History and sources

As a history instructor, naturally I explained to my students the meaning and significance of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Primary sources come from people who were there, those who took part in the event or who were witnesses of the event. Memoirs and autobiographies are, of course, primary sources. So are diaries, letters, oral histories, photographs, recordings, and receipts. Primary sources do not have to contain words: artwork and architecture can be primary sources, as well as tools, weapons, clothing, and other artifacts. Garbage is a great source of primary sources. (Imagine how much an investigator could learn about your family by examining your garbage from the last month!) Dead bodies and the artifacts buried with them are also great primary sources, although contemporary historians and archaeologists are showing greater respect for burials than was the case in previous centuries.

Secondary sources collect data from the primary sources, examine them, and draw conclusions from them. A soldier writes about sights and sounds on the battlefield, while a politician writes about decisions made in the halls of government; the author of a secondary source combines those perceptions to produce a fuller account of the war than either primary source could create. Secondary sources should contain notes and bibliographies listing those primary sources they used to form their interpretations, as well as which secondary sources were consulted to help the writers interpret those primary sources.

Newspapers, magazines, and web sites can be a mixture of primary and secondary source material. When a reporter quotes a participant or witness, that quote is a primary source; the rest of the article which describes and explains the event is a secondary source. Even those secondary sources become primary sources for the historian who wants to know how events were understood at the time, before historians began writing about an event and trying to understand and explain what happened, why it happened, and what it means for people today.

Tertiary sources summarize what the secondary sources say. Encyclopedia articles (whether in print or online) are tertiary sources; so are textbooks. Student papers are tertiary sources. If a student only looked at the textbook and an encyclopedia or two and then wrote a paper, that paper would be a quaternary source, which is effectively useless. Junior high and early high school students might get away with that approach, but by college a writer should know how to read, evaluate, and summarize information from primary and secondary sources. The best uses of a tertiary source at that level of education are to get a general idea of what people are saying about the event and to consult the bibliography to find good secondary sources for research.

At this point, I ask the students if they agree with the statement that, “the more sources you have, the more likely you are to reach a firm conclusion about the event.” At first that proposition sounds reasonable, but too much information can be worse than not enough. Think of the assassination of President Kennedy. We have many primary sources—hundreds of witnesses who saw and heard the shooting, the doctors in Dallas who treated the President and declared him dead, the doctors in Washington who performed the autopsy, photographs, moving pictures, a bullet, bullet fragments, the President’s clothing, the car, and much much more. So many secondary sources have assembled interpretations of the event that probably no person can read and watch them all. Yet massive disagreement persists about what happened in Dallas that day. With so much information, researchers can choose those items and reports that match their theories while disregarding or dismissing contrary items and reports.

(Actually, good research affirms that the President was shot from behind. Analysis of the shirt and tie he was wearing confirm that the neck wound was an exit wound, not an entrance wound—as the Dallas doctors first thought and said. Still pictures taken from the Zapruder film clearly show the aftermath of the fatal head would exiting toward the front, indicating that the bullet struck him from the rear. Researchers who insist that other evidence indicates that shots were fired at the President from in front of the car must then explain how it was that those shooters missed their target—something I have not seen addressed in secondary sources.)

I have seen many sloppy works written by authors who deliberately skipped sources that did not agree with their preestablished conclusions, authors who misquoted and distorted their sources, and authors who relied on emotional persuasion rather than solid academic research to state their cases. These sloppy works are not limited to college students; they include professional historians, even some respected academic writers, who were more interested in publishing the conclusions they wanted to share than in being persuaded by the evidence of the sources that they were wrong. As I said before, historians have an obligation to be honest and fair with their information. The reputations of people from the past and the effective thinking of people in the future is in the hands of today’s historians. For this reason, I am very concerned about the way history is being taught in many classrooms today, and I am sorry that my voice is no longer among those being heard in those classrooms. J.

Sources, and the origin of the world

I teach history. Every term, in the first session, I talk to my students about sources. I tell them that there are primary sources, secondary sources, and tertiary sources.

Primary sources come from witnesses, people who were there when history was being made. They might be autobiographies and memoirs, diaries, letters, oral histories, or any other record of what people saw and heard and felt. Artifacts can also be primary sources—ruins of buildings, tools, artwork, even garbage. Garbage is a great source of information about the way people live.

Secondary sources come from scholars who interpret the primary sources. They gather as much information as they can, and they explain what happened, and why it happened, and what resulted from its happening. Secondary sources can be very narrow and deep investigations into a topic, or they can be broad evaluations of an entire culture or time period.

Journalism produces a mix of primary and secondary source material. The journalist explains and interprets, but often the journalist quotes a witness directly. The quote from the witness is a primary source, even as the article as a whole is a secondary source. This is true of newspaper accounts, magazine articles, radio and television broadcasts, and internet news services.

Tertiary sources summarize what the secondary sources say. Encyclopedia entries, whether printed in books or distributed online, are tertiary sources. Textbooks are tertiary sources. Papers written by students are tertiary sources. Such sources are useful summaries and can be a good starting place for research. However, a student who writes a paper based only on tertiary sources has produced a quaternary source which has no academic value. Beyond the junior high school level, teachers generally do not approve of student papers that are based only on encyclopedias and on the textbook.

After explaining sources to the students, I ask them whether a larger number of primary sources guarantees that historians will understand what happened. That seems like a reasonable proposition, but my test case shows the opposite. On November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, President Kennedy was shot and killed. Hundreds of people were present at the time. Many of them had cameras, even moving pictures. Along with the human witnesses, there are numerous artifacts: the injuries to the bodies of the President and Governor Connelly, the gun, the bullets, the clothing of the President and of the Governor, the car, the pavement—all these are primary sources. Yet the secondary sources disagree about what happened. Most witnesses heard either two or three shots; hardly any witness reports hearing more than three shots. Yet many secondary sources insist that the damage was caused by at least four and sometimes up to twelve gunshots. Some secondary sources conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot the President. Others say he was part of a conspiracy. A few say he was investigating a conspiracy to shoot the President but was unable to prevent its success. Many others say that Harvey was innocent of any crime but was framed for the shooting.

If historians are confused about an event that happened just a few decades ago in front of many witnesses, how can people today investigate the origin of the world? There are primary sources—some written documents that describe creation, and many oral traditions about creation—but they do not all agree. Other primary sources exist as artifacts: fossils, geographic patterns, radioactive decay, and astronomic observations, among others. Can investigation of these primary sources be trusted when the conclusions of those investigations match none of the other primary sources that claim to have inside knowledge about creation?

Americans are fond of easy choices between two extremes. One approves of the President’s actions, or one disapproves. One votes Republican, or one votes Democratic. Creation is true, or evolution is true. In fact, there are more than two opinions about the origin of the world. Some Hindus believe that the world goes through lengthy cycles of development, culminating in a catastrophic destruction that is followed by a new beginning. Some ancient Greek philosophers thought that the physical universe is eternal, without beginning or end. Muslims are as divided as Christians about whether the world was created by direct miracle a few thousand years ago or whether it evolved over many millions of years. Some Christians hold to a young earth opinion, while others believe that God worked through the powers he created, planning and developing the world over many millions of years. Some say that God is eternal and unchanging but chose this slow method to create the world, while others say that God himself developed and evolved over the course of creation. Yet another view says that God created the world as it is now in an instant, but that he described creation to Moses over the course of six days.

What did Jesus say? He treated the account of creation written in Genesis as an accurate primary source. Trusting his authority, my opinion is that the earth and the universe are less than ten thousand years old. I view the act of creation as a singularity, as some physicists would say. God spoke, and the world appeared according to his design. He did not plant acorns and wait for them to sprout and grow; he created mature oak trees bearing acorns. He did not wait tens of thousands of years for coral reefs to grow from a single coral creature; he created mature coral reefs containing thousands of coral creatures. Adam and Eve were created with mature adult bodies; they did not grow from babies. Distant objects in the universe are visible from Earth because God created beams of light that extend to the Earth, even though the sources of those beams are more than ten thousand light years away.

I admit that I may be wrong. As I have written before, when I meet Jesus face to face in the new creation, he might tell me that I took the first chapters of Genesis far too literally. If so, the two of us will have a good laugh about my mistake. On the other hand, those who reject Jesus because they refuse to believe in a literal creation by an all-powerful God will not be laughing on that Day.

The primary job of the Christian Church is to warn sinners of the consequences of their sins and to introduce those sinners to the Savior who rescues them from evil and death and promises everlasting life. When our conversation disintegrates into arguments over creation versus evolution—or arguments over abortion, or homosexuality, or other matters that are important but not vital—only the devil wins. We have time to debate important matters, but we must be careful not to neglect the vital matters. At times, like Paul, we must know nothing aside from Christ and Him crucified. That matters most of all. J.