As a historian, I am always captivated by the possibility that there is much more to uncover. For example, contained within a large book titled History of Ontario County, New York is a small entry that reads, “The Baptist church of Phelps village was organized January 31, 1843, although a society of this denomination was formed in the town as early as 1808, and was known as the First Baptist Church of Phelps.”
The First Baptist Church of Phelps, hmm? After searching carefully, I discover a few interesting sources and a trail that is pretty much stone cold. One local history asserts, “If there were any records of the old Church, they are lost and have not been available for research.”
Statements such as this do not satisfy my curiosity. Admittedly, my interest is furthered by an insatiable appetite for all things genealogical or biographical. I wonder, Can pursuing this ostensibly lost local-church history be rewarded? Is it possible that no complete written history for this early-nineteenth-century church survives?
If not, should a history be written?
A worthy pursuit
The word “history” originates in the Greek language and can simply be defined as “to investigate.” The first and best church history on record is found in the Acts of the Apostles. Within this inspired narrative, Dr. Luke presented a vivid unfolding of “all that Jesus began both to do and teach” and how the apostles by inspiration of the Holy Spirit perpetuated the Lord’s teaching and building of His church. Next, the Epistles are, in one sense, a history of many local churches. And the apostle John’s Revelation, especially chapters 2 and 3, is also inspired church history.
Perhaps using New Testament history as an example for their own works, early church historians included Sextus Julius Africanus, Eusebius Pamphili of Caesarea (considered by many to be the father of church history), Theodoret, Scholasticus, Sulpicius Severus, Salaminius Hermias Sozomenus, Evagrius, and Bede. Later historians include Cotton Mather (1663–1728), Johann Mosheim (c. 1694–1755), Isaac Backus (1724–1806), August Neander (1789–1850), Philip Schaff (1819–1893), Andrew Zenos (1855–1942), Kenneth Latourette (1884–1968), E. H. Broadbent, Earle Cairns, William Lumpkin, Howard Frederic Vos, Bruce Shelley, Edwin Gaustad, Leon McBeth, William Brackney, Tom Nettles, Elizabeth Allo Isichei, Bill Leonard, Leroy Fitts, and Everett Ferguson.
Those who are interested in writing their own church’s history would do well to read excellent work from past generations.
The common goal of all of these histories is to present church history, but a closer literary observation yields much more. Written church histories help the reader identify (1) where the church has been (from its founding) and (2) where it is (up to the time of the particular account). These two identifiers can be sociological and geographical, but they are most importantly theological. When writing one’s own church history, use these identifiers. While interviewing, gathering primary sources, and writing, always ask, “Where has the church been, and where is it now?”
Collecting primary sources
Arthur Bowser (retired history professor, Baptist Bible College) always impressed upon his history classes the necessity to use primary sources when reading and researching history. A good history, after all, is the compilation of primary sources. They embody the eyewitness testimony or material source evidence that is the closest to the person or event.
Primary sources must be handled with care and integrity. “It is through the primary sources that the past indisputably imposes its reality on the historian,” says A Textbook of Historiography. “That this imposition is basic in any understanding of the past is clear from the rules that documents should not be altered, or that any material damaging to a historian’s argument or purpose should not be left out or suppressed. These rules mean that the sources or the texts of the past have an integrity and that they do indeed ‘speak for themselves’, and that they are necessary constraints.”
There are two main ways of accessing primary sources: collecting original sources and conducting interviews. Official records of a local church make up primary resources and can usually be found at the church or in the possession of the church clerk. Or some long-standing members may have them. These records include baptisms, membership lists, marriages, bulletins, meeting notes, deeds, architectural plans, and annual reports. You may be surprised at what you find. In the process of gathering primary sources, it might be helpful to develop a central archive in the church if one does not exist.
Interviews are another primary source. Conduct an interview with the pastoral staff (and their wives!), older or charter members of the church, new members, and young people. Nothing is more rewarding for both parties than an interview. The interviewer can gain so much from this type of contact. The one who is being interviewed may relate things that no one ever told before. Interviewing doesn’t hurt the fellowship of the saints either. Write out your interview questions. Ask the person if you may record the session.
It is probable that some former members are no longer local. E-mail is a valuable tool for long-distance interviews. Or, with the person’s permission, record a phone interview. After gathering all of the primary sources, consult secondary sources.
A secondary source is a record, such as newspapers, census records, online articles, or local-history books, that may or may not be entirely accurate. These secondary sources are produced from primary sources and generally reflect only an analysis of the original. However, when using these secondary sources, the research historian may discover additional primary sources.
Newspapers. It is best to check newspapers dated several days before and several days after the date of the event to ensure that a record (and conceivably much more) can be found.
Census records. These are invaluable if there are no known records of an older church. The United States Census was established in 1790. Every 10 years since, another is taken. The information within the census can be beneficial. For instance, every household is specified by location. A series of households in a small community may represent some of the local church’s attendees. Many of the early Canadian census forms include a religious affiliation entry with each person listed. This makes it quite apparent which church a person likely attended. Census data can also help establish the cultural milieu or biographical details, since the occupation, age, and place of birth for each person is listed as well.
Histories on the shelf. A much overlooked secondary source is an earlier history written about the church. It might prove supportive toward discovering details about legendary events or those that have long been forgotten.
Online resources. When using the Internet, use caution. Many good databases and articles are available, but consider their sources. Also, use efficient searching techniques, such as limiting your search. For example, typing Phelps Baptist Church in a search engine yields 469,000 links; however, using quotation marks around the same phrase returns 48,890 links. By being more deliberate with your search, including typing quotation marks around your entry and using the advanced search method of Boolean logic (AND, OR, and NOT)—as in, “Phelps Baptist Church” AND “New York”—an even more precise result occurs. This entry returned 8,180 links and is much more manageable.
Putting the pieces together
It is time to write. Following an outline for the history is the first step. Create the structure in relation to the data compiled.
Chapters. Some histories use major events within the church as chapter headings, while other histories include a decade by decade chapter scheme. If the church is young, then year by year is fitting.
Timelines. A number of histories use a timeline moving from the inception of the church to the present, then highlighting all of the events in-between.
Pictorial histories. A pictorial history is also an interesting angle. Indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words, but such a history may lack the value of the written story. If photos or a video is used, include it in the book as a CD or DVD.
Your local church history is one of the great institutions established by God. Therefore, it must be an accurate, Christ-honoring story about the communion of the saints and the power of the Holy Spirit within His local church.
Jeff Brodrick holds advanced degrees in education, technology, and library science. He is an adjunct faculty member and DMin student at Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pa. He is also a consulting librarian and president of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Theological Library Association. E-mail him (firstname.lastname@example.org) for assistance on local church history projects.