An Open Letter to the Bartons

From our friend and occasional guest-blogger Jared Burkholder, associate professor of history at Grace College (IN)…

Dear David (and now Tim) Barton,

Maybe you can clarify something for me. Why do you continue to insist that because you read primary sources you have a unique voice when compared to professional Christian historians like me, who you say fail to make use of original sources?

I am hardly the first to be annoyed by this, but suffice it to say this is utterly incomprehensible to me. Primary sources are to historians what hammers are to carpenters; what keyboards are to composers; what language is to writers. They are the tools of our trade, the most basic implements we learn to use.

Pictures dec 08 085
Image of what David Barton seems to think is exceeding rare for everyone except himself – an actual original source. This one happens to be a random sample from what must be about a thousand images I’ve taken while researching 18th c. Moravians. (OK, it’s not exactly random… I chose this because it’s a copy of correspondence between Pennsylvania Moravians and George Washington.) Believe it or not, these specimens exist by the thousands online as well. Amazing! (Thanks to the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, PA, where Paul Peucker will be able to confirm that historians like me do, in fact, use original documents… and take an insane number of digital photos.)

We wrestle with their complexity. We wade through mountains of them. We have realized that using them with integrity requires difficult work and a whole lot of time. Often, we don’t just read and use primary sources, we live in them. We spend so much time with them they become part of our present reality. They show up in our dreams at night and in the space of our daydreams. We ask other people for grant money so we can go and see them. We cross oceans to handle them — maybe just to decipher the notes in the margins. We struggle with foreign languages so we can break their codes and take courses in paleography to learn how the ancients made their letters. Visit any of our classes and you’ll find we not only use original documents for our research, we assign them to our students. We might print out digital photos of documents crammed into our hard drives from our research trips so students can practice with them. We take joy when we inspire in our students the same sense of awe we ourselves feel every time we step into the archives.

So it baffles me why you believe that your use of primary sources gives you a corner on the truth, or that the reason historians like me disagree with you is because we’re too lazy or “indoctrinated” to use original sources. Perhaps it is because you have found that since many people do not get the precious privilege of handling original documents they are easily impressed by your own claims to have read these sources. Perhaps it’s because an appeal to primary sources has a gnostic attraction that induces your audience to believe you’ve gained access to some privileged knowledge. Perhaps it is because you believe one can use original sources like some people use the Bible: as a reservoir of proof-texts. Or maybe you see historians framing their work within the context of what peers and colleagues have written and mistakenly assume they’re just borrowing from each other. Perhaps it is because you’ve never gone through the painful process of peer review for a legitimate academic journal where you open yourself up to criticism from specialists who are also steeped in original sources. Probably  you mistakenly believe reading from original sources removes the potential for interpretive bias.

Whatever the reason, stop lying. Stop using this absurd line that citing primary sources and original documents somehow means you are unique or magically makes you an authority. We all use original documents. It is so routine that it’s difficult to believe this requires being said at all. It is literally what we do for a living.

Dr. Jared S. Burkholder

16 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Bartons

  1. “Preach” This character has rattled me for several years. It was the influence of dear Christian professors in my undergraduate and graduate studies that coached me away from claiming too much. I have spent 35 years with primary sources at local and regional history museums and at a presidential archive. The Barton’s disregard for the entire history field (public and academic in without excuse.

  2. Is this an open letter to the “David Barton” who claims to be a scholar about America’s “founding fathers” and their religious beliefs and who has only a bachelor’s degree from Oral Roberts University? Or am I thinking of a different David Barton? My uncle, retired president of an evangelical denomination and arch-conservative, e-mailed me a couple years ago and asked me about “The Jefferson Bible” (“The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”). He reported to me that he watched and listened to a David Barton talk about it on some “Christian” television program. According to my uncle, that David Barton said, on that television program, that Thomas Jefferson explained that he created the so-called “Jefferson Bible” only as an abbreviated New Testament for the purpose of evangelizing native Americans/American Indians. I quoted back to my uncle portions of Jefferson’s own letter explaining his reasons for creating “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” to John Adams–including his declaration that he did not agree with everything Jesus said. My uncle responded that he wondered what Barton’s response to that would be. I doubt that my appeal to Jefferson’s own explanation made a dent in my uncle’s faith in Barton’s message. Barton’s followers, those who believe what he writes and says, are not the kind of people who will be influenced by “intellectuals” (other than Barton and those who agree with him. This is not a matter of “the facts” but of what people want to believe.

  3. Yes, this is the same Barton. I appreciate your comments, Roger. It is also frustrating that when we appeal to the standards and norms of the academy to criticize populist evangelicals like Barton, the more we reinforce their existing anti-academic prejudice.

  4. Actual professional historians must realize that Barton does not consider himself “one of you”. He has invented a new category of ‘historian,’ at a level above everyone else. On Barton’s level, you are only accountable to yourself, since you are the higher authority. You are absolutely right, and anyone who disagrees with you is absolutely wrong.

    To belong to the “absolutely right” historian status, you must simultaneously have no degree in history, no degree in theology, and ridicule anyone who does. For you, there is no need to read or understand other historians, because you have already divined the “right history” by using the bible and old letters as proof texts for your political and religious agenda.

    Make friends with Glenn Beck & use his non-profit Mercury One donations to purchase vast quantities of old documents and store them in your private vault. This adds to the exclusivity and mystique of every claim you make.

    Mix all this in a stew of Pentecostalism and simmer on low heat for 29 years. It helps if you are short, insecure, and talk really fast, throwing out “factoids” to simultaneously impress and bore the audience. Add a family member on camera to parrot your phrases and confirm you are always right. Voila’.

  5. Pretty sure this letter would fly right over Barton’s head.

    I seriously doubt he is concerned about accuracy, but more about being a showman. He is an entertainer who lives for the adulation.

  6. The greaatest problem connected to Barton is that so many evangelical pastors believe in him. (Thousands, tens of thousands?)
    Do they realize that when they pass on a false assertion by Barton, they are in conflict with Exodus 23:1 — “Do not circulate false reports.”
    It doesn’t matter how sincerely you believe assertion that you pass on to others, if it’s false, you’re crossways of this verse.

    1. The greatest problem isn’t that so many evangelical pastors believe him, that’s almost to be expected just due to confirmation bias. The greatest threat from him lies in his influence with politicians and state-level curricula. He is attempting to put Christianity back into public schools. If people want to send their kids to religious schools, that’s one thing, but injecting one religion over all others in our secular society is simply promotion of one religion by the government. HIs lies about the separation of church and state threaten the health of the country.

      This is a great letter and all the more powerful coming from a Christian rather than a secularist like myself. I think you realize you won’t get through to him (he has too many paychecks coming in from all his books, media appearances, etc…), but you may reach some who are on the fence about him. At least I hope so.

  7. Barton constantly talks about all the “original documents” that he possesses, as if owning the documents gives him some special interpretive powers that those who look at reproductions or other documents cannot possibly possess. It would be interesting to understand the provenance of his documents, I’m pretty sure at least some of them have been stolen from academic and other libraries, a huge problem.

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