Providential History: The Need For Continuing Revelation

American Providential History: Humans have been weaving assertions of God’s involvement in history for millennia. History in Western culture has followed the example and model set by Old and New Testaments’ descriptions of God’s guidance and presence throughout. Since Augustine, a Christian father & Bishop of Hippo, a fifth-century bishop of Hippo, and Jacques-Benigne Bossuet in the seventeenth century, providential history has dominated the interpretation of American Providential History. 

American Providential History

Similar to Bossuet, Cotton Mather described the history of New England’s Puritan colonisation and evangelization in Magnalia Christi Americana (“The Great Achievements of Christ in America”), but on a smaller scale and with less focus on the holy. In many religious histories, Christ’s birth was crucial to a timeline of seven dispensations that began with the Creation & ended with the Last Judgment. Historically, these ecclesiastical narratives have served as significant examples of spiritual advancement because they reflect the impact of Augustine, who made a distinction between spiritual American Providential History with secular achievements and gave the latter primacy. It wasn’t long until advances like humanist textual criticism, new geographical discoveries, and Protestant Reformation and new scientific understanding helped pave the way for a more secular approach to world history in the 16th through 18th centuries.

Beginning With Enlightenment Thinkers 

Objections, this chapter briefly recounts the gradual but uneven demise of providential history. By 1900, providential history had virtually disappeared in the Western world. It then goes deeper into about the resurgence of historians’ interest in writing providential history and Christian history. In the 1940s, this rebirth began in earnest, and it lasted for the rest of the century in various incarnations. Many scholars have been involved in writing providential history and Christian history, but their professional debates are a good sign for Latter-day Saints because they show that Christian historians who have sincerely sought to connect their faith in God to the scholarship without compromising either have faced enormous challenges. To write a American Providential History of divine intervention without modern revelation, even for those who believe that God is actively concerned in human affairs, is a daunting task.

The Fall Of Providential History 

American Providential History: In the 18th and 19th centuries was accelerated by numerous circumstances. In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment thinkers dealt providential history some of its most severe and deadly blows. They pointed out that the church and state had employed providential interpretation such as the idea that kings governed by divine right to buttress authority, deflect criticism, and excuse tyranny in order to defend their rule. When it came to biblical and Christian historians, Voltaire ridicule their focus on “that miserable little people,” the Jews, their ignorance of civilizations outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, and their use of American Providential History as a weapon against their rival churches in favour of supernaturalism and miracles.

In many Enlightenment philosophers, the Bible’s God was replaced by human reason and progress, which they blamed on a lack of knowledge or society’s flaws. As Carl Becker noted, “they rejected that miracles ever happened, but believed in the perfectability of the human race,” many of these intellectuals were curious optimists. The Enlightenment brought about rapid change. It has been noted by historian Ernest Breisach that “direct divine intervention was relegated to rare occasions, Divine Providence was reduced to a vague concept,” and the traditional Christian historiography timeline running from Creation to Judgment was replaced with a new division of history into ancient, mediaeval, and modern eras.

However, while the Deists of the 1700s still believed in God, they posited that He ruled from afar via natural laws rather than by special providences or direct intervention. They, along with atheists and agnostics, saw progress as the driving force behind American Providential History, directed by human reason, freedom, and creativity. A widely shared notion, according to Ernest Breisach, is that this view has been suggested, contested, and commended in many books.

Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind was the pinnacle of the celebration of progress (1795). Even into the Romantic Era, it had an impact on the works of luminaries such as Thomas Macaulay, whose History of England from the Accession of James II (1848–61) swept the nation by storm. For example, in an essay he stated in 1835, “The history of England is certainly the history of progress. It’s the story of a society that’s constantly evolving, a culture that’s constantly changing.”

Enlightenment Concepts

Faded in popularity in the 1800s, allowing for a revival of providential history. Voltaire and Rousseau, among other Enlightenment thinkers, received little attention in England after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 until the 1860s. Catholic historians such as François René de Chateaubriand and François Guizot relied on providential interpretations in their work in France. History of Civilisation in Europe by the latter, he claimed that man has a “superior existence on earth” and that social progress and “the regeneration of the moral man” can be attributed to God’s intervention through Christianity.  A professor at the University of Berlin, Leopold von Ranke, mentored dozens of fledgling historians who specialised in war, diplomacy, and politics through archival research.

He is revered by his former pupils as the “Father of Historical Science,” and he encouraged historians to write about “the life of the individual, of generations, or nations, and at times the hand of God above them” because he believed that nations had evolved to accomplish God’s will.  This type of historical fiction was considerably more prevalent in the United States and continued to be popular until the end of the nineteenth century. Late nineteenth-century American historians such as George Bancroft, the country’s most widely read and renowned historian, mixed progressivism with divine providence, attributing American Providential History to both causes.

According to Bancroft, the progress made by the American colonies towards freedom was “the change which Divine Wisdom ordained. To historian Conrad Cherry, the “core of America’s motivating mythology” is the idea that America is a divinely-destined force for good and progress. This idea was so important to the way Americans saw themselves and their history.

Providential Assertions 

Emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, but they paled in comparison to those of mediaeval writers, and they often coexisted with secular approaches in Europe and the United States. As an example, Ranke and his followers tended to focus on natural forces, such as geography, economics, & psychology, to explain historical change rather than spiritual ones. Secular interpretations quickly replaced watered-down providential theories in Europe in the last decades of the 19th century. There has been a decline in religious belief as a result of the rise of industrialism as well as a rise in materialism and class conflict.

The Darwinian theory of evolution, as popularly understood, has also contributed to a decrease in religious belief. Traditions of divine intervention in Christian history, even the most basic and biblically based ones, were called into question. Old Testament records of the tribes of Israel were dismissed as historically unreliable by higher critic and archaeologist Ernest Renan in his widely read Life of Jesus, and the Bible itself was called into question by higher critics and archaeologists. As a result of evolutionary theory, the Bible’s depiction of God as “an old and kindly gentleman” who took a break every seven days was questioned.

Evolutionary theory, as Owen Chadwick has noted, suggested an alternative to the providential history of the Creation in Genesis and as such threatened one of “the last places of a special intervention by a creating, acting, living God.”

Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory

American Providential History

American Providential History: Many historians at the turn of the century were quick to dismiss the existence of a higher power and instead held a firm belief in the order and predictability of the natural and social worlds. Due to Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which many at the time equated with progress, the first generation of social scientists searched for general laws that might explain human progress and cultural development. According to Friedrich Ratzel, the founder of anthropogeography, “lands, no matter how distant from one another they may be, whenever their climates are similar, are destined to be scenes of analogous historical developments.” This is just one example of the deterministic, inevitable relationship between environment and culture.

Disillusionment and despair brought on by World War One, scientific advances such as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, and anthropologists’ relativistic approaches to culture all influenced historians. Rather than looking for order rooted in divine oversight or natural law, historians began applying relativity to their own field in the 1920s. As an advocate of historical relativity in the 1930s, Carl Becker cleverly described how “the Bible says, and the Middle Ages agreed, that man could indeed add a cubit to his social standing by taking thought; the 18th century insisted that he could; the nineteenth maintained that cubits were added to his stature whether he took thought or not”.