Looking for God's Hand in History
By Brian Q. Cannon, Brigham Young University
Brian Cannon, professor of history at BYU, described "providential history," which is written with the assumption that God governs human events; the writer identifies the hand of God in wars, politics, disasters, and discoveries. From the 5th to the 17th century, the dominant histories of the Western world were providential, modeled on the Bible. In the Enlightenment, writers such as Voltaire derided providential history because it depended on the supernatural rather than reason and naturalism. In the early 1800s providential history made a slight comeback, but by 1900 it was completely disregarded.
In the 1930s, 40s and 50s a small group of American historians and philosophers responded to the cataclysmic developments of their era – the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War -- by returning to providential history. Then in the 1950s, Princeton professor Harris Harbison expressed a moderate view regarding the relationship of Christian belief to historical scholarship. He expressed caution in seeing a literal intervention by God in events and identified the "essence of a Christian understanding of history" as "the strange paradox that God both reveals and conceals Himself in history." A historian might look for God with "a sense of pondering and wondering more than of either dogmatizing or doubting" ("The Marks of a Christian Historian," 355).
Historian George Marsden wrote, "The very nature of spiritual reality is mysterious, so that we have only the most general notions of its meanings." "One of the most common mistakes of Christian thinkers has been to fail to recognize the limits of their own knowledge of the mysterious spiritual realm. For instance, Christians have often confused the belief that the Holy Spirit is working in history and in our lives with the ability to tell precisely how the Spirit works" (The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, 82, 95-96). Other historians warn against assuming any ability to write about God with the authority and inspiration that biblical historians did.
But latter-day scripture and prophetic discourse provide Latter-day Saints with inspired sources that other Christian historians could only dreamed of. These documents both enrich and complicate the work of the thoughtful LDS historian.