On the Use of Footnotes

I guess my training as a church historian has turned me into something of a “footnote snob,” but few things are more troubling to me than the absence of footnotes in a quasi-historical work. But my snobbery extends beyond my own personal preference, I think everyone (historian, or not) should be troubled at the lack of citations for historical claims (be they endnote, footnote, or any other format, although footnotes are always to be preferred)!

This frustration was recently brought on by my reading of the otherwise enjoyable and informative God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (It is, after all, the 400 year anniversary of AV 1611.). It is truly a well-written book, but the absence of footnotes makes me suspicious of much of the analysis within the book. To be sure, this work was written for a popular audience for whom footnotes are often considered off-putting. Nevertheless, it is helpful to be able to check one’s sources to see if they are being used correctly. One statement in the book gave me pause. Nicolson states that Richard Clarke’s “collected sermons were said to be ‘a continent of mud'” (p. 99, that’s what I’m talking about). I was familiar with that phrase from my study of Baptist history as one made by Robert Hall of John Gill’s works. Seeing this quote applied to another who lived a century prior to Gill naturally caused me to wonder if this was a common phrase used in the 17th and 18th centuries or was Hall quoting this statement about Clarke’s sermons when he described Gill’s writings. Apparently neither. A quick Google search revealed that this quote appeared in an 1853 work by A. W. McClure titled The Translators Revived: A Biographical Memoir of the Authors of the English Version of the Bible (full-text available on Google Books). Nicolson seems to have drawn his statement about Clarke’s sermons from the following biographical sketch in this volume:

Dr. Clarke is spoken of as a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge; and as a very learned clergyman and eminent preacher. He was Vicar of Minster and Monkton in Thanet, and one of the six preachers of the cathedral church in Canterbury. He died in 1634. Three years after his death, a folio volume of his learned sermons was published. But alas for “folios” and learned sermons” in these days. When people look on such a thing, they are ready to exclaim, like Robert Hall, at the sight of Dr. Gill’s voluminous Commentary,–“What a continent of mud!” (p. 97)

Even a quick reading of the above quote reveals that this was never said directly about Clarke, but about Gill.

You may ask, “What’s the big deal?” Well, besides from the concern for accuracy, this highlights the need for footnotes in works of this nature. Of course, anyone can make an honest mistake. That’s not the point. The point is that if Nicolson misread the data at this point, how are we to know that he has not misread the data at other, more crucial places? There is simply no way to readily check the facts without proper citations being provided. As a historian, I always assume that the absence of footnotes is either sloppiness or a cover for someone playing fast and loose with the facts. Rightly or wrongly, this is the impression given and a simple citation would go a long way toward providing credibility.


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