Sources for Historical Research

Historical research involves the investigation of the past through primary and secondary sources.  A primary source is any material (text, artifact, etc.) from the past that the historian studies directly.  Primary sources thus provide the direct evidence for historical investigation. 

Secondary sources are writings by historians that summarize, analyze, or interpret information gathered from primary sources.  Consulting secondary sources is essential because professional historians (past and present) have insights into primary source evidence that will guide our own thinking. 

Dr. Jeff Jue - Writing for Church History

Primary Resources

Primary sources provide a direct window on the past.  Although the study of some primary sources requires specialized skill (knowledge of other languages and cultures, archeological technique, etc.), most primary sources can be studied profitably by non-experts.  Because the direct evidence of primary sources is uninterpreted by secondary sources, primary sources “speak for themselves,” in a way that secondary sources do not.  For this reason they are of primary importance to historical study and are the primary focus of church history research at Westminster.

Examples of Primary Sources

Primary source material may include published or unpublished writings, personal letters, photographs, artifacts, audio or video recordings, interviews, personal testimony, or other materials that come directly from the past.  Examples include:

  • The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin
  • The Collected Writings of J. Gresham Machen
  • The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis
  • The Minutes of the Pennsylvania Legislature

Secondary Sources

No study of primary sources is complete without a complementary familiarity with the pertinent secondary source material. Secondary sources are useful:

  • To summarize the historical background for areas of study that the student does not have the time or expertise to investigate directly through the study of primary sources. 
  • To make the student aware of the findings and conclusions of professional historians, in dialogue with whom the process of research must proceed.
  • To help determine what historical question the research will strive to answer.
Examples of Secondary Sources

Secondary source material includes any scholarly writing that discusses, analyzes, or interprets the past.  The distinguishing mark of secondary sources is that they are not part of the history they discuss

Examples (corresponding to the primary sources listed above) include:

  • A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis, edited by David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback
  • Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America, by D.G. Hart
  • C.S. Lewis: A Biography, by Roger L. Green and Walter Hooper
  • History of Proprietary Government in Pennsylvania, by William Robert Shepherd


Other "Writing for Church History" topics:

Writing for Church History Home

Building a Foundation for Church History Writing

Common Problems in Church History Writing

Sample Paper Passage

Becoming a Theological Writer Home

CTW Home