Friday, January 10, 2014

Essay


            Writing solid, well-researched history is a challenge. Success depends on persistence and serendipity. A narrow view of events will kill what may have been, given more attention to detail, an adequate history. Let me illustrate: Jehovah’s Witnesses: Proclamers of God’s Kingdom mentions Benjamin Wallace Keith once, saying: “Then, in 1864, Benjamin Wilson had published his Emphatic Diaglott with the interlinear reading “presence,” not “coming,” for pa·rou·si′a, and B. W. Keith, an associate of Barbour, had drawn it to the attention of Barbour and his associates.”

Keith was a contributor first to Herald of the Morning and then to Zion’s Watch Tower. He was one of their most prominent evangelists. But this is all the author chose to tell us, and it appears that this is all that he knew. When we wrote Nelson Barbour: The Millennium’s Forgotten Prophet we included Keith’s basic biography. We have enlarged it and new details will appear in A Separate Identity. Among the most basic facts is Keith’s statement that he entered the Barbourite movement in 1867. He gave the date only, no details.

Persistence and a willingness to see beyond Russell’s biography brought us solid details that help us reclaim Keith’s history and something of his personality. The latest detail is a single sentence article in a Philadelphia newspaper. It cited a New York newspapers report of a tent meeting held at Rochester, New York, in August 1867. While this only makes it to a footnote it adds detail we didn’t have. Can we place Keith at that tent meeting? No. But it was near Dansville, Keith’s residence. So while we cannot say with surety that Keith was converted at that tent meeting, we can present the likelihood.

Keith’s life was filled with accident and tragedy. He was a committed believer. He was a talented writer, but, unlike Sunderlin, he wasn’t educated for the ministry. He was a widely-read autodidact.

In another post, Rachael discusses myth busting. Detail trumps myth. The claim that various of Russell’s early associates were Millerites is the product of an imagination unrestrained by good judgment. Paton, Keith and most of the others were too young to have been Millerites. So what were they prior to their interest in Barbour’s speculations? We tell you. And to the extent we know, we tell you what attracted them to Barbour’s doctrines. We cannot penetrate the psyche of people long dead, leaving us dependent on what remains of their writing.

Another example of detail clarifying and enlarging the story is found in Russell’s association with the Plymouth Congregational Church. We’ve found fabricated details in an online encyclopedia, in dissertations, and in print. Zydeck made up details he couldn’t otherwise find. But with very little effort we found the name of the church, the names of the two pastors Russell knew, and its address. We found samples of the first pastor’s teaching. Knowing that Russell heard millennialist preaching as a young man furthers the story.

Not everything comes to us with ease. Some details resisted persistent and informed research. Uncovering Emeline Barbour’s basic biography came from a find by one of our blog readers. They sent us a link to a webpage. We contacted a librarian who in turn sent us a scan of a newspaper article. We exhausted all the New York papers we could search. We have what we have because of that assistance. It is detail we’ve probed for since 2005. Knowing what little of her biography we do places her in her proper light.

Unresolved is speculation that Barbour was previously married to a woman who died about 1870. The evidence is slight, almost non-existent. We do not mention our suspicion in Separate Identity. But we continue to look.

Recovering the biographies of the principal actors reconnects them to contemporary events. We see these details as key to a clear understanding of events and personalities. Those details that help us the most are those that explain an individual’s self-view. So there is Paton’s dream that he took for a vision; there’s Barbour’s fluffy cloud revelation, and there’s Russell’s plainly-stated self-view.

Such is historical research …

 

Now, if only people will read the book.

3 comments:

roberto said...

Dear Schulz
Thanks for your deep efforts and incomparable work.
I will read your book.
In you, Rachael, and Jerome I've seen the science and the art of writing history.

Brian said...

What I'm about to write is not intended as criticism - merely an observation.

And I will certainly buy the book...

My query relates to paragraph three of 'Essay' - and the example of 'solid details' about Keith's life.

Because a tent meeting took place at Rochester, NY in 1867, how can Keith be placed there? It just doesn't necessarily follow.
1) Was Keith correct in saying he entered the Barbourite movement in 1867? How many years after 1867 did he make this comment? The 'devil may be in the detail' but is this detail correct? I've written my auto-biography, but couldn't vouch for the accuracy of every date I've given. I've given a year for my baptism, but only because I link it with playing cricket at school - I traveled from London for one day during an assembly to play in a match - but I could be a year out.
2) We are given no facts about the meeting. Was it in fact a Barbourite meeting?
3) Why should we conclude Keith was there? He could have been doing something/anything else on that day.
4) Rochester is almost 60 miles from Dansville by road - and this is 1867. So he makes a round trip of more than 100 miles to attend a meeting? How did he even hear about it? What was the circulation area of the New York newspaper?

Unless there is more data than we have been told, perhaps this is hardly a 'solid detail'.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

There was a direct rail line between Dansville and Rochester. He didn't walk. He rode on a 50 mph train, a ride of slightly more than an hour.

Dansville was close enough on that basis that the Rochester papers carried Dansville news.

Other details will be in our book.