Church History on the Ground

I think I have always had a latent desire to write. Over the course of my lazy school days it would pop up once in a while, but in the last few years it has become something of an obsession. Probably the earliest memory I have of taking real pleasure in writing was when I was in the eighth grade when I submitted a piece to “Young Authors”—a project to encourage Canadian school kids to write. My contribution was Mountain Home, self-consciously modeled after Louis L’Amour, my hero. When earlier this year I had the joy of publishing my first book, “Rivers of Living Water”: Celebrating 125 Years of Hughson Street Baptist Church, Hamilton, Ontario, 1887-2012 (co-authored with Michael Haykin), I began to discern that maybe my childish project told a deeper story than a cowboy who was blinded by buckshot.

This little book may not seem all that exciting to you, but it is for me for two reasons. The first, although it isn’t published with an academic press, it is my first book and I take personal satisfaction in it. The feeling that I have is likely similar to that of a construction worker who finally completes a deck. All of the hard work has finally paid off; there is a feeling of accomplishment holding it in my hands. Also, I had a wonderful experience doing the research and writing with my mentor, and I learned a lot about doing history.

The second is that it has forced me to think about my own calling, in particular: Why do I want to write church history? The answer may seem obvious. Of course, I want to make a career out of being an historian, and would love to publish respected studies with an academic press. But, as I have learned from both the teaching and example of Dr. Haykin, church history as a discipline or profession is not an end in itself. There are bigger issues for the Christian historian than scholarly respect—the ultimate being the glory of the Triune God, the author of history.

The Use of Church History on the Ground

With “Rivers of Living Water” I came to see that the three hundred or so copies that were printed, though never destined to be a best-seller, do glorify God because they now reside in the hands of the members of Hughson Street Baptist for their encouragement. These members are given a sense of their God-originated identity as a local church, they see how God persevered with them through times of hardship, and how he has blessed them immeasurably. Because of this, I am convinced that Christian historians need to do more of this ground-level writing of church history, inglorious in the eyes of many though it may be.

There are challenges to doing this kind of work. Not only may historians overlook the stories of their own churches in favour of writing on a more mainstream subject, but churches themselves are not convinced of the need to record their past. On the day that “Rivers of Living Water” was released, a woman came to Dr. Haykin and me and told us how, some fifteen years previous, she saw that someone had thrown all of the church minute books in the garbage! When she saw that dates on the cover of these books went back to the 1880s, she rescued them from the trash. It is horrifying to think what it would mean if they had been picked up by a garbage collector! Our book certainly could not have been written.

Another more modern obstacle is that churches no longer keep minute books or other such documents in hard-copy. Everything is digitized and easily deleted. Nor do pastors keep diaries that are tremendous resources for later researchers. The stories of how churches were founded, under what conditions they flourished, how they overcame obstacles, what previous pastors were like, what kind of theology they espoused are all important for a congregation’s self-understanding. It helps them discern their identity in the context they are in currently in the twenty-first century. For instance, Hughson Street is located in Hamilton’s North End that has long been a blue-collar neighbourhood marked by poverty. As Hughson Street continues to impact their community in the twenty-first century, they can look back in their past to see how God used them in the lives of their neighbours. For churches to read stories of how God led them through a crisis, or how he blessed the preaching with growth, are all parts of what historians call a “usable past,” and can help a church navigate rough waters, or be encouraged in God’s goodness.

Encouraging Church History on the Ground

If God has called you to the task of doing church history, may I encourage you (if you have not done this already) to approach your elders to see if they would be interested in you writing your church’s history? If you are a professional historian and maybe do not have the time to do it yourself, why not mentor a budding historian in this task as Michael Haykin did with me? Mine was a tremendous learning experience, I spent hours going through old minute books, correspondence, sermons, and other old manuscripts—I had the careful guidance of a seasoned historian who helped not only with research, but taught me how to construct a narrative out of the work I had done. We are now doing another similar book for Mount Pleasant Road Baptist in Toronto. Dr. Haykin has also recently published “Declaring the Whole Counsel of God,” a history of Trinity Baptist Church in Burlington, Ontario.

I would also like to encourage denominations to commission historians to publish denominational histories at regular intervals. We have a great example of this with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, who enlists their own historian to publish various types of works at different occasions to mark OPC milestones. Denominational institutions, whether at head-office level, or even seminaries, should have archives that house not only these broader histories, but copies of individual church’s histories. Even more helpful would be for an archivist to collect and catalogue precious minute books and other old manuscripts for proper preservation and use by historians. McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton has the Canadian Baptist Archive, which was a tremendous resource that I used as I carried on research for the Hughson Street book.

Finally, might I also encourage you if you are a pastor reading this? If you don’t have the ability or the time to do it yourself, why not commission someone—either in your church, if possible, or someone you know—to publish your church’s history? You should make the resources available (don’t throw them out!), and have some monies budgeted for such a project. I would also highly suggest that you keep hard copies of relevant manuscripts in an archive somewhere in your church, or in a denominational institution, so that future researchers will have adequate sources to construct a history with.

I only see this as a win-win situation, both for the historian and the church. It can be a great source of blessing for both. And beyond that, God will receive glory for all of the work that we collectively will remember that he did in the life of his church.