Author Archives: Devin Manzullo-Thomas

About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.

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!


Sacred Subjects: Remembering Religion at the Ephrata Cloister

The forthcoming book on commemoration, published by Rowman & Littlefield

As readers of this blog know, I contributed an essay to a forthcoming book on commemoration, to be published Rowman & Littlefield for the American Association for State and Local History.

The editor has pitched the book as a practical, how-to guide for would-be practitioners. It is not an academic text. Rather, it’s intended for public historians, museum and historical site board members, and others who do the difficult work of interpreting the past in public. It’s exciting to be writing for this kind of audience. As a result, I’ve been trying to nail down some specific examples of how the religious past has been interpreted and exhibited in public.

As it turns out, there aren’t a lot of great examples. Sure, religious objects often find their way into museum settings; there’s a lot of great research about that. And it’s very obvious that many religious groups found their own institutions of public memory: museums, archives, historical sites, and more. Lauren Turek has recently drawn our attention to the topic of denominational museums at the Religion in American History blog, and I’m glad she has; we need to talk more about these kinds of institutions and their role in American religious life. But, as the historian Christopher Cantwell has pointed out:

. . . public history practitioners and educators are often reluctant to integrate religious studies scholarship into their work. Either a fear of reviving the “History Wars” of the nineties or a discomfort with the supernatural claims religious communities make about the historical record often lead many public historians to conclude that religion is best left out of the exhibit hall.

Faced with this reality, I’ve been struggling to come up with a solid example of how public institutions have successfully interpreted America’s religious past.

Two of the main buildings at the Ephrata Cloister historic site in Pennsylvania. Over the last decade the site has begun to interpret its religious history, in addition to earlier emphases on art and architecture (WikiMedia Commons)

Fortunately, a few examples do exist. The site I’ve chosen to focus on in my chapter is the Ephrata Cloister, a historic site partly operated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Here’s a taste of the chapter:

Nestled in the rolling farmland of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and surrounded by the region’s Amish and Mennonite tourist destinations, the Ephrata Cloister offers an instructive case study in how religion can be interpreted successfully at locally- , state- , and federally-sponsored sites of public memory.

The Cloister began its life in the early eighteenth century as an intentional community built by radical, millenarian Swiss-German Protestants who emigrated from Europe seeking freedom from religious persecution. The community lasted until the early nineteenth century and then disbanded; after a sustained period of deterioration, in 1941 the site came under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Initially, interpreters derived the Cloister’s historical legitimacy from the folk art produced by its original inhabitants, as well as its unique medieval Germanic architecture. Interpretive efforts followed suit. However, since 2000, a coordinated effort by site staff, religious studies scholars, archeologists, and the PHMC has resulted in an innovative re-interpretation of the site that centralizes its religious significance. Archeological and archival research conducted in the mid- to late 1990s yielded new information about the everyday lives and distinctive religious beliefs and practices of the site’s original inhabitants, providing new fodder for educational tours and exhibits. Meanwhile, a staff-led endeavor reframed the Cloister’s mission to focus on its significance as “a site . . . of religious toleration and intellectual freedom in the New World.” Religion now intersects with older interpretive foci, such as folklore and architecture, within the site narrative. Site staff report that the change, although not without challenges, resonates with the public at large, the region, and local vested interests.

As the Cloister demonstrates, state-funded commemorative sites can successfully introduce a sacred or “private” past into broader historical narratives.

My main source for this case study has been Darin D. Lenz’s fascinating essay “History, Theology, and Interpretation: The Ephrata Cloister—A Case Study in Public History,” published in the journal Concept. You can read the essay here. Lenz’s work raises so many additional questions for me about how religion gets interpreted at these sites, what it takes to reinterpret an old site through a new lens, and how public concerns intersect with these “private” pasts. There is so much more to be said about the Cloister, religion, and public memory. I’m hoping I can devote some time in the future to a more intensive study of this site.

You’ll be able to read my whole chapter on religion and commemoration when the new book is released in October. Stay tuned!

Women in Ministry in the Brethren in Christ Church

Women have long played a key role in the ministry of the Brethren in Christ Church, in both formal and informal roles. H. Frances Davidson, a late nineteenth-century missionary, remains one of the most influential Brethren in Christ women in the church’s history. In this photo, Davidson is pictured alongside fellow missionary Adda Engle (right); together these two women pioneered the church’s second foreign mission station, in Macha, Zambia. (Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives)

I’m proud to be part of a church family (Brethren in Christ U.S.) that unequivocally affirms what the Bible clearly teaches: that the Spirit of God calls women and men equally to the ministry of the Christian church. I’m also proud to have church leaders who unequivocally celebrate the key role that women pastors, bishops, and other leaders play in shepherding God’s people in the world.

These affirmations are on my mind today because my denomination just released this statement, reaffirming our longstanding position on women in ministry. Here’s a taste:

In keeping with historic convictions of the Brethren in Christ Church and our desire to remain faithful to our understanding of Scripture, the BIC U.S. continues to fully recognize and support women in ministry and leadership at all levels of Church life. We believe that the Church truly does constitute God’s new community inaugurated by Christ, where both women and men are gifted and empowered for ministry, so that, together, we may fulfill the calling upon each of our lives.

Read the whole statement here.

And here’s an excerpt from a blog post by Alan Robinson, the Brethren in Christ U.S. general church leader, in which he describes his own experiences with women in ministry and leadership:

A woman introduced me to faith in Jesus Christ. At 10 years old, I found myself in a small, crowded living room in Northern Ireland — the gathering place of the Bible club of a growing church plant. Whether or not a formal preacher, the woman leading taught Scripture. And at the end of the session, she invited anyone interested to begin a relationship with Jesus Christ.

That was the beginning of my faith journey. Today, I am so thankful that she preached the gospel to me.

Likewise, we as the Brethren in Christ U.S. are indebted to — and celebrate — the women who use their gifts through ministry leadershipIn 2016, more than 130 women led as BIC pastors, chaplains, and ministry staff (both in paid and volunteer positions) across the United States. And as of today, 19 women have been ordained, and 31 are licensed.

Read Robinson’s full blog here.

As some of the readers of this blog know, I’ve done a bit of research and writing about the topic of women in ministry in the Brethren in Christ Church, especially in the mid- to late twentieth century (the period in which women became eligible for formal ministerial credentialing within the North American church). I’m hoping to share more of that research on the blog in the coming months. Stay tuned.

The AASLH Guide to Commemoration: Coming Soon!

I’m so honored to have been asked to contribute a chapter to the forthcoming book Commemoration: The American Association for State and Local History Guide, edited by my dissertation advisor Seth C. Bruggeman. I’ve just learned that the book will be available in October 2017. Check out this page for more info.

I’ll be posting more updates about my contribution to this book and how it fits into my larger interest in religion and commemoration in American history. For now, you can check out this post about the book chapter.

This Weekend: Conferencing with Anabaptists!

I had a great time at this weekend’s conference on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” at Eastern Mennonite University. I presented a paper on Brethren in Christ women, pastoral leadership, and evangelicalism, as part of a panel on Brethren in Christ women around the globe. I got to hear some fascinating papers and keynote sessions, and spend time with some of my collaborators at the Anabaptist Historians blog.

Here are some photos from the weekend.

You can read more about the conference over at Anabaptist Historians.

Lucille Marr delivers her paper on H. Frances Davidson, an early Brethren in Christ missionary. Marr’s current project explores Davidson’s early life through a close reading of her journals. An understudied resource!

Wendy Urban-Mead delivers part of her amazing (no notes, yet tightly focused!) paper on Brethren in Christ in Zimbabwe during that nation’s civil war. How, she asks, did a peace church navigate the complexities of piety, race, gender, and political violence?

What a privilege to speak on a panel with these amazing scholars! I’m in awe of you both.

Such fun to talk history, Anabaptism, teaching, grad school, and more with these fellow scholars and contributors to the Anabaptist Historians blog. From left to right: Ben Goossen, Christina Entz Moss, Joel Horst Nofziger, Simone Horst, me, and Anna Showalter

The natural beauty of the Shenandoah Valley, from the hill behind the Eastern Mennonite University campus