by Louis Weeks
Reformed Christianity from its beginnings has been an international enterprise, variegated and vibrant in so many cultures and movements. The shared governance among clergy and laity, the struggle to discern rightly God’s Word from the Bible and from the work of the Holy Spirit, the honoring of all constructive vocations, the balance of worship and witness, of ardor and order — all these and more distinctive characteristics make the American Presbyterian traditions worth remembering and studying. Attention to the ever-changing needs of the world, a desire to include everyone, and the resulting institutions and missions have produced a wealth of insight and examples of faithful Christian witness.
Since 1852, the Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS) has been collecting, preserving, and sharing the stories of congregations and missions, of councils and of Christian leaders. As Presbyterian congregations come and go, as denominations split and merge, the holdings have included records and resources worth gathering from many of the Reformed — personal papers of missionaries and moderators, photos and portraits, oral histories, material culture from movements and ecumenical partners.
Now, thanks to a new “Covenant of Understanding” among the board of the PHS, the stated clerk of the PC(USA) and the committee of the General Assembly – and thanks to the arrival of the new PHS director, Beth Hessel – new directions and possibilities for service and witness are becoming clear.
- The focus of the PHS on the congregational life of Presbyterians, significant from the very beginning of the Society, will be even more pronounced in the future. Do you have a church anniversary coming up? Ask the PHS for help. Need a better way to maintain records of your church? Look to resources at the PHS.
- The staff at PHS, professionals and volunteers, are eager to serve the public. The website offers accessible accounts of Presbyterians in the Civil War, involvement in the ongoing Civil Rights struggle, work of Sunday schools and educators, and the mission efforts in such locations as China, Korea, Japan, Congo, Brazil and the Middle East.
- Increasingly, the resources are available digitally. The PHS belongs to the National Digital Stewardship Alliance where many share resources to multiply the benefits for all. Considering partnering in mission somewhere and want to see the history there? Need a transcript from a Presbyterian school or college no longer existing? Looking for information from a congregation now gone or merged with another? Staff at the PHS may be able to send you material electronically.
- The PHS is beginning to offer access to those studying their family history.
- Already a repository for the Federal Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches and the American Sunday School Union, the ecumenical resources are growing. The PHS is engaging partnerships with other church entities: the Presbyterian Pension Board, Princeton Theological Seminary, even a few African American congregations of other denominations in the vicinity.
- The PHS continues to assist congregations that now belong to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Fellowship and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
In an era when many institutions, including the PC(USA), are wracked by contending values and loyalties, the PHS offers a “safe place” for learning and growing. The documents and other resources together clearly represent all points of view and many theological perspectives. Students of Presbyterian history cannot find everything at the PHS. But they will find a useful and intriguing treasure trove.
The PHS offers membership for individuals, congregations and those who wish to learn and teach Presbyterian life. Members receive unique benefits while they support preservation and dissemination of the rich history.
We invite every Presbyterian and everyone interested in American institutions, leaders and church history to explore the rich resources in PHS. You can start on the web, or visit on Facebook, You Tube and Tumblr.
And we invite everyone to join in the active work of the PHS. You can become a member. Your church can, too.
LOUIS WEEKS is chair of the PHS board and president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond and Charlotte.