Researching Your Church Family Tree #1

I receive a lot of interesting research questions in both my job as archivist and as a special collections library associate (a job I hold based in part on my education in history and archives management.) I was contacted by someone the other day seeking to confirm the date that her church was founded. She stated that she was involved in the planning of the church’s 175th anniversary, a statement similar to those I have heard many times when I have discussed church history with others (100th, 150th, 175th, the number isn’t what is important.) This lady asked “How do you determine exactly when your church was founded?” This is a question that is a bit rarer than a simple statement of the church’s age as fact. Usually the founding date of the church is not questioned if there is a tradition regarding it. I recently was asked to provide information about the founding of a church “X” many years ago in an area that was not settled until about “X” minus 50 years ago, obviously a difficult task. I have found two separate histories of the same church with entirely different stories and dates of their founding. I have also found lists of pastors and membership rolls that are obviously not connected to the church in question. It occurs to me that perhaps more folk would have benefitted by asking that question “How do you know?”

Church history is much like genealogy. Congregations rely on volunteers to keep records, many of whom do, in fact, keep them; forever. Minutes are lost or not kept. Records are just not a priority. This is similar to when family records get thrown out, shoved in the attic, or just misplaced. Years later, someone in the family, church or biological, decides they want to know the history of their forebears. Someone collects the memories as best they are able, interprets what records are available, and fills in the gaps with seemingly sensible, if un-provable, narrative. The story becomes the history of the church or family, and over the years accepted as proven fact. Woe to he who questions it.

The problem is that there are often errors in the histories, as with all other types of history. Only, with family and church history an unusual, if understandable, amount of emotion is invested in the traditional version. The identity of the family member is somewhat based upon that tradition. Just as my great-grandmother was convinced we were descended from Charlemagne, a man who has been proven to be mathematically unable to have fathered the quantity of progeny necessary to develop the number of descendents that claimed his ancestry in the early Twentieth Century, many folk are convinced that they “know” their church and family history based on no evidence whatsoever. Sometimes they are correct, sometimes not.

As an archivist, I dread the times when someone comes in and asks me for the proof (usually expecting it to be sitting on a shelf within easy reach or in a searchable database) for a story that no one has ever researched. What they fail to understand is that non-fiction must be researched by someone before it is accessible in a published form to others. The answer to the question I was asked regarding how you know when your church was founded is the same as how you know your other family history; research. Like genealogy, the answers are often long and hard in coming. Records may not exist or may remain long hidden. The rewards can, however, be great.

Current church members can do their part to help future researchers by checking Aunt Gertie’s attic for records or memorabilia, starting an archives or donating their records to their conference archives, and collecting memories through oral history, photographs, and memoirs. Personal genealogies also may help flesh out a church history, just as church records may help fill in a piece of an individual’s family tree. And by all means, a church should collect copies of all legal documents, court records, deeds, and bequests that might be on file at a local archives.

I was able to help the lady who asked me the question about how one “knows” because I have a copy of the page in the record book where the deed to their church was recorded at the time of its founding. I cannot help the one who wants to find evidence of how his church was founded years before the area was settled. I do hope that more folk will participate in research and question the traditions of their church rather than accepting them blindly. The truth might be far more interesting and enlightening than a legend of dubious origins. Truth is what it is about, after all. Oh- and when you find that truth, send a copy to your conference archives. They will appreciate it.

Jim

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