On History

Three random things occurred this week that reminded me of how history can be obscured.

We Have to Dig

Reading my Alumni magazine, “Mason Spirit”, I was delighted to read the story of Bobbi Bowman and her discovery of her ancestor’s struggle. 1

In antebellum Virginia, it was legal to buy oneself out of slavery, so long as one left the state once becoming emancipated. For fifteen years William Williamson fought for the right to remain on his farm in Virginia, to remain with his wife and children, who were owned by a man on a nearby farm. When Williamson failed, he sold himself and his farm to Thomas Rosser, a master he had chosen. This was in 1857.

Williamson died a little more than two decades later. By that time he and his family had become free because of the 1863 abolition of slavery throughout the United States. But Rosser still owned the farm the family lived on.

But Williamson’s faith in Thomas Rosser was not ill-placed. With Williamson dead, Rosser could have sold the farm to anyone. Instead, Rosser deeded the farm over to Williamson’s widow. But this epic struggle and Rosser’s integrity had been lost to time, until Bobbi Bowman happened to look through the deed records for ancestral names at the Campbell County courthouse. Ms. Bowman’s willingness to dig has blessed both her family and the family of Thomas Rosser.

Records can be Wrong

This month my mother died. The day after her passing, my sister, Lucinda, and I went to the mortuary to finalize burial arrangements and give information for the death certificate. Along the way, we indicated that another sister, Tricia, had been identified as the prospective personal representative (executor). Since the executor would need the copies of the death certifcate, we provided Tricia’s mailing address for copies.

When we got the death certificate, we saw that it lists Tricia as the informant. She wasn’t. But it caused me to reflect on the various documents I’ve looked at in my own search of history. How often was a wrong thing documented? Each error could have seemed innocent or insignificant at the time, but the accumulation of errors can sometimes lead us to entirely wrong reconstructions of history.

Fiction (Often) Takes Liberties

We have watched quite a few movies of late. In some of the fictional worlds, the entire world is created. This is the case in shows like the Star Wars universe or the Middle Earth universe, where there is nothing that indicates those universes have any connection with the real world.

Other fiction is built on the real world. The Twilight saga takes place in a contemporary version of the real world where there just happen to be vampires and individuals who can transform themselves into wolves (and where there are also separately werewolves). The Divergent trilogy takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of our world. The Hunger Games movies similarly take place in a post-apocalyptic version of our world. Grand dramatic arcs can be constructed in these variants of the real world, as many of the dramatic elements are contingent on the fantastical elements of the world the author has created.

Then there is fiction that we are told is a valid story in our world. This is where I struggle the most. Each creator in this space is trying to create a space where the viewer can escape and enjoy a rollercoaster of emotion while safely ensconced in a seat or couch.

Troop Zero is one such recent offering, touted as heart-warming. The dramatic arc of the story is quite satisfying. But in order to achieve this arc, the story significantly mis-represents history.

Take Away

I would that we would recognize that historical documents sometimes contain error. However deeply moving stories can be found by a bit of digging. If we fill our minds with popular entertainment, we risk yearning for imaginary worlds and even becoming grossly misinformed about the actual world in which we live.

Notes:

  1. Clark, Mary Lee, “Mason Student Featured for Her Family’s Deep History”, Mason Spirit, Summer 2020, p. 5.
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

18 thoughts on “On History

  1. Very nice article; very nice story. It is good to read a nice story with a good ending.

    I have found errors in many documents…..not only during genealogy research…..my children’s birth certificates had to be corrected…..and after 36 years of marriage I discovered, by accident a few weeks ago, that the date of my wedding was recorded wrong by the state we were married in. Now I have to correct that and luckily I live in the state where I was married.

    I don’t comment much but I enjoy reading the articles on this site. The authors of the articles try to be objective, fair, truthful, reasonable and sane. Too many so called LDS blogs have become downright awful.

  2. Thanks, with the ease of doing genealogy today, especially on Family Search, a lot of sloppiness is entering into the fray. My wife stopped doing work, because several others continually replace her quality work with nonsense. She’s written them, insisting that she knows more about her own grandmother than they would. But they persist. So, she has her own software on her own computer to keep her own files.

    As for historical fiction, it can be very useful at times. Story lines that we find in 1984, Brave New World, Atlas Shrugged, and even Hunger Games, can reflect where civilization is heading.

    In today’s society where free love for all (including children) is , wgaining in strength (Brave New World), and where Alexandria Ocasio Cortez wants us to get rid of planes and instead use trains (Atlas Shrugged), and socialism seems to be the panacea of the liberals and include thought crimes (1984), we can see possible roads we are traveling. And it can be scary, as we realize just how willingly mortals are to travel down those roads.

    Remember, most people still cannot believe how someone like Hitler was able to brainwash an entire society to believe he was a Messiah who would lead them into the Millennium (Third Reich), or that it would be okay to torture, harm, or denigrate others due to their Jewishness. Yet, we still see embers glowing of possible return to such emperor worship and fascism.

    Books make my brain hurt.

    And that is good.

  3. Articles like that his from Meg are why I like Millennial Star. Insight and light!

    Btw, there may be a bug in the site; I was unable to *Like the article.

  4. What’s being misrepresented in Troop Zero? I haven’t seen it, and don’t mind spoilers.

  5. [SPOILER ALERT]

    In Troop Zero, the main character is a little girl with a deceased mother. She was apparently raised without any religious leanings, but did believe it when her dad told her that the Mom is now in space as part of the stars and comets and stuff.

    The little girl is widely abused by her classmates, who claim she pees the bed (which she denies). The girls’ scouting troop talks about the coming Jamboree, where the winning troup will record a message for the Golden Record that will be sent into space aboard Voyager 1. This sets the movie in the late 1970s.

    The main character is absolutely set on having her voice recorded to be sent into space. But the local troop (guided by an emotionally stunted woman realized by Allison Janney) refuses to admit the main character. So our young heroine and those who love her set about creating a new troop. The Allison Janney character constantly puts obstacles in the path of this fledgling troop, including assigning them the only number still available: Zero.

    Because modern sensibilities expect to see diversity, Troop Zero includes amongst its misfits a boy who is really good at styling hair. When the Janney character points out that the “Mother” of Troop Zero isn’t qualified for the post, the young heroine’s father steps forward to be the “Mother”, as supposedly there was nothing in the bylaws that prohibits the Mother from being male.

    At the Jamboree, Troop Zero puts on an amazing performance, but someone disconnects power from the sound system and the audience jeers. Our young heroine preservers, but the stress causes her to pee her pants. In solidarity, all the other members of Troop Zero also step forward and wet themselves as they belt out the final measures of their musical number.

    The Troop headed by the Janney character ends up winning the trophy and opportunity to record for the Golden Record. But the Janney character, herself, suddenly becomes kind and loving towards everyone associated with Troop Zero (in a dues ex machine sort of development).

    The misfits have failed despite all they have overcome. The tear-jerker comes when the scientist who is recording messages for the Golden Record walks up behind the troop and records without their knowledge as they speak of their own wishes for themselves and all mankind. Our young heroine’s voice will be included in the messages intended for the universe at large, including the heroine’s deceased mother.

    The movie ends as the young actors’ wishes blend into the actual young voices that were recorded on the Golden Record.

    There are many laudable things about Troop Zero. But historical accuracy is not one of them. In the late 1970s, a young boy would have had to launch a major court battle to be given the right to be included in a troop intended for girls, much less participate in a “wilderness” overnight camp out. Same thing for a man to be permitted to lead such a troop of girls. The idea that a major scouting organization would have neglected to specify the required gender for leaders in that era is crazy, though the movie attempts to soften this by making the scouting organization something other than Girl Scouts. But if some more obscure organization, why would NASA be approaching them to include on the Golden Record?

    For what it’s worth, it’s a terrrible thing to be a movie and be shown in my household. We pick things apart in great detail, pointing out all the ways things aren’t logical or physical or historical. For example, as much as I like the Marvel movies, Tony Stark would have become an inanimate pile of mush the first time his metal suit (with him inside) hit a mountainside. But as that would have interfered with the ultimate climax for the multi-movie dramatic arc, the Marvel universe freely abandons physics even in places where there isn’t magic that explains why physics may have taken a powder.

  6. Hi Ram,

    Agreed that it is valuable to be confronted by uncomfortable possibilities. But I object when the uncomfortable possibilities are badly or implausibly rendered.

  7. Yah, Meg, and I especially don’t approve the groove of Church Liberal pathogens who use their knack to attack—to assault highlighting fault, to enjoy the ploy of sowing doubt. In this past decade, they’ve been allowed to be loud.

  8. Glen, grow up. If it weren’t for liberals so much we enjoy in the church would not exist. It’s good when people ask questions, conservatives hate truth and further light and sow their own doubt into people.

  9. @Whizzbang: “Glen, grow up. If it weren’t for liberals so much we enjoy in the church would not exist. It’s good when people ask questions, conservatives hate truth and further light and sow their own doubt into people.”

    My gosh anonymous highbrow of stout snout! Thank goodness we have blanket statement gurus to chasten us from the hilltop. How is the air up there?

    Truly though, our Faith birthed, grew, and matured because of faithfulness, authentic discipleship, Lion-of-the-Lord tenacity, and hard work. Pseudo-intellectualism, sophisticated secularist wordcraft, and Liberal theory-making had nothing to do with it. B.H. Roberts notwithstanding!

    Yes, it’s important that we have honest inquiry. But know this: Asking searching questions is not honest when its intent is to sow doubt—the quintessential hallmark of Liberaldom.

    So we disagree. But I hope we can be friends with our sends and civil with our drivel. Cheers to you, curmudgeon of corrective word, of wondrous redirection. . . friend of feisty foulness, tumultuous tongue of stern churn, of vicious vortex! God bless you.

  10. Hi Glen and Whizzbang,

    Please play nicely. Gods children include all. And there have been many faithful Saints (and several Apostles) on either side of the conservative/liberal divide.

  11. Hi Meg,
    Yes, good point I think—there have been good folks on both sides. Yet my point is that there has been a clear *pattern* of thought-pollution on the secularist side since earliest Eugene England/Dialogue/Sunstone days till our current one. I have read widely in their journals from the 1970’s till now. The Liberal culture welcomes and promotes apostates. An example is how the MHA bestowed their best biography award on Vogel’s book whose thesis is that Joseph Smith was a pious fraud. It is a pattern in their patter.

    I think my response to the insulting assailant above was appropriate. And there are some things worth replying to using plain speaking that would be smiled on by Brigham Young or Jeff Holland. I think a response to the ‘Progressive’ culture is vital now; there is nothing benign about its soul rot.

    Have a delightful week. I really like your faithful flame. And Whizzbang, let’s both go out and stay out of trouble; I myself have trouble staying out of trouble. 🙂

  12. “Insulting”? really Glen? you mean like “soul rot”, “Thought pollution”, “welcomes and promotes apostates” all of which are not true by the way. Joseph Smith said that “Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in his views, and boundless in his mercies, than we are ready to believe or receive| This is part of the problem with conservatives, Glen, you aren’t open to revelation, new ideas, new ways of thinking. Joseph Smith lamented, “”I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions.” I read once some extreme member of the church asked Peggy Stack how she got a temple recommend, I ask why do conservatives get a recommend? they don’t want revelation, they can’t handle differing opinions, new ways of thinking, doing things they despise light and knowledge, why bother Glen, total waste of your time

  13. Darn it, Whizzbang, we just don’t seem to see eye-to-eye. Maybe calm your jets and focus on issues instead of doing personal attacks. Let’s just wish each other well. We can both go outside and breath beautiful Fall air, and let tumbleweed brush against leg.
    God bless you.

  14. Meg, I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your writing. I studied history in college and I still love it. I love your work and how you share the realities of studying history with us. And the things you uncover are so often wonderful and edifying, it keeps me coming back for more. Thank you so much and please keep including us in your discoveries.

  15. Thanks for the reminder that we need to spend more time in this world than any entertainment world of our choosing. We can all use more connection to those around us, whether in our home or outside of our home.

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