Analyzing Primary Source Documents

Learning Objectives

  • Describe methods for reading like a historian
  • Analyze primary source documents

Now that you’ve had a chance to work through a HAPPY Analysis, let’s try it again with a few other examples.

Watch It

First, watch this video to review each of the components in the HAPPY Analysis.

You can view the transcript for “HAPPY Document Analysis” here (opens in new window).


Fill out this HAPPY chart for the primary source reading below. This is an open-ended exercise, but you can use the spaces below to jot down your ideas.


Historical Context
  • Where and when was this source produced? Focus on how place and time affect its impact, message, and genesis.
  • Place it in the appropriate context – connect it with ideas before and after, or related events.


  • Who is the author’s intended audience?
  • How does the audience affect the validity of the document and its message? E.g., how might their message have been modified or shaped to suit their audience?


  • What is the author’s purpose and/or motivation for creating this source?
  • Is this intended to persuade or inform? Is this some sort of propaganda?
  • How does this affect reliability and validity?


Point of View
  • What do you know about the author’s background?
  • How does the author’s role in society and hierarchy affect their perspective?
  • How does this affect the reliability and validity of the source?


Why? (Significance)
  • What is the main idea the source is trying to convey?
  • Why is this source important to history?
  • Why does this source relate to your thesis and/or the prompt? (Remember to explain this in your writing.)

Critical Reading

When reading critically, you should circulate through these questions and techniques as you proceed. Normally, when we read casually, we start at the first word, read to the last word, and then put the writing away. But when reading critically, you will often need to read the material several times: perhaps once to start, then again to identify cues. You may want to read any difficult portions again slowly.

Once you think you have a good idea of what the author is saying, you should confirm that your theory is correct. Don’t simply assume that your first impression is complete. Look at the source again. What have you missed? What doesn’t fit with your understanding? What do you wish you knew? These are the areas to which you should pay extra attention. Particularly in historical sources, the author may be expressing a viewpoint that is radically different or alien to your own, one which it may take you several tries to process and identify. You don’t have to agree with the author, but you do need to understand what they say. The most important principle remains: keep returning to the material, identify any gaps in your understanding, and puzzle them out.

The critical reading and historical thinking skills you learn in this course can be applied to every message you encounter in life. Think of it as self-defense. If every author has a purpose, then every message they aim at you has a purpose too: whether they want you to buy something, to vote for someone, to believe something, or do something. You need to be able to clearly receive their message, and then to understand why it was sent and what it intends. Critical reading is a tool that enables you to process, comprehend, accept, and reject messages thoughtfully. If you can process the complex language and difficult viewpoints found in history, you can process anything.

Try It

In 1741 the Great Awakening preacher Jonathan Edwards delivered a famous sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” first in Northampton, Massachusetts and later in Enfield, Connecticut. As the title indicates, his purpose is to warn his listeners of their prospects for either salvation or damnation. As you closely read the excerpt, look for words that evoke visions of pain and suffering, and that seem intended to compel a sinner to take stock and repent.

Note that Edwards is practicing the art of rhetoric, or of choosing the right words and phrases to persuade a listener or reader to accept a given perspective and to act and respond in ways the speaker wishes to endorse. What does Edwards think is at stake in his effort to persuade, and why does this matter? What happens if one does or does not accept his reasoning? 

These paragraphs are taken from the section of Edwards’ sermon called the application, where hearers are called to take action. We should expect the speaker’s efforts at persuasion to come into sharp focus here as previous appeals are brought together and restated or emphasized anew. 

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor anything to take hold of: there is nothing between you and hell but the air; ’tis only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.

You probably are not sensible of this; you find you are kept out of hell, but don’t see the hand of God in it, but look at other things, as the good state of your bodily constitution, your care of your own life, and the means you use for your own preservation. But indeed these things are nothing; if God should withdraw his hand, they would avail no more to keep you from falling, than the thin air to hold up a person that is suspended in it….

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet ’tis nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment; ’tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep: and there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up; there is no other reason to be given why you han’t gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship: yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you don’t this very moment drop down into hell.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: ’tis a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell; you hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment…

And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has flung the door of mercy wide open, and stands in the door calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God […] And you children that are unconverted, don’t you know that you are going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of that God that is now angry with you every day, and every night? Will you be content to be the children of the devil, when so many other children in the land are converted, and are become the holy and happy children of the King of kings?

And let everyone that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God’s Word and providence. This acceptable year of the Lord, that is a day of such great favor to some, will doubtless be a day of as remarkable vengeance to others…

Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over great part of this congregation: let everyone fly out of Sodom. Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed [Genesis 19:17].