Why We Do What We Do?
The Permanent Archives Committee
Archive. You know what the word means: the shoebox your mother holds which has your birth certificate, your grade school report cards, and some of the “refrigerator art” you made in kindergarten. There are probably some school pictures, along with some pictures of your activities in that box. Maybe there are some of your sister’s and brother’s records too. There might be another box of your father’s which his mother saved. Once after I was being chastised for my high school grades, I found my father’s senior year report card; September 1941 to June 1942 when he failed wood shop. It softened the criticism of my diligence in class. There might be some pictures on the wall of your grandparents and maybe even their grandparents. That is an archive.
An Archive can also be the place where those records and memories are stored. So there may be a safe in your house or a safe deposit box at the bank where the deed to the house and an insurance policy or two are kept.
Your town has an archive usually located at city hall of the history and records of your town. Your state has one too, and so does your country. The country called it the Library of Congress. Your congregation has one too. It stores the minutes and history of the congregation, along with the names of the former pastors, elders, and members. It is a necessary record of the actions of the congregation and those over whom it has authority. It records the actions taken by the Consistory and demonstrates the theology which has been taught and applied to specific situations.
Well, your denomination has one too. Your RCUS Archives is housed in the facility of Grace Reformed Church in Willows, California. Synod has designated that the pastor of that congregation, whoever he may be, is the chairman of the Archives Committee, since he has most easy access to the records and documents of the archive. We have no general headquarters, which is where many denominations store their archives. Some other denominations store them in the library of their main seminary. Usually there are copies stored in several places, as we do with our minutes of classes and synod. Why? Well, when my 8 times grandfather, was buried in Tohickon Union Church’s graveyard in 1763, there were records and a map of the graves, but the only copy was stored in the church building which burned to the ground in 1825. No records exist now, and since the grave markers have decayed, no one knows who is buried where. Copies are very useful.
Rev. Eric Bristley is our Chairman of the Archives Committee. There are four others of us who make up the permanent committee. We seek, find, procure, and organize those records for the archive of our denomination.
Why do this? We follow the biblical example. Read through the books of Kings. There is a frequent refrain “the rest of the acts of —— are written in the book of the chronicles of. . .”. These records were for the use of the people of the church (not just in the Old Testament, but also the New Testament and those for of us who are “post-testament”. The history of Israel is the record of the faithful covenant keeping work of our God. The reports recorded are our examples. These, and the genealogy of our Savior, record the years and means which God used to execute His decree, which is the whole of the Gospel. There are no accidents, no contingencies, no coincidences; there is just the decree of our God (His predestination) brought to pass. This serves to encourage our faith in God’s promises to us in all of our trials and joys. (Romans 8:28) We can expect that the faithfulness God showed to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will be shown to all of His people. The records of the genealogies of the kings and priests follow through demonstrating the detail of God’s providential upholding of His creation and His people.
The records of the providence by which the Palatine Germans were brought to Pennsylvania as God’s plan for the nations opened the door for the church to come to the United States from its beginnings in Germany. The persecution and poverty of the Palatinate and the Procuring of the land for a colony by William Penn meshed to make the move possible. Later, the change in thinking of the Tsars in Russia from considering the German farmers useful to Russia to considering them detrimental to Russia, and the unpopulated plains of the Midwest made the emigration of the German-Russians to the plains of the United States a move which even the secular governments considered good.
Those “pioneers” are our forefathers and they testify to us of God’s providential care. Their histories show us that whatever God has planned for His church, in this case the RCUS, He will continue to bring glory to Himself by His work in us.
Are there lessons to learn from this history? Certainly! The perceived need of places for worship and men dedicated to the proclamation of God’s word, led us in the early 1700s to form “Union Churches” with the Lutherans who were fellow poverty stricken Germans. The terms of that “cooperation” led us to down grade our concern for doctrinal purity in order to make these unions more peaceable. It became peaceful by making Christianity, as we recognized it, broader than orthodox doctrine. Our desire for a seminary for our denomination became an obsession which led us to (on the third try) form a seminary which would by its scholarly brilliance support itself. This led us to justify intellectually the downgrading of Reformed Doctrine by the Mercersburg professors. So we left strong “Calvinism” for American evangelicalism. That disaster led to the Evangelical and Reformed Church merger, which led to the United Church of Christ. Our denomination went from 1,608 congregations in 1934 to only 11 congregations in 1939. And the plan of God for the preservation of the denomination appeared, not by accident, but by God’s direct hand. The formation of the Eureka Classis was no coincidence either. God used a new group of immigrants who did not speak English well to separate from the mainstream of the denomination and then stay out of the merger. Later, because we had lost all footing in any seminary to train our ministers, two of our ministers “stumbled” (remember no accidents!) on to the work of the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in the 1940s, which corrected our “Calvinism” making us what we are today.
The adherence to a more consistent Reformed Theology has been the basis for our stance on creation, on biblical sexuality and the other of our position papers. It has revitalized our study of the Three Forms of Unity, as well as our understanding of interchurch relations. We have become consistently Calvinist which is the theology that our ancestors left in the early United States and the steppes of Russia, all in God’s plan.
The cooperation of the Archives Committee with the other permanent Committees of the denomination is working acceptably, but as we grow it will need more attention. The Stated Clerks publish the abstracts which they are send to us (although not always intentionally), but we receive little from the congregations like anniversary celebrations and updates on ministers and officers. The necrologies are available to us. It would help Rev. Bristley if they could be sent electronically (he is infinitely more technically astute than the rest of this committee) and his task would be much easier.
Each of us as members can encourage this work by learning of our history, noting our direction, and looking in the attics, closets, and storage boxes of your family archives for things you could copy and send us or, if you do not wish to store them yourselves, ask us if we have place for them in the Archive.
We are not unique in the practice of keeping an archives among churches, including other Reformed Denominations (especially in NAPARC). We can often profit from seeing how other denominations have been molded by our Lord and they from us. There is no formal sharing of archival material but we share information with other denominations and groups, helping them with examples. Some are doctrinal, some are judicial, and some are on the order of one which we received this past year from a consortium of churches in Allentown, Pennsylvania. They were seeking to arrange transfer of an old inner church property and the only record they had was a note in the minutes of one RCUS congregation in 1904 about its having donated that building to another congregation of the RCUS. We were able to trace the congregation through archival records into the Evangelical and Reformed Church, and then to the UCC where the records resided. And we were able to give to a liberal UPC pastor a lesson in church history which was completely new to him.
IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS or SOMETHING TO DONATE to the RCUS ARCHIVES, contact Rev. Eric Bristley, 530-591-5382, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rev. Jay Fluck
Rev. John Boehm was the man God used to found the first 3 RCUS churches in 1725