You might call it the Smithsonian of American Methodism. The collection maintained by the United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History contains more than 250,000 photographs and miles of stored documents. Anyone can come here to search for information on family members or topics of historical interest. Frances Lyons-Bristol is an archivist who helps people discover the hidden treasures in the files.
(Locator: Madison, New Jersey)
Frances Lyons-Bristol: “There are a lot of families lately who seem to be working on memoirs. People are surprised how much information we can find.”
Spending your days surrounded by documents – some almost 300 years old- may not appeal to everyone. But Frances Lyons-Bristol, records archivist for the United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History, finds the work to be fascinating.
Frances Lyons-Bristol, Records Archivist: “Religion, medicine and colonization. Educating women physicians of the world, 1880 to 1920…”
These are some typical searches. Often, requests are related to genealogy. Recently, a family called seeking information on the daughter of a Methodist pastor.
Frances Lyons-Bristol: “They did not have the information regarding where the family was in the year that she was born. It was very easy to find that piece of information. Went to the general minutes, searched for the minister’s name and was able to confirm the city where he was serving in 1919.”
Frances Lyons-Bristol: “The best day is when there are the eureka moments."
A conservation architect found just what she was looking for in missionary photos taken in the early 20th century; evidence of concrete block construction buildings in Puerto Rico.
Frances Lyons-Bristol: “There were no examples of the buildings left because of hurricanes and just the age. They were over a hundred years old. But here in a photo album she was able to find the first buildings that used concrete block construction.”
This repository at Drew University in New Jersey houses an astonishing six miles of carefully cataloged documents. Archivists are tasked with making the information accessible.
Frances Lyons-Bristol: “They are truly surprised when they find out that we are open basically to the general public and they don’t need to be a scholar of a particular rank to come here and visit and to review the records. These days a lot of researchers are used to going to facilities where they have to place their request a day or a week before they go to the site. It’s always a relief to our researchers here to know that we can pull the material from the shelves with 15 minutes.”
Lyons-Bristol sees her work assisting families as an important ministry and a way of passing on the life stories of the people who built the church we know today.
Frances Lyons-Bristol: “The fact that someone’s service was recorded and even if it’s just three sentences in a conference journal to record the fact that so and so served as a minister, as a minister’s spouse, was dedicated to the church, all those things really add to the story and remind us from whence we came. And there’s a long tradition of service in the church, and it’s important that those people be recognized.”
The General Commission on Archives and History website offers a virtual encyclopedia of United Methodist history with featured stories, biographies, and family genealogy search tips. For more information, call 973-408-3189.
This story was originally posted on January 6, 2016.