There is a special space tucked away on the campus of Drew University in New Jersey where words and images tell the life story of The United Methodist Church. The church's General Commission on Archives and History agency is charged with guarding the denomination's collection while also providing insights that can impact the church's future.
The Rev. Alfred T. Day leads the agency and he stresses that this work is not static or meant to be left on a shelf. "We don't want to be the keepers of treasures that are so sacred they need to be locked away, but make them accessible and available for people to be inspired by the stories that translate into our story and impact who we are now and who we're living into being in the future."
(Locator: Madison New Jersey)
The richest collection of Methodist artifacts in the world, including a plaster death mask of John Wesley; 250,000 photographs; and miles of sermons, handwritten notes and documents by Methodists from Francis Asbury to local lay leaders are housed at the United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History. But the most important mission of the keepers of this treasure trove is to preserve the stories of the people who made The United Methodist Church what it is today.
The Rev. Alfred T. Day, Chief Executive, United Methodist Commission on Archives and History: “When you mention Archives and History people have a tendency to think, caring for old stuff, cataloging and putting things away only to be resources drawn on by scholars and historians and museum keepers.”
The Rev. Fred Day leads the archives agency. Day says people who think of this agency’s role as that of a museum have it all wrong. History is alive. Your church’s story is the latest chapter in our story.
The Rev. Alfred T. Day: “We don’t just put this stuff on a shelf to stay there but to be a very present and active and lively memory for the church to draw on as it moves into what the future holds with a confidence that through it all God is with us every step of the way.”
The stories of Methodism are captured in meeting minutes and other documents from boards and agencies, as well as personal papers from missionaries and Methodists who made a name for the church.
Dale Patterson, United Methodist Commission on Archives and History: “Those family stories, the regional stories of our town, our community, our state, and of our church all help define who we are.”
(Mark Shenise showing Bishop Otterbein’s Bible) “This was given to Otterbein, printed in 1747. This is a great find.”
Archivists say sometimes looking back opens doors to the future. Mark Shenise sees himself as historian and evangelist.
Mark Shenise: “Frequently we have people who are looking for vital church records. And they would mention that ‘I was baptized at such and such a day, such and such a church. I think the pastor’s name was this.’ So we start this rapport and this conversation and after a while many will say to me, ‘I kinda miss going to the Methodist Church.’ And I always say to them, ‘Well, you know, the church is always there for you.’”
Researchers who come to the archive at Drew University in New Jersey can explore multiple collections. What’s important to visitors is that the collection is accessible.
Frances Lyons-Bristol: “These days a lot of researchers are used to going to facilities where they have to deal with off-site storage. So, they have to place their request a day or a week before they go to the site so that the material can be pulled in for them. It’s always a relief to our researchers here to know that we can pull the material from the shelves with 15 minutes.”
The archive is also putting more and more resources online, including 33,000 pages of photos from 1910-1920 that show a day in the life of the church around the world.
Dale Patterson: “It might be images of churches schools, hospitals, all these things that show the full ministry of the church. Our ministry is not just described by what happens inside the sanctuary. From there, our ministry touches the individuals and the people around us.”
The Rev. Alfred T. Day: “We don’t want to be the keepers of treasures that are so sacred they need to be locked away. But make them accessible and available for people to see and know and be inspired by the stories that stand behind them that translate into our story and impact who we are now and who we’re living into being in the future.”
Visit the website for the General Commission on Archives and History.
This video was produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN.
Media contact is Joe Iovino, 615-742-3733.
This video was first posted on May 4, 2016.