That you may give it in due time to others: a brief meditation for congregational historians and others who care about the past and the future

In 1939 Frederick John Foakes Jackson* published A History of Church History: Studies of Some Historians of the Christian Church (W. Heffer & Sons Ltd: Cambridge).  His final book–he published it at age 84–it surveys in fourteen chapters just what its title suggests using biographical and bibliographical lenses.

Foakes Jackson studied under Bishop John Lightfoot at Trinity College, Cambridge and likely he first read church history under Lightfoot.  He returns full circle to his teacher in the final chapter of this final book under the title “The Books Recommended by Bishop Lightfoot.”

The entire book though is somewhat of a tribute volume to Lightfoot.  Foakes Jackson not only ended the book with a very kind nod to his teacher, he prefaced it with a subdued compliment to Lightfoot’s erudition and personal magnanimity. After three unsuccessful attempts at gaining a scholarship to study at Cambridge, Foakes Jackson obtained in 1880 the Lightfoot Scholarship in Ecclesiastical History.  From there his teaching career launched and sailed for the next six decades.  The Preface to A History of Church History contains the reply Foakes Jackson received when, upon learning of this award he wrote a note of thanks to the Bishop.  The closing line of the reply reads: “I trust you will take up some portion of history and make it your own that you may give it in due time to others.”

Take up…make it your own…give it to others.  I imagine Foakes Jackson at near ninety rereading the treasured letter from the patron who enabled his early university career.

There is wisdom here from Lightfoot and Foakes Jackson.  As church historians, or congregational historians, or teachers in congregational settings, or preachers, we stand in a tradition.  We are not the first to undertake the task of sorting out our past.  We are not the first to stand before a class or congregation.  We are not the first to write or research or sift or evaluate or craft the product of our study.  We are not the first and we will not be the last.  We have neither the first nor the final word.  But we have our word, and with that a responsibility to pay close attention to those who precede us, add to it in our own way with criticism, insight, research and commentary, and then hand it off again.  Just as our predecessors entrusted the work to us, we entrust it to others.  We have responsibility to look backward at the tradition we have inherited; likewise we bear a responsibility to pass it forward after we make our contribution.  We care about the past, we steward our gifts and resources in this moment, and we care about the future.  We receive, we give.  We take up, make it our own, and then give it away.

This inspires me to be responsible with what I receive.  It inspires me to take seriously and steward wisely the opportunities and resources available to me.  It underscores for me the reality that I am part of a community, one that ‘right now’ as much as it is past/future.  For some of us the community may be a professional guild, or it may be the Wednesday night regulars, but there is a community.  It encourages me to submit the fruit of my work to the good of the community.

* Wikipedia will get you started; follow the links there to good and useful information about FJFJ.

Claude Spencer pays tribute to Sarah Lou Bostick, ca. 1948

Sarah Lou Bostick

Sarah Lou Bostick

“No, there were not any rare imprints or beautiful bindings among the things Mrs. Bostick saved; a book dealer wouldn’t have given $1.50 for the lot. There were just the commonplace things, the stuff most of us destroy, but which is so necessary in writing the history of our people, our churches, and our brotherhood. Better history can be written because of Mrs. Bostick.”–Claude Spencer, “An Appreciation” in The Life Story of Sarah Lue Bostick, A Woman of the Negro Race, ca. 1948, p. 39.

Sarah Lue was the President of the Christian Woman’s Board of Missions Auxilary at Pea Ridge (AR) Christian Church. As such she acquired (and saved) a truck load (literally, a tractor-trailer load) of programs, letters, documents, periodicals, etc. documenting African-American Christian Churches. Spencer said “only once or twice in a lifetime does the curator of a historical society get so much unusual material as was collected and saved by Mrs. Bostick.”

My take-aways from Spencer’s remarks: 1) you never know what use can be made of a seemingly insignificant source, or what information can be gleaned from it; 2) you never know what might survive, or how much, or where, or by whom; 3) better history can be written because the availability of more/better/different/nuanced source material; 4) better history can *only* be written when these materials see the light of day and are available to history-writers.

Praying with our Ancestors: A Prayer for Truth

ACU Library hosts a weekly chapel for our students, student workers, faculty and staff. I was asked to pray in last week’s assembly. I chose to draw from the well of our history rather than bring a word of spontaneous prayer. I reflected on what we are trying to do in the library, not just the tasks we perform, but a core reason for our existence at the heart of the university’s life and mission. I reflected on what we are trying to accomplish in a weekly gathering of students and faculty. I reflected on why we collect and steward information resources in our spaces, why and how our community uses these resources, and to what ends. I then spent some time with J. H. Garrison.

As is the case with most of my friends, Garrison has been dead a good long while. But while he was among the living he contributed mightily to the devotional spirit of the Stone-Campbell movement. Arguably his Alone With God is the classic work on the inner devotional life.  He wasn’t the only one who tried to develop this sense among us, and you’ll have to gauge for yourself whether he even did it well, but every time I read him I’m better for it.

My reflections about the nature of our work in our space converged with Garrison’s prayer for truth.

Living as we do in a world charmed by lies, half-truths, near-truths, and spin, I think it wise to pause for a moment and pray for truth.  Living as we do in a context rife with passive-aggression, innuendo, rhetorical slight of hand, I think it wise to pause and pray and seek truth.  Living and working in a community of scholars, nearly every last thing we do is a search for truth: we research, we investigate, we experiment, we hypothesize, we inquire, we discover, we assess, we interpret.  It is good for us along this way to gather and pray for truth.

James Harvey Garrison’s ‘Prayer for Truth’* in Alone With God** (St. Louis: Christian Publishing Company, 1891), 151:

O God, the God of truth, mercifully grant that the Holy Spirit of Truth may rule our hearts, grafting therein love of truth, and making us in all our thoughts and words and works, to study, speak, and follow truth, that we may be sincere before all people, and blameless before Thee.  May no unworthy prejudice or sectarian pride prevent us from accepting whatever bears the divine impress of Thy truth.  May we love the truth, know the truth, and be made free by the truth; for His sake who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and in whom is no guile, even Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen!

*I adapted Garrison’s pronouns.  I changed them from singular to plural and where he prayed to be ‘blameless before men’, I prayed ‘blameless before all people.’

**Read the first edition here or purchase a new edition here.

Header Image: Brooks, Jeremy. Truth ->. Flickr. June 3, 2008. Some rights reserved.

Praying with our Ancestors: A Prayer for Truth

ACU Library hosts a weekly chapel for our students, student workers, faculty and staff. I was asked to pray in last week’s assembly. I chose to draw from the well of our history rather than bring a word of spontaneous prayer. I reflected on what we are trying to do in the library, not just the tasks we perform, but a core reason for our existence at the heart of the university’s life and mission. I reflected on what we are trying to accomplish in a weekly gathering of students and faculty. I reflected on why we collect and steward information resources in our spaces, why and how our community uses these resources, and to what ends. I then spent some time with J. H. Garrison.

As is the case with most of my friends, Garrison has been dead a good long while. But while he was among the living he contributed mightily to the devotional spirit of the Stone-Campbell movement. Arguably his Alone With God is the classic work on the inner devotional life.  He wasn’t the only one who tried to develop this sense among us, and you’ll have to gauge for yourself whether he even did it well, but every time I read him I’m better for it.

My reflections about the nature of our work in our space converged with Garrison’s prayer for truth.

Living as we do in a world charmed by lies, half-truths, near-truths, and spin, I think it wise to pause for a moment and pray for truth.  Living as we do in a context rife with passive-aggression, innuendo, rhetorical slight of hand, I think it wise to pause and pray and seek truth.  Living and working in a community of scholars, nearly every last thing we do is a search for truth: we research, we investigate, we experiment, we hypothesize, we inquire, we discover, we assess, we interpret.  It is good for us along this way to gather and pray for truth.

James Harvey Garrison’s ‘Prayer for Truth’* in Alone With God** (St. Louis: Christian Publishing Company, 1891), 151:

O God, the God of truth, mercifully grant that the Holy Spirit of Truth may rule our hearts, grafting therein love of truth, and making us in all our thoughts and words and works, to study, speak, and follow truth, that we may be sincere before all people, and blameless before Thee.  May no unworthy prejudice or sectarian pride prevent us from accepting whatever bears the divine impress of Thy truth.  May we love the truth, know the truth, and be made free by the truth; for His sake who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and in whom is no guile, even Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen!

*I adapted Garrison’s pronouns.  I changed them from singular to plural and where he prayed to be ‘blameless before men’, I prayed ‘blameless before all people.’

**Read the first edition here or purchase a new edition here.

This post is co-published at Charis, an online space for conversations of and about Churches of Christ.

Leander Moore preaches at Central Church of Christ (Deaf), 1960s

Several years ago I was given a few photographs and other paper items from the estate of Owen Pryor, one of the early ministers to the deaf at Nashville’s Central Church of Christ.  Among them is this photograph of Leander Moore preaching to the deaf congregation.  It is as fine an example of chart preaching as I have seen.

Photograph, Leander Moore at Central Church of Christ (Deaf), 1960s. Nashville, Tennessee.

Photograph, Leander Moore at Central Church of Christ (Deaf), 1960s. Nashville, Tennessee.

Nashville Churches of Christ in 1885

I have at hand Year-Book of the Disciples of Christ, Their Membership, Missions, Ministry, Educational and Other Institutions. Cincinnati: General Christian Missionary Convention, 1885.

This was not the first attempt to gather statistics, but we may regard as the first of its kind and scope.  Earlier attempts did quite well to list preachers and names of congregations. The 1885 Yearbook lists congregations in 38 American states and territories plus Canada, Great Britain, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania.  Under each state, territory or country, the congregations are listed in nearly alphabetical order by the name of the church.  At least all the names starting with the same letter are grouped together.  Not truly alphabetical, but close.  Also included are lists of preachers and descriptions of mission activity, higher educational institutions and literary output.

What sets the 1885 book apart from its sporadic predecessors is that for each congregation it also provides names of elders, Post Office [the closest thing in 1885 to an address as we know it], the frequency of preaching [tri-monthly, monthly, semi-monthly, weekly, irregular or no data provided], number of members, number of Sunday School pupils, number of officers and teachers [presumably within the Sunday School arrangement], value of church property, the amount raised in 1883 for local work, the amount raised in 1883 for missions, and the name of the regular preacher in 1884.

At 159 pages the document is by a large margin the largest and broadest such directory undertaken thus far among the Stone-Campbell movement.  However, it has significant limitations.  The compiler, evidently Robert Moffett of Cleveland, Ohio, states in the first sentence of the General Introduction that “It can not be too forcibly enjoined on all who examine this Year-Book, that no pretensions to completeness are made for it.  On the contrary, it is expressly claimed that its statistics are very incomplete.”  He cites the organizing committee’s utter lack of financial resources and serious disorganization as factors mitigating against a fuller or more accurate compilation.  As a ” work of purely voluntary goodwillI…” Moffett states, “it may well be regarded as surprising that they have accomplished so much.”

The committee relied upon the personal-informational network put in place by advocates of missionary societies to gather their statistics: “That only in States having well-established and vigorous State organizations–such as Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia–has it been possible to obtain even approximately full lists of the churches; and much less their statistics.”  In short, the advocates of the Society kept track of the churches in their area.  Some states, such as Kentucky, Georgia, Indiana, Texas and Arkansas, “there has not been the same pains taken by the State organizations to gather statistics.”  Finally, “in other quarters–such as Tennessee and the majority of the Southern and far Western states and Territories–they have been obliged to depend on individual aid–generally on such preachers as were known to them.  Hence their work must be regarded as merely a beginning.”

There are 264 Tennessee congregations listed.  None of those in Nashville are among this number.  Not Church Street or Second Christian downtown nor Woodland Street in East Nashville.  Outlying county congregations like South Harpeth, Philippi, and on out to Lavergne, Franklin and Owen Chapel are also missing.  Tucker’s Crossroads or Bethlehem in Wilson County is there, along with Bush’s Chapel in Sumner County up on the ridge and Sycamore over in Cheatham County.  But no Nashville congregations, not a one of them.

The list of preachers for Tennessee was hastily added late, after the majority of preachers were compiled into the main listing.  Of the 2620 preachers listed, here are those with Nashville addresses: R. Lin Cave [who was at Church Street in downtown], J. P. Grigg [who preached all over but chiefly in 1885 at the infant North Nashville, or 8th Avenue North congregation], David Lipscomb [a member at Church Street in 1885], William Lipscomb [listed in Brentwood, but still very close], W. J. Loos [who was at Woodland Street in East Nashville as a regular preacher], J. C. McQuiddy {who was at the infant Foster Street mission in North Edgefield], a Rawlings [who knows?], E. G. Sewell {an elder at Woodland Street], Rice Sewell [listed as Donleson, in Davidson County], and E. S. B. Waldron [listed as Lavergne, on the Davidson/Rutherford county line].  No other Tennessee city has as many resident preachers as Nashville.  One one African-American preacher was listed in Tennessee, H. Hankal in East Tennessee.

The Block River [could be Black River] church in Connersville, reported 250 members with no pupils in Sunday School; they did not report the amount spent in local or mission work. They heard preaching monthly by Joseph Hill.

The Catby’s Creek [almost surely the Cathey’s Creek] church, at Isom’s Store, reported monthly preaching by T. I. Brooks.  A congregation of 300 members, they had 25 Sunday School pupils, taught by four teachers.  With property valued at $2000, this congregation spent $100 for local work and $40 for mission work in 1883.

The McMinnville congregation, meeting weekly for preaching by George W. Sweeney, had 350 members, 125 in a Sunday School taught by five teachers.  Their property was valued at $5000.  They spent $2500 at home and $100 for mission work in 1883.  I have a neat old photograph of the McMinnville meetinghouse.  It reads ‘Church of God’ in the stone tablet high above the front door.  I will have to post it here sometime.

There are a few other congregations reporting memberships between 100-200, but in Tennessee, the Block river, Cathey’s Creek and McMinnville are the largest as recorded in the 1885 Year-Book.  The McMinnville congregation tied with Fayetteville in terms of the value of church property ($5000) and with the Memphis congregation for the amount spent in local work ($2500).  A few other churches show property valued above $1000, but McMinnville and Memphis are far and away the leaders in expenditures, as reported in this book.

A Homily for Congregational Historians

Psalm 105.1-6 : O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples. Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wonderful works. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually. Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered, O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones. (NRSV)

The task of keeping up with the history of a local congregation is a fulfilling experience. We enjoy old newspaper clippings, faded photographs, obscure-yet-sought after references in books. We revel in oral history interviews and in finding scraps of information that afford us better information, more accurate description, and thus a more faithful accounting of our past. We enjoy collecting material, retelling the stories, and keeping alive the memories of our congregations.
Allow me this morning to take you beyond that job description. I want to give you lenses through which to see your task as congregational historian. In fact, I would rather not use the language of “task” or “job”; instead we should use the language of “ministry” and “service.”
Drawing from the reading of Psalm 105, I urge you to see your history-gathering and your history-keeping as a theological task. Congregational history is names and dates and places and activities and chronology and photographs and records and lists. But it is so much more: to keep and tell congregation’s history is to keep and tell the “wonderful works” God has done. It is a theological task, it is a ministry. Congregations are more than mere assemblies of people; they are the assembled people of God, in whom and through whom and for whom God is actively at work. When we do congregational history we are telling of the work of God. Our task then is holy, it is sacred, for it concerns the ongoing story of God and his church. Bernard of Clairvaux has a statement that I have long cherished: “There are many who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. There are some who desire to know in order that they themselves are known: that is vanity. Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonorable. But there are those who seek knowledge in order to serve and edify others: that is love.” Drawing from Bernard, I urge you to see your history-gathering and your history-keeping as a pastoral task. The practice of acquiring, processing, interpreting and preserving congregational history is to be done for the larger purpose of serving and edifying others. The practice of congregational history is a labor of love for the good of the church. It is a pastoral task; it is a sacred ministry.

I presented this at morning devotions at the Stalcup Seminar for Local Church Historians, Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 2006.

A prayer before reading scripture, Isaac Errett, 1877

O Lord, I am about to read thy holy word. I pray for a teachable spirit. May I come to thee hungering after righteousness. May my soul pant for thee as the hart panteth for the water-brook, and drink of the water of life and be satisfied. Open thou mine eyes to behold wondrous things out of thy law. Enable me to receive the word of the kingdom into a good and honest heart, that I may bring forth fruit unto eternal life. May thy word be a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path; and may I give heed to it as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in my heart. May I love thy law, and rejoice in its teaching as one that findeth great spoil. May it be more desirable to me than gold, yea than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, or the droppings of the honeycomb. Be pleased, O Lord, to enlighten the eyes of my understanding, that when I read I may understand thy will. And may thy doctrine drop upon my waiting spirit as the rain, and thy speech distill as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass. Let thy word be unto me the joy and the rejoicing of my heart. Save me from every blinding influence of passion and prejudice, and from all perverseness of spirit, lest I should handle thy word deceitfully. And let thy truth search my inward parts and discern the thoughts and intents of my heart. Let me receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save my soul. And do thou search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and show me if there is any wicked way in me; and lead me in the way everlasting. These petitions I humbly offer to thee in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Isaac Errett, Letters to a Young Christian. Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company, 1877, pages 162-164.

Bumping into Mystery and Lining Out Hymns

Bumping into mystery is only one benefit of learning about our past.  Benefit is probably not the best way to describe this kind of learning.  I prefer ‘blessing’ to ‘benefit.’  Let me explain why. Not long ago I spent some time exploring the various traditions of hymnody within the Stone-Campbell movement.  I was surprised to find multiple traditions just within the confines of Stone-Campbell history.  Up in New England the Elias Smith and Abner Jones movement developed a robust hymnody drawing from Isaac Watts.  Down in the Carolinas and Virginia the James O’Kelly movement developed an idiosyncratic hymnody based off O’Kelly’s and Joseph Thomas’ hymnals…composed largely of original hymns. They were aware of the work of Watts and Charles and John Wesley, but they shunned them.  Fascinating!  Then there was a brief Stoneite trajectory that actually did not begin with Barton Stone himself (though he was present and accounted for), but involved several of his close co-workers.  By the 1830s the hymnals published by Alexander Campbell dominated the movement; this remained the case until the Civil War.  It was a rich study: I learned so much that I just did not know before.  Everywhere I turned some new wonderful discovery seemed to be waiting for me.  Several times I ‘bumped into mystery.’  That is how I describe coming face to face with some thing, some fact or idea or concept so new or so beyond my prior experience.

What really intrigued me, though, is that I wanted to hear the hymns I read about.  They were new to me: mysterious, challenging, different.  If my ancestors sung them, and were shaped by them, then I wanted to hear them and learn them, too.  That led me quickly to YouTube because I wanted to hear a particular practice I discovered.  In a day before congregations purchased hymnals to be used at the meetinghouse (and left there…in the pew racks) each person bought their own hymnal and brought it to Sunday assembly.  Especially in cases where not everyone had access to a hymnal, or could not read, the leader would read or chant the first line and the congregation would respond by singing that line.  Called ‘lining out the hymns’ this practice was common among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in the late 18th century.  It was as aspect of Sunday worship our ancestors knew well…but for me it was mysterious, and new and wonderfully different practice.  So, off I went to YouTube.

Having bumped into mystery, I count it more than a benefit to hear and learn this, I count it a blessing.  I count it a blessing because I know better something of what they sung and how their hymnody shaped them.  I count it a blessing because I feel better connected to my ancestors having heard–even if for just a few brief minutes–something that they might have heard in a manner they might have sung it.  I count it a blessing to be aware of a way of singing and worshipping beyond any of my experiences, but was so central to the experiences of those who went before me.  For me to gain knowledge and understanding and sensitivity and awareness to those whose lives and work shaped me is not merely a benefit, it is a blessing.

This clip is only one of many you can find online that illustrate how this practice works, and sounds.  I’ve used it with benefit blessing in several classes.