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Got a Methodist question? Go to Archives and History

  While holding a 1922 photograph showing a United Evangelical Church conference, archivist L. Dale Patterson describes the storage system at the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History in Madison, N.J.
UMNS photos by John C. Goodwin.

By Linda Bloom*
Oct. 17, 2008 | MADISON, N.J. (UMNS)

The Rev. Robert Williams visits with Joanne Utley during her research.

What is a circuit-rider?

If you don’t know, you can find the answer at www.gcah.org. Just click on the "UMC History" link.

The United Methodist Commission on Archives and History is beefing up its Web site—not only to help answer random queries, but also to provide quicker access of the denomination’s historical information to scholars, church bodies and the person in the pew.

"We claim that it’s probably the richest collection for research on global Methodism in the world," said the Rev. Robert Williams, who became the commission’s chief executive in 2006.

Located for 26 years on the bucolic campus of Drew University in New Jersey, the Commission on Archives and History oversees denominational treasures in its 16,000-square-foot space.

Upstairs, a reading room with wireless Internet access offers materials for scholars and other interested readers to peruse. Downstairs, on two underground stories, are roughly two miles worth of records, most of which can be accessed within 10 or 15 minutes through the database.

The collection is not all paper and celluloid. Numerous ceramic busts of Methodism founder John Wesley—the type of which used to adorn mantelpieces in British Methodist homes—can be found, along with Wesley’s death mask and reproductions of a teapot made for him by the Wedgewoods.

To Williams and the staff at Archives and History, it’s all about reclaiming the denomination’s past to point it toward the future. "We just don’t do history for nostalgia’s sake," he said, going on to quote Albert Outler, the 20th-century United Methodist theologian: "Nostalgia is mortgaging the future for the sake of the past."

Research requests

During the past year, the commission received more than 1,000 research requests and hosted 64 registered users of the archives, including 34 "long-term" researchers who stayed for three or more days or traveled a long distance to be there.

"We claim that it’s probably the richest collection for research on global Methodism in the world," says Williams.

Information seekers range from high school students to senior scholars, according to L. Dale Patterson, the archivist-records administrator. While the number of e-mail inquiries is increasing rapidly, "we still get a lot of phone calls," he said.

Want to know how to preserve old photos and documents? Archives has some tips that Patterson calls "nonprofit affordable." Church members also can learn how to preserve fragile items, record oral histories and build a homemade humidifier through the archival leaflet series.

Taking a vacation? Must-see places are listed in "A Traveler’s Guide to the Heritage Landmarks of the United Methodist Church."

Interested in listening to history in the making? Archives now has digitized versions of 80 one-hour shows from a 1960s radio program called "Night Call"—one of the first talk radio programs. More than 600 programs can be found in the United Methodist audio archives at http://audio.umc.org.

Looking for a photo? An extensive collection includes a quarter million images of mission work dating from 1890 to 1925.

How to preserve

Queries from local congregations often fall into two broad categories, according to Patterson. "For the local church, one of our most frequently asked questions is what type of records does a local church need to keep," he noted. The other category deals with what materials are available "to help churches celebrate their history."

The commission does provide a set of guidelines online, in conjunction with the annual conferences, about keeping church records. Locating such records must be done elsewhere. "When a church closes, those church records are sent to the annual conference archives," he explained.

Congregations planning to mark an anniversary can access a series of small booklets "that walks them through the planning," Patterson said. The Web site also has short biographies of famous United Methodists, bulletin inserts and history notes "which just answer simple, basic questions."

Minutes and journals of church agencies and commissions, as well as all the newspapers of annual conferences, are collected at Archives and History. "Several of our conferences have gone to all digital media," he said. "We are developing, essentially, an online newspaper depository."

The commission recognizes serious research through a series of grants and awards. To expand its focus beyond the United States, a new grant called "The World is My Parish" will provide $1,000 to $3,000 for researching the history of global Methodism.

International commission

The new commission includes members from the Philippines, Brazil, Zambia, Norway and Mozambique. Simão Jaime, the returning member from Maputo, Mozambique, is an assistant archivist in that country’s national archives and stopped by Madison recently to do research himself. The commission has approved a $10,000 grant for a training program of archivists in Mozambique.

Busts of John Wesley that once adorned mantelpieces in British Methodist homes are among safeguarded church treasures.

The commission relates to the historic black Methodist denominations, according to Williams, and has a significant partnership with the African American Methodist Heritage Center.

Archives and History staff members also want to ensure that the denomination’s Evangelical United Brethren heritage, as well as the history of other predecessor groups, is not lost. Williams sits on the advisory council for the Center for EUB Heritage at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, where the commission had its organizing meeting in September.

As The United Methodist Church concentrates on four areas of ministry focus around leadership, church growth, poverty and global health over the next four years, Archives and History will look at ways to give historical perspectives of the denomination’s previous successes in those areas.

With a healthy financial picture—which Williams attributes to careful management by former long-time leader Charles Yrigoyen Jr. and a previous reduction in staff—the commission is well-positioned to provide such assistance.

"The decision was made that our primary worth had to be in the archival end," he said. "We believe that our reserves are critical to being the custodians of the record of the church. We have to care for what’s been entrusted to us."

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


The Rev. Robert Williams: "to be sure that The United Methodist Church does not lose its memory."

L. Dale Patterson: "If we want our future to have a past"

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