Gordon Wood on the Threat of Presentism in Historical Studies

By Nathan A. Finn

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of reading Gordon Wood’s fine book The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (Penguin, 2008). The book is a collection of Wood’s published review essays of significant historical books written by others, most of which deal with American history during the Colonial Era and the Early Republic. It is a gem of a book.

In his introduction, Wood warns against the temptation toward presentism that is so common among so many historians.

But the present should not be the criterion for what we find in the past. Our perceptions and explanations of the past should not be directly shaped by the issues and problems of our own time. The best and most serious historians have come to know that, even when their original impulse to write history came from a pressing present problem. The best and most sophisticated histories of slavery and the best and most sophisticated histories of women soon broke loose from the immediate demands of the present and have sought to portray the past in its own context with all its complexity.

The more we study the events and situations in the past, the more complicated and complex we find them to be. The impulse of the best historians is always to penetrate ever more deeply into the circumstances of the past and to explain the complicated context of past events. The past in the hands of expert historians becomes a different world, a complicated world that requires considerable historical imagination to recover with any degree of accuracy. The complexity that we find in that different world comes with the realization that the participants were limited by forces that they did not understand or were even aware of—forces such as demographic movements, economic developments, or large-scale cultural patterns. The drama, indeed the tragedy, of history comes from our understanding the tension that existed between the conscious wills and intentions of the participants in the past and the underlying conditions that constrained their actions and shaped their future.

See Gordon S. Wood, The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (Penguin, 2008), pp. 10–11.


Nathan A. Finn is associate professor of historical theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC and a senior fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.