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Why Study History?

Reflecting on the Importance of the Past

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The interpretation of the past is at the core of many of today's divisive political and cultural debates. In this introductory textbook, accomplished historian John Fea shows how studying the past can help us understand the present world in which we live. Deep historical thinking has the potential to transform the lives of individuals and society, because it enables us to understand those with whom we differ on important issues. Studying history can relieve us of our narcissism; cultivate humility, hospitality, and love; and transform our lives more fully into the image of Jesus Christ.

Why Study History? explains why Christians should study history, how faith is brought to bear on our understanding of the past, and how studying the past can help us more effectively love God and others. Professors and students of history will value this unique, accessible introduction to the study of history and the historian's vocation.

1. What Do Historians Do?
2. In Search of a Usable Past
3. The Past Is a Foreign Country
4. Providence and History
5. Christian Resources for the Study of the Past
6. History for a Civil Society
7. The Power to Transform
8. So What Can You Do with a History Major?
Epilogue: History and the Church
Appendix: A Proposal for the Center for American History and a Civil Society


"John Fea is quickly becoming one of the most important voices in the up-and-coming generation of Christian historians. His reflections on the study of history brim with scholarly insight, age-old Christian wisdom, and practical advice. This book will be a great conversation starter in a wide array of Christian college classrooms."

Douglas A. Sweeney, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

"John Fea's Why Study History? performs a tremendous service for all students, teachers, and readers of history. His provocative, entertaining approach raises all the right questions about the historical vocation."

Thomas S. Kidd, professor of history, Baylor University

"John Fea's love of his craft is infectious and his knowledge of it inspiring. Serious readers of Why Study History? will find their own love and knowledge of history deepened in satisfying and fruitful ways. We are fortunate to have such a gifted public scholar in our midst."

Eric Miller, professor of history, Geneva College; author of Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch

"John Fea has written a splendid, engaging book at once erudite and accessible. Anyone interested in the craft of the historian or the relationship between historical inquiry and the life of faith stands to benefit from having this volume within reach."

Thomas Albert Howard, professor of humanities and history and Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics, Valparaiso University

"Professor Fea's scholarly integrity and theological insight ensure that Why Study History? will generate many hours of lively discussion on the relationship between Christian faith and the study of history. Fea challenges both the careless discourse that passes for historical inquiry among many Christian groups and the conventional norms of the discipline he clearly adores. Those seeking greater clarity regarding the intrinsic value of historical study and its proper appropriation would be hard pressed to find a more valuable resource than Why Study History?"

Arlin C. Migliazzo, professor of history, Whitworth University; editor of Teaching as an Act of Faith

The Author

  1. John Fea

    John Fea

    John Fea (PhD, State University of New York at Stony Brook) is distinguished professor of American history at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and executive editor of Current. He is the author of several books, including Believe Me:...

    Continue reading about John Fea


"[Fea] devotes himself not only to his own highly-regarded historical scholarship but also to training up new generations of historians. In this introduction to historical study from a Christian perspective, Fea shows how serious thinking about the past can equip believers to better serve God and neighbor."

Matt Reynolds,

Christianity Today

"[Fea] argues that believing that humans are created in God's image should encourage us to see glimpses of the sacred in human history. And the belief that all people are created in God's image mandates taking seriously the breadth of human experience across time. . . . Perhaps it is safer to just leave the past behind. But that is not [Fea's] recommendation. Fea even recommends the discipline of history to Christian undergraduates. . . . [Christians] should follow Fea's advice to examine aspects of the past that initially repel them. . . . Such encounters, Fea maintains, remind us that we are 'imperfect creatures in need of improvement and redemption.'"

John G. Turner,

Christian Century

"Fea provides a healthy counterblast to the dismissal of the value of history by so many Christians. . . . This book is primarily aimed at Christian students of history (and I will definitely recommend it to my students as they start their church historical studies) but a wider audience of thoughtful Christians can definitely also benefit from it. Hopefully it will help move at least a part of the church from the 'History is bunk' camp into a deep understanding of how valuing history can help us to serve the Lord Jesus in the here and now."

Phillip Scheepers,

Vox Reformata

"[Fea] is quickly becoming one of the foremost public Christian historians. . . . Why Study History? makes an informed and accessible case for why serious historical study of the past matters. While Fea's intended audience is Christian college students, his insights into the discipline and usefulness of good history are equally relevant to laypersons, seminary students, and ministers. Fea's love of history is contagious, and his writing benefits from a variety of personal stories, anecdotes, and practical ideas for developing an appreciation for history. . . . Those whose job it is to each history, especially from a Christian perspective or in a Christian context, will find refreshing and challenging Fea's embrace of 'the pursuit of history as a vocation.'. . . A reading group centered on Why Study History? would be a great way to foster the type of interactions between Christian historians and the public that Fea envisions."

John Inscore Essick,

Review and Expositor

"[This book] explores, brief and concise, the role of the historian: how a historian operates and what makes a good history. John Fea covers the major themes, controversies, and presents his ideas in a clear and rational manner. The unique thing about this particular [book] is that John Fea also presents it from a Christian perspective as well, and the struggles that can happen. This is the perfect book for any student thinking about majoring in history, and for the college seminar course in history. You will learn a lot about the craft, and how it is done reading this book. As a reader you will come away with a better understanding of the importance, and challenges, facing modern historians."

Kevin Winter,

Portland Book Review

"[An] excellent little book."

Malcolm Prentis,

Church Heritage

"A thoughtful, readable, and challenging book. Whether you are seeking entry into the historical profession or not, this book offers the general reader an apology for the importance of historical study. [Fea] has provided a word to the church and to the broader community that healthy churches and healthy communities cannot exist in the context of historical amnesia. This is, therefore, a book for our times, for we do live in the midst of a period of historical amnesia that threatens the future. May we heed John Fea's call to embrace the study of history--both professionally and as essential avocation."

Robert Cornwall,

Ponderings on a Faith Journey blog

"Fea offers a well-written, inviting, and fast-paced introduction to the study of history. He enriches his discussion with many historical examples, bringing to life not only the past but even the study of the past. He also approaches the topic from a Christian viewpoint, giving challenges particularly to Christian laypeople and Christian historians. . . . If you want an engaging, lucid introduction to the study of history, I would highly recommend this volume. It should be used frequently in introductory history courses, and it also merits a wider readership outside the academy, challenging all kinds of people today to think historically."

David Barshinger,

Exploring Church History blog

"From its opening chapter to its concluding comments, [this book] is chock full of sage counsel for budding historians, particularly Christian historians. Indeed the book contains a good deal of basic material for the novice student of history. Fea's advice arises out of the considerable time spent teaching students at the collegiate level the intricacies of American history. . . . While the book should find a ready audience as a student primer for the study of history, it also contains a good deal of general material useful for anyone who wishes to understand the work and legitimate goals of a historian. As such, a lover of the reading of history will find in this book some important ideas by which to evaluate the writers of history."

Jeff Straub,


"Very well done. . . . [Fea is] a top-notch scholar, a good teacher, and, in this case, offers an excellent overview of a Christian view of the study of history, and why it matters to us all. I hope this volume becomes very well known."

Byron Borger,

Hearts & Minds Books blog

"For a quick read, succinct and compelling and helpful, this simply can't be beat. . . . I wish that every academic discipline had such an introductory level book of such fine insight so admirably written. Kudos, John."

Byron Borger,

Hearts & Minds Books blog (named Why Study History? one of the "Best Books of 2013")

"A useful and insightful look into how the fields of history and theology intermingle. The book, written primarily for History students, explores the ideas of how history can, and is, looked at through the lens of theology. It also does the opposite by trying to help the reader appreciate theology by looking at it as a historian does. The book gives many tools for thinking about history and theology in these ways, and it accomplishes this in an interesting and purposeful way. . . . Anyone taking the Bible and biblical history serious[ly] will find many useful tools in the textbook."

Trent Nicholson,

blog (

"What is history? Why bother studying it? John Fea has written this accessible and jargon-free book to address these questions. . . . Fea writes with wisdom and insight and provides a helpful introduction of history [for] undergraduates and for those who would like to study history. . . . He obviously has a passion for history, and this passion comes through. . . . This book will help all budding historians be better historians."

Steve Bishop,

An Accidental Blog

"An enthusiastic declaration of the importance of studying history. . . . This accessible manuscript is peppered with stories from Fea's teaching and speaking gigs. But it's also learned, drawing from the best scholars in the evangelical world (Mark Noll, Robert McKenzie) and the broader academy (Sam Wineburg, Peter Novick, Carlo Ginzburg, Gordon Wood). Why Study History, written by an evangelical historian with a growing reputation as a public intellectual, is a terrific primer for undergraduates and should enjoy strong sales in historical methods and philosophy courses at religious colleges."

David Schwartz,

The Anxious Bench blog