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.