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Getting history right

"Getting history right" Continued...

Shifting standards

In the past, Barton has criticized historians for not relying on primary sources. In a recent posting on his website, Barton “challenged writers on all sides of the debate over religion in the Founding Era to stop relying on secondary sources and quotations from later eras and instead to utilize original sources.”In that same article, Barton chided evangelical historians Mark Noll, George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, and John Fea for citing what Barton called secondary sources.However, Barton deviated far from this standard in The Jefferson Lies and his WORLD article. For instance on page 12 of his WORLD article, he defended his contention that Jefferson gave his 1804 edited version of gospels to Indian missionaries by means of a footnote from Henry Stephens Randall’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. Randall, who did not personally speak to this source, wrote in 1858:

“This [i.e., the 1804 work] is sometimes mentioned as Mr. Jefferson’s ‘Collection for the Indians,’ it being understood that he conferred with friends on the expediency of having it published in the different Indian dialects as the most appropriate book for the Indians to be instructed to read in.” (Emphasis added by Barton.)

There is no primary source material for this claim. When we couldn’t find any evidence, we asked the Monticello research library for help. Librarian Anna Berkes told us, “I’ve searched Jefferson’s papers as thoroughly as anyone can, and can find nothing to support Barton‘s statement regarding Jefferson’s Bible compilations and American Indians.” However, despite the absence of primary source material, Barton asserts in his WORLD article:

“The proof of Jefferson’s intent to distribute his 1804 work among native peoples is not only the title he himself placed on the work but also the testimony of his own family members and friends.”

According to Barton’s own Wallbuilder’s challenge, what Randall “understood” is inadequate to prove anything and should not be used.

The distance between Barton’s claims and primary sources can be substantial. For instance, he relied on a book by Mark Beliles, who relied on a book by George Sanford, who relied on Henry Stephens Randall’s book to make claims about the verses Jefferson used in making his 1804 gospel compilation. Randall was able to see the list of verses Jefferson used but made several copying errors. However, none of those men saw the Bibles Jefferson actually cut up to make his extractions. Yet, Barton chided us for relying on the scholar who did examine those Bibles and had the original list of verses to reconstruct the 1804 version. Barton’s admonition to use primary sources did not stop him from making dogmatic claims based on sources far removed from the original. In contrast, we included in Getting Jefferson Right images of the original list of verses Jefferson intended to include.

We could easily offer more instances (e.g., using a fiction novel as a source for historical claims), but we hope these points help show readers the general problems that we document in Getting Jefferson Right.

We want to close by returning to the purpose of our book, which is to get history right. Gregg Frazer of The Master’s College summed up our thoughts well when he wrote:

“[W]hat has been in question all along is not Barton’s standing as a cultural battler, but his standing as a historian. That is determined by how accurately one writes history, not how well one stems the progressive tide.”

The first order of a Christian scholar is not to present a polemic to help fight the culture war, but rather, the accurate presentation and careful analysis of all the facts, even if those facts show a person or event or theory in a less than favorable light.



[i] We document in Getting Jefferson Right that Jefferson was not above slanting his correspondence to the interests and beliefs of his reader. For instance, see Jefferson’s responses to abolitionist Father Gregoire and friend Joel Barlow in Getting Jefferson Right, pp. 203-205.

[ii] Philip Schwarz, personal communication to Michael Coulter, 9/5/12.

[iii] Washington, H.A., Ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 5, (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853), p. 440.

[iv] It must be remembered that the federal government viewed the Indian tribes as sovereign nations. There are different First Amendment issues that are raised with citizens than with other nations. Regarding Jefferson’s ideas on missions, he was expressing these ideas as late as 1814. Even at that late date, he did not think it was advisable to send missionaries.

[v] Boyd, J.P., & Oberg, B.B., Eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: 1 July to 12 November 1802, Vol. 38. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 210; letter to Henry Dearborn.

[vi] Barton, D. The Jefferson Lies, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), p. 135.

Continuing the conversation

As one means of continuing this conversation and providing as much assistance as possible on these very detailed questions, we are making ourselves available to answer follow up questions from readers. If you have any questions about a source, citation, or evidence we offer, please email us from this webpage.

Also, if new claims come up that readers want to explore (e.g., was the NRA founded to counter the KKK?), please feel free to contact us. We have asked a group of history, religion, and political science professors to assist us in providing accurate answers to historical questions. —W.T & M.C.


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