The Congregational Library and Archives in Boston has the exciting task of preserving – and helping others to preserve – the history of some of the earliest communities of faith in America. They rescue documents from attics and basements, digitize them, and make them accessible. While their work is unique, it offers clues to how – and why – ordinary congregations need to tend to their own history.
We asked Executive Director Margaret Bendroth to tell us more about their project and what the rest of us can learn.
Dr. Bendroth: We are digitizing the records of churches from colonial-era New England, so far mostly Massachusetts but we’re branching out steadily. We dream of the far-off day when our digital collection includes all the available documents from churches in all five New England states. But our immediate goal, beyond just preserving fragile documents, is making them fully accessible on our website.
Pretty much by definition, records from colonial-era New England churches are Congregational. During this time, the Puritan churches (later called Congregational) were the main game in town.
We shouldn’t let that mislead us, though. In spite of all the stereotypes of witch-hunting killjoys, those old Puritan churches were in many ways laboratories of participatory democracy. Their records show church members deliberating matters of theology and church discipline, making decisions by consensus, and in some cases, making sure the minister didn’t get too far ahead of himself. Those old documents are a portal into the lives of ordinary people, the kinds of people usually lost to history.
Q: Most congregations don’t think of their records as worth hanging onto – what sorts of things do you think congregations should be sure to keep? Are there denominational resources or websites you’d recommend?
Dr. Bendroth: Colonial-era records are one thing, but for most churches it’s all the paper that’s accumulated over the past twenty years. This is really a question of records management, not necessarily archiving. So what do you keep and what do you discard? A lot of congregations have decades worth of old bulletins and cancelled checks—probably no need to keep these! But they also have documents they need to keep for legal reasons, like deeds to property. Keeping a copy of the minutes of important meetings is probably important, as well. Beyond that, there are unique and special keepsakes—sermons, artwork, newspaper clippings—that make each church unique.
Here’s a case where professional advice is available. We consider it a big part of our mission to help churches with records management, and offer our services free of charge. Our website also provides guidelines for keeping and tossing as well as tips for preservation and ongoing records management. And of course denominational archives will provide guidance that’s specific to your church polity. Definitely check with them.
Q: I’ve heard lots of church leaders say that their church records are probably in somebody’s attic. Is it worth trying to find those old records?
Dr. Bendroth: Keep in mind that all those old records are irreplaceable. Anything lost is gone forever. They also don’t belong to just the living. Beyond the historical preservation issues, I think there’s a spiritual one. Caring for the records of the past is an act of love and respect for the truly voiceless, the people who founded your church and saw it through good times and bad. They weren’t perfect, and some of their beliefs might be hard for us to understand in the present. I’m reasonably certain that someday our descendants will be wondering a lot about us. We have the duty and privilege of being “rememberers” for those otherwise forgotten, and that means being serious and intentional about all that “old stuff” in the church attic.
Read more from Dr. Bendroth: https://www.amazon.com/Spiritual-Practice-Remembering-Margaret-Bendroth/dp/0802868975.