During the last few years, and especially since COVID started, I’ve received my fair share of messages that link to videos or articles that claim to reveal “the scary truth they don’t want you to know about COVID” or “the truth about vaccines.” Usually the material is produced by well-meaning people who push back against the mainstream—be that conventional medicine or the media that are trying to promote a certain “narrative.”
My even more well-meaning friends who share the material often say they’ve simply been “doing their own research,” which is a buzz-phrase these days—a badge of honor that communicates a sort of independent thinking that questions the establishment and traditional sources of authority.
This sort of posture, especially prevalent in more conservative forms of Christianity, to a large extent has its origins in the nineteenth century, when most conservative Protestant denominations, including Adventism, began. In the wake of the Revolutionary War in America, and in conjunction with what is known as Scottish common-sense philosophy, Protestants in America embraced this “doing your own research” approach to life and faith.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, Protestantism, despite its claims to the “priesthood of all believers,” still very much took its cues from the elite, placing a premium on higher learning. Highly educated members of the clergy graduating from Harvard or Yale or Cambridge set the agenda both in the American colonies and back in Europe.
Everything changed after the Revolutionary War, however. Americans, realizing the power of the democratic spirit, laid siege to all traditional sources of authority, leaving no area of society untouched—especially in the religious realm. Americans vehemently came to oppose traditional forms of religious authority, rejecting creeds, theological education, and church history. “No creed but the Bible” became the mantra, and all one had to do to start a religious movement was have a Bible and the claim to a religious experience.
This became the norm for Protestantism in America. It seeped into our DNA, as new sects and denominations, all claiming to have recovered biblical truths that had been buried for 1,800 years, arose at breakneck speed. The Baptist farmer sitting by candlelight and studying the Bible by himself, uncovering long-hidden truths, epitomizes this era (and was a common story even outside of Adventism). This was the height of “doing your own research” and, along with a bit of charisma, could gain thousands of followers.
This dramatic shift, I would argue, was, and has been, a double-edged sword. Positively, it allowed for spiritual, theological, and biblical freedom that had never been enjoyed before, leading Christians to discover and rediscover truths that had been lost, neglected, or denied. It also took religious “power” out of the hands of the few, empowering all Christians to recognize they need not surrender their convictions or beliefs to any man.
But this all came with a price. It has led too many people to exaggerate their own abilities, encouraging a certain arrogance that maintained that they were, or could be, an expert on everything. It led them to look with great suspicion toward those who might actually know more than they did on a topic because of years of education. It also led to a hyper-individualized approach to faith and life, where a person’s independent opinion was worth more than the collective wisdom of church and society.
So today, when someone sends me one of those videos encouraging me to “do your own research,” I usually respond the same way: “I am not a scientist, nor will I ever be a scientist, and I have no way of determining if the science that your YouTuber presents is the truth, or whether the science he or she pushes back against is the truth.”
This is true for many other spheres of life and knowledge as well, about which I know very little—be it auto mechanics, politics, or sixteenth-century Protestantism. I don’t know everything, and there’s no shame in that—and at some point I’ll have to trust the word of experts who’ve spent a lot more time studying these matters than I have.
But that’s just as well, and it seems biblical. We are, according to Paul, a part of a body that has many different parts—each acting according to its gifting and ability (see 1 Cor. 12).
So yes, it’s fine to do our own research—and I’m not saying we need to naively follow everything anyone ever tells us. But such a pursuit needs to be accompanied by a deep humility that recognizes 1) our finite abilities and wisdom, and 2) that sometimes the reason people have been heralded as experts is because they actually are.
Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine, whose most recent book, The Table I Long For (Signs Publishing), details his and his church’s recent journey into a mission-centered life. He is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity.