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.

Mac is Special Collections Librarian and Archivist at Abilene Christian University.

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.

Mac is Special Collections Librarian and Archivist at Abilene Christian University.

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.

Mac is Special Collections Librarian and Archivist at Abilene Christian University.