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
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. Watch Tower
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
newspaper. It cited a Philadelphia
newspapers report of a tent meeting held at 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. Rochester,
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
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. New
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.