Academic Study

Church History

Voices from the past brought to the present


Writing for Church History

Understanding the present requires understanding the past. Church history is thus a critical discipline in every generation. The purpose of church history writing at Westminster is to present a careful and original analysis that explains how a given event, written work, or important individual relates to surrounding historical forces.

Church History courses at Westminster require two kinds of writing: digests and papers.

“Understanding the present requires understanding the past.”


In many ways, digesting for church history is similar to digesting for any other class. One significant difference, however, is that in a church history digest you are usually asked not only to summarize a reading, but to also assess and respond to it.

  • Digests include summary. When summarizing, avoid stringing together long quotations. Istead, present the essential information in your own words.
  • Digests include assessment. You might discuss the strengths, weaknesses, and problems of the text; you could also unpack the relationship between the author, the text and their context.
  • Digests include a response. Answer any of the following questions. How did it make you feel? How would you apply these ideas in your life? Would you recommend this reading? Why and to whom?

Not all elements of the analysis and response usually need to be included. A digest should be ⅔ to ⅘ summary, and ⅓ to ⅕ assessment and response. The assessment and response can be at the end or interwoven throughout.

In order to avoid simply quoting, first read carefully, taking notes or making notes in the margins. See if you can summarize the reading without your notes briefly first, then use your notes or outline to write a more thorough summary. Assess or respond to each point as it comes up, or write your entire assessment/response at the end.



In many ways, writing a church history paper is similar to writing for any other class. As in other classes, your paper should be unified with a clear thesis—a statement of the position that you are striving to explain and argue. This thesis is usually the answer to the research question with which you began your paper writing process.

Why Did This Happen?

A historical paper is different from papers in other classes because of the kind of question it answers and because of the sources it uses to answer them. In a historical paper, the thesis sometimes answers the question, What happened? This is especially the case if there is disagreement about what happened. But it will also answer the question, Why did this happen?

  • What kinds of things answer “why” questions? We can answer “why” questions by examining the forces of history such as economics, socio-political power, and war.
  • What are good examples of research questions? Good research questions are narrow and yet have broader implications. A good research question must also be something that you can answer by doing research. For example, you cannot ask, “What was Augustine thinking while he wrote book XI of his Confessions?” However, you could ask, “What philosophical movements may have influenced Augustine’s thought in book XI of his Confessions?”
  • What are good examples of thesis statements? Good thesis statements are narrow and sufficiently supported by the research for the paper.
  • Where can you find your answers? You can find answers to your research questions in primary and secondary sources.

Writing a paper for church history is, like for all disciplines, an exercise in persuading people. But it is also an exercise in understanding people. Thus, the church history paper is not merely a “report” of what happened but an attempt to explain why an event, written work, person, movement or doctrine took the particular shape it did.

The Forces of History

Your analysis of church history must therefore pay close attention to the various forces that drive history forward. These forces include:

  • economics
  • politics
  • society
  • environment
  • psychology
  • ideology (including, but not limited to, theology)
  • nature

Although our God is ultimately Lord over these forces, his providential purposes are hidden from us, and so we, as historians, focus upon the study of secondary causes.

Engaging with Sources

In pursuit of this goal, the church history paper should engage directly and deeply with primary sources. But this interaction should happen in dialogue with key secondary sources.

Not only will these sources help to frame the research question (i.e., what question are we trying to answer in our research?), but they will also marshal evidence from the primary sources to either confirm, refute, or nuance the theses of secondary sources.



Historical research involves the investigation of the past through primary and secondary sources. A primary source is any material (text, artifact, etc.) from the past that the historian studies directly. Primary sources thus provide direct evidence for historical investigation.

Secondary sources are writings by historians that summarize, analyze, or interpret information gathered from primary sources. Consulting secondary sources is essential because the insights of professional historians will guide our own thinking.

Primary Sources

As mentioned above, primary sources provide a direct window on the past. Although the study of some primary sources requires specialized skill (knowledge of other languages and cultures, archeological technique, etc.), most primary sources can be studied profitably by non-experts. Because the direct evidence of primary sources is uninterpreted by secondary sources, primary sources “speak for themselves” in a way that secondary sources do not. For this reason they are of primary importance to historical study and are the focus of church history research at Westminster.

Examples of Primary Resources

Primary source material may include published or unpublished writings, personal letters, photographs, artifacts, audio or video recordings, interviews, personal testimony, or other materials that come directly from the past. Examples include:

  • The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin
  • The Collected Writings of J. Gresham Machen
  • The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis
  • The Minutes of the Pennsylvania Legislature
Secondary Sources

No study of primary sources is complete without a complementary familiarity with the pertinent secondary source material. Secondary sources . . .

  • summarize the historical background for areas of study that the student does not have the time or expertise to investigate directly through the study of primary sources;
  • make the student aware of the findings and conclusions of professional historians; and
  • help determine what historical question the research will strive to answer.
Examples of Secondary Sources

Secondary source material includes any scholarly writing that discusses, analyzes, or interprets the past. The distinguishing mark of secondary sources is that they are not part of the history they discuss.

Examples (corresponding to the primary sources listed above) include:

  • A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis, edited by David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback
  • Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America, by D.G. Hart
  • C.S. Lewis: A Biography, by Roger L. Green and Walter Hooper
  • History of Proprietary Government in Pennsylvania, by William Robert Shepherd


Preliminary Steps
Establish a Schedule

Because of the volume of primary and secondary material available, you will not be able to read everything pertinent to your topic before you write your paper. It is therefore helpful to give yourself a deadline for finishing your research.

Establishing a date after which you will stop gathering and reading material will allow you ample time to synthesize your research and write the paper.

Clearly Identify a Question or Topic

You will have the least difficulty synthesizing your research into a paper outline if your research is narrowly focused upon a specific historical question.

Here are some suggestions for narrowing your topic:

  • Choose a person, written work, doctrine, movement, or event to investigate. If you select a general topic initially, allow your research to guide you to a narrower topic. If you proceed in this manner, leave yourself extra time for analyzing your research and clarifying a specific research question.
  • Avoid choosing a topic that is either too complex or too simple. For example, you will not have time or space to discuss the forces that shaped American Evangelicalism; such a broad topic can only be treated in a lengthy monograph. On the other hand, do not research a question so simple that its answer is a matter of general knowledge, requiring little research or verification.
  • Choose a topic that interests you. Let your natural inquisitiveness guide your research. You will be much more likely to do your research and writing well if you are enthusiastic about your topic.
Gather Primary and Secondary Material

Once you have clarified your topic, begin gathering your research material. If you will be studying a particular author, read as much of his or her writing as possible, focusing on material relevant to your topic.

Because you will be seeking to understand the world in which your author wrote (or in which your event took place), you should also seek out primary sources that tell you something about that world directly.

For example, if you are studying J. Gresham Machen’s doctrine of the church, you would . . .

  • investigate his writings about the church,
  • investigate the writings of thinkers with whom he disagreed, and
  • consult biographical material to see if any of his experiences might have shaped his thinking.

Because you will inevitably be unable to answer every question by appealing to primary sources, gather secondary sources that discuss your topic. This material will supplement your study of the primary sources by familiarizing you with various scholarly interpretations of your topic.

The easiest way to begin this secondary research is to search for your topic in the catalog of Westminster’s Montgomery Library. Access to an extensive database of journal articles is available to Westminster students through the library website.

Read Selectively

Not every piece of research you gather will be useful to you. Carefully study sources that deal directly with your topic, but skim sources that are less directly related for useful information. When reading a book, utilize the table of contents and index to locate the specific information you need.

Critically Analyze your Sources

Ask these questions of the material you are reading:

  • What appear to be the influences bearing upon your sources?
  • What fundamental assumptions and commitments shape the writer’s statements?
  • In what environment was a given work written, and how is that work shaped by and addressed to that environment?
  • What is the relationship between theology and the social environment for your topic?
  • What factors account for the particular emphases and omissions of theological works?
  • In what ways are the historical personalities you are studying conscious or unconscious of influences upon them?

Questions such as these will prompt your critical thinking and lead to a well-researched thesis.


Narrowing your Topic

Many students struggle to clarify the right topic for their paper. Sometimes a thesis does not readily present itself from your research. Usually, however, sustained and focused investigation of a single topic will turn up enough material for you to formulate a basic thesis. Successful paper topics often concern the beliefs of a particular person or the causes of an important event. Sample paper topics include:

  • Charles Hodge’s Doctrine of Justification
  • J. Gresham Machen’s Response to Modern Social Crises
  • Social and Ideological Forces Shaping the Black Theology of James Cone
  • Political Ideology and English Confessions: A Comparative Study

Maintaining Analytical Distance

When you are researching a topic that is of personal interest, you may find your personal opinions affecting how you read a particular source. While it is impossible to avoid this subjectivity entirely, you should seek to be self-conscious and self-critical as you approach research. Do not to allow your own bias to prevent you from hearing and considering the positions of your sources. In order to maintain a proper analytical distance between you, the historian, and your sources, distinguish the separate tasks of investigating sources and analyzing those sources. Only after you have suspended judgment long enough to understand (i.e., investigate) your research should you make historical judgments (i.e., analyze). Remember too that the purpose of a church history paper is not to make a moral or theological judgment of your subject (e.g., Machen was right) but to analyze the historical forces that were operative in shaping what took place (e.g., this is why Machen did what he did).

Avoiding Anachronistic Analysis

All good historical study involves an act of imagination, by which the historian travels into a time and place different from his own. Therefore, the historian must guard against allowing the assumptions of his own time and culture to hinder understanding the past on its own terms. When researching and writing your paper, the temptation is to expect past people and institutions to share your own worldview assumptions, leading to shallow analysis and unfair judgments. On the other hand, awareness of the differences between your worldview assumptions and those of the time, place, and persons you are studying will make your analysis fair and insightful.

Capturing Historical Complexity

It is sometimes tempting, when studying the influences upon a person or event, to single out one historical factor as the sole or primary cause of a historical phenomenon. But careful historical inquiry ordinarily finds that multiple forces converge to cause historical phenomena, rendering single-cause explanations short-sighted and simplistic. Your analysis should therefore avoid the reductionistic tendency to formulate at a thesis such as, “The basic cause of the Protestant Reformation was….” Only when you give attention to the complexity of the historical process will your analysis be cogent and compelling.

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