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More to life than Whig history

28 February 2012

John Nurser reflects on a devout don who made his name young

Methodist: Herbert Butterfield as a young Cambridge don FAMILY COLLECTION, BY PERMISSION OF ANDREW BUTTERFIELD

Methodist: Herbert Butterfield as a young Cambridge don FAMILY COLLECTION, BY PERMISSION OF ANDREW BUTTERFIELD

The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: History, science and God
Michael Bentley

Cambridge University Press £50 (978-1-10700-397-2)
Church Times Bookshop £45

THIS is, appropriately, a study of the man who pioneered the modern understanding of historiography in the early 1950s, by a leading specialist in this field, now working from Oxford. In the past two decades, historians have recognised it as of central intellectual im­portance.

Herbert Butterfield was one of the biggest public names in Chris­tian apologetic in the immediate post-war years. He was well-known as a committed Methodist layman, and he remained (too) open to invitations to give talks, or a series for schools radio, or holding office in, e.g., the Historical Association. In 1949, he published two successful books: a pioneering The Origins of Modern Science, and Christianity and History.

His intermeshing of “history, science, and God” offered “reconciliation” as the sovereign fruit of historiography. Lord Acton (a significant “great man” throughout Butterfield’s life) had hoped that the sectarian chasm between Protestant and Catholic histories of the Reformation might at least be ameliorated by common respect for “scientific” historical method. Butterfield’s historiography found this too simple. His faith made strong assertions of God’s providence and of human cupidity.

Butterfield’s “thought” is expertly explored, especially in the unsignposted decade after his Whig Interpretation of History (1931). Bentley found himself faced with the problem that Butterfield himself faced in his determination to get to grips with Acton. Both left boxes of papers — often with no clue as to context or date — in the manuscript collections of the Cambridge University Library.

Butterfield’s “life” sits somewhat less easily. Bentley sets out the ambiguities of Butterfield’s assessment of Hitler within his lifelong love of Germany, and by chance discovered unforeseen evidence of a sexual affair through the mid-1930s and of the joy it gave him. It was a strangely encapsulated life-story; for 19 years in a Brontë village (with school in Keighley), then a scholarship in history to Peterhouse, where he remained as Fellow, then Regius Professor and (from 1955, after the devastating suicide of his middle son) Master.

The trajectory of Butterfield’s influence on the great issues that preoccupied him was largely interrupted by the secular and Pelagian fireworks of the 1960s. Its time may have come again.

The Revd John Nurser is a former Dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

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