© Copyright Irving Hexham 1992, 1999


As an academic discipline history emerged in the late nineteenth century, although great historians have reoccurred in Western civilization since the early Greeks. The Abramic religions are essentially historical and encourage the study of history because they believe God has revealed Himself in time. By contrast history is essentially disregarded by Yogic religions.

Fundamentally history involves a process of interpreting the past based on evidence available in the present. This entails using accounts inherited from earlier times. Although each generation re-interprets history in light of contemporary questions, history claims a scientific status through its careful use of sources and the weighing of evidence.

The most common mistake made by history students and, occasionally, well established historians is to project views and opinions common in one era back onto an earlier era. This cannot legitimately be done without strong evidence that those views and opinions were held at the earlier time. In particular people are prone to project contemporary assumptions onto the past.

Another very common error is to assume that a short passage of time makes little or no difference to the intellectual climate of the time. In fact in political, social and other spheres of life ten years can make a very big difference particularly when dealing with modern history.

The historian cannot assume that something, which was commonly believed by people in England in 1066, was shared with people who lived in 966. The modern history of Germany shows how difficult it is to generalize about the past. For example the popular A History of Germany.[1]published in 1913 stresses the peaceful and pro-British nature of the Germans who are seen as allies against the cunning French. The book ends by saying that Germans "know the value of peace, and pray that it may long continue" [2]. Since the Second World War it has been very difficult to find an English book which expresses such sentiments.

[1. H.E. Marshall, A History of Germany, London, Henry Frowde and Hodder & Stoughton, 1913.]

[2. Ibid, p. 449]

The task of the historian is to locate and interrogate appropriate sources for the reconstruction of an era. Therefore, it is important to recognize the different sources used by historians and the value which can be placed upon them. But, before discussing particular types of source material it must be 0very clearly recognized that all sources are biased. Therefore, the historian must recognize the outlook of the source and take it into account when using it as evidence. The major types of sources recognized by historians can be classified as follows: -

Primary sources:

These are the earliest available accounts of an event which are used by later writers to interpret that event. They are the raw material used by other writers to provide them with information and data. In using primary sources it is important to recognize the value judgements made by the people who wrote them and the intent of the author in writing the original document.

Types of primary sources:

1) Original handwritten documents, early copies of original documents, letters, diaries, and book manuscripts;

2) Printed documents, published books;

3) Personal documents, private documents, government documents, public documents;

4) Pictures, photographs and film;

5) Archaeological evidence; statistical data derived from documents;

7) Oral evidence.

Secondary sources:

These are works that discusses a subject either from a great distance or after the event on the basis of second-hand or even more remote information. Secondary sources provide interpretations and make judgements about primary sources. When using secondary sources it is important to realize that the account they give, even when it involves lengthy quotations from primary sources, may not be accurate. Secondary sources can be used to understand primary sources but must not be confused with them. Several cautions need to be observed when working with secondary sources. The most important are: -

1. Secondary sources as primary sources:

Sometimes a secondary source may be used as a primary source for information about the period when the secondary source was written. Thus, Mill's History of India [3] is a secondary source for Indian history but a primary source for anyone wanting to understand James Mill's thinking about India.

[3. James Mill, History of India, London,]

2. Are anthologies primary or secondary sources?

Anthologies such as Peter Gay's The Enlightenment: A Comprehensive Anthology [4]contains short extracts from a large number of published primary sources. As such it is very useful to students but it must be used with great care and not confused with true primary sources. The problem is that the reader must trust that the editor's selection of material, in this case Gay's, is representative of the subject, i.e. the Enlightenment. The reader must also accept that wherever translations are used from French or German sources the translations are accurate.

Similarly, books like Coward, Dargyay and Neufeldt's Readings in Eastern Religions [5], introduce students to the feel of primary sources but are not a true primary source. Here again the question has to be asked whether the editors made really give a representative picture of Eastern religions and whether they use or make accurate translations of the texts cited.

[4. Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: A Comprehensive Anthology, New, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1973]

[5. Coward, Dargyay and Neufeldt, Readings in Eastern Religions, Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier Press, 1987]

3. Translations:

Although it is often necessary to work with translated materials translations must always be identified as such an never treated as an original primary source unless the translation itself has acquired a unique status historically such as the Vulgate, Authorized Version of the Bible or Luther's German Bible.

Further Reading on Historical Methods:

Norman F. Cantor & Richard I. Schneider, How to Study History (Arlington Heights, Illinois, Harlan Davidson, 1967).

Robert Jones Schafer, ed., A Guide to Historical Method (Homewood, Ill., Dorsey Press, 1980).

G.R. Elton, The Practice of History (New York, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967)

Gertrude Himmelfrab, The New History and the Old (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1987)

Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1963)

Allen Johnson, The Historian and Historical Evidence (Washington, N.Y., Kennikat Press, 1965).

John Martin Vincent, Historical Research: An Outline of Theory and Practice (New York, Henry Holt, 1911).

Fred Morrow Fling, Outline of Historical Method (New York, Burt Franklin, 1971).

David Hackett Fischer, Historians Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Though (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1970).

Further Reading on the Philosophy of History:

John Cannon, ed., The Historian at Work (London, George Allen & Unwin, 1980).

Patrick Gardiner, Theories of History (New York, The Free Press, 1959).

D.W. Bebbington, Patterns in History: A Christian View (Downers Grove, Ill., InterVarsity Press, 1979).

W.H. Walsh, An Introduction to the Philosophy of History (London, Hutchinson, 1951).


The research methods employed in anthropology are particularly relevant to students of religion. To ensure reliability it is best to use triangulation. This means that a subject is approached from more than one perspective to allow the various angels from which we view the data to become self-correcting. Essentially, anthropological methods can be categorized as qualitative and quantitative research. The two primary methods of anthropology are extended life history interviews and participant observation.

The material gathered by these qualitative means is usually correlated against information gained from survey research, which provides quantitative data based on a probability sampling. These methods can then be supplemented with historical research, and the analysis of published sources, including tape recordings and videotapes.

1. Life History Research:

Extended life histories tend to yield valuable information about the development and self-perception of individuals which often is not readily discovered by the use of questionnaires [6] They also yield insight into the life and times of people and are provide cumulative information within a given social group.

The problems associated with such a method include the desire of individuals to present themselves in the best light possible and the sub-conscious tendency of people to selectively remember the past or reinterpret events from the perspective of the present. Apart from problems associated with the method itself important questions must be asked about why particular interviewees were selected and the criteria used for such selection.

In one study of Charismatic Churches in South Africa, 166 individuals were interviewed. Approximately 50 were selected by means of a snowball sample, another 56 because they were recognized as key informants, while the remaining 60 were chosen on the basis of a rough random sample of church members [7] All the interviews were conducted during two research trips to South Africa in 1987 and 1989. These interviews involved 40 pastors, 6 people recognized as "prophets," and 120 congregation members. Half of the congregation members were selected on a random sample basis. All the other interviewees were selected by means of non-random judgmental samples.

[6 Cf. James P. Spradley, The Ethnographic Interview, Holt Reinhart and Winston, New York, 1979; and Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978]

[7. The type of sample used is technically known as a systematic sample with a random start. Because we used a judgmental sample to select the congregations we studied the sample is not statistically valid for either South Africans generally or even South African Charismatics as a group. It offers a degree of reliability within the churches studied for those congregations only. The purpose, however, was not to gather quantitative data but, rather, to provide a check on the reliability of our qualitative data.]

2. Participant Observation:

Participant observation is a well-defined technique within social anthropology. Its main focus is the understanding of a social group through active participation in the life of the group [8]

In the study of South African Charismatic Churches participant observation meant studying 8 churches in Durban, 1 church in Chatsworth, 1 church in Richard's Bay, 1 church in Pietermaritzburg, 2 churches in Cape Town, 1 church in Stellenbosch, 1 church in Bloemfontein, 3 churches in Johannesburg and 1 church in Pretoria. The researchers also attended, as participant observers, Youth With A Mission's (YWAM's) Go Fest conference in Durban, the Durban Christian Center's 8th anniversary celebrations, an annual meeting of the International Fellowship of Christian Churches and a conference organized by Africa Enterprise.

[8. Cf. James P. Spradley, Participant Observation, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, New York, 1980; and Michael H. Agar, The Professional Stranger, Academic Press, London, 1980]

3. Content Analysis:

Is a technique used by Anthropologists and Historians alike. In the study of South African Charismatic Churches the use of published sources includes books, magazines, fugitive literature, tapes and videos etc. These were used in an attempt to understand the views of the informants and the groups being studied. In doing so it was necessary to read as widely as possible and used examples from this reading to illustrate findings discovered by other means. To the extent that literature is used as a source of direct information about individuals or groups it is important to attempt to use a random sample and apply the statistical techniques of content analysis.[9].

There are two major problems with literature which need to be recognized. First, anyone can walk into a bookstore and find a book which confirms their prejudices. Therefore, it is very easy to go to a church bookstore and find books like The Late Great Planet Earth.[10], which are easily criticized. The question which must be asked, however, is do these same bookstores carry more balanced books like Steven Travis' The Jesus Hope [11]. Many bookstores actually carry a wide range of books thus allowing visitors to confirm their prejudices whatever they may be.

Secondly, it is very important to study the social context within which any statement is made. Evangelical and Charismatic preachers often stress that the husband is "the head of the family." Taken at face value this could imply a very negative view of women. The important question therefore is how does this statement work out in practice? Many a preacher who seemingly takes a hard line on women's issues becomes very submissive when his working wife appears.

What is said in books or sermons must be understood within the social context where they are made. A statement that in one context may be reactionary can be radical in another. Therefore, the meaning of words must be seen in the life situation in which they are used. When this is done many of the "objectionable" statements made by Charismatic Christians turn out to be at least as liberal as the general culture surrounding them and often more so.

In the Charismatic study over 100 tapes of sermons were obtained for analysis. Half of these tapes were chosen on the basis of a judgmental sample for time period, social issues, and history of a particular church. The other half were chosen on a random sample basis.

In consultation with the people who ran bookstores or book tables in the churches studied a selection of popular titles was obtained. An attempt to make a list based on a very rough random sample from all the books in a given store was also made. In addition popular magazines and church publications were collected on the basis of a judgmental sample. Written "prophecies" and other relevant materials about these churches, for example, published biographies of founders, and so on were collected.

Finally, newspaper stories about Charismatic churches from the archives of the Daily News in Durban were collected. Additional stories were obtained from collections kept by the churches themselves and from the archives of Africa Enterprise in Pietermaritzburg.

[9. Cf. Earl Babbie, The Practice of Social Research, Wadsworth, Belmont, 1986, pp. 266-285; T.F. Carney, Content Analysis: A Technique for Systematic Inference from Communications, Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press, 1972]

[10. Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1970]

[11. Steven Travis, The Jesus Hope, London, Word, 1974]

4. Survey Research:

The use of questionnaires by sociologists and market research organizations have led many people to think that using a questionnaire to solicit the views of individuals is in itself true research. At the same time the use of questionnaires has become a popular way for Christian groups on many campuses to engage in evangelism. Every couple of years one evangelical Christian group or another appears on the campus of our university to conduct a "survey" about some religious issue.

The purpose of such a survey is to enable members of the Christian organization concerned to make contact with people who might be willing to attend their meetings. In other words the survey is a tool for evangelism. To maintain their credibility, however, the results of such surveys are often published in campus newspapers as though they were part of a scientific study.

Similarly, many market research organizations and other groups promoting particular product lines use a form of survey method. These "surveys" range from the use of questionnaires to things like the famous Pepsi test in shopping malls. Once again many, although not all, of these surveys are intended simply to draw attention to a particular product and have little or no scientific value.

The problem facing serious researchers is that the popularity of questionnaires to engage people in conversation leads many people, including the people who use them, to think that the results obtained by the use of any type of questionnaire equal legitimate social research. They do not [12]

Even today, is that few people understand the logic of survey research and many are impressed by the fact that someone used a questionnaire. Christians in particular seem to think that getting people to answer questions on a questionnaire is "social research." But, real research is much more rigorous and difficult because it depends upon both the scientific design of the questionnaire and the use of statistical methods in sampling. Doing valid survey research is not easy.

In the 1989 Charismatic study, with the help of local research assistants who obtained a small honorarium, questionnaires were distributed to 2 churches in Natal, 2 churches in the Cape, and 2 churches in the Transvaal. The congregations were selected on the basis of a judgmental sample but the individuals to which the questionnaires were given were selected randomly using church membership lists.

These questionnaires were prepared by Irving Hexham and adapted, with his permission, from the national survey used by Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby. Over 500 questionnaires were distributed and 260 returned. In this process a further 60 questionnaires, from the Glenridge Christian Fellowship, in Durban were lost by the postal service.

[12. The best general introduction to social research is Earl Babbie, The Practice of Social Research, Wadsworth, Belmont, 1986]

5. Official Statistics and Other Sources of Information:

For the Charismatic project basic socio-economic data on towns and cities was obtained from local town planning offices, the South African Census Office in Pretoria and the publications of private research organizations such as Jack Mark and Associates [13] Market and Opinion Surveys Ltd., the Center for Social and Development Studies at the University of Natal [14],. and the many publications of the South African Institute of Race Relations [15].

[13. Who publish: SA Barometer]

[14. Which publishes Indicator South Africa]

[15. The publisher of the annual Survey of Race Relations]

All of these sources have their limitations. Nevertheless, South African government, provincial, municipal and other sources are reasonably reliable. In using them to check our own work we found them generally reliable. It was also found that town planners and other officials contacted were both open and remarkably frank about the problems they faced as a result of years of mismanagement by a government obsessed with apartheid.


Following the approach used by Social and Cultural Anthropologists it seems that what people do is more important than what they say. That is implicit beliefs, found in actual behavior, are as much a subject for study as the explicit statements made by individuals about their beliefs.

Most Christians, however, think in terms of explicit beliefs and creedal statements which are usually taken at face value. Theology is based on the analysis of beliefs as they are found in the Bible, devotional works and books of theology. Theologians are trained to read texts that they then interpret according to exegetical techniques.

From experience with students it is clear that theological and other literary disciplines often make if very difficult for people to appreciate the methods of social scientists. It is, therefore, not surprising that when theologians discuss "sociology" they tend to mean the highly philosophical work of figures like Marx, Weber and Peter Berger [16]

Rarely, does one find a theologian engaging in serious dialogue with sociologists like Charles Glock [17] Rodney Stark [18] or Reginald Bibby [19] whose work is based on survey research and statistical analysis. Similarly, although a theological anthropology has developed over the last twenty years few Christians are seriously engaged in Anthropology as an academic discipline. Occasionally the works of an anthropologist like Mary Douglas may catch the imagination of a theologian but, generally, little or no effort is made to engage in, or understand, the discipline except for apologetic purposes.

One exception to this general picture of disciplinary apartheid is the annual Conference on Implicit Religion organized by Dr. Edward Bailey in England. For over twenty years he has encouraged the production of numerous papers and books examining what he calls "implicit religion," by which he means the actual practices and beliefs of people revealed by observing their actions not simply recording their words. Bailey is right when he argues that it is important to observe what people actually do, not simply analyze what they say [20].

[15. Cf. Charles Villa-Vicencio, Trapped in Apartheid: A Socio-Theological History of the English-Speaking Churches, New York, Maryknol, 1988]

[16. Cf. Charles Y. Glock and Rodney Stark, Religion and Society in Tension, Chicago, Rand McNally, 1965]

[17. Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985]

[18. Reginald Bibby, Fragmented Gods: The Poverty and Potential of Religion in Canada, Toronto, Irvin, 1987].

[19. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, Maryknoll, Orbis, 1979]

[20. Information on this group can be obtained from Dr. Edward Bailey, The Rectory, Winterbourne, Nr. Bristol, England].


Anthropology is the science of humanity, human biological origins, social and cultural behavior. In theology, it denotes that section of systematic theology dealing with man as a creature of God. As an academic discipline, Anthropology is generally divided between physical, Social and Cultural Anthropology and has traditionally concentrated on the study of remote, non-Western, societies. Increasingly, however, anthropological techniques are used to study modern industrialized societies. The roots of Anthropology go back beyond the Enlightenment and Romantic movement to the practice of Jesuit missionaries in 16th. century China. Later, inspired by such writers as Herder it developed in connection with the study of Folklore, Missionary endeavors and Colonial rule in the nineteenth century. Later it became a formal academic discipline under the guidance of people like Bastian, Frobenius, Boaz, and Malinowski.

In contrast to Anthropology, Sociology is generally seen as the study of modern society in a systematic and scientific manner. But, like Anthropology, many early sociologists, such as Weber and Durkheim also studied non-Western societies. The term, Sociology, was first used by the Positivist Philosopher Compt in 1830 but as an academic discipline Herbert Spencer first developed it in the late nineteenth century.

Generally, Sociology involves the application of statistical and other techniques to understand the way people act and think as members of Social Groups. Other figures regarded as the founders of Sociology are Tocqueville, Marx, Durkheim and Weber.

To a large extent the difference between Anthropology and Sociology is one of emphasis and preferred technique. Many of the theories used by both disciplines have common roots. In general Anthropologists concentrate on using qualitative methods involving intense participation in a society, while Sociologists concentrate on quantitative methods based on social surveys. Both disciplines use statistical analysis when appropriate and to a large extent compliment each other [21].


Observation: the systematic acquisition of evidence by methods designed to discover how people really act and what they actually believe. The great problem in observation is not to be fooled or to read into other people's actions or beliefs ideas of one's own.

Qualitative methods: are the use of techniques to study a society which involve intense involvement over a relatively long period of time which are often based on participant observation to gain insight into the workings of a society. Quantitative methods are techniques based on statistical sampling procedures and survey research to gain statistical data about a society.

Validity: a term used in both Sociology and Philosophy, i.e. in Logic, with somewhat different meanings. In Sociology validity refers to the validation of research through testing it against an independent standard or source or by the use of a variety of different methods to see if they produce essentially the same result. Thus for the Sociologist validity refers to the accuracy of their findings as they reflect the object of their study.

Bias: statistics bias is a technical term that refers to an inaccurate estimate of data leading to distortion. This must not be confused with the English usage which simply means a direction or slant. To operationalize is the first step in testing a theory is to identify ways of measuring the class of things referred to by each concept in the theory.

[21. These comments about sociological research are based on Rodney Stark, Sociology, Belmont, Wadsworth, fourth edition, pp. 15-20, 24, & 31-34].