Writing Church Histories by our Diocesan Historiographer

Robert Guerrein Diocesan Historiographer

Robert Guerrein Diocesan Historiographer

This year, the Cathedral of St. Paul celebrates 100 years as the diocese’s mother church. As part of the celebration, I have written a history of the cathedral – I called it “a history,” not “the history,” because much more remains to be discovered and published about St. Paul’s and its congregation. (I joke that to do a proper job, I would need at least two more years, a research assistant, and an expense account.) But I have learned a lot about what works and what does not, and what problems you might have writing your own parish histories.

For example, making a list or spreadsheet of resident clergy might be a good way to begin. Who was the rector, who were his assistants (until recently, it was always “his”); what were their dates? This seems easy enough – usually older parish histories can be trusted here – but you might find gaps you will want to fill from a variety of sources. You might want to present this list as an appendix, but you will find it very useful as a framework for the full history.

Assume you create this list. Now you must decide how thoroughly you want to research it. You might find it difficult to track down the personal history of a rector. An old parish history might say he came from church X and left after five years’ service to accept a call at church Y. But where was he born, raised, and educated? Where did he serve before church X, and where did he go after church Y? Was he an immigrant from Britain or an American raised, say, as a Methodist in North Carolina? Was he a graduate of Harvard or, say, the University of Virginia? Was he married, with a family? Why did he leave his pastorate at your church? (Older histories often try to hide unpleasantness.) Where and when did he die?

Tracing the careers of the clergy can be more difficult than you would think. The national church’s archives do not help much in this regard – records in the days before computers make searches difficult. The archives’ advice was that college alumni magazines are a good way to track someone’s career. So are obituaries, which nowadays can often, though not always, be found online.

You will also have to decide how much attention assistant clergy merit. How extensive a history do you intend to write? Assistant clergy can be mere names, but they can also be interesting character studies. (One 1920s assistant at St. Paul’s was so taken by the preaching of the missionary bishop to Alaska that he followed him to the north. Perhaps the climate did not agree with him, because I found him later on Hawaii.)

Once you have an accurate list of rectors, you can begin to study your church’s records to see how they led your congregation. That means you must read the vestry minutes. This might be tedious … well, it almost certainly will be tedious … but it is absolutely necessary. Do not trust previous parish histories, however, good they are. You must go to the source.

You will want to check the clergy’s dates of service (Aside: Check and cross-check everything) and all of the motions the vestry has passed over the years. The minutes will tell you what the vestry passed or voted down, but not necessarily who voted for or against. They will concentrate on finances rather than theology though you might want to look in the 1890s for signs of discontent over the liturgy and “Romish” innovations. If you want to know how your church reacted, or didn’t, to World War I or to the Depression, the vestry minutes might tell you. (The Cathedral’s archives do not say much about Depression troubles. Diocesan records do.)

I found other sorts of records very useful, but after erecting the scaffolding of the history. Service books, pamphlets, memorabilia such as graduation programs, parish magazines are all very helpful in making history real.

Surprisingly, parish registers of who was baptized, buried, or married were not as helpful as I thought they would be. They did offer some interesting details of parish life, but they seem of more use to genealogists than parish historians. For example, I discovered by chance that in 1843 one rector of St. Paul’s buried a niece of President James Buchanan (then a U.S. senator); Elizabeth Kelso now rests in the Erie Cemetery.

Here is advice I have given previously:

Contact (and join, if you can) the National Episcopal Historians and Archivists. Its address is 509 Yale Ave., Swarthmore, PA 19801. Its email address is nehahqs@aol.com. Also, contact the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 1749, Harlingen, TX 78551. Its email address is administration@hsec.us. I have taken this information from the Autumn 2013 number of the Historiographer, the newsletter for both organizations, “published to promote the preserving of church records and the writing of parochial and diocesan history.”

Here is another resource, two concise publications from the National Archivists. If you have questions, begin with them:

  • Archives for Congregations: An Introduction and Guide.
  • Writing a Congregational History, by Laurence D. Fish.

Robert T. Guerrein, Diocesan Historiographer and member of the Cathedral of St. Paul, Erie

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