That word resounded from RootsTech last week. Genealogists were calling for Stories of our ancestors and families, as they explained that Stories would have more appeal and meaning to everyone than lists of “dry” facts.
Story is a vital concept, even a bit magical. I capitalize the word in order to use it in my own way. In my view, a Story that is meaningful has certain necessary elements.
Everyone would likely agree that a Story must include Who, What, Where, and When. Professional genealogists, who earn our justified praise for mastering and navigating the world of intricate databases, can determine those facts about an ancestor’s life to the extent humanly possible. They deserve our respect and gratitude.
I believe that a Story must also address How and Why. This is where a Story’s meaning and appeal lies.
“How” can mean just a straightforward chronological sequence. We may ask, “Tell me how my ancestor’s life happened, from first to last.” That simple plot is ensured by the meticulous techniques that professional genealogists use to verify dates.
But another meaning of “How” merges with “Why.” We want a Story to help explain the causes and effects operating within our ancestors’ lives, so that we can better understand the causes and effects in our own lives. We all live among big questions:
- Why and How can historical events profoundly change our life’s course?
- How and Why are our lives influenced by the lives of friends and family?
- Why and How do institutions manage our choices? Are we free, or not?
- How and Why are our emotions and beliefs unique? Or are we all alike?
- Where do our personalities come from—God, family, local custom, fate, DNA?
- Why and How do we commit both good and bad acts? Who are we, really?
These questions, and thousands like them, are mysteries. No answer could meet the genealogical proof standard.
Yet we are always looking for a Story that asks these questions for us again and again, to make us think further about life. Musing about these questions . . . that’s part of our humanity.
In a Story, ideas and feelings about How and Why are built into the motivations and conflicts of characters . . . the words of dialogue both said and unsaid . . . the unexpected twists and junctures of plots. That’s how a Story speaks to our inner selves.
Asking Why: This is the fundamental Muse of a Story. The storyteller ventures into some momentous Why questions and invites ideas in response. This pursuit may seem over-the-line to those who distrust subjectivity. But asking Why is human and inevitable.
The much-touted liberal arts— “the arts that liberate us”(Montaigne)—are all about these musings of How and Why. The fields of history, literature, philosophy, and religion are full of people reading texts, asking Why, and exchanging ideas provoked by their reading. Same for the social sciences: psychology, sociology, politics, anthropology—more Why questions, more rich speculation, more threads of reasoning, more concepts. These academics are asking the same questions we’re all asking: How can we understand our lives?
Will Genealogy move toward Stories? Genealogy might choose to become a combination of art (“liberal art”) and science. It would be in good company, for practicing medicine is both an art and a science, or so they say. Medicine deals in human contingencies. It calls for wisdom and judgment as well as facts. Doctors even now ask patients for their “narratives.”
All of us have ideas about human nature. We’ve all lived life and known people. Our intuitions have been educated by our experience. Genealogists are entitled to create Stories and enrich them with ideas by suggesting Why their characters (ancestors) act and choose as they do.
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Here’s an illustration. I’ll combine Why and How with verifiable facts, in a rough sketch—a plan for a Story.
This Story would be about the Reverend John Leighton Wilson (1809-1886). He is one of my relatives-by-marriage, the uncle of the wife of my grand uncle. He spent 18 years of his life as a missionary in West Africa, among the Grebo people of Cape Palmas and then the Mpongwe people at Gaboon.
I would muse about Why he chose this life, and that question would be the undercurrent of this Story. Wilson’s South Carolina neighbors stayed home and work their farms, using slaves. Instead, Wilson became the first Protestant missionary to Africa. Why was Wilson so different?
I’d start this Story with an imagined internal monologue of Wilson’s evening prayers—with my imagination informed by my research. It is October 14th of 1850 in Gaboon, West Africa. Wilson is asking God for strength in his task of converting Mpongwe speech to writing. This takes him long hours with the Mpongwe. He must coax their leaders to agree, letter by letter, as they slowly inscribe Bible passages. His days are filled with strife. It is little better, he thinks, than Cape Palmas in Liberia, a few years back. There both the natives and the freed American Negroes disputed Wilson’s mission plans. They even argued with each other. (1) How frustrated and stymied a person could feel while spreading the Gospel! He prays for endurance.
In his prayers a memory arrives, through God’s grace. He is a youth again at Mt. Zion Presbyterian Church in South Carolina. Here slaves and whites worshipped together, the slaves in the galleries. This memory steadies him. In this church he received God in sunlight through plain church windows. He realized that every human being deserves freedom. He knew that the South now owed the Gospel to Africa, having taken so many of Africa’s people into bondage. He foresaw his own destiny, to pay this human debt. As a youth he saw all around him slaves who were forbidden to read, yet expected in church to learn the Word of God. Now in Gaboon, praying, he remembers his early conviction that it is no sin to hate slavery. He reaffirms that he lives to compensate for the damage of slavery by teaching Africans to read. He has been called to this. Yes, the work is hard. So was earning his D. D. from Columbia Theological Seminary.
Wilson gives thanks to God that his wife Jane has been with him in West Africa, from the start. She has nursed him through malaria and assuaged his doubts. Their spiritual centers agree. They feel their labors are well rewarded whenever they glimpse light and self-confidence and knowledge in the eyes of the Mpongwe who are learning to read. That light is a reflection of God’s light. He and Jane know that to be true.
To the Story, I would then add this inscription from Wilson’s tombstone:
REV. JOHN LEIGHTON WILSON D. D.
THE FOREIGN MISSIONARY
BORN MAR 25, 1809 DIED JULY 13, 1886
EIGHTEEN YEARS A MISSIONARY ON THE WESTERN COAST OF AFRICA
THIRTY THREE YEARS SECRETARY OF FOREIGN MISSIONS
HE RESTS FROM HIS LABORS AND HIS WORKS DO FOLLOW HIM.
GO YE INTO ALL THE WORLD AND PREACH THE GOSPEL TO EVERY CREATURE.
After the inscription, I could explain my identification with Wilson, contributing to the “Why Africa?” question. I know hatred of slavery, too, and I feel the wrongs of history. Although I am not a doctrinal Christian, I do admire the ministries of Jesus, the “going forth” part. The Episcopal church of my childhood said these words to our departing congregation: “Remember the poor, pray for the sick, and be kindly affectioned one to another.” I understand why Wilson would leave home and family and neighbors for this kind of radiant hope. Perhaps I share his sense of reward in my work as a volunteer literacy tutor. One of my students is black, the other Latina. Whenever they have a “eureka” moment while reading a paragraph, or solving a division problem, the light in their eyes might as well be the light of God for the effect it has on me—never mind whether I’m a believer or not.
Next in the Story I would describe John Wilson finishing his prayers, rising, and preparing for his night’s rest. My facts come from his passport application and quotations by those who knew him. He is six feet tall with gray eyes, a ruddy complexion, dark brown hair (at age 41), and a broad frame. He has a calm, measured walk. He is “massive in proportion, reminding one of the Doric order of architecture.” (2) One friend said, “His life was like the easy flow of a mighty river, when at its average height, bearing immense cargoes to their destination, and yet doing it with so much ease and quietness as scarcely to attract attention.” (3)
But on this night, October 14th of 1850, John Wilson’s ease and quietness is broken by the evening mail. A letter arrives from his sister to tell him that his father, William Wilson, has died. This letter has taken many months to travel from South Carolina to Africa.
The next morning, October 15th, Wilson sits down to write a reply. His handwriting is widely spaced, its letters like slight whitecaps on a huge ocean. He writes to his sister,
- “Your letter of the 5th Jan announcing the death of our dear, aged father was handed to me last night. My mind was prepared to receive this intelligence by your previous letter of the 5th of [illegible] which had come to hand only one week before. And the dear man is gone! I can scarcely realize it. How many touching associations has the announcement awakened! That homestead, identified almost with our existence, how changed. The church he loved and frequented, how sensible his absence be felt! Ah, the joyous meeting in Heaven, husband, wife and daughter all embraced in the same arms of love. I can scarcely repress the desire to be there, too, and instead of grieving, I almost rejoice that our dear father is released from his intense suffering. And yet I can scarcely force my mind to the conclusion that I shall write his dear name on the back of no more letters—shall say “dear father” no more. Be it so, since thou dear Father in Heaven has so ordered it. . . .”
Here are more possible reasons for Wilson’s eighteen-year stay in Africa. I cannot identify with this saintliness, but I can try to imagine Wilson’s faith as his foundation. He is able to work far from his family, in remote regions, because he absolutely believes in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. “Everyone was sure of the purity of his aims.” (4)
John Wilson and his wife Jane could work intensively for eighteen years, far from home. That’s how powerful their motivations were. Why? Many reasons, in many combinations. No one can see all that is in a person’s heart.
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There is more to this Story. How did Wilson deal with his fellow Southerners when he returned home? How did he respond to the widespread movement to resume the slave trade?
(1) The Daily Item, Sumter, SC, Thursday, August 13, 1970, 24. Material for this article is taken from “Dr. John Leighton Wilson,” a paper by Mrs. J. W. Scott, Dr. Wilson’s granddaughter, obtained from the Sumter County Historical Society.
(2) E. T. Thompson, Presbyterians in the South. John Knox Press: May, 1973. I, 306.
(3) W. W. Mills in The Daily Item, 26.
(4) Robert L. Dabney, in Thompson, II, 292.