The Importance of Primary Sources When Studying History

Discussion in 'History Forum' started by Martin, Mar 1, 2007.

  1. Martin

    Martin
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    How much time do you spend reading/studying primary sources?

    Personally I find that many times I enjoy the primary sources more than I do some scholar's opinion. That is not to say that I don't read a lot of books by scholars on various people/events, I do. However reading the primary sources many times provides me with a perspective I otherwise would not have had. It also helps me to be somewhat critical of various theories/claims of some scholars.

    Whether I am reading something about early American history, first century Rome, or the historical Jesus, I love to get as much primary material as I can. Clearly there are much more primary sources for early American history than for the historical Jesus so some subjects are easier to get primary sources than others.

    In studying the historical Jesus you find that your most important sources are the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). They are the earliest and, unlike many of the Gnostic gospels, most realistic accounts of Jesus' life. Other sources on Jesus' life would be parts of Josephus and other ancient writers who either mention something about Jesus or give us details that help us understand the culture/time He lived in. So in this subject there is a limited amount of primary sources.

    In early American history, however, the primary sources seem almost endless (at least when compared to ancient history). From the Pilgrims, to Thomas Jefferson, to the Civil War, these people kept diaries and wrote books (etc) that give us their view of events (etc). Such first hand accounts are, in my opinion, beyond value when studying history.

    Books by scholars provide good summaries, or over-views, of historical events. Such books also help when doing detailed studies of a person/event because they give the reader a variety of details the reader might not otherwise pick up on. So I am not, in anyway, downplaying the importance of reading good scholarship on any historical person or event.
     
    #1 Martin, Mar 1, 2007
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 1, 2007
  2. Martin

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    I suppose I am the only one here who finds primary sources interesting/helpful. O well...
     
  3. StefanM

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    Maybe the benefits are already agreed upon?
     
  4. dwmoeller1

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    What you wrote is either self-evident to the reader, or simply incomprehensible. Thus, no comments are likely forthcoming...unless you simply want "dittos" or "??"

    :)
     
  5. Martin

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    Yea, I know that. What my question/comment was aiming for was how much time people spend reading/studying primary sources. Maybe my overly long "incomprehensible" post confused the issue. :tonofbricks:
     
  6. rlvaughn

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    Martin, I don't usually scroll this far down into the BaptistBoard (mostly look at Baptist history and theology sections), but I noticed this and considered you have a thought-provoking question -- how much time do you spend reading/studying primary sources?

    I've never given it much thought as far as the dispensation of time between the two. So I'm going to guess that it might be 50/50. I may start a little 'self-survey' to see whether this is in the ballpark.

    Seems many of the projects that I do call for use of whatever meager resources I can get my hands on, primary or secondary. For example, I recently compiled Minutes of the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church Rusk County, Texas which is an investigation into the history of this church and a publishing of the four years of its minutes that survived. The minutes were a primary source (except they are a handwritten copy of the original) and I spent a lot of time with them. In addition, I followed up with association minutes, which I also consider a primary source. But I was also scouting for anything I could find where anyone might have mentioned Mt. Carmel (which wasn't happening much!), including the diaries/journals of an area plantation owner and his wife. I also wrote a Brief History of the East Texas Musical Convention and Sacred Harp in East Texas, and spent a lot of time in the ETMC minutes, other singing convention minutes, period newspapers, religious periodicals, censuses, etc. But I also probably spent nearly as much time researching the interpretations of genealogists in order to come to an understanding of who many of these people were -- the ones that no one knew or remembered anything.

    For the materials I am compiling toward a history of feet washing among missionary Baptists, I am looking at a lot of church and association minutes. But I am also using a lot of secondary sources in which a later author mentions something about feet washing in a particular church, association, et al. context. The genealogical boom has proved an asset, in that a lot of people are printing old church records and even putting them on the internet. This brings up a negative side, though. When we are typing them, scanning them, etc. we may introduce errors not in the original (not that the original can't have an error, but it is an original error, not an introduced one). This brings up the need to look at the primary source itself, when possible. I found two transcripts of a paper that a missionary Baptist preacher wrote about his life, father, upbringing, etc. It mentions that his father (a pioneer missionary Baptist in Texas) did believe in foot washing (one transcript) and that his father did not believe in foot washing (the other transcript). The original handwritten letter is now missing, and I suppose I'll never know what he really believed (though I can posit an educated guess based on other factors).

    So, anyway, lots of rambling to say I really don't know how I divide my time between primary and secondary sources. I really love reading studies by others to get their take on a subject, but it's hard to beat having an actual authenic antique document in your hands. Because I am actually compiling historical books, I may spend more time with primary sources than average.
     
  7. dwmoeller1

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    Unfortunately, I don't get to read too many original sources...mainly because the sources of the time period I am interested in are in Greek, Latin, or French :)
     
  8. Martin

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    ==Yep, that can be a problem. Many of the sources I am interested in are written in old english (17th century) so reading that can cause a headache. Not to mention the fact that I have to learn how certain words were used back in the day. I guess this is what I get for not using the King James Version?
     
  9. Ps104_33

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    Let that be a lesson to you. If you are going to read the pilgrims use the Bible they used.
     
  10. billwald

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    We have no primary information about Jesus. He didn't write or dictate anything.
     
  11. Ps104_33

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    I would think that those who walked with Him and touched Him would be primary.
     
  12. 4Given

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    importance of early sources..

    I agree that you cannot overestimate the importance of early sources. The early church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Clement, Ireneaus, and even Tertillian give us fascinating accounts of what the early church believed and taught.

    It's also interesting to read Eusebius's "History of the Church" - which was written in the fourth century.

    I think that many of us are sadly deficient in our church history. We tend to gloss over the first 1500 years from the book of Acts until the Reformation.
     
  13. fromtheright

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    Martin,

    Thanks for your post. I enjoy reading the primary material, too. As to early American history, there are several excellent primary resources. One thing I do tire of, though, and conservatives unfortunately are bad about doing this, is putting together a book of "quotes from the Founders". It is far too easy to take such quotes out of context so, even though they are often in support of my position I don't think they add any value to debate/discussion re Founders' intent. One thing that scholars help to do is to put it all into context, but even then you have to be careful of an agenda.
     
  14. maritimebaptist

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    there are many great primamry sources out there that do not rely on the written word. In some instances the written word isn't available or is very biased. I am a curator who has in my care over 40 000 artifacts and the stories they tell, if you read them correctly, are about as true as you can get to getting an accurate picture of what really happened.

    Secondary sources also have their place, you can check out their lists of primary sources in their bibliography or you can quote their point of view to either back up or dispute their own thesis.
     

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