Some five years ago as I visited my childhood home church in north-central Minnesota, a retired pastor stood up during the evening testimonial time. "I'd like to sing a little song my mother used to sing to me," he said, proceeding to sing a spiritual lullaby in Swedish. It seemed pretty corny, until I looked around and saw tears glistening in the eyes of elderly members of the congregation. Rev. Bernstrom had reminded them of their roots.
Temple Baptist church in Brainerd, Minnesota, is a Swedish Baptist church. The names I remember from my youth were mostly Swedish — Bloomstrom, Olson, Johnson, Norr, Torkelquist — and the older folks spoke with a pleasant Scandinavian lilt. The first time my German grandfather visited the church in 1926 for a special service, he was surprised when the evangelist preached in Swedish (but he felt too embarrassed to leave).1 My favorite youth club speaker was Myre Skoog, a Norwegian immigrant who told fascinating boyhood stories of fishing way out on the ocean and climbing the mountains in the old country to go skiing.2 For better or worse, the church had its roots in the pietistic, free-church movement of Scandinavia.
We all have church roots and connections, and they help shape us. It was at my home church that I learned stories about the Bible, heard the Gospel preached, and framed basic evangelical convictions. Obviously, no church is perfect. ("And if you ever find a perfect church," my grandmother used to tell me, "leave it right away... so you don't ruin it!") No family is perfect, either, but we love our families and are interested in their histories, because they tell us about our past and reveal what makes us tick.
Preserving Our Spiritual Heritage
The Bible reminds us of the value of our spiritual roots. Christians are charged with remembering and emulating their worthy leaders: "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and consider the result of their conduct, imitate their faith" (Heb. 13:7). Paul urges Timothy to continue in the doctrines of the faith, "knowing from whom you have learned them" (2 Tim. 3:16). Histories of the church and faithful leaders, then, can be God-ordained ways of rooting us in the covenant community and securing us in the faith.
Christians can do much to preserve their spiritual heritage by researching and writing church histories. Doing history will automatically teach lessons about theology and history. Doing history is a good way of serving the local congregation, and it will make you feel more connected and involved. Doing church history is also a wonderful homeschool project that parents and children can work on together.
It is easy to start with oral interviews. Visit with the pastor and older members to learn about the church's past. Memories may not be perfect, and you may have to check perceptions and confirm facts. Interviews are also an excellent way of getting acquainted with people who might ordinarily be outside of your circle in church. People love to share their experiences and tell stories, and collecting oral histories will be enjoyable for you and your children.
Have a variety of questions ahead of time. When did the church start? Who were the pastors? When — and why — were the sanctuary and other buildings constructed? (I recall one frail woman in her nineties telling me with vivid detail and great emotion how the beautiful family church across the road burned down in the 1920s.) What were the biggest events in a church's past?
Three years ago, while interested in Billy Sunday's ministry, I was fascinated to learn that my next-door neighbor had gone forward at a Sunday crusade. N.A. Taggart was just a boy in 1917 when Sunday came to Chattanooga. "Tag" remembered the long streetcar rides with his parents to the revival; he liked the preaching (Sunday was "some preacher") and went forward to shake Sunday's hand; but he especially liked the music of the revival (he'd never heard anything like it since). I knew a fair bit about Billy Sunday, and had formed different ideas about the wildly popular and flamboyant Presbyterian revivalist. But nothing caught my attention like my neighbor's remembrance.
Printed material, if available, will be helpful. Older churches often have anniversary collections or histories. It may be possible to use records of sessions and presbyteries, although the material may be cumbersome for amateur historians and access may be restricted because of the sensitivity of the material. I have found some excellent church-related materials in public libraries, county historical societies, university archives, and special collections. The Washington County Historical Society in Abingdon, Virginia, for instance, has a wealth of material on early churches in southwest Virginia. For those living near Asheville, North Carolina, the Montreat Historical Foundation is a phenomenal resource for Presbyterian history. Even newspaper microfilm can be a rich source. Newspapers commonly gave extensive coverage to city-wide revival crusades in the early 20th century. (I have followed the progress of Billy Sunday's Bristol crusade in 1920, for instance, simply by reading the day-to-day coverage of the paper.) As with most kinds of research, the biggest chore is trying to find out where the material is.
Deal with questions of substance in addition to the simple chronological or factual elements. One religious historian argues that you can understand churches by asking questions about the "4 Cs": Creed, Code, Cultus and Community. "Creed" refers to the doctrine or beliefs of a church. All churches have a creed or some integrating principle of belief. It may be a formal statement of doctrine (such as the Westminster Standards), or some vague religious commitments (e.g., "think highly of Jesus and be nice to each other"). The trick, of course, is to find out what a church really believes. "Code" refers to behavioral and ethical requirements. Churches used to endorse the Golden Rule and the 10 Commandments, for instance, although many today are squeamish about God's law. Some have proscriptions against alcohol or tobacco or movies. The basic question is: "How does the church expect you to live?" (Or, how does the church think that God wants you to live?) "Cultus" refers to special religious observances or sacraments. "Community" refers to the way churches establish an identity or draw the circle of membership or fellowship. According to the church's teaching (either explicit or implicit), who are the "good guys" and who are the "bad guys"?
Ask questions to "place" a congregation. What issues really matter to my church? What seminaries do the pastors come from? What theological or devotional books are recommended? What missions does it support? Who are the church's heroes?
For years I have been a member of Westminster Presbyterian church (PCA) in Kingsport, Tennessee. The church started in 1973 from a Bible Study led by Joe Morecraft. Special speakers over the past dozen years have included Morecraft, R.J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Ken Gentry, Steve Schlissel, and Steve Wilkins — a veritable "who's who" of conservative Presbyterians. The speakers give a sense of the mission and focus of the congregation.
Ask and research "differentiating" questions. How does a church differ from other denominations? More interesting, how does a local church differ from other churches in the same denomination? Presbyterians in Bristol, Virginia, where I used to live, were within driving distance of dozens of Presbyterian churches and eight different Presbyterian communions. Their choices included the PCUSA, PCA, OPC, RPCGA, ARP, EPC, BPC, and even two Independent Presbyterian churches. One could get a good lesson in American church history by studying the origins of these bodies.3 Those interested in Lutheranism could research the twenty-some distinct Lutheran denominations in America.4 It would be interesting to document and categorize the Baptist communions and the issues and personalities that created them.
The Dividends of Research
The research can pay dividends. Doing history is a learning experience, and an opportunity to serve the church. And few things are as fun as finding a historical gem in a microfilmed document or buried in a musty, forgotten file. And those historical gems can be spiritually uplifting.
A few years ago, while doing genealogical research, my daughter stumbled upon material about my wife's great-great grandfather, Joseph Roof (1799-1894). Born in Switzerland, the eight-year old Roof was orphaned when a shipboard cholera epidemic killed his parents during their voyage to America. Roof, who lived to be 95 and had three wives and twelve children, became a Lutheran minister, and preached in both German and English. During his 43 year ministry, according to the local church's historian, he preached 4,082 sermons, administered 1,268 baptisms, solemnized 1,100 marriages, and conducted 1,300 funerals. A veritable lion of the faith, he "stood like a stonewall in defense of pure doctrine and scriptural practices." It was a meaningful trip for my family, then, to visit St. Paul's Evangelical church outside of Asheville, Ohio, where the Rev. Grandpa Roof served for most of his ministry. In describing Roof's tragic migration to America and his life as an orphan, the faithful church historian had simply put it this way: "the covenant-keeping God... was exercising over him a watchful care!" It was a wonderful reminder of our spiritual roots, and it was enough to bring a tear to my eye.
1. Northern Minnesota was settled in the late 19th century and there are strong connections with the old countries. The Finnish Lutheran church a couple blocks away from Temple Baptist maintained services in the mother tongue until the 1970s. My grandparents always referred to local churches by their country of origin: the Norwegian Lutheran church, the German Lutheran church, the Swedish Lutheran church, etc., which was confusing for a youngster who had yet to learn the power of ethnic identity.
2. Myre's son "Whitey" played professional basketball for the Minneapolis (now L.A.) Lakers, so we boys were always in awe of the Skoog family.
3. One helpful annotated website on American Presbyterianism is www.tateville.com/churches.html.
4. Valparasio University (www.valpo.edu/lutheran/LutheranChurchBodies.html) maintains a website with connections to all the Lutheran bodies. It is interesting to see what prompted the start of these churches. Was it theology, church polity, ethnicity, social issues, or personalities? Or was it some combination of these factors?