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Sewell pens major work on historian Herbert Butterfield

By Sally Jongsma

Dr. Keith Sewell was born in England and lived in Australia and New Zealand from 1969 until 1998 when he came to the United States and Dordt College.

Dr. Keith Sewell was born in England and lived in Australia and New Zealand from 1969 until 1998 when he came to the United States and Dordt College.

Over the past two decades, Dr. Keith Sewell has read carefully the complete works of historian Herbert Butterfield—all eighteen books and over 100 articles, reviews, and chapters. Last fall, Sewell’s book on Butterfield titled Herbert Butterfield and the Interpretation of History was published by Palgrave Macmillan, a leading publisher of academic books. “The book gives a careful, critical analysis of Butterfield, in an effort to advance a consistently Christian approach to the study of history,” says Dr. Hubert Krygsman, Sewell’s colleague in the history department.

Butterfield is an important 20th century historian, especially for those interested in a Christian approach to history. Influential American evangelical historians like George Marsden and Mark Noll cite him often. Sewell, who is very interested in the relationship between belief, philosophy, and history was drawn to Butterfield’s Christian thinking on interpreting history.

“Christian thinking is best when it is offered by people who have hands-on experience with historical writing—and that is Butterfield,” says Sewell. But when Sewell began reading Butterfield’s work, he found it puzzling. Although Butterfield undoubtedly embraced a biblical view of history, Butterfield advocated writing “technical history” which he described as being free from a religious/philosophical/theological basis. To solve this puzzling inconsistency, Sewell read and analyzed Butterfield’s published and unpublished work, trying to understand what he meant by the terms he used. He came to believe that Butterfield was more consistent than he appeared at first glance.

For Sewell, Butterfield used misleading terminology to make a valid case.

“Butterfield advocated a Christian view of history not because it was neutral but because it was scientific,” says Sewell. He believed other interpretations of history placed too much emphasis on only one aspect of reality: Marxist interpretation overemphasized the role of economic activity, Liberal interpretation overemphasized the individual, Catholic interpretation overemphasized the role of the institutional church.

By “technical history” Butterfield was not calling for neutrality but for freedom from overestimations that distort rather than clarify, Sewell believes. Butterfield wanted historical interpretation to be free from superficial narrowness andoversimplicity.

One way Butterfield tried to ensure that a particular interpretation was not simplistic was to insist that even the most detailed writing was provisional—no one should presume to have the final word. A historian gains historical wisdom as he works, but he must always be aware of the limitations of his knowledge and how his historical situation as well as the subject shapes his point of view.

“So Butterfield always listened to dissenters—people out of the mainstream,” says Sewell. That approach makes a lot of sense to Sewell, who agrees that people, including historians, should always read multiple texts when studying a topic. “Calvinists ought to read what Catholics say about them to get a fuller picture and students of U.S. history ought to read what Britain and Germany and France have to say about them,” he concludes.

Sewell’s book is an academic analysis of Butterfield’s work and method, but he stresses that Butterfield’s writings have much to teach those who set policy and make decisions in our world. Yet Butterfield believed that looking for the causes of events almost always leads to oversimplification. It is better to think about interaction rather than causation.

“We all have some God-given cultural power, but we can’t control the consequences and effects our actions will have,” says Sewell. “Butterfield saw that when nations and institutions flout the God-given order of things, they don’t get away with it in the long run, despite the fact that they often don’t see immediate consequences for their sinful actions.”

For example, the nations of Europe presumed too much when they thought they could pursue the policies they had in place at the turn of the century without leading to catastrophe. The complex mix of German, French, Russian, and British presumption gave a dangerously brittle character to the situation, Sewell says. No one would give way. War resulted.

Butterfield was deeply suspicious of the many ideologies characterized by a rejection of Christian teaching which arose after the French Revolution. He warned against ideologically driven foreign policy which he saw as fortifying national self-interest and which often plunges nations into war because of their sense of ideological righteousness. Over against such an approach he championed slow and painstaking diplomacy. Writing in the 1950s and ’60s, he feared that using the unconditional surrender model of the world wars rather than negotiated compromise could plunge the world into a series of hazardous global conflicts, especially in light of (then) emerging nuclear weapons. Sewell believes Butterfield would make his case as strongly in response to today’s world conflicts.

Sewell’s study leaves him with both disagreements and great respect for Butterfield. He agrees that when you do diplomatic history you can’t ignore the fact that nations are ultimately ruled by their creator and that going against the created order of the world creates problems. And although he doesn’t use Butterfield’s writing and terminology directly in his teaching, he definitely encourages his students to think historically about the complexity of interaction between people and institutions.

“Simple explanations are almost always wrong. Cultural reality is complex,” he says. He tries to make sure his students realize that fact.

Sewell admits that it is still impossible for him to read historical works without thinking about what Butterfield would think about them, but he’s also moving beyond Butterfield. He’s already embarked on his next book which he has tentatively titled Evangelical or Reformed: A Question for Bible Believing Christianity.