Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A historian's rant ...

Some of those who read this blog do not seem to understand how history is researched and written. Some explanations may help.

Research is guided serendipity. It’s a series of progressively more educated guesses that lead one to new resources. The most frustrating part of research is being denied access to material. We know that key events that do not appear in any history of the Watch Tower movement are discussed in Pittsburgh newspapers between 1877 and 1883. We have references to those articles from other sources. The Pittsburgh Public Library does not send out microfilms through Interlibrary Loan. We haven’t found the material elsewhere yet. We keep chipping at it. One of the articles was picked up by other papers, and we found it reprinted in a Chicago newspaper. But there is an interchange between Russell and a clergyman, controversial material connected to a series of lectures, and other mater we have yet to see.

Does this mean we “don’t write” until we see this material. No. That’s would be silly. Writing up what we have found helps us organize our thoughts and plan additional research. Our newly released book on Nelson Barbour started life as a short article for a history journal. It was supposed to be less than ten thousand words long, not counting end notes. Four re-writes later, it was apparent that we had a book developing. We abandoned the article and focused on the research. The original article became two chapters, then three and finally the 176 page book.

Writing isn’t a one shot process. It’s a series of re-writes followed by additional thought and additional research. One asks themselves, “Why don’t we know this?” or “Where can I find that?” Old conclusions melt away or go up in smoke. Cherished stories are sometimes found to be myth. One finds unexpected insights into personalities.

Inexperienced writers see their words as their children. Neither Rachael nor I are inexperienced. Rachael writes fantasy fiction. I write young adult fiction under another name. (No, I won’t tell you what name. Let’s not cloud the issue with extraneous things. Both my fiction and my history stand on their own.) Words are tools, not children. You don’t murder your child when you edit out a word, a sentence, a paragraph, or most of a chapter. Editing is part of writing. Rethinking historical issues works best if you write up what you know. You may dump it all into a shredder as your research progresses, but it helps you think.

That’s why you see preliminary snippets on this blog. We’re thinking it through. You get to see where we are. We get your input, though most often our posts just sit here with no comments.

We get just enough input to be helpful. A photo of Calista Downing, the first Watch Tower missionary in China came our way through a blog comment.

We do not question your beliefs. Some of those who read our blog are Bible Students –Russellites, to use the pejorative term. Some are Jehovah’s Witnesses; some were Jehovah’s Witnesses but are not now. Some readers have anti-Russell agendas. Some don’t. This blog isn’t here to support a party. It’s here to support what we see as the first real effort to document Watch Tower history in a public and professional way.

Some do not see our efforts in this light. Rachael was attacked on one of the forums for even considering writing about Barbour because he was a villain and not worth notice. Brother Russell said so. A person whose articles you may have read in a well-known religious periodical no longer counts me as his friend because an accurate history portrays ‘the truth’ in a bad light, as less than divine. At least that’s his opinion. I’ve been disfellowshipped from his email list. In his view, if I’m not a dangerous apostate I soon will be because I dare to write a detailed history of Zion’s Watch Tower’s early years and discuss influences on and the back ground to the acts of early believers.

I am no such thing, of course. But he thinks I am. In his view the only proper thing to do with my research is to write it up and send it to the publishers of his magazine where it can be filed with other similar research reports.

A few anti-Witness readers do not have their comments posted. They’re obnoxious and stupidly uninformed.

So, we’ve managed to upset people from every interest group. We must be doing something right.

Our sole interest is in an accurate presentation of Watch Tower history as it can be known. We limit speculation, and if we choose to include it, we label it as such. There are any number of suppositions we will not include. For instance, we suspect on what we feel is sufficient grounds that two of Russell’s early associates had a years-long extra marital affair. We do not have definitive proof – only hints from circumstances and documents. We will never include this unless we can irrefutably prove it. I believe it happened. It’s not history until we can document it. Because of the nature of hidden affairs, we will probably never have more than a suspicion. We won’t name names, though they’re both dead for nearly a century.

Watch Tower opponents puzzle me the most. I’m writing narrowly of those who produce anti-Russell propaganda. We find contrived quotations. We found one book, now out of print, that ends a quotation from one of the Watch Tower publications in the middle of a sentence, changing the meaning of the paragraph. This is wrong. Worse, it’s silly. If you want to oppose, feel free to do so. Debate is a healthy thing. You automatically lose the debate when you lie. Sooner or later someone will ask you where you found that ‘quotation.’ Alas, you made it up. Bad boy.

I don’t mean to denigrate the efforts of those who produced the various ‘histories,’ but most are partisan efforts. Some of them are fable; some are polemic; most are self-serving. All of them omit key facts, and it is often the omission the skews the story. I usually avoid naming names. I won’t break that rule in this post, but I will say that there are two writers out there with history degrees whose books on the early history of Zion’s Watch Tower and it’s more modern adherents (Witnesses and Bible Student groups) do not deserve the name of ‘history.’

There are sociological studies, recent and quite old, that would not pass muster as a first year paper in any reputable university. If you’ve read Stroup’s book, you know what I mean.

Our goal is to tell the history as accurately as possible and with sufficient detail that a clear picture of it can be seen. (Yes, I know that’s a mixed metaphor. Sometimes you have to break some eggs to stir the pot! – You may laugh at that. The joke is intentional.) We’re not writing to support your faith or tear it down. We do not write to feed your anti-Witness propaganda mill. We do not write to hold Russell up as the Faithful Slave. We do not write to prove your religion true or false. We only write to tell the story in a way that allows us to say, “Yes, that’s how it happened, and to the extent we can know it, that’s why it happened.”

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