Billy Graham Center

"Always be able to remember these things,": Some Thoughts on Church Archives and Christian Archivists

Presentation by Bob Shuster at the Rescuing the Memory of Our Peoples conference in Vatican City on September 30, 2002

Sometime between five and seven decades after the birth of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, perhaps in Caesarea or Jerusalem or perhaps not too far from this spot, sat in a prison cell and wrote a letter to the church in Philippi. The original letter is lost. (At least I know my Archives does not have it) Because it was copied and shared in one way or another among churches throughout the region, its contents were preserved for us. And that letter itself was a medium of preservation. Paul included in it what many scholars consider to be one of the earliest of Christian hymns.

In verses 6 to 11 in chapter 2 we read,

Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
But made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death-even death on a cross.
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This glorious hymn is also a fragment preserved for us of very early Christian testimony, worship and faith. It is not locked away but is a living document that is still used daily by Christians of every tradition and education. It is thus a reminder of the kind of service that we as archivists can do our brothers and sisters in faith.

My assignment is say something about the history of the the keeping and use of Christian archives at my own institution, the Billy Graham Center Archives of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois in the United States. I will start with some aspects of our collecting policy, and outreach programs which might relate to the work of other Christian archives. I'll then conclude with a few thoughts about the part archivists who are Christian play in the congregation of believers.

The United States has many, many archives of documents of Christian history. The Roman Catholic Church, besides the diocesan archives that preserve the stories of congregations, schools, and bishops, maintains numerous archives for individual orders. Among Protestant churches, there are hundreds of denominational and congregational archives that mirror the individualism and splitting tendencies that are notable elements of American Christianity. These archives vary in size from a drawer in a dusty file cabinet in the basement of one denomination's national headquarters to the well-organized, model programs of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Historical Society, the Assemblies of God Archives and the Southern Baptist Library and Archives, to name just a few.

There are some repositories for American Christian history which are not primarily denominational, such as The Missionary Research Collection started by John Mott and housed at Union Seminary in New York City and the great gathering of mission collections at Yale Divinity School. Yet almost all American religious archives are denominational. Therefore in the preservation of the documents of American Protestant Christianity, an important part of the story has been largely ignored.

There are, for example, the numerous independent churches, which sometimes represent an extreme theological separatism and sometimes spring from a unconcern with any theology more defined than the Apostle's Creed. They can be a small urban store front center or a suburban megachurch with a membership of many thousands. Then there are a whole cornucopia of institutions called nondenominational, parachurch, faith-based. They include city rescue missions, foreign and home mission agencies, evangelistic associations, relief agencies, youth programs, prison chaplaincies, radio and television ministries, Christian camps and conferences, social service or holistic outreach, publishers, Bible schools.

For almost two hundred years this loose network of agencies have represented one of the strongest currents in the American church -- individualistic, pietistic, reforming, evangelistic. Its very strong missionary impulse, by no means confined to foreign mission agencies, has also been an influence on the development of Christian faith and ministry in every other part of the world. The archives of some of its more prominent expressions nineteenth century expressions, such as the American Sunday School Union have been preserved. However there was no obvious, logical home for the equivalent twentieth century materials.

The Billy Graham Center Archives was initially created to collect and make available the records of the evangelist Billy Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the BGEA. But when it came time to formalize our collecting policy, the staff of the BGC Archives, in consultation with Graham Association and others, decided we wanted to do more, to preserve a significant segment of the nondenominational movement, a segment at its very heart. Our collecting policy would be to document evangelism, that is the witnessing to the salvation that comes through Christ. As far as I am aware, there was no other Christian archives that was documenting an activity rather than an organization.

Our collecting policy was defined by a number of factors. First, we would collect documents of nondenominational ministry, because we did not want to compete with existing denominational archives and because no one was systemically collecting nondenominational materials. Second, we would confine ourselves to people and organizations in the Protestant Evangelical tradition of North America because, as a part of that tradition, that was what we were best situated to collect. Third, we would collect only the documents of people and organizations based in North America, because we do not want to take to the United States documents that belong in their own country or region. Archives should remain within the culture that created them, for there they have their greatest impact and meaning. And finally we concentrated on collecting twentieth century materials, rather than going after earlier records.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is perhaps the best known example of nondenominational Protestant evangelism in the post World War II United States and its nature played a very important part in shaping our collecting policy. But however central it was only one in a vast kaleidoscope of ministries of different types and sizes reaching a great variety of peoples.

To try and document such an unstructured and independent movement has not been easy. The nature of what we were documenting as well as the vast amount of potential material and the limitations on our own resources led us to use two complementary approaches. One is to aim for a representative sample of documents rather than everything that could be collected. This involved getting different types of documents: the records of organizations, the private papers of individuals, the documents of the congresses and conferences on a variety of subjects, oral history interviews. It meant trying to get the records of many different types of evangelistic work - mass meetings, foreign missions, prison chaplaincies, youth work, broadcast ministries, etc. Following the Eusibiean model for archives given by Dr. Andrew Walls at the start of the conference, we try to preserve a bit of everything.

The other approach has been to spend significant effort on gathering what is most likely to be lost, the stories and documents of people at the grass roots level of evangelism. We wanted a major portion of our holdings to tell the story of people who would otherwise be unknown to their fellow believers, because they would not be writing their autobiographies nor have histories written about them.

Let me focus on just one of the types of records we have collected, those of organizations, usually nonprofit corporations, involved in evangelistic ministry. We had started with Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and it is central to our collection. And we have since acquired the records of three dozen other organizations, most of them still active, including Youth for Christ, Prison Fellowship, Fellowship Foundation, Africa Inland Mission, Mission Aviation Fellowship, Christianity Today, Inc., and Voice of Calvary Ministries.

Our experience serving as the outside archives (as opposed to an in-house one) for many organizations might be interesting to anyone considering doing the same.

There are limits to the number of active ministries one archives can handle, at least a small archives such as ours with only four full-time employees. With defunct organizations you are accepting a body of records which is probably complete and will not be added to. With active organizations, in contrast, prompt and efficient assistance must be given to their staff when needed; a liaison has to be maintained to handle the regular transfer of material, changes in an organization's structure, methods and mission needs to be reflected in processing the collection, which has to be regularly updated. Above all increasing amounts of documents will be sent from the organization you are serving, material which in a wide range of formats, from paper to Dictaphone belts to computer tapes to 5 inch floppy disks to CDs. Collecting the records of an active organization from outside the organization is a bit like preserving the pattern and texture of a Persian rug at one end of the rug while at the other the craftsmen are still weaving the threads together.

It has been difficult to maintain an effective liaison. Staff at the various ministries are continually changing and archives tends to have a low priority. The job is often given to some poor secretary who has only there six months or to someone who is going to retire in three months. We need to educate people over and over again in what an archives is and what our relationship to the ministry is. Few of the organizations whose records we collect take full advantage of the information services we offer. This is a natural result of our being outside the organization. The time required for liaison plus the mass of records that organizations generate today means that anyone planning a similar archives service should choose carefully what they collect and build slowly. Because once you enter into an agreement with a ministry, it should be permanent and your service to them one of which you need not be ashamed. At the BGC Archives, we have reached the limits of what our staff can efficiently handle and are not taking the records of any more active organizations, unless the staff and or storage capacity is changed. (We do continue to collect the papers of individuals and conferences and to tape oral history interviews)

What I would like to see develop in the United States is several archives centers that collect the records of the nondenominational movement. In some cases, these might be denominational or seminary archives which accepted the records of one or two or a few agencies that have some special connection with their tradition. In this way a network could be created to preserve and make available at least a respectable sampling of the nondenominational movement. The same kind of cooperative archival network might be helpful in other regions of the world as well.

The story of the Church in a particular country or region is ultimately not the story of organizations but of the people in communities interacting with God and each other. The Spirit will always overflow the earthen vessels we create for Him. What we collect should reflect the living reality of the church as it is, of the individual and the community. So we should at least be aware of and -- where possible -- help to preserve some part of the stories of believers who may be outside the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but inside the Kingdom.

Moving from collecting, I will make a few comments about the BGC Archives' access and outreach policies. There are a couple of potential models for archival outreach in the Bible. One is the angel with the sword of fire who stood in front of the Garden of Eden and kept the unworthy out of Paradise? But I think the better model is the king in the parable told in Matthew and Luke, who -- faced with an empty dining hall with tables loaded with all good things -- sent his servants out to the highways and byways to gather all the people they could find.

The staff of the BGC Archives is dedicated to having our collection used - certainly by historians and scholars but also by a broader audience, especially those in Christian work and Christian laypeople of all types. Let me tell you about some of our efforts.

Students in their teens and twenties have always been the major portion of our researchers. Most of these are students at Wheaton College, our host institution. We have found many reasons for classes to use the Archives. We actively canvass the faculty to find those who have some interest in seeing their students work in the Archives. Sometimes it is because they want the students to get to know the resources of the Archives. Sometimes it is because they want them to learn to use and interpret documents. Sometimes it is because they want them exposed to different types of interviewing techniques.

We attempt to bring in every class that might benefit from documents in our Archives. That has included the obvious classes, those in evangelistic preaching, missions history, and the theology of revivals. However, it has also included classes in social change, organizational management, Chinese and Spanish language, theology of culture, women's history, social psychology, educational research, biculturalism, writing for public relations, African history, Asian history, Latin American anthropology, and communication theory. One purpose of these sessions is to expose the students, many of whom will go into some form of Christian work, to the faith, lives, struggles, failures and joys of other Christian workers, to develop in them a small appreciation of the breadth of the church contained in Christ's mustard seed. A second purpose is to help students understand documents, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they are used to produce the histories and other secondary sources the students have used all their lives.

Usually for each class we have an orientation session that includes the students doing actual research during the class session, giving them a taste of the joys and frustrations of using documents - deciphering handwriting, filling in gaps, guessing at obscure meanings.

Whenever possible, we also arrange research projects for students, so that they themselves get a chance to grapple with the joys and frustrations of using and interpreting documents. That is because a third purpose is to give students at least some research skills they can use again.

Students discover the personality, the humanity, the faith of people long dead, and they find the process of giving life to these dry bones rewarding. As one undergrad wrote, "It is somewhat humorous to think that reactions to this project are only to be expected and that most everyone else has the same [sic]. I began with feelings of depression as I faced another research paper, in the dusty archives, no less. But as I studied and researched this letter I found myself becoming more and more interested, despite myself. Now I almost wish I had another paper to research." Another wrote, "It is more difficult to dig into archival records and carefully examine them, yet it is worth it. The advantages are great. The researcher is able to touch the real document, feel its age, or may hear the missionary's actual voice on a tape without a third party being involved." Or to quote one other student, "This has really been fun; I wouldn't have come in here if I didn't have to, and I'm really glad I've had to."

Besides classes for Wheaton College students, we have done sessions and prepared special assignments for groups from other colleges, universities, seminaries, Bible schools, Christian and public secondary schools, and Sunday Schools. Also for almost two decades we have been holding special sessions each year for children from 8 to 18 who are being taught at home by their parents.

I would strongly urge other church archives to consider ways that their collections can be used in class exercises by Christian and non Christian schools. Documents that tell the story of a church also have relevance for the history of a city, a country, a culture, a language or for anthropology or for administration or for many other types of classes. This is a way to make the stories preserved in your archives a part of the living memory and experience of your community, particularly of the community of believers.

These archival fragments stowed away in our repositories can and should be part of a research experience that is hard, frustrating, joyful and nurturing, an experience that should not be limited to PhD candidates and credentialed authors. A denominational archives, in particular, can be a center for projects to educate its congregations in their own history, their understanding of what they are part of and so increasing within the denomination the bounds of union between its members.

There is another area of BGC Archives' outreach I would like to talk about. We have also from the inception of our archives to have it used by Christians of many backgrounds and purposes. We want our documents to be more than a source of dissertations. We want to find ways to make the documents in our holdings useful for a variety of users, especially those seeking resources for their own spiritual growth or for the encouragement, nurture and warning of the church.

I would have to say that in that effort, we have largely although not entirely failed. It is not for want of trying. We have made and continue to make a variety of efforts over the years to encourage non academic uses of the Archives. To list a few of these:

Our most significant outreach beyond academia for the last eight years or so, has been via the World Wide Web. It is true that even in the United States a substantial minority have no access to the Web and only a small portion of the people of the world can reach it. But we chose to use it for what it is and not for what it is not.

We have put up on our website thousands of pages. There are the guides to our six hundred collections, detailed descriptions of what we have. There is an online data base that people can search for information on a particular topic. We have put online hundreds of pages of transcripts of oral history interviews with Christian workers in which they talk about their background, how they came to know the Lord, the meaning of their faith in their life and their experiences living it out. We have letters, photos, maps, scrapbooks, audio and video clips, posters, sermons, and tracts online. Ten years ago you would have had to travel to Wheaton to use these. Now they are available to anyone who has a terminal.

Ours is not a heavily used site. We know we get at least 50 and 100 Web visitors a day. But it is used, as shown by our increasing volume of e-mail. These e-mail information requests are, by and large, not academic or scholarly questions, but from people who have seen our site and think we might be able to help them. Often their requests are phrased in awkward or (what seems to us) strange ways, indicating the questioner is coming from a world very different from ours. But we are the ones who want them to use our collections, so it is incumbent upon us to find out how we can best communicate with them, respectfully and without a sneer. Often our questions come from Christian brothers and sisters, wanting to know the date of the Billy Graham crusade at which they were saved, or they can can get a picture of Corrie ten Boom for a Sunday school class, or if we can confirm or deny this story that they heard or where can they find a particular hymn and on and on and on.

Limited as they are, e-mail and the web have allowed us to bring the Archives to thousands upon thousands beyond our reach before. We are always gratified to get e-mail like this one, which we received in March 2000, "Thank you very much for making available the documents in the exhibit, "Who's in Charge".I am a seminary professor in Indonesia, and we desperately need access to things like this to help expand the world view of our students. By downloading articles and info like this, I can teach them how to research and study topics like this that have direct application to their lives and ministries. We are blessed by your efforts! Praying you are blessed and rewarded in the work there as well."

About two thirds of our Reading Room users are Wheaton College undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff. Of the other third, from 150 to 250 visitors a year, one segment are grad students, scholars, people working on books and articles. The general public are another group, coming for personal projects of all kinds.

We have had many people come on their own spiritual quest. Many hundreds, for example, have come to view films and videos of the American evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman. Others fall into a scattering of other categories, including evangelistic projects.

What we have learned from our experiences at outreach is that the portion of the population using the Archives will always be small. Besides professionals doing historical research, there will always be a significant minority that comes in for personal benefit, for encouragement and guidance in their ministry, to find out about their family or their church or their mission. They will come because we have materials they must use or they hope we have that one piece of information or that particular image that they are seeking or because their personality and background is such that working with documents has a special appeal for them. It has been and will continue to be the policy of the Archives to encourage ever user, because it is our desire that the Archives be open to all and especially it be a source of spiritual encouragement to Christians. And we are committed in our policies and in our personal attitudes to making the Archives an easy and inviting place for all to use, especially those who have never heard of an archives before and are very hesitant about visiting one.

But usually the information in the archives is going to benefit the church at large only through one or more intermediaries. A researcher comes in and writes a book based in part on data from the Archives. That book is widely accepted or widely contested and sparks further analysis and research, all of which becomes eventually part of the generally accepted understanding of events which is gradually or dramatically modified over time, shaping everything from theological theses to popular devotional books. Or a researcher uses documents and images from the archives for a documentary, a web site, or an audio program. These will be by and large the channels through which the data in our documents will flow out. It is the nature of archives that they are used by a few, who will make the information they gain there part of an interpretation of the past that is passed on to many.

I'll turn now to another type of outreach, that to other archives. Because we cannot collect everything ourselves, we try to encourage the start of other Christian archives or help those that are just beginning. We look on this as making a contribution to the church's task of remembering. People contact us about how to get started, where to get supplies, what their access policies should be, or what kind of equipment they should have. Generally the assistance we provide has been by mail, phone or e-mail, in answer to specific or general questions. A few times, archivists have come to work with us to get an idea of our procedures and policies, and the reasons behind them. In one case, we sent a staff member to an international mission agency to help them establish their own in-house archives and to give the mission staff experience in accessioning and processing. The two most common pieces of advice that we give are, first, that archives are meant to be used and, second, to think long term, to build a collection that will still be usable and useful in a hundred years.

We have also developed a written model of a program which we offer to various Christian agencies. It is intended to help Christian nondenominational organizations overcome the initial hurdles to preserving their own records. By this program, we enter into a five year relationship. The first year, we would come a spend a month with their staff, helping to set up the archives and getting them started. Then we will visit for a week latter in the year, and make two week long visits each year for for the next four years to aid them as they develop the program. These visit include not only help and advice on collecting and processing, but also discussions of ways to make the materials available to the wider public. We provide this assistance at no cost other than the agency's covering the costs of travel and staff time, but the agency would have to agree to provide a certain percentage of their budget for the archives and to allow outside researchers to use their archives. No agency has yet taken us up on this offer, but we have written samples of the model for anyone who is interested.

The staff of the BGC Archives has made efforts to be of assistance to Christian archives outside of the United States. Our collecting policy is purposely focused on North American records. However, inevitably, we do have documents that tell the story of the church in other parts of the world. We have collected the records of North American mission agencies active in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America and these also tell the story of the founding of churches and evangelical fellowships in those regions. We also have the records of international groups such as the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and the World Evangelical Fellowship (now the World Evangelical Alliance), which include much that is relevant to the history not only of evangelism, but of Christian life and faith in many countries. The BGEA collections contain documents about the Association's evangelistic campaigns in many countries since 1954.

Because we have these materials, we have been able to assist Christian institutions in other parts of the world. For example, recently we sent to churches in Kenya and Tanzania and to a fellowship is Sri Lanka documents which they no longer had in their own archives. We have been able to give microfilm of the documents of the Pan African Christian Leadership Assembly of 1976 to the evangelistic organization African Enterprise for their own archives. We have made tentative exploration of the possibility of giving microfilm of our mission collections which document the origins of churches in particular countries to seminary archives in those countries. But that last effort has never born fruit.

We are interested in providing more practical assistance. One possibility, based on programs carried out by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Archives and the General Commission on History of the United Methodist Church , would be to visit new Christian archives to help develop policies and begin collections, as we have with the American agencies I mentioned. Working on the spot would help to minimize the amount of unneeded mental baggage we bring from the North American context. But, although the Billy Graham Center Library has provided similar assistance to several African seminary libraries, no opportunities for similar help to archives has yet presented itself to us.

What was for us one of our most rewarding experiences of working with other archives began in 1998. We were approached by Hong Kong Baptist University Library. In 1996 HKBU had officially started the Archives on the History of Christianity in China. They were interested in the opposite type of help to what I just described. They wanted to send someone to us for training. That person was Suk Mei Irene Wong, who became head of the University's Special Collections and Archives. She would take courses in the theory of archival management one day a week and then for four days get practical experience at the BGC Archives. We at the BGC Archives decided to go ahead with it, because we felt the Lord's leading in it and because this was a contribution we could make toward preserving the history of the community of believers in China.

We had these conditions: Irene would be involved with the Archives of the History of Christianity in China for at least the next two years, so that the training she received would help support that project and could be passed on to other staff. The archives would be open to the general public. During her time at Wheaton, she would be a resource person on Chinese culture and library science, so that we could benefit from her knowledge. And she would read some archival books ahead of time, so that she would arrive with some preparation.

In return, we at the BGC Archives agreed to accept Irene as part of our staff from January until June 1999 to provide hands-on experience in managing an archives. We would have weekly sessions where she could sit down a BGC archivist to talk about what she was learning and to have a chance for theoretical discussion. We helped her conduct two actual oral history interviews while she was in the United States, interviews which became part of her archives.

We also helped her find housing and transportation, although this was primarily her responsibility. All of her expenses while she was in the United States were the responsibility of HKBU. Any archives planning to do something similar should plan to make most of the arrangements for housing, meals and transportation. Otherwise the intern could spend a good part of his or her time in the beginning looking for a place to stay and if there is nothing to be found, the whole project is in jeopardy.

Irene arrived in the middle of the worst snowstorm that we had known for many years. But after that, things rapidly improved. It was a delight to work with her and all our staff benefited from her experience and insights. It was especially helpful that she was attending lectures on archival theory each week and applying what she learned. We regularly discussed collecting policy, disaster planning, outreach and reference services. She had assignments in setting overall policy for an archives and processing a collections (during her brief stay she processed 3 collections of papers of missionaries stationed in China in early 20th century). She conducted oral history interviews and processed the interview tapes, answered reference requests, developed a disaster plan, an outreach plan , and studied the Archives' website. She also assisted in presentations the staff made to churches and other groups. Later in the year we arranged for her to spend a week each at the Wheaton College Archives and the Marion Wade Center (which collects the papers of C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers and other Christian writers.) This gave her something to compare and contrast with what she was learning in our archives. Irene also visited eleven other religious archives around the country. She attended two professional archival conferences and workshops on preservation and conservation. So within a very brief span she benefited from graduate level training, an extensive internship, professional conferences and specialized workshops, in addition to seeing how several archives actually functioned on a day to day basis.

The discussions she had every week with either Paul Ericksen or myself were an excellent means of helping her explore in what ways what we did in Wheaton was or was not relevant to Hong Kong. Having to work on drafts of policy documents for her archives such as a mission statement and a collecting policy as part of her internship assignments helped to tie the theoretical and general to the practical and specific. Irene's own comments on her experience indicated that she especially appreciated learning about our outreach methods, which had a lot of application in Hong Kong. But she added that it would have been helpful to have had more training in oral history, since that takes time and practice to do well and that it would have been helpful to have more time spent on the physical requirements of archival storage and the practicalities of how to plan a preservation environment.

Irene said that important qualities for anyone participating in this kind of training program would be: the ability to work independently and take initiative, fluency in the tongue of the host archives, and an outgoing personality that can cope with the unexpected difficulties and the expected ones (such as home sickness) Driving skill is also important if the internship is going to be somewhere, like Wheaton, where public transport is not convenient. The hosts must go beyond archival theory to create a warm and friendly environment where an outsider can quickly feel at home and flourish.

The internship was very time consuming for the staff. Both Paul and I and other staff members as well had to dedicate significant time planning Irene's weekly tasks, making sure that she got to do significant work that touched on all aspects of archival administration. We also had to supervise her work and spend time each week discussing with her why we did things in certain ways and how what she was learning could be applied. Anyone considering hosting a similar internship should be sure that the archives you are assisting is one whose existence and goals you want to support and that it is sufficiently important to your own goals that you can set aside large blocks of time to supervise, answer questions and interact. Our experience was completely positive. Irene own professional background and her insight and sharp questions helped us to reevaluate some of our own preconceptions and procedures. Irene has subsequently provided leadership not only in developing the Archives of Christianity in China, but also in developing greater contacts between archives in Hong Kong. In 2000, Paul went to Hong Kong to help and advise her about the HKBU archives and also to lead seminars for the archival community there on oral history and the organization and management of church archives. These were the first seminars of their kind in Hong Kong and was attended by 150 people. [Note: See also Irene's 1999 evaluation of the internship]

Irene wrote in an e-mail about the seminar program that Paul led, quote, "This was really a big contribution to all participants, beneficial to HKBU Library, to the students and faculty of HKBU, to the Christian community and those who scarcely had any chance to learn archival management at large. I really think BBG Archives had taken a proactive way to rescue the heritage here in Hong Kong."

That brings me to the end of my description of the development of the Billy Graham Center Archives. But I would like to add a few words on what to me seems to be the spiritual meaning of archives for Christian believers and the spiritual service of a Christian who is an archivist.

Throughout Scripture, we find God calling on His people to remember. Jacob built a memorial where he had dreamed of angels ascending to heaven. Moses was told to keep an omer of manna as a reminder of the Israelites' preservation in the desert. Joshua and the people of Israel put up two memorials of stone, in the center of the River Jordan and on the farther shore, to recall God's care in leading them across the river and to testify to their covenant with Him. Psalm 135 calls on all generations to remember God, Jesus said that the story of Mary of Bethany anointing him would be told wherever the Good News was preached as a memorial to her. Paul urged the Corinthians to keep the Gospel firmly in their memory. The writer of Hebrews gives a roll call of men and women of faith and said that this cloud of witnesses should cause us to run the race before us with determination.

It is especially appropriate here near St. Peter's basilica, the site of the tomb of Peter which was preserved by the faithful by oral tradition for centuries before the first church was built there, to remember the words with which Peter prefaced his eyewitness account of Jesus Christ's glory with these words, "I think it is only right for me to stir up your memory of these matters as long as I am still alive. I know I shall soon put off this mortal body, as our Lord Jesus has plainly told me. I will do my best, then, to provide a way for you to remember these matters at all times after my death."

And indeed the entire Bible is a call to remember, to remember their living God, to remember His mighty acts, to remember the lives of people of faith, to remember failures and blessings, to draw from these stories examples of sin, redemption, obedience and God's working in His creation.

What do our archives have to do with this? We do not after all have any handwritten documents from Jacob, or photos of Peter or Paul. But all archives, Christian and non Christian, contain records that throw light on humanity, on the heart, minds and souls of fallen people in a fallen world. We who work in Christian archives preserve fragments that tell some part of redemption history, some joyful, some sorrowful, some wonderful, some shameful, some prosaic and ordinary and day-to-day.

There are dangers in keeping memorials and in trying to preserve the past. Remembering can degenerate into something else. The Children of Israel took artifacts that were reminders of God's grace in the past, thing such as the brass serpent that Moses had raised up to save them form the plague of snakes they suffered for their rebellion, and made them into idols, symbols of a comfortable, nostalgic, nonchallenging history.

So as archivists, we should be as innocent as doves and wise as serpents. Our archives will be a true record of the both community of the Body of Christ and the individuals of which she is composed. Our archives should reflect the fallen nature of even redeemed humanity, a flock of sheep and goats (and wolves), a field of wheat and tares. It is not our duty to God or to our churches to prettify or cover up. It is our duty to be custodians of a record, which however incomplete and fragmentary, is as true as we can make it. This continuing story of the household of faith is a memorial, a reminder, a testimony - to anger and divisiveness and hatred and meanness and pride and to God's redeeming grace and hope and the proof of things not seen.

We are not cut adrift but tied to other believers by many bonds, including the bonds of memory. We must always be aware of our duty as Christens to help the church remember and to build collections that tell the stories of real human people, not a theoretical, statistical, religo-socio-economic abstraction.

Whatever kind of church archives we have, we should place great stress on preserving the testimonies of individuals about their life in faith: how they came to know Jesus and their experience of their walk with Him, of their understanding of how God has worked in their lives and the world around them. Oral history interviews are one obvious way that these can be preserved, but of course these kind of testimonies can be found in many other documents as well - sermons, letters, diaries, minutes of meetings that outline the struggles and conflicts of the church, and other organizational records that show who made up the church, how they worshiped, fellowshiped, bore testimony, sinned, loved, hated, and experienced God's salvation through Christ. We collect bits of paper, tape, film, databits that record the faith and testimonies of Christians, that give a real understanding of their faith, how their faith translated into works, and how Christians understood that God was working among them.

And having gathered these materials, we should dedicate ourselves to seeing that they are used, especially by the household of faith. This certainly means serving our particular institution, be it seminary or denomination or Christian agency, by meeting its information needs in the most efficient and serviceable way. But we should also break down the barriers that keep the average layperson from benefiting directly from our holdings directly. We should use the high tech wonders available to us - the World Wide Web and e-mail, for example - to make our archives available to a much wider audience than has ever been possible in the past. But this modern modem pathway is worthless to us if we do not walk it in the right spirit.

We preserve documents to serve people, above all our brothers and sisters in faith. The ancient Christian hymn I quoted at the beginning tells us of Christ walking the path of service in humility and obedience. Christians who are archivists like all others bearing Christ's name, must walk that same path in that same spirit. As archivists our service is to work so that, like that ancient hymn, the expressions of the of the faith and life of the Body of Christ are not just preserved, but become part of memory of the living generation. It is also in that spirit that we should regard everyone who comes through our doors, in that spirit we should examine every opportunity to make our holdings available beyond our doors. This is how we should collect, arrange, conserve, describe and make available.

So as archivists we should be dedicated to service, preserving an honest record and striving to have it used. But in what sense is this spiritual service? An archivist who is an atheist might have the highest dedication to service, truth and use and bring a commitment to his task. To put it another way, what is the difference between a baker and a Christian baker. Both may do the best work that is within them. But the baker who is a Christian, if he is true to his faith, dedicates his work to the Lord to be used by Him. So there is another involved. Archivists who are christians must continually make that same dedication. Our work and our service is a gift in more than one sense.

Some Christian bakers have the gift of making the bread that is used in the Lord's supper. If we are Christian archivists working in an archives of Christian documents, we have the gift not only of of preserving paper and film and databits but of transmitting from one generation to another testimonies of faith and signs of God's power, grace and love.

Paul tells us in the letter to the Colossians that in Christ is hidden all knowledge and wisdom. All our archives and libraries are a small pebble in that knowledge - a building block, a memorial, a stone of remembrance. The scroll that contained the Paul's original letter to the Philippi is now dust, as is the pen that wrote on it and the hand that held the pen. The contents are part of the living life of the eternal church. May God also bless and guide our work as archivists so that we contribute to that life.

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Last Revised: 10/9/02
Last Revised: 1/5/05
Expiration: indefinite

Wheaton College 2005