Lord Acton’s Principle for Historical Scholarship

Lord Acton (1834-1902)—Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton—was one of the great historians of the nineteenth century. He was the holder of the Regius Chair of Modern History at the University of Oxford. Amazingly, he was appointed to the Chair in 1895 without a single book to his name, but he had written some of the most remarkable scholarly articles of the day. Among his principles was an insistence on the primacy of primary sources, which usually means archival sources, for sound historical scholarship. As he said:

“To renounce the pains and penalties of exhaustive research is to remain a victim to ill informed and designing writers, and to authorities that have worked for ages to build up the vast tradition of conventional mendacity. …By going from book to manuscript and from library to archive, we exchange doubt for certainty…”

Would that many wannabe historians and other historical pontificators would learn this vital principle! Even theologians would do well to heed this advice. All of those vacuous generalizations about church history and our culture with nary a shred of evidence! The ultimate result is vapidity. How easy it is to pontificate—but we want proof of assertions.