Building a Foundation for Church History Writing

Preliminary Steps

Step 1: Establish a Timeline

Because of the volume of primary and secondary material available, you will not be able to read everything before you write your paper.  It is therefore helpful to give yourself a deadline for finishing your research. 

Establishing a date after which you will stop gathering and reading material will allow you ample time to synthesize your research and write the paper.  For further help, see the sample organizational timeline.

Step 2: Clearly Identify a Question or Topic

You will have the least difficulty synthesizing your research into a paper outline if your research is narrowly focused upon a specific historical question

Here are some suggestions for narrowing your topic:

  • Choose a person, written work, doctrine, movement, or event to investigate.  If you select a general topic initially, allow your research to guide you to a narrower topic.  If you proceed in this manner, leave yourself extra time for analyzing your research and clarifying a specific research question.
  • Avoid choosing a topic that is either too complex or too simple.  You will not have time or space to discuss the forces that shaped American Evangelicalism.  Such a broad topic can only be treated in a lengthy monograph.  On the other hand, do not research a question so simple that its answer is a matter of general knowledge, requiring little research or verification.
  • Choose a topic that interests you.  Let your natural inquisitiveness guide your research.  You will be much more likely to do your research and writing well if you are enthusiastic about your topic. 

Establishing a foundation for Church History writingStep 3: Gather Primary and Secondary Material

Once you have clarified your topic, begin gathering your research material.  If you will be studying a particular author, read as much of his or her writing as possible, focusing on material that is relevant to your topic. 

Because you will be seeking to understand the world in which your author wrote (or in which your event took place), you should also seek out primary sources that tell you something about that world directly. 

For example, if you are studying J. Gresham Machen’s doctrine of the church, you would

  • investigate his writings about the church
  • investigate the writings of thinkers with whom he disagreed
  • consult biographical material to see if any of his experiences might have shaped his thinking.

Because you will inevitably be unable to answer every question by appealing to primary sources, gather secondary sources that discuss your topic. This material will supplement your study of the primary sources by familiarizing you with various scholarly interpretations of your topic. 

The easiest way to begin this secondary research is to search for your topic in the catalog of Westminster’s Montgomery Library.  Access to an extensive database of journal articles is available to Westminster students through the library website


Read Research Material Selectively

Not every piece of research you gather will be useful to you.  Carefully study sources that deal directly with your topic, but skim sources that are less directly related for useful information.  If a source looks to be only tangentially related to your topic, do not waste too much valuable time reading it.  When reading a book, utilize the table of contents and index to locate the specific information you need.  For more help on how to read strategically for research, see Becoming a More Demanding Reader.

Critically Analyze Your Sources

As you read through your sources, ask these questions of the material you are reading:

  • What appear to be the influences bearing upon your sources? 
  • What fundamental assumptions and commitments shape a writer’s statements? 
  • In what environment was a given work written, and how is that work shaped by and addressed to that environment? 
  • What is the relationship between theology and social environment for your topic? 
  • What factors account for the particular emphases and omissions of theological works? 
  • In what ways are the historical personalities you are studying conscious or unconscious of influences upon them? 

These and other related questions will prompt your critical thinking and lead to a well-researched thesis.  For more help on using research to construct a thesis, see formulating a thesis.

Other "Writing for Church History" topics:

Writing for Church History Home

Sources for Historical Research

Common Problems in Church History Writing

Sample Paper Passage


Becoming a Theological Writer Home

CTW Home