Disciple: Finders and Keepers
A church archives primer
By Lynn Hoke
Several years ago, the diocesan History and Archives Committee adopted the term “history keepers” for those who keep local church records organized, safe and accessible. At first, when a church is founded, there is not that much to keep. Record keeping usually starts slowly, with some correspondence followed by formal certificates, for organization of a congregation and then for consecration of a space. Once there’s a building with an office, the accumulation begins: A deed, a church register, a service register, vestry minutes, pledge records, financial reports, newsletters, annual reports and a host of other records accumulate over time. Clergy, administrators, secretaries, officers and volunteers become the first record-keepers. Many of them are also record-producers. Desk drawers fill up. Filing cabinets overflow. Boxes disappear into closets, cupboards and credenzas.
[Image: The rebound historic parish register for St. Mark’s, Wilson. Photo by Lynn Hoke]
Just one church member who likes history, or one who likes creating order out of chaos, can constitute the nucleus of a history keeper team to sort through what has accumulated over time. For such a person or small team, the first goal is to search the nooks and crannies of the church for stray records. The goal of finding all of the records is to assess them for possible retention. The goal of organizing and keeping the records is to share them, not only with current church members, but also with future members and prospective researchers.
The transformation of church records into church archives honors both the past and the future. Each congregation has standard registers and unprocessed papers that can help document in some detail the Christian journeys of individuals, groups and the congregation itself. Church registers and service registers are excellent examples of seemingly mundane documents teeming with interesting information waiting to be discovered.
Church registers are designed to record the particulars of each religious rite of passage: baptism, confirmation or reception, marriage and burial. Many registers include alphabetical sections for listing last names, along with the relevant pages where each person’s name appears. Except for confirmations, which are also recorded by our bishops in the Journal of Convention, most early church register information appears only there, in silent testimony to lives intersecting with that congregation, in that place, at that time. Service registers offer columns for date, type of service, officiant’s name and a comment section. When one register is filled, a new one is started, year by year by year, until the last entry signals a church closure.
TURNING RECORDS INTO ARCHIVES
The miscellaneous boxes, folders and envelopes stored around many churches contain records that can become archives through the routine archival processes known as arrangement and description. After deciding what to keep and investing in a supply of acid-free folders and document boxes, three essential steps remain: (1) place each document or set of related documents in a folder and pencil in a category, a subject title and a date along the top edge; (2) store each folder or folder group in chronological order in a document box; and (3) record each folder’s three title elements in three columns on a searchable master list, such as an Excel spreadsheet, with two additional columns for box numbers and physical locations, such as a shelf number or room. Once labeled and listed with this simple name and address system, each folder can be removed safely for review by staff and others, and then returned safely back home.
Records vary from church to church but are most likely to include those listed earlier, plus service bulletins, magazines, flyers, clergy search brochures, memorial books, guest books, anniversary publications, minutes, legal documents, fundraising brochures, stained glass window booklets, newspaper articles and building blueprints.
The more random collections of memorabilia, scrapbooks, photographs, films, videotapes, audiotapes, floppy disks, CDs and other digital assets can present problems. Most photographs without labels and dates are not helpful to keep. Neither are boxes of random, jumbled photos—unless someone is willing to spend the time needed for research and accurate labeling. Films and digital materials are only as good as the proper equipment to play them. Assessment is key, with keepable items clearly marked for periodic and timely reformatting in perpetuity.
Knowing that you have some valuable historical resources at your church is a great step toward instituting a “no discard” policy during those periodic—and well-intentioned, but sometimes overzealous—church clean-up days. Gathering these resources and creating an organized archives, however, is the great leap forward—and possibly an intimidating one. But you are not alone.
Article 4 of the 2010 founding charter for the diocesan Committee on History and Archives declares the committee’s purpose to be “[a]iding and encouraging congregations to maintain archives and produce their own historical accounts.” Since that time, I have had the pleasure of visiting many of our churches to help determine what records are there and how these might be preserved for future use. Several paths are open for churches interested in establishing a church archives program.
Arrange an open human archives roundtable discussion among long-time members. What memories are shelved in their minds that might be documented in such a community setting? Ask for volunteers to record and transcribe the discussion.
Send one or more interested church members to our next history keepers workshop. If anyone asks what a history keeper is, tell them these are local church members interested in preserving their church’s records and making historical information available to present and future generations.
Identify or advertise for potential volunteers who enjoy history and/or organizing information. While just one person can learn the basics in short order, two or more people working together may generate camaraderie and allow for a division of labor, as needed.
Order a copy of Archives for “Congregations: A Practical Guide to Developing a Church Archives.” This concise and helpful booklet is available from the National Episcopal Historians and Archivists, an excellent organization the Diocese supports through our annual membership. Purchase it here.
Invite the diocesan archivist for a site visit consultation at no cost.
MODELS OF HISTORY KEEPING
St. Stephen’s, Erwin, provides one example of collaboration between a church and the archivist. Barbara Nicholl attended the fall 2018 history keepers workshop. Several months after the workshop, Barbara invited me to the church office to help survey all of the filing cabinets, drawers, boxes and a closet of records. As more time passed, Barbara organized more materials. In September of this year, she contemplated, measured and, with vestry approval, commandeered the large pantry room off of the kitchen. She and others easily relocated the miscellaneous pantry contents and then gathered all of the church records from around the building and put them on the shelves. Everything fits and is stored under lock and key, both vital features for any archives.
Milestone anniversaries offer a natural time to collect, organize or expand a church archives. Two of my consultations involved anniversary book projects—the 50th for St. Anne’s, Winston-Salem (2014) and the 75th for Christ Church, Charlotte (2018). Both planning groups benefited from leafing through the several sample church histories I brought from our diocesan library. St. Anne’s chose a print-on-demand softcover book format, filled with color photos, member profiles and ministry highlights. Christ Church went with a modern-look hardcover book, using member profiles interspersed with descriptions of ministries and numerous color photos of community life. I can now share both of their publications with other churches looking for ideas.
Two anniversary celebrations were scheduled for the same October 2021 Sunday: Emmanuel, Warrenton (200 years) in the morning and St. Luke’s, Tarboro (150 years) in the afternoon. I made several visits to both churches to gather historical and visual materials for commemorative booklets. I helped search for lost or missing records and provided chronologies to help ground the narratives in history. A call went out to Emmanuel’s members for photos and stories. “A History Remembrance” was well on its way. At St. Luke’s, some earlier research resumed on the story behind two gift windows from a Philadelphia Sunday School. While COVID-19 led to the postponement of both celebrations, the gathered history remains available for possible future use.
Last year, Alice Freeman of St. Mark’s, Wilson, determined that the original church register was in extremely poor condition, too vulnerable to keep at the church or in someone’s home. After some major professional mending and restoration, this volume is now in safe storage, while a color photocopy can be examined and utilized when needed for reference. After this successful save, the Rev. Brooks Graebner, diocesan historiographer, arranged for diocesan support to restore early registers that may be found for other historically Black churches. To date, the earliest registers for both St. Cyprian’s, Oxford, and St. Simeon’s, Satterwhite (1896-1968), have been located and restored.
These few examples of archival activity around the Diocese can be expanded as you let us know what’s up at your church!
Lynn Hoke is the archivist for the Diocese of North Carolina.