On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #68

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After a four hour work session this morning I think I am ready to start writing Chapter Four: “A Bible for Every American Family.”  This morning I read a few more articles in the anti-benevolent society, anti-ABS periodical The Reformer.  This periodical has helped me to better understand the opposition to the General Supply (1829-1831) and the opposition to the ABS in general.  (See yesterday’s post).

I also finished organizing my notes for this chapter and established an outline.  Here is what I have so far:

I.  Early examples of auxiliaries trying to supply everyone in their locales with a Bible

II. Production:  How the ABS Bible House at 72 Nassau Street in New York prepared for the General Supply

III. The role of auxiliaries in the General Supply

IV. Special General Supply agents and their stories

V.  The announcement of the General Supply

VI.  Progress and resistance:  1829

VII:  Progress and resistance: 1830

VIII. Progress and resistance:  1831

IX.  The ABS assesses the General Supply

Writing commences tomorrow morning.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #51


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I wish I had something more exciting news to report today, but I spent most of the day in meetings at Messiah College. However:

1.  I did get some time to organize my notes for the third chapter
2.  I had a fruitful e-mail exchange with a publisher.
3.  I cleared some space for a final summer visit to the ABS archives later this week

Stay tuned…

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #50

Mark Twain visited the ABS in 1867

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Before I get started today, I want to thank the hundreds and hundreds of you who have been following these posts.  This series has become one of the most popular things we have ever done here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

With another partial week in the American Bible Society archives complete, I need to start refocusing my work life.  The new semester at Messiah College is almost here and as the chair of the History Department there is a lot of work to do before the students arrive later this month.

So what does this mean for the ABS project?  It means that I am facing some unique challenges as I try to balance steady work on this book with my numerous responsibilities as a teacher and an department administrator.  This will probably mean some very early mornings.  It will be essential that I get in several hours of writing and research a day if I want to meet the May 1, 2015 deadline for delivering the manuscript to a yet-to-be-determined publisher.

Last week I spent three productive days in New York.  Chapter Three, tentatively titled “A Bible for Every American,” is ready to be written.  So is Chapter Four: “The Bible is the Religion of Protestants.”  I am hoping to get a few more days in New York this week to finish the research for Chapter Five: “A Bible House Divided.”  Finally, all the research for chapters on the late 19th century are complete.  Thanks again to Katie Garland for her work on this period.  

Stay tuned.  We are making progress but at this point it is hard to tell if we are making good progress.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #48

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I am back in New York for a few days continuing my research at the American Bible Society.  When I was at the ABS last month I was reading letters and documents about the ABS and slavery.  I hope to return to that material by the end of the day today or tomorrow.  But yesterday I revisited the period of 1829-1831, the time of the ABS “General Supply.”  As I have written in previous posts, the “General Supply” was the ABS’s attempt to provide a copy of the Bible for every American family.  And did I mention that they wanted to do this in two years?  

Since I am in the process of writing my chapter on the General Supply I am combing the archives reading every piece of documentation I can find from that two-year period.  This includes letters from state and local Bible societies (auxiliaries), letters written by specially appointed ABS agents as they traverse the country distributing Bibles, and official records and meeting minutes of the ABS that focus specifically on the General Supply. 

On the publishing front I had some good news and bad news yesterday.  I got a very strong bite from a commercial/trade/religious press.  But my proposal was turned down by a literary agent and a university press.   My guess is that literary agents think it will be difficult to sell an institutional religious history to a major trade press.  Most university presses are very interested in the project, but are just not equipped to deliver a book in one year. 

Sometimes I wonder why I took on this project.  Who is crazy enough to write an accessible scholarly history of a 200-year old organization in one year?  I am enjoying the work, but I wish I had more time. 

On Writing a History of the American Bible Society–Update #17

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The American Bible Society (ABS) project rolls on.  Today I spent a lot more time in the ABS Annual Reports from the first decade of its existence.  I think I am ready to outline the first chapter tomorrow morning and, if all goes well, start writing it.

In today’s post I will give you a taste of the kind of things I am finding in a typical ABS annual report.  Here is an extract from a letter written from Ward Stafford to the ABS headquarters in New York City on August 21, 1821.  Stafford is an ABS field agent who is traveling through New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia distributing Bibles and organizing local Bible societies.  He writes from Moorfields, Hardy County, Virginia:

“I perceived I must ride at least a part of one night on my way over the mountain from Woodstock to Moorfields. A circumstance occurred in the edge of the evening, which prevented my reaching the place I had intended.  In the woods, at a considerable distance from any dwelling, my attention was suddenly arrested by a cry from behind me, calling to me to stop, in a tone of voice which I did not much like.  I turned, and saw a man at a distance riding at full speed, with a gun on his shoulder  He had not got so near me that I thought it prudent to wait till he came up.  As he approached, I perceived that he had a long knife in a sheath hanging before him.  It was in vain to regret that I had not at first given the reins to my horse.  Fully believing, from his whole appearance and conduct, that he designed evil, I fixed my eye intently upon him, and asked him, what he wanted.  He replied that he was going the same way, and wished to have my company.  My fears instantly vanished, when I perceived from his manner of speaking, that he was partially intoxicated.  He said he had been to sell some cattle at a distance, and was returning.  I endeavoured to give him some good advice, but found he was a complete fatalist.  He observed, that if he should kill a man, he could not help it, and should not be accountable.  He inquired how far I intended to that night, and on being informed, said he was going near the same place.  

Want to know the result of Stafford’s encounter with this heavily-armed intoxicated cattle-dealer?  You will need to read the book when it comes out in May 2016!

On Writing a History of the American Bible Society–Update #14

Where I “worked” this weekend

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It is easy to become obsessed with a writing project.  

This weekend I did not read anything related to my American Bible Society project.  I spent most of the weekend relaxing at my parents’ house in New Jersey while my wife and daughters were visiting my in-laws in Colorado.  But I still got work done. The more I study the history of the American Bible Society the more it consumes my thoughts.  I think about the American Bible Society in the shower, while I lay in bed at night, while I am watching a soccer match, and when I am driving.  

Questions abound:  How should I organize the book? How does the American Bible Society fit with larger patterns in American history and culture?  How should I organize the first chapter?  Have I read enough secondary material to start writing?  Am I using my research assistants effectively? How do I balance the intense focus needed to complete this project with the attention that must be paid to the rest of my life, especially my family?  

And more questions arise as I dig into more source material.  This is how research works.

Right now I am in the zone. I am thinking constantly about the project and feel very productive. But what will happen in September when the academic year starts and I will not have as much time to devote to the project? 

The thinking, ruminating, anxiety, and questioning are all part of the work of writing a book.  So while I did not look at any ABS Annual Reports this weekend, I did feel like I had a productive weekend.  

I hope to start writing the first chapter this week.  Stay tuned.

Millions of New York History Records Available Free Online

I just saw this article at The New York Times:

An index to more than 10 million New York City birth, marriage and death records from 1866 to 1948 is available free online thanks to a collaboration between the city’s Department of Records and Ancestry.com.
While access to the index is free, the documents themselves must be purchased from the city.
“When researching the American side of your family history, the likelihood of an ancestor either living in New York City or immigrating through it is very high,” said Todd Godfrey, director of content acquisition at Ancestry.com.
“We are pleased to have teamed up with Ancestry.com in making this easily searchable index of New York City’s vital records available online for free,” said Eileen Flannelly, commissioner of the city’s Records Department. The indexes were created by volunteers from the Italian Genealogical Group and the German Genealogy Group, Ms. Flannelly said.
The index can be found here. (This is a different, better link than the one originally published here.)

Thaddeus Stevens Did Not Say That

Jay Case, writing at his blog “The Circuit Reader,” debunks the notion that Thaddeus Stevens uttered these words about Abraham Lincoln:

“The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” 

According to Case, James Scovel, a New Jersey state senator during the Civil War, is to blame for putting this false quotation into circulation.  Here is a taste of his very interesting post:

When I first saw the film, I figured that Spielberg or one of the writer’s had made the quote up.    It didn’t fit with what I know Stevens, who had been a harsh critic of Lincoln for years.  I couldn’t imagine Stevens calling Lincoln “pure” unless he said it sarcastically.Would Thaddeus Stevens have taken kindly to getting misquoted?
Then I did a quick internet search and discovered that Thaddeus Stevens really did say this.  The internet sites referenced a couple of books by historians.  Oh.  OK.

But……I was still a bit suspicious because, well, I am a product of graduate school.  I started digging a bit more.  I knew the film took a lot from Doris Kearns Goodwin, so I checked out, Team of Rivals.  I couldn’t find the quote there.  I went back to the internet and found several people referencing a book entitled Thaddeus Stevens and the Fight for Negro Rights by somebody named Milton Meltzer.  I was not familiar with him or the book.  So I kept looking.

Then on an Amazon site I saw that Paul D. Wolfowitz had written that the quote came from someone else.  What a minute.  That Paul D. Wolfowitz?  The deputy Defense secretary under Bush, who pushed so hard to get us into Iraq, has been spending time on Amazon critiquing books about Lincoln?  Or is it just somebody else who says  they were Paul D. Wolfowitz?  Either way, I had trust issues here.  So I had to dig some more.

I found Meltzer’s book.  He wrote books for young adults, so his book did not have footnotes.  Auuggh.  This is why we need footnotes.  I checked Allen Guelzo’s biography, Redeemer President.   He had the quote and his footnote referred to a book by Fawn Brodie.  I checked David Donald’s acclaimed biography of Lincoln and he also had the quote.  He referenced Fawn Brodie.  (This happens:  sometimes historians just quote one another if they have a clever little piece of history).  So I tracked down Fawn Brodie, who wrote Thaddeus Stevens:  Scourge of the South  in 1959.  She had the quote, which she got from an article on Thaddeus Stevens published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in April, 1898.  In that article James M. Scovel attributed the above quote to Stevens.  Paul D. Wolfowitz, even if it was a fake Paul D. Wolfowitz, was right.

That’s it.  As near as I can tell, all roads lead back to James Scovel.  Stevens died in 1868, but I can’t find any other source that gets the quote any closer to him than Scovel’s 1898 recollection.

Who was James Scovel?

Read the rest here.  This is some serious detective work.