the alleged doctrine damages the self-sufficiency of the Second Person of the Trinity). We “know” it’s true because we’ve “always” believed it.

    My standard answer is: prove it to me from Scripture and I’ll be happy to believe it. When those who insist it “must” be true hear that, they suddenly have to go out to the parking lot and check the air in their tires…

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