Monday, 26 September 2011

Sir Herbert Butterfield

Readers of this blog will no doubt know of Herbert Butterfield's lectures on Christianity and History, originally published in 1949. The Cambridge professor (and Methodist lay preacher) has been the subject of a number of studies, including C.T. McIntire's Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter (2004), but his public image will never look quite the same after Michael Bentley's new work, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield (CUP, 2011). Bentley has unearthed a set of private letters written by the historian to a woman with whom he had a passionate affair in the mid-1930s. The biographer resists the temptation to sensationalise his subject, and offers a sympathetic account of his religious and historical thought. By contrast, Stefan Collini's review in the TLS (19 and 26 August 2011) is kinder to Butterfield's adultery than to his providentialism.

As Collini points out, Butterfield's reputation as an historian has been in sharp decline. His Christian readership has also shrunk, certainly when set aside the immense popularity of his contemporary, C.S. Lewis. Lewis's childlike sense of wonder enjoys a greater appeal than Butterfield's world-weary cynicism. Yet Bentley makes the case for revisiting Butterfield's thought, for taking it seriously, and he deserves a fair hearing.

No comments:

Post a Comment