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When I stepped down as historian of the OPC last year, after the privilege of serving for two decades, I left with the joy and satisfaction of working with wonderful colleagues on the Committee for the Historian. Among the highlights of my tenure were establishing the Grace Mullen Archives room in the denomination offices in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the denomination, and offering daily features of OPC history on the church website.

Yet I also left the post with one unfulfilled ambition. Over time I grew in the conviction that training in local history was lacking in our church. It was my hope to develop resources to encourage the writing of congregational histories throughout our denomination. But for a variety of reasons, this goal was unrealized.

A recent conversation with a Presbyterian minister has rekindled this interest. My friend pastors a well-educated, established congregation that recently exited the mainline Presbyterian denomination. He conducted a brief survey of his congregation’s historical awareness and found that few members had any knowledge about the history of the church prior to their joining. They knew almost nothing about its founding or the history of their former or new denomination. Most could not name the church’s former pastors.

These results were eye-opening to him, but they hardly took me by surprise. After all, a disregard for history is a long-established feature of the American temperament. This church is simply displaying our predilection toward “pastlessness.” History is a burden that Americans, even American evangelicalism, are all too eager to shed. The result is a lack of historical consciousness in the life of many congregations.

My initial reaction also contained a measure of pride. This problem generally does not bedevil the OPC, I thought. On the contrary, Orthodox Presbyterians have a far better appreciation for history. As I have visited OP congregations, it has always impressed me how many members of our churches are familiar with the events surrounding the founding of our denomination. They have read about the life of Machen, and they are aware of significant events like the founding of Westminster Seminary and the leadership of its early faculty. Instruments like New Horizons make possible a strong sense of connectionalism within our denomination.

Upon further reflection, however, I wondered how well we know the stories of our own congregations. When and why did the church begin? Who were the former elders and pastors of the church? Increased geographical mobility presents a particular challenge to remembering local stories. This heritage will often disappear with the passing of the founding generation. While stewardship of our history seems well maintained on a General Assembly level, congregational memory is at greater risk.

Where might one go to find that information? Perhaps to church websites? I conducted my own survey of forty-five randomly selected Orthodox Presbyterian congregational websites and discovered that our congregations approach their history unevenly. Only a third (15) devoted any attention to its story. For those that did, the length varied from as little as 65 words to as many as 800. The median was 350 words – which is not a lot of attention. I will grant that a website may not be the best place to cover at length a congregation’s history. But ought not it to say something? Might it not serve even an evangelistic purpose, as witness to the work that God has done in and through this little flock?

What Local History Provides

As beneficial as congregational histories can be for visitors and inquirers, they can accomplish a lot more. The history of your church will augment officer training and new members classes. An incoming pastor will gain helpful insights into your congregation. In addition to enhancing a church website, excerpts can be an occasional feature in the church bulletin. Local history can prompt healthy congregational reflection and recommitment to the church, especially as it celebrates an anniversary.

Harry Reeder in his book Embers to Flame even goes so far as to suggest that “connecting to the past” is the first step toward the revitalization of a struggling congregation. He writes:

Connect your church to the vibrancy of its past. Do it with celebration and worship for what God has done, just as the Israelites would pile up stones to teach the next generation what the Lord had done. Celebrate the past victories, investigate and identify the principles that the Lord blessed, and then contemplate how to implement them in the present, remembering that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The goal is to have a church that does not live in the past, but does learn from the past, and then lives in the present in order to shape the future.[1]

Yet even these suggestions do not exhaust the value of congregational history. Consider, for example, a study of worship in the OPC. One important window on worship is the hymnody of the church. We can review the denominational efforts that produced the original Trinity Hymnal (in 1961), the revised Trinity Hymnal (1990), and the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (2018). By this we can judge what Orthodox Presbyterians consider the proper songs of public worship.[2]

But what do Orthodox Presbyterians actually sing? The canon of song of a particular church is far smaller than the more than 600 selections in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. How many of those pages are dog-eared, and which of them remain pristine? Reviewing congregational worship practices (from church bulletins or other records of hymn selections) would provide a fascinating window on the music of the church.

We can say the same about other worship practices across the OPC. What are the versions of the pew Bibles in our churches, and when did that change? How has the Lord’s Supper frequency changed throughout our history?

Even more significantly, congregational histories can tell the stories of the people in the pew. My predecessor as OPC historian, Charles Dennison, has argued that “the unknown have contributed more to the progress of the church than the known.” This is especially true, he writes, about the women of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:

Many unknown but remarkable women have forged the OPC. Their modesty has not meant any lack of assertiveness by way of positive example, clarity of vision, or decisiveness, at times surpassing that of the men in the church. In fact this modesty has been matched by something of the “frontier spirit.” One OP woman, while reflecting on the early days of the church, was heard to say, “It was thrilling, an actual revival. We all were exhilarated about the movement and sensed we were involved in something of overwhelming importance.” Another told her husband, who was about to lose his church and the security it promised for her and their children, “John, you do what you know is right and leave the rest to the Lord.” Later, as her husband finished his farewell sermon and walked out of his large mid-western PCUSA congregation, she rose, “dragged” her children from the pew, and marched out the door behind him. Three hundred followed.[3]

These are the stories we risk losing, and they can only be stewarded by congregational historians.[4]

Getting Started

My hope is that these reflections might encourage some readers either to take up this calling or to encourage budding historians in their churches to narrate their story. If this sounds too daunting a task, let me offer some suggestions for beginners to dip their toes in these waters.

If your church lacks an archivist, perhaps the best place to start is to offer your services. Good history requires access to primary sources. Gather together sermons (written or recorded), bulletins, annual reports, pastoral letters, and other communications. Photographs, of course, are also a vital feature of your history. Collect and organize photographs of your church, taking care to label each one as best you can. For historical purposes, an unidentified photo is a useless photo. Some churches may have stashes of unlabeled photos with little clues of their significance. A creative way to solve that problem is to gather the senior saints and long-standing members of the church, perhaps over a meal, and make a collective effort to jog memories in order to identify occasions, people, and dates of your pictures.

If your congregation is in the habit of producing a series of reports for an annual congregational meeting, volunteer to write a “year in review” of your church. By saving the weekly church bulletins and other church communications over the course of the year, you have the raw material to compose the review. After a few years, you have amassed a portfolio of accounts, and you have gained a little experience in telling a congregational story.

Another opportunity is to contribute to the daily feature on the OPC website, “Today in OPC History.” The Committee for the Historian of the OPC is always eager to get brief accounts of milestones in the life of OPC congregations—church anniversaries, new buildings, pastoral transitions, and the like. Consider how an episode from your church can become a feature story.

If you want to write a fuller narrative, perhaps on the occasion of a church anniversary, there are further steps you can take. Read many different congregational histories. For a fine example of a collaborative effort by professional historians, read the story of Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Philadelphia.[5] Read amateur efforts as well. You will find accounts that vary widely in size and quality. Plenty of them are nostalgia masquerading as history or enthusiasm that focuses entirely on positive and upbeat stories. Take note of the strengths and weaknesses, the features emphasized and topics omitted. I remember finding a pamphlet-sized history of the church my mother-in-law grew up in. I was stunned to find that this celebration of three centuries of congregational life failed to mention either God or Christ even once! (That it was a Unitarian Church perhaps lessens the shock a little.)

In addition, look for local histories of your community or histories of other churches in your town. These will alert you to local issues that have affected congregational life. Consult local and regional historical societies for information they might have on your community and its patterns of church life.

Session and Presbytery minutes will reveal key decisions that shaped the story of your church. Financial reports will reveal times of plenty and want that have affected church life at various times. Work through annual membership statistics; put them in a chart and study the trends they suggest. Write up brief biographies of former pastors[6]. Write up the stories of the missionaries your church has supported and about their visits to your church.

One important way to begin to capture the lived experience of members is by conducting oral history interviews. There is an art to effective interviewing that I cannot claim to have mastered. But I have found some helpful advice for conducting effective interviews. Among the things I have learned:

Remember that an interview is not a dialogue. You must decrease so that your interviewee may increase. Avoid saying too much, and do not seek to control the conversation. Rather, welcome whatever anecdotes your guests relate. Careful follow-up questions can guide their reminiscences. And strive to avoid “yes or no” questions: you will likely get one-word responses! Especially seek to evoke your narrator’s eyewitness testimony: what was particularly noteworthy about your pastor’s pulpit presence? What did his sermons sound like? What did you appreciate (or dislike) most about Sunday school?

There are limits to oral history, to be sure. Memory is fragile and malleable, and you will want to confirm where possible from other sources the accounts you have recorded. Many of your stories will be positive and encouraging, but not all of them. All churches experience seasons of growth and retrenchment with struggles and controversies along the way. Exercising discretion while telling the truth will be one of your greatest challenges.

There are additional resources you should be aware of. The Presbyterian Historical Society’s website contains guides for the aspiring congregational historian, including the article “Writing Congregational Histories.” Wayne Sparkman, the archivist of the Presbyterian Church in America, has done a remarkable job of curating the story of his denomination at the PCA Historical Center in St. Louis (and he has generously lent his time and insights in the establishment of the OPC Archives). The PCA Historical Center’s website has several helpful materials, including an introduction to writing local church history. Under the able oversight of archivist Abby Harting, the OPC Archives continues to expand its holdings, including files on local congregations. Whatever the form your church history takes, be sure to deposit a copy in the OPC Archives.

Why Now?

The OPC’s centennial, fourteen years away, suggests that this is a particularly opportune time for churches to take on this challenge. A previous effort to encourage congregations to tell their stories took place for the OPC semi-centennial in 1986, with the production of the large commemorative book, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1936–1986, edited by Charles G. Dennison. Through text and pictures, this oversized book captured the accounts of the twelve presbyteries of the church and over 250 congregations, including ones that shut their doors or left the denomination. (One entry was a two-sentence description of a church’s coming into the OPC from independency and returning to independency eleven months later.) Relying largely on the contributions from churches, these accounts included tales of humble service and faithful cross-bearing. I am not aware of anything like this, at least among American Presbyterian denominations. The Committee for the Historian (on which I continue to serve) is hoping to gather congregational stories again for the OPC centennial in 2036. What the final product may look like remains to be determined. But to do anything effectively it is wise to begin planning now, over a decade in advance.

Psalm 78 instructs us to look back at history, draw lessons from the past, and pass it on to the next generation. The “mighty acts of God” in that psalm focus on the miraculous wonders of redemptive history. But congregations do well also to reflect on their own history and the particular blessings that God has graciously bestowed on them. Telling the story of a local church, how it came to be and how God has sustained it over the years, is always a worthwhile task.

So consider how you might serve your church and your denomination in this way. In doing so, you will also help me meet my unfulfilled ambition.

Endnotes

[1] Harry L. Reeder III, Embers to Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 192–93.

[2] See especially chapter 2 (on the Trinity Hymnal) in Darryl Hart’s Between the Times: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Transition, 1945–1990 (Willow Grove, PA: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 2011).

[3] Charles G. Dennison, ed., The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1936–1986 (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 1986), 313.

[4] Inspiring profiles of many women serving in the OPC have been captured well by Pat Clawson and Diane Olinger in their editing Choosing the Good Portion: Women of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, PA: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 2016). But as they note, there are many more stories to tell.

[5] Philip Graham Ryken, ed., Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia: 175 Years of Thinking and Acting Biblically (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004). Another model is David B. Calhoun, The Glory of the Lord Risen Above it: First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina, 1795-1995 (Columbia, SC: First Presbyterian Church, 1994).

[6] Here you will find enormously beneficial the Ministerial Register of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, produced by the Stated Clerk of the OPC and now in its seventh edition.

John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, Dean of Libraries at Reformed Theological Seminary, and former historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, October 2022.

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Ordained Servant: October 2022

The Importance of Congregational History

Also in this issue

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapters 1 & 2, Part 1

One More Time: If Presbyterians Are Evangelical, Why Aren’t Evangelicals Presbyterian? A Review Article

Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volume 3: The Works of God and the Fall of Man, by Peter van Mastricht: A Review Article

Theology in a Time of Persecution: A Review Article

In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth

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