Tools for Creating Congregational History–Links and Written Essays

Here we offer online tips and tools in two formats: written essays to help you create your congregational histories, and links to a variety of other websites, many from other denominations, offering useful perspective on our work of Unitarian Universalist history-making and archiving. links.


Links to Resources


First is a collection of essays by specialists in church history offering topics on different aspects of congregational history writing and archiving. The topics covered here by no means tell you the whole story of archiving and history creating: many more essays await future writing (and funding). Still, we hope the essays included here are helpful for you to get started on your own congregational history creating or updating.

Bendroth, “The Weight of Congregational History: An Introduction and Philosophy”

Who really cares about history? As we wend our way through the ups and downs of the early twenty-first century, dwelling on the past seems like a luxury at best. If anything, our times call for people who are firmly planted in the realities of the present and are thinking hard about the worrisome future—not looking backwards at events that none of us can change.

Ask this question to the average person and the average answer will be that knowledge of the past will keep us from repeating old mistakes. Sometimes people will even back up their response with a quotation by philosopher George Santayana, that “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” But in all my years of teaching and writing history, and in watching the present unfold, I have yet to record one good instance where anyone took the past seriously enough to change their plans. more

Coeyman, “Creating Congregational Histories”

This essay follows from a workshop presented by the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society during General Assembly of the UUA in Portland, Oregon, in June 2007. That workshop included lively audience participation which affirmed that congregational history in its many manifestations matters to a faith movement, as evidenced by the interest at the workshop in developing more histories of our congregations. Also, congregations want more guidelines for engaging in congregational history. This essay reviews many of the ideas discussed in that workshop, and includes additional references to printed and electronic resources. more

Coeyman, “Your Congregation’s History on Your Congregation’s Website”

Dau, “Collecting Congregational Archives: Examples of Incorporation Papers from New York State”

What is a church incorporation record? What importance does it have as a historical document? Where could you find this record for your own congregation? The essay that follows will address these questions and will include examples from historic Universalist incorporation records from New York State.

To incorporate means to become a legally-recognized entity, and to incorporate a religious body, such as a church, synagogue, temple or mosque, means to establish its existence as an entity recognized by law. In America, the power to incorporate rests with Congress and the legislatures of the various states. In the state of New York, the Religious Corporations Law, through its few subsequent revisions, has been in continuous effect since 1784. more

Parker, “Researching Church History Through Memory: Oral History as a Method of Research”

Stated simply, oral histories provide a spoken record of remembered events. Apart from the evidence found in documents or secondary data, they help us understand on a personal level how certain individuals—in this case, the prior generation of members and friends in our congregations—experienced the past. Such individuals carry forward images they saw, people they knew, conversations in which they participated, and sensations they felt—most of which are not recorded, if one is researching church history, in the minute books or newsletters found in official church documents. In this way, oral history has the potential to convey the intimacy and emotion that participants attach to the events they witnessed and the particular individuals they knew. Oral histories can also show connections between individuals that a researcher of documentary evidence would not otherwise discover. more

Parker, “Archiving: What to Keep and What to Throw Away”

“You haven’t an idea of the dirt here,” wrote Martha Elizabeth Everett St. John to her mother in 1891. She was describing life in Pittsburgh after moving to that city with her husband, Charles Elliott St. John, the new minister of the First Unitarian Church. Years later she wrote more happily, “The people are all so fond of each other that it is impossible to make them go home when they are together.” Martha’s words appear in a collection of letters that she wrote weekly to her mother in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her mother saved these letters, which covered a span of nearly ten years, and luckily, they were found by chance among her papers after she died. In response to a request from Mrs. Ruth M. Anderson, Martha wrote out the portions of the letters that pertained to the church in Pittsburgh and contributed them to the church for the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the charter. The letters constitute a valuable source of information, consulted richly in the preparation of Caroline Mason’s 1940 history of the church, and Kathleen Parker’s history of Unitarian Universalism in Western Pennsylvania. Much would have been lost if somewhere along the way, the letters had been discarded. They are a case in point as to why the archiving of church records is so important. more

Tucker, “A Biographer’s Experience Using Photography”

You can tell me a picture is worth a thousand words and I won’t object. I’ve had too many priceless photographs leave me speechless over the years. But the more I’ve used visual documents to develop historical narratives, the greater my doubts that they can trump language or that we can trust them to speak for themselves. I’ve become more aware that these images’ content, frozen in time by the hands that focused and clicked the camera’s eye, is always uncertain, if only because of the limits built into the process. Touched up and cropped, their versions of truth are even more open to question. Not that this makes pictures any less useful. These very ambiguities have earned many an image’s keep on my watch. Unable to tell me who held the camera or who else was present but not in the frame, or what errant thoughts were hiding behind the subjects’ attentive expressions, or what happed after the camera blinked and the people stopped holding their breath, these speechless records provoke me to hunt for the secrets that lie at the heart of real stories. more

Links to Resources

Another type of resource is this variety of links to other websites that discuss religious and congregational archiving and history.


Bergeron, J. Manual for South Carolina Religious Archives and Recordkeeping | Catholic Diocese of Charleston Archives, 1999.

Brichford, M. Archives and Manuscripts: Appraisal and Accessioning. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1977.

Coles, L. A Manual for Small Archives. Vancouver: Archives Association of British Columbia, 1994.

Ham, F.G. Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1993.

Miller, F. Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1990.

Pugh, M. Providing Reference Services for Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1992.


Search engine for church records

Family History Library, 35 North West Temple Street Salt Lake City, Utah, 84150 ( 866-406-1830)

Congregational Library, 14 Beacon St, Boston MA 02108 (617-523-0470)

Congregational Library


Archiving Church History

Creating a Church Archives: Getting Started–Part2-GettinStarted.pdf

Baptist General Convention of Texas: How to Start a Church Archives

Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives

Disciples of Christ Historical Society

Bibliography of Archival Resources for Episcopal Parish and Diocesan Historians

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

United Methodist Church: General Commission on Archives and History

Church of the Nazarene

Presbyterian Historical Society: The National Archives of the PCUSA

Trinity Church Wall Street