Holy Land tourism: a horseback ride from public theology to private faith.
I felt no nearer the Son of God than when in the distant land of Australia, or claimed any special blessing for visiting the place, but felt the glad story of the Redeemer's birth was more of a reality to me than ever before. (1)
Protestants travelling to the Holy Land in the nineteenth century went seeking the sacred ground of a territory central to their faith and the solid ground of religious certainty and authority. Despite protests about not feeling 'nearer the Son of God' or 'any special blessing' in the physical landscape, accounts of travel to the Holy Land are interrupted again and again with the arresting thought that 'here' the sacred may be glimpsed, 'here' proof may be had, and 'here' (rather than elsewhere) Jesus' 'reality' may be more personally felt. The often arduous physical journey was integral to writing the landscape of the Holy Land. However, travellers to Palestine described not only a physical journey but one of the faithful heart and pious imagination. In their writings, metaphorical journeys of faith and long-imagined biblical scenes co-mingle with Nonconformist mistrust of older religious traditions and Enlightenment rationalism. In the landscape of Palestine, more than any other, imagination mattered. This article will examine the writings of a Melbourne-based Nonconformist evangelist named Aaron Maston who travelled to Palestine just once, but produced two very different accounts of travel. Comparison between Maston's two travelogues, written during and then shortly after his travels through the sacred territory of the Holy Land, reveals a transition in concern from public theology to private faith.
Holy Land travel was a significant phenomenon in the mid to late nineteenth century, attracting Protestant tourists in greater numbers than ever before. Palestine had long been a significant place of Catholic and Orthodox pilgrimage, witnessed to by a well-established route of shrines and sacred sites. However, the Reformation of the 1500s rejected pilgrimage as an act of faith. So while many Protestants insisted on literal readings of scripture, for centuries they undertook only metaphorical pilgrimage. The allegory of Christian's journeys in Pilgrim's Progress (1678) by John Bunyan influenced millions. Indeed, modelling Bunyan, the inner life of the believer came to be described in the language of religious journey. (2) It was not until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that Nonconformist Protestants came to view the Holy Land as both a religious metaphor and a viable geographical destination, belonging not just to Orthodoxy and Catholicism but to modern, enlightened Christians like themselves. (3)
Rising middle-class wealth and improved transport, including the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, meant that a great many religious tourists could experience the Holy Land for themselves. (4) In rediscovering the physical reality of the Holy Land, Protestants set out to prove the 'real' in scripture. Sorting the myth of religious tradition and ecclesiastical authority from observable, provable scriptural fact became a modernist religious obsession undertaken by amateur and professional alike, many of whom were armed with an archaeologist's spade and trowel. In this way, the new archaeological science and biblical geography found their way into objective, provable Protestantism, and on to the itineraries of the newly invented package tours. (5) Religious tourists followed in the footsteps of clergyman geographers and archaeologists such as William Thomson, Edward Robinson, Arthur Stanley and Frederick Farrar, whose journeys offered them the opportunity to verify the facts of the Bible through matching scriptural text with landscape. (6) The landscape had become a territory for the discussion of Protestant public theology.
In the period 1850-1917 hundreds of travel narratives were published in the English-speaking world, a great many of them dealing with the spiritual experience of visiting the Holy Land. (7) Others focussed on specifically biblical archaeology and geography. Religion is necessarily part of any study of these travel narratives but recent scholarship has not always focussed on the theology of travellers or its outworking in spirituality. Indeed the most frequently examined writings are by those Christians whose work had broader application, especially archaeologists such as Robinson and James T. Barclay, and amateur geographers such as Thomson. The scholarship of archaeologist and historian Neil Asher Silberman has influenced a number of researchers in this area. (8) Responding to the literary turn, the more recent work of travel studies scholars Brian Yothers and Hilton Obenzinger has contrasted the rhetorical and emotional excesses of clergymen such as William Prime with the scepticism of authors Mark Twain and Herman Melville. (9) The curious and quaint have been of interest among scholars whose work on Holy Land travel intersects with visual arts and culture studies. Lantern shows, art and artefact exhibitions and 'Palestine Park' at Lake Chautauqua, USA, have interested Burke O. Long, Lester Irwin Vogel and John Davis. (10) Church historians have focused on the theological issues surrounding Christian Zionism and Holy Land travel, (11) while a number of scholars have noted the relationship between perceptions of Palestine and American identity in American Holy Land travel writing. (12) However, Zionist concerns are completely absent from the Melbourne-based Maston's travelogues. Despite his American nationality, he wrote with his Australian audience very much in mind.
Aaron Burr Maston was born in 1853 in Crooked Run, Ohio, but the family was poor and moved repeatedly during his childhood. (13) Maston did have books to read, however, and his favourite, 'over which he loved to pore during the evenings', was the influential Pilgrim's Progress. (14) At fifteen he turned to the Disciples of Christ denomination. He became an evangelist only a few years later and furthered his training with a Bachelor of Arts. Seeking to serve the church abroad, in 1879 he left his church in Hebron, Indiana, for New Zealand where he toured extensively as an itinerant preacher. He sailed to Tasmania in 1884 and served the congregation of the Hobart Church of Christ. In Australia, Disciples of Christ were known as Churches of Christ and, in the 1880s, the denomination was theologically similar to Baptist, Congregational and Methodist churches. Maston ministered in Australia for the rest of his life and was known for the care he took in substituting his American ways for those of colonial Australians, something noted with appreciation by his Australian biographer. (15) Maston's theological concerns were thus broadly typical of late nineteenth-century Australian Nonconformity. From 1885 until his death in 1907 he ministered in three congregations in Melbourne. His congregation at the Church of Christ in Hotham (North Melbourne) raised funds to enable his travel to London (via Palestine) and America seeking treatment for an ultimately fatal cancer in his eye. (16) He was rarely in one place for more than a few years: a not untypical life for a Nonconformist evangelist in colonial Australia.
Maston's travel writings grew out of his experience on a package tour of the Holy Land while en route to London in 1889. His letters home to Australia were printed in The Christian Pioneer, a denominational journal of the Australian Churches of Christ. Initially published under the heading 'Letters of Travel', as Maston's travel series went on it was romantically retitled 'A Horseback Ride Through Palestine'. This more poetic title also reflected the fact that he had a horse provided as part of the package tour. After his return to Melbourne he published a second account of his travels in 1891-2 in another Churches of Christ denominational journal, the Australasian Christian Standard. These travel writings went under the yet more lyric title 'Walks About Palestine'. The idea of 'walking with Jesus' was then a popular evangelical trope that signalled an inner journey, a metaphorical walk of faith. The titles of the two travelogues suggest a telling distinction.
On the package tour in Palestine Maston marvelled at a landscape he had imagined since childhood. The 1889 'Letters of Travel' and 'A Horseback Ride Through Palestine' speak of the kind of delight and awe in the grandeur of the natural landscape for which travellers to the Holy Land hoped. For Maston, Palestine was a 'divine wonderland' (17) replete with vistas of incomparable spiritual beauty. Sunsets led to moments of reverie by the Sea of Galilee and, while asserting that he was 'not a worshipper of sacred places', (18) Maston found himself suggesting that the land was itself almost sacred: 'The sun was just going down over the western hills, leaving me in the cool, soft shade, but giving the lake the appearance of a sea of gold, and painting the eastern hills with what seemed to me an almost divine glory'. (19)
However, some places would simply not conform to his pious expectation. The town of Bethel was 'a miserable collection of hovels'. (20) Famed marketplaces disappointed: the merchandise at 'Ball and Welch in Carlton [equalled] all the bazaars in a whole street in Cairo'. (21) The road between Damascus and Caesarea Philippi 'was one continuation of rocks; nothing but an Assyrian horse could ever pass over it and live'. (22) Likewise, the ruins of Capernaum were 'overgrown with the rankest vegetation I have ever seen outside of the tropics. The weeds, grass and thistles came up to our horse's backs'. (23) Maston's writing suggests he wished to be swept up in the Romantic period representation of the land as monumental, grand and 'almost divine', but for the disturbances of reality upon him and his package tour horse.
Aaron Maston was also deeply concerned with identifying the real places where Jesus had trod: the road to Jerusalem, the fields around Nazareth, the Jordan River. The tour group stopped at Jacob's well, whose 'authenticity... has never been doubted', and Rachel's tomb about which there was 'little doubt'. (24) In the early decades of the nineteenth century archaeology had seemed a great ally to scriptural proof, but recent finds had thrown up one disputed territory after another. By the 1880s doubt was growing as competing archaeological and scriptural claims presented travellers with an array of possibilities, none of which aided in maintaining concrete claims about literal biblical truth. Like other travellers, Maston looked away from contested archaeological territory to the countryside to 'give my faith a sort of permanency in knowledge'. (25) Accordingly the Jordan's pebbles and even its grains of sand were deemed worthy mementoes. These were closer to sacred relics, in the minds of Nonconformists, than the shrines celebrated in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Relics and keepsakes were available for sale in the towns and Maston reported having to fight off the street traders. (26) But he preferred his souvenirs collected by his own hand in the waters of the Jordan River: 'We spent some time ... gathering some pebbles and sand as mementoes'. (27) This suggests a reliance, perhaps even a faith, in the natural world as authentic and uncorrupted. Maston was not alone. Many travellers 'put their trust in the soil of Palestine'. (28)
In contrast to the pebbles of the Jordan River, the Church of the Nativity was a conflicted holy site in the minds of Nonconformists. The church would have been part of the itinerary for most package tours, even as routes had been adapted to omit many other shrines in deference to the religious leanings of dissenting Protestants. (29) In 1889 the site traditionally associated with Jesus' birth was clearly still on the itinerary. On visiting the Church of the Nativity Maston wrote, 'It looks from the outside like some great half-ruined fortress, and from within like a gloomy prison ... I place but little stress on their traditions, but as I stood in this place, I could but think that if this was not the place, it was near it'. (30) He felt the significance of the place yet, in the phrase 'their traditions', drew a line between Nonconformist claims to be free of tradition (having, instead, direct access to primitivist truth) and the faith of Catholic and Orthodox who occupied tradition's 'gloomy prison'.
For nineteenth-century Nonconformists, tradition was a word with only negative connotations. 'A Horseback Ride Through Palestine' is dotted with phrases such as, 'I do not place much confidence in this traditional business' (31) and 'Tradition has been busy about Bethlehem, but of these things I care but little'. (32) Maston's writings consistently reveal a contrast between all things natural, real, biblical and Nonconformist and the constructed world of traditional Catholicism and Orthodoxy, with its urbanised shrines. It is a distinction made very clear in his denomination's foundation. The primitivist Churches of Christ formed with the belief that human ritual and tradition was a barrier to Christian unity and must be discarded in favour of 'pure' observance of New Testament practice. (33) Little wonder primitivist travellers preferred the rural landscape which could be viewed via direct and unmediated vision, rather than the urban shrines whose authenticity was so much harder for an amateur to discern and whose truth was clouded, in the minds of Nonconformists, by layers of tradition.
Maston valued the natural landscape associated with Jesus' ministry because it was seemingly unchanged since biblical times. The primitivist understanding of church history is significant here. Protestant scholars of the nineteenth century tended to locate the moment of the church's 'corruption' with its alignment with the state in the person of Emperor Constantine. But Maston is typical of primitivist Churches of Christ members in identifying the period 100-313 CE as 'the fountain from which has flowed all the great rivers of corruption which have polluted, and laid in ruins the Church of God'. (34) For primitivists, all change beyond the New Testament was death. Despite idealised imaginings, time had not stood still in the Holy Land. Authenticity within the churches of Palestine was going to be hard to find.
The preference for landscape, therefore, was not only a bias toward nature, but a theological objection to liturgical and creedal Christian tradition. Buildings themselves were not viewed as an obstacle to relationship with God. Indeed, in Australia, new church buildings in the towns and countryside were regularly celebrated as signs of the progress of the Kingdom of God. (35) Progress toward the millennium was indisputably good. Modernity was wished upon Arabs. (36) But the landscape of the Bible was different. It was set apart in the hearts and minds of religious visitors. There, progress signified corruption of the eternal territory of biblical truth.
While Maston read the Bible extensively in Palestine, and his travel narrative viewed the landscape through the lens of the Bible, he was caught between the expectations of the biblical imagination and his perceptions as a traveller in a foreign land. (37) He had not necessarily expected the land to be foreign. Rather, he had considered it his. 'A Horseback Ride Through Palestine' expresses his very real and immediate frustrations with the people: the Bedouins were the 'dirtiest, hardest looking specimens of humanity I have ever dropped across'; the locals in Shechem were 'noted for their quarrelsome disposition'; and corrupt holy men would show you any ancient manuscript 'in Palestine [that] you want to see for "backsheesh"'. (38) Dragomen and guides were often portrayed as mistrusted negotiators of the route. There were also many biblical figures in the nineteenth-century landscape: lepers, fishermen, women and children working in the fields and towns. But these people rarely conformed to his biblical vision. He complained regularly about the customs of the people and the unpleasant nature of interactions. Yet he appeared not to see the irony in expressing annoyance at the Palestinian people while professing a faith centred on God's incarnation in a man from Nazareth. For many Protestant travellers, the land was so strongly identified with Christian faith and pious expectation that they could not conceive of it belonging in any sense to the people who lived there. (39) Disappointment, disillusionment and lack of recognition were common experiences arising from the dominance of internalised space. (40) Such experiences were common among travellers to distant destinations but were especially challenging to Christians in the Holy Land as it impacted on their religious identity.
After returning to Melbourne, Maston imaginatively revisited Palestine. His second longer series of travel writings was published in the Australasian Christian Standard under the evocative title, 'Walks About Palestine' (March 1891-October 1892). Compared with his earlier 'Letters of Travel' and 'A Horseback Ride Through Palestine', these writings were more emotionally engaging, evangelical and didactic. This second series also had pictures to aid the imagination of readers. Maston's increased awareness of his audience was very much in evidence.
Maston purchased a selection of engraved plates by artists including Holman Hunt and Gustave Dore that had been previously published in Frederic Farrar's large and immensely popular Life of Christ (1874). Maston did not reprint the images of buildings, shrines and people used by the Anglican Farrar, but only the natural scenery: hills, plants, and landscapes with little settlements in the distance. In 'Walks About Palestine' the conflict over the religious territory of the Holy Land shifted to the pictorial.
Compared with 'A Horseback Ride Through Palestine', the later 'Walks About Palestine' is much less concerned with geographic detail, the people recede, and Maston's personal discomfort is gone. They were not needed for what he called 'the great lessons which the places and incidents connected with them teach to every day Christian life'. (41) The 'great lessons' were interwoven with geographic description, gospel stories and homily. While describing the route from Jerusalem to Jericho, Maston tells the parable of the Good Samaritan which is set on that same stretch of road, and extols the love of neighbour. (42) Interspersed with commentary on the Sea of Galilee are injunctions to be 'fishers of men'. (43) In this way Maston styled himself as the trusted guide and sought to 'take the reader' with him 'to walk with Jesus' on a journey of the heart. (44) In this carefully cultivated second account Maston shifted focus from the conflicts of public theology around religious tradition, ecclesial authority, and biblical archaeology to concentrate on the inner journey of the reader. It was a transition from public theology to private faith. The reality sought was not public proof of scriptural veracity but that of inner, life-changing conviction.
In many ways the transition in Maston's writings was between the common sense austerity of Nonconformity and the heartwarming swell of evangelicalism and its demand for personal conversion. Nonconformity's suspicion of tradition and embrace of biblical reality were not discarded. It still mattered that Maston had been to Palestine. Yet, even as he asserted the priority of the 'real' travel that lent him authority, he revealed the act of religious imagination that was fundamental to the experience of the Holy Land: 'To walk in thought around the city is an inspiration, while to be there in reality is a revelation, as every one of its hills and valleys speak in the most eloquent terms of the world's highest hopes and desires'. (45) The physical landscape needed a religious imagination to hear it speak, and to translate it for the reader. Indeed the reader depended on both the physical and imaginative travel of the writer: 'As I walked along amidst my almost sacred surroundings, it did not require much of an effort to imagine myself in the company of the weary Christ'. (46) The reader is implicitly invited to join in the almost effortless imagining of Christ. For those without the means to travel, a pious metaphorical journey could be undertaken at home.
Exemplifying this transition from public theology to private faith in 'Walks about Palestine', Maston created an imagined 'mob' of locals at Gethsemane that threatened to interrupt the readers' spiritual experience: 'We can not tarry longer amidst these sacred scenes, because, if we did, our deep emotions might be disturbed by the howling mob'. (47) The narrative is about the readers' private faith, uncorrupted by the public and their 'howling'. It was a retreat of sorts, but also an evangelistic technique. Maston, in his second set of travel writings, was acutely aware of his audience.
Real travel authorised the transition from public to private faith. Maston used the fact of his having been to Palestine to distinguish himself as an entrepreneur for the gospel. He developed his writings into popular lantern entertainments, delivering a mixture of fact and gospel for those who could never hope to afford the cost of travel. In this way, Maston transformed his Holy Land story from journal to performance; he entertained and engaged with evangelical rhetoric and image. Maston travelled widely around Victoria and Tasmania, exhibiting pictures by limelight and providing 'chatty description', speaking 'of the places he saw with so much confidence'. (48) His appearances were advertised in city newspapers and intended to draw crowds well beyond the Churches of Christ in Melbourne. In travelling to Palestine, he gained little more information than he would have had he read Farrar's Life of Christ from cover to cover (which he almost certainly did). But, in a land where imagination and reality overlapped, he had walked with Jesus. It was this authority, this experience that he needed as he called his audience to conversion through the imaginative power of the Holy Land's 'almost sacred surroundings'. (49)
The Holy Land held an immense attraction as a territory at the heart of faith. For empirically minded nineteenth-century Nonconformists it was the central site for the contest of public theology: a proof of the real life of the historical Jesus and the tangible truth of primitivist Christianity. Physical landscape and objective facts mattered, fulfilling the imprimatur of a reasoned Enlightenment faith. Scepticism, the companion to Nonconformity, was applied to every shrine and tourist destination, and ultimately to the work of archaeology which might have been seen as a partner in the cause had it not conflicted with the Bible and prompted so much doubt. Maston's responses in his first travel series, 'A Horseback Ride Through Palestine', strongly suggest that he was disappointed in the reality of the place even as he claimed in Bethlehem that Jesus' incarnation was 'more of a reality to me than ever before'. (50)
Ultimately, gritty observations on horseback in the Holy Land failed to provide the religious certainty that Nonconformity craved. Public theology's emphasis on the literal and observable gave way to private faith's concern with the metaphorical and spiritually experiential: walking with Jesus in 'Walks About Palestine'. The rhetoric of reality reigned, and real travel lent authority beyond the purely allegorical precedent of Pilgrim's Progress. Yet, as the later travel series, 'Walks About Palestine', reveals, the Holy Land was, more than anything, a place of imagination shaped by the stories of childhood and a hermeneutic of heart felt metaphor. Seeing beyond the doubts and disappointments of the present, Aaron Maston transformed his initial travel writings in order to bring his readers on the road with Jesus in their armchairs and pews around Melbourne. The story of travel was thus not merely reported but lived, enacted, performed. The 'real' came to signify not the society found there in Palestine, with their ancient shrines and modern package tours, but the truth of Christ in the heart of the audience.
(1) Aaron Burr Maston, 'A Horseback Ride Through Palestine', serialised in The Christian Pioneer, 3 September 1889, 379.
(2) Stephanie S. Rogers, Inventing the Holy Land: American Protestant Pilgrimage to Palestine, 1865-1941 (Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Lexington Books, 2010), 28-9.
(3) Neil Asher Silberman, Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archaeology, and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, 1799-1917 (New York: Knopf, 1982), 9.
(4) Rogers, Inventing the Holy Land, 22.
(5) Ibid., 36-7.
(6) Brian Yothers, The Romance of the Holy Land in American Travel Writing, 1790-1876 (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), 26-35.
(7) Rogers, Inventing the Holy Land, 22.
(8) For example: Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography (London: Phoenix, 2011); Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (London: Harper Collins, 1996); Rogers, Inventing the Holy Land; and, Silberman, Digging for God and Country.
(9) For example: Hilton Obenzinger, American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); and, Yothers, The Romance of the Holy Land.
(10) For example: Burke O. Long, Imagining the Holy Land: Maps, Models and Fantasy Travels (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003); Lester Irwin Vogel, To See a Promised Land: Americans and the Holy Land in the Nineteenth Century (University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania University Press, 1993); and, John Davis, Landscape of Belief: Encountering the Holy Land in Nineteenth Century American Art and Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
(11) For example: Paul Blowers, '"Living in a Land of Prophets": James T. Barclay and an Early Disciples of Christ Mission to Jews in the Holy Land', Church History 62, no.4 (1993): 494-513; Jack P. Lewis, 'James Turner Barclay: Explorer of Nineteenth century Jerusalem', Biblical Archaeology 51, no.3 S (1988), 163-70; and, Victor McCracken, 'The Restoration of Israel', Restoration Quarterly 47, no.4 (2005), 207-20.
(12) For example: Rogers, Inventing the Holy Land, 33-4; Davis, Landscape of Belief, 15; Obenzinger, American Palestine, 12-3.
(13) G.P. Pittman, Life of Maston (Melbourne: Austral Printing and Publishing Company, 1909), 4.
(14) Pittman, Life of Maston, 4.
(15) Ibid., 20-2.
(16) Ibid., 6, 17-9, 34, 41-8; Graeme Chapman, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: A History of Churches of Christ in Australia (Melbourne: Vital Publications, 1980), 85.
(17) Maston, Christian Pioneer (16 July 1889), 324, and Australasian Christian Standard (1 September 1891), 226.
(18) Maston, Christian Pioneer (9 July 1889), 314.
(19) Maston, Christian Pioneer (16 July 1889), 324.
(20) Maston, Christian Pioneer (27 August 1889), 371.
(21) Maston, Christian Pioneer (25 April 1889), 236.
(22) Maston, Christian Pioneer (9 July 1889), 314.
(23) Maston, Christian Pioneer (16 July 1889), 324.
(24) Maston, Christian Pioneer (27 August 1889), 371, and (3 September 1889), 379.
(25) Maston, Christian Pioneer (3 September 1889), 379; Rogers, Inventing the Holy Land, 147.
(26) Maston, Christian Pioneer (3 September 1889), 380.
(27) Maston, Christian Pioneer (24 October 1889), 434.
(28) Davis, Landscape of Belief, 46.
(29) Rogers, Inventing the Holy Land, 37.
(30) Maston, Christian Pioneer (3 September 1889), 380.
(31) Maston, Christian Pioneer (9 July 1889), 314.
(32) Maston Christian Pioneer (3 September 1889), 379.
(33) Chapman, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, 25.
(34) Maston, 'Conference Essay: The Church in the Light of History', Australasian Christian Standard (29 April 1897), 117.
(35) Maston, Jubilee Pictorial History of Churches of Christ in Australasia (Melbourne: Austral Printing and Publishing Company, 1903).
(36) Maston, Christian Pioneer (25 April 1889).
(37) Sebag-Montefiore, Jerusalem, 337.
(38) Maston, Christian Pioneer (16 July 1889), 313; (27 August 1889), 371.
(39) Armstrong, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, 361.
(40) Rogers, Inventing the Holy Land, 45ff; Melville, 'Journals 84-94' and William Thomson (1834) both cited in Sebag-Montefiore, Jerusalem, 338, 329.
(41) Maston, Australasian Christian Standard (1 March 1891), 59.
(42) Maston, Australasian Christian Standard (1 July 1892), 197-8.
(43) Maston, Australasian Christian Standard (1 May 1892), 113.
(44) Maston, Australasian Christian Standard (1 March 1892), 64.
(45) Maston, Australasian Christian Standard (1 October 1892), 277.
(46) Maston, Australasian Christian Standard (1 September 1891), 226.
(47) Maston, Australasian Christian Standard (1 November 1891), 281.
(48) The Mercury (Hobart) (24 September 1891), 2.
(49) Maston, Australasian Christian Standard (1 September 1891), 226.
(50) Maston, Christian Pioneer (3 September 1889), 379.
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|Title Annotation:||Graduate Articles|
|Publication:||Melbourne Historical Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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