Church historians’ sleuthing can turn up painful pasts
Being a church historian means telling the truth, even if it’s painful, Ted Campbell of Perkins School of Theology told local church historians at an October event hosted by 105-year-old Oak Lawn UMC in Dallas.
And he has a story about that.
New in town in 1993, Dr. Campbell’s family joined the Rockville (Md.) UMC just as it began a yearlong celebration of its 150th anniversary, he told the group in Dallas.
"There was a historically black United Methodist congregation just three blocks away, and members of the Rockville church said, yes, we gave them that building when we moved out of it," he recalled.
How nice, but …
When Campbell began poking around for details, he discovered that the African-American Jerusalem-Mount Pleasant congregation was actually the original Methodist Episcopal church in town.
Founded in 1844, it was integrated in its early days. In 1860, a white secessionist group broke away from the church to form Rockville Methodist Episcopal South, part of a new denomination that arose with the Civil War.
"Our congregation had stolen not only the name but also the history of the earlier Rockville congregation, and that was painful to say. But you have to tell the truth as a historian," Campbell said.
He also pointed to how the United Methodist denomination bemoans that it is losing people after membership soared in the 1950s and ’60s.
The decline may not be so steep, Campbell said, because the Methodist Church in those days was pretty liberal in how it counted membership. Everyone who graced the doors but then never showed up again might have been "a member."
Also from Perkins seminary, presenter Tamara Lewis emphasized the importance of context — and pure detective work.
"As historians we all have a story, have a context, have a background. We can’t write the history that we’d like to write; we write the story that the documents tell us," she said.
She urged local church historians to follow their hunches in research. She had been told there were absolutely no blacks in the Anglican Church in the 1720s, about the time John Wesley was attending Oxford University.
But she doubted that. "Something told me to keep looking, and I did. I found hundreds and hundreds of records of Africans who were members. I use that to encourage you."
Ted Campbell told North Texas church historians they never know what they may find when they poke around. He serves on the General Commission on Archives & History.
See related story: Oklahomans join group in ‘ministry of memory’