Thoughts about writing a local church history and the Case of Belle Fourche Wesleyan Church.

Carol Kammen’s book On Doing Local History, has an excellent chapter on how to write a local church history. Of the many different publications that I have read regarding writing a local church history, this chapter, by far has been the most easy to digest and implement. Kammen is a local historian in the Ithaca, NY area and writes for the AASLH’s quarterly magazine Dispatch.

The chapter starts, “History needs to begin with a question…” I find this very important, and recognize that very few local churches begin writing their history this way. Other questions might be, “Why was this congregation formed in the place when it was? And, by whom.” (p. 81) As I have written on this subject before, I asked these same questions of myself when I found out that the church that I grew up in (Belle Fourche Wesleyan Church) closed at the end of 2013. Kammen goes on to say, “…the next step might be to discover what difference this church made to the community around it and how community developments were reflected within the congregation.” p.82  Again that is a question I ask about the church I grew up in.

Kammen then proceeds to give a real-life example by describing the process she took in writing about a local Presbyterian congregation in Ithaca, New York. Here are some thoughts that I found to be most illuminating and helpful:

“A more complete history would explore how the success of the congregation was tied to the transformation of the community as it increased in population and stability” p.83
“We begin to understand that the Presbyterian congregation and local conditions cannot be meaningfully discussed one without the other, though they generally are. By fleshing out these intersection, we have just given the bones of the church’s creation story some very tasty meat.” p. 83

“We must also wonder why in 1822 thirty or so members of the congregation left to become Anglicans and were glad to get out from under Rev. Wisner’s authority. In 1830, more than thirty-one members left to create a Dutch Reformed Church, motivated by more than wanting to preserve their own linguistic heritage…that this Presbyterian congregation became the mother of other churches was not necessarily a reflection of Presbyterian success but rather of discontent among parts of the congregation.” p. 84

“There are also questions we can ask about how the congregation faced doctrinal and ministerial changes; how the congregation dealt with financial issues; how they worked together to solve problems or experienced schisms…In whatever time period we research, using a variety of lenses, we’re trying to discover the church’s role in its home community…We are looking for what happened and what didn’t happen, and our sources must come from within the church and from without.” p. 85

“The purpose of footnotes is to leave a trail that others may follow.”

“The Importance of Reading. Begin by reading a local history, even if it is a bad or dull one…You might chart some important things about the locality: population trends, disasters, major issues…Reading a history of the Presbyterian Church will also provide more information for your chart…” p. 87

“Now that you have a skeleton chart of local events, are there parallels between community and church, or national church history and the local congregation?…Read the histories of other community congregations. To be truthful, congregational historians almost never do this but it is really important. Sometimes what others report will highlight a local event, offering you a chance to compare your congregation’s involvement. The other reason to read…through other church histories is to see your congregation reflected in the eyes of others…You might also observe what other church histories do well and what they do not do at all.” p. 88

“Other materials to consult include the local newspaper, the federal census, the personal papers of people associated with the congregation, and old photographs…” p. 89

“…writing a church history is an act of recovery and honesty.” p. 90

As an archivist, the most important quote in the chapter is this: “What we create today is what people in the future will know about us.”

Kammen’s writing style is conversational and informative. Her examples are pertinent and without rancor towards churches and people of faith. I highly recommend the chapter.

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