Saturday, September 17, 2016

Writing History II

Writing History II

            Those who write about controversialist movements are often partisan or swayed by partisan statements. Having a point of view is ethical and acceptable. It is unethical to slant your writing to fit your point of view while ignoring contrary evidence.
            I see this most often in the thesis or dissertations written by wannabe sociologists and historians. They cite secondary sources without verifying accuracy. They do not weigh the merits of their sources. They are willing to uncritically accept the word of former adherents. Or they presume their conclusions are factual without verification.
            There are numbers of examples, but one that makes me frown is the attribution to the Adventists of every End-Times view. Adventism, especially original Millerite Adventism, has a very narrow doctrinal set. Belief in the return of Christ is First Century Doctrine, and seldom falls within the “Second Adventist” world view. In Zygumnt’s dissertation, individuals are called Millerites and old-time Millerites who weren’t born until decades later.
            Another example is the ready and uncritical acceptance of a ‘voice’ that supports a defamatory view. Many writers do this. The Brooklyn Eagle was in the early 20th Century little more than a yellow-journalism rag. It was unreliable, partisan and as willing to lie as any other newspaper. It was Catholic in outlook, and willing to trash without grounds any other point of view. Because its articles support a point of view, they’re repeated, quoted and referenced as if they were the first-hand observations of participants. They aren’t. They’re slanted and inaccurate.
            Quotations from New York State newspapers about the arrest of Jonas Wendell are quoted on the Internet without critical comment. All of them are derive from one source, and all of them are false. None of those citing these articles tried to find an original arrest record. (You can’t find one, because it didn’t happen.) None of them report Wendell’s denials, and none of them identify Miss Terry, the daughter of a Second Adventist family living in Connecticut. The story is there, maybe without enough original documentation to satisfy the very curious (who as I do, always want to know more), but with enough detail to tell an accurate story.
            One well-known historian and former adherent called Russell a plagiarist because he believed similarly to someone else. This is, as we point out in Separate Identity Vol. 1, a misuse of the word. If you write history, do not borrow other’s mistakes. Word definitions matter. You must know the definition of the words you use. And you must know connotation of words. It is unethical to use a word that implies a bad act without clear evidentiary warrant.
            Some writers begin with the assumption that the characters whose history they present were bad people. They don’t like the doctrine or philosophy of someone, so they portray them in the worst light possible. Ethically, a historian should presume that the least offensive cause for an act or belief is the correct one unless there is clear, first-hand evidence to the contrary. One of the Wesleys was accused of adultery, apparently without any grounds. And in his lifetime that was repeated but without evidence.
            Yes, some have bad motives. No-one is a true saint totally without blame in their life. A historian should not accept accusations at face value. An example we deal with in one of our books is the claim that Russell ‘stole’ the Herald of the Morning subscription list. Russell was co-owner. He paid to restart the magazine, purchasing the type for it and financing it when it did not pay its way. There are contemporary notices of his ownership. So this is a lie, fabricated by a former adherent who paints everything in the worst possible light – totally without evidence. This is a moral failing. It is wrong. And it is very poor work.
            The opposite problem exists. Some writers alter the facts to fit a prophetic scheme or set of religious doctrines. This is called Historical Idealism. It is as wrong to claim positive events and views that did not happen as it is to frame someone in a bad light without clear, valid, verifiable evidence.
            We will not stop this by what we write. People are not willing to abandoned narratives in which they’re personally invested ... that validate personal decisions they’ve made. But we can present an accurate history and let it contrast with the false narratives that circulate so widely.


Andrew said...


Thank you for reminding your blog readers of these very important characteristics of a good historian. They are timely for all of us interested in any kind of history, and in my own case, especially timely.

I am a Witness in a small mid-western town, and am currently writing a history of the local congregation, which I have now discovered, goes back to about 1898 or 1899. (Still not sure of the exact date.)

I am a scientist by training, and so writing history has been quite a challenge. Being an amateur, I have time and time again used your suggestions and example in making my project better than I ever thought it could be. It is nowhere near done, but reading your last two books, as well as daily visiting your blog, has helped me remedy several serious errors I made early in my research.

To cite an example, I made several mistakes when I began the project which you are constantly warning against. Several older members of my congregation, some over the age of 90 and one over the age of 100, helped me during the project's infancy. Several of the episodes they told me about from the early days of the congregation seemed incontrovertible. They seemed that way because everybody in the congregation corroborated the stories, and I made the amateurish mistake of believing their stories to be the truth, simply because everyone I talked to agreed with their testimony.

Of course, much of what they said was true, and was easily verified. But some of what they told me turned out to be classic examples of the "revisionist history" you have warned us about. Particularly in the case of relatives, the stories tended to be slanted toward the positive side, and were often slanted the other way in the case of other congregation members that did not get along with their families.

Several incidents critically important to the story turned out to be completely different than has been passed down for generations. I did not try to verify important details, because it seemed obvious that they must be true, since they had been repeated so often and by so many.

Sometimes finding the truth was as simple as reading a newspaper archive or an obituary. Sometimes it was interviewing someone who had moved away long ago who had no interest in perpetuating a local story, but provided me with evidence or atifiacts to clear certain matters up. In one case, I had to travel across the country to find an answer, but it was worth it. It is satisfying to be able to write an account that is accurate AND verifiable. It seems so simple, but not at all obvious to someone not trained in history. That is why your posts are so valuable.

I don't mean it is satisfying bursting someone's bubble. I have often discovered unsavory things that will never come to be in the project, but these facts often lead to greater clarity in other areas which will be included. On the other hand, sometimes I find episodes of incredible selflessness and compassion never before known widely, and they have made the project shine in a way that I could have never dreamed. In some cases, after discovering stories that are not relevant to the project, I have privately shared these details with descendants, who are often astonished and grateful to know the facts. This often leads them to assist me in the project, and several of these instances have led to contributions that I would have never otherwise have received. That is especially rewarding. And it has led to a more accurate history.

I want to thank you publicly for helping amateurs like me create better history that we could have without your example and guidance. I know I am still making mistakes. Keep the suggestions and warnings coming! We need them!

Any success I have in my project is partly your success as well. I wish I could express my gratitude in a more profound way, but all I have is a hearty "Thank you."

Andrew Grzadzielewski

Andrew Martin said...

This is another Andrew, also in the Midwest, who attempted a similar project many years ago (maybe 40?). After a series of interviews with first-hand participants, I abandoned the project, largely because of conflicting testimonies similar to the types you mentioned above. I figured that proceeding with the project would more than likely cause disruption among the various parties; and at the time, I did not have the benefit of truly understanding historical method.

I must admit that following this blog and reading "A Separate Identity" have greatly enhanced my understanding of the issues involved; it's a weighty responsibility to write accurate history.

"Writing History" was such a model of reasoning that I wish I could share it with others (although I wouldn't do such without express permission from the author). Today's essay "Writing History II" is one that goes even deeper into the subject, and one that merits further study.

Andrew, I'd love to compare notes with you on our various experiences, if you'd be comfortable with that. If you aren't, I totally understand that, too.

Isn't it supreme irony that the principles outlined in these two "Writing History" essays should be required reading for all political candidates this cycle?

Again, congratulations to R. de Vienne for an insightful article.

Gary Perkins said...

Thanks to Rachael for these two fascinating articles. Having researched a particular area of Bible Student/Witness history I can certainly relate to these comments.

I have an interest in conscientious objection and have worked on locating early Bible Students who were such in World War One Britain. Initially I started with the premise that every make Bible Student male of conscription age was a conscientious objector, a framework that is broadly correct. However, as numerous names and details were sent my way, usually from individuals who were 'friends of a friend', I realised that many of these individuals could not be verified from military or prison records. Likely many of these names were IBSA COs whose military records have been lost or destroyed - one archive source is referred to as the 'burnt records' and not without reason. But I decided it was only ethical to use records I could verify from an external source. This was, I know, disappointing to some informants, but enabled me to retain the respect of other researchers in this field who worked by similar principles.

One particular event which requires particular caution involves the use of Field Punishment No. 1, often referred to as 'cruxifiction' and involving a CO being hauled on to a post or gun carriage as part of his punishment for not obeying orders. I will spare the reader any further details. This particularly nasty punishment appears only to have been given in extreme circumstances to those disobeying orders who had been tried by Field General Court Martial while on active service in the field of combat. However, the punishment carries a powerful imagery, perhaps perpetuated by the religiously connected term 'crucifixion', that has been retained in community consciousness. So many times when being passed details of a particular IBSA CO I was "reliably" informed by my informants that this Bible Student had received this punishment. Usually it was apparent this could not have been the case since the man was never in an active combat zone. In other cases, where army records have survived, no such punishment is recorded. So far, I have only ever located three Bible Students who suffered this indignity. I am thankful to any who kindly referred names to me, but the episode illustrates the danger that Rachael highlights i.e. of uncritically accepting/repeating second hand sources. The following two scriptural principles seem to work well for any budding historians. (Matthew 18:16, John 20:25).

It might be worth adding that even reputable articles appearing in books, magazines and on websites sometimes carry misleading and unverified details. (Proverbs 14:15).

roberto said...


Andrew said...

Andrew Martin:

You can email me at grz (at)

Sha'el, if there is more appropriate way to share email addresses, please let me know.

Andrew Grzadzielewski