Does the Congregational History Have a History?

Cover of a book showing two people walking toward a old church building made out of log beams.

From cover of An Historical Sketch of the First Presbyterian Church in America, by Randall Lee Saxon, n.d. From FPC Southampton, NY, Congregational Vertical File, Presbyterian Historical Society (Philadelphia).

Anyone who has attended a Christian church has probably encountered the “congregational history.” These books typically appear around the time of a congregational anniversary — say, a centennial celebration — and usually tell the story of the congregation’s origins and development. In general, these books are not written by academic historians, but by people from within the congregation — either a highly motivated lay person or a current or former minister. For this reason, many congregational histories draw on the conventional kinds of sources used by historians — archival materials such as baptismal, membership, and funeral records, church bulletins or orders of service, church meeting minutes, and administrative materials — but also draw on other forms of historical knowledge, including community memory, genealogy, and the like.

Many books exist offering suggestions on how to write a congregational history. And church/denominational historical societies offer their tips, too. But lately I have been wondering: Does the congregational history have a history? That is to say, has anyone written about how and why congregational histories became an important part of churches’ public commemorations of their histories?

Of course, historians are fond of saying, “Everything has a history.” So the congregational history must have a history, right?

This question transcended mere curiosity for me last summer, when I researched and wrote a chapter on American religious communities and commemoration for a forthcoming book from the American Association for State and Local History. (I’ve written a little about this project here and here.) The book itself is a how-to guide on commemoration that will draw on the rich scholarly literature of memory studies to offer history practitioners — public historians, museum professionals, “lay” historians, and others — tips for planning and carrying out historical commemorations. My chapter begins with a short historical review of the ways that faith communities have commemorated their pasts, and then offers assessments of those practices and suggestions for ongoing work.

Given that much of my own research and writing focuses on the history of American Christianity, I situated Christian faith communities at the center of my chapter, although they weren’t the only religious groups I considered. For that reason, I devoted a bit of my historical overview to the function of congregational histories (or “historical discourses,” as they were called in the mid-nineteenth century) in patterns of religious commemoration. And I spent quite a bit of time reading nineteenth-century congregational histories as a way to prepare for writing this chapter.

All that to say: the congregational history does have a history — but it’s a history that too few scholars have paid attention to. I’ll be sharing some of my initial thoughts about the significance of these commemorative writings in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

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