A Historian Looks at Miracles

            How can we account for reports of miracles that violate our experience of the physical universe? As a trained historian, I always emphasize that the "rules" of the discipline make it impossible to "prove" historically a miraculous event. Such events are fundamentally in the realm of faith and belief in a God who engages human experience in time and space. To illustrate my point, I tell my grandfather's account of a miracle in his life when he was a young fundamentalist preacher.

            In the mid-1920s, Grandpa was returning to North Carolina after two years of study at a Bible college in Pasadena, California, traveling in a Model-T Ford with another recent graduate from his class. As they traveled, they would stop and preach in small towns, and displayed exhortations to get right with God on the back bumper of the car. As they traveled over the Rockies, the car overheated and the radiator water spilled out. They refilled it from a mountain spring, and the reaction of the overheated metal to the icy cold spring water cracked the radiator block down the middle. Miles from any town, they filled the bottles they had, and one sat on the hood of the car, trying in vain to fill the radiator that would no longer hold water, as the other tried to drive. Finally, in desperation, Grandpa observed to his friend that if God could heal bodies, surely God could heal a car. So they knelt by the car radiator, laid hands on it, and prayed for God's intervention. Then as they had agreed, they would simply get in the car and drive to the next town (about 15 miles away). They made it to the next town, and pulled into the garage to seek help. The mechanic looked at their radiator, agreed that the radiator had cracked (because there was a scar-like seam that ran down it), but it was holding water, and the engine was working fine. They made the rest of the journey to NC without problems.

            That summer, at the annual "camp meeting" revival in Greensboro, NC Grandpa decided that he needed to sell the Model-T, and put an ad in the paper. An unbeliever came to the camp meeting grounds, decided to buy the vehicle and paid the agreed amount. Grandpa "testified" to the man, explaining the miracle of the radiator healing, and showed him the sealed-up seam that ran the length of the radiator. The buyer expressed his contempt, and made a display of ripping the religious bumper stickers off the back of the car, stating in vivid terms that he did not believe any of the story Grandpa told him. He got in car and drove off the camp meeting grounds. Within a few hundred feet a trail of water was left on the road, and the man reportedly had to pull into a garage not many miles from where he purchased the car, and replace the radiator. Grandpa and friends heard about this second miracle, went to the garage, and found that the old seam had opened up, and would no longer hold water.

            I finish telling that story, and observe to the class that I believe the story to be "true" because I know my grandfather was a truthful man, and would not lie about such an experience. But then I ask students if that is a "historical" event. We talk about the way in which the account fits the plotline of many hagiographical accounts of miracles (though Grandpa would not have understood the term). I help my students understand the distinction between the historic "reports" of the miraculous and the historic impact of those claims on the faith community. But I always emphasize the event itself remains in the realm of faith, and not "historically" verifiable ...

Kenneth Parker kennethlparker@gmail.com

Reflection questions:

- Is this story  “true” just because “my grandfather was a truthful man?”
- Would you agree that this “miracle” is “not historically verifiable?”
- If this miracle is not “historically verifiable” what is it then? Fiction?
- What is the dimension of faith in this story? Do you believe it?

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