“Protecting” History in 2018 | Presbyterian Historical Society

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“Protecting” History in 2018

December 14, 2018
Clockwise from left: Korean film crew, PHS Cares Thanksgiving food drive, community college summer school visitors, T. J. DeMarco and Cindy Kohlmann depositing records from Presbytery of Boston.


--by Beth S. Hessel, Executive Director

Earlier this year I saw a truck for a Philadelphia shredding company. Its motto, emblazoned to the side in italics, was “Protecting your future by destroying your past.”

At PHS, we take the opposite approach to posterity, seeing the past as inextricably linked to the future. Our mission is to “collect, preserve, and share” the stories of American Presbyterianism so that individuals, congregations, and mid councils might be nurtured and strengthened in the important work we do through a greater knowledge of who we have been and to whom we all belong. The wide-ranging historical records PHS collects and preserves demand to be shared, not hidden away or destroyed. I invite you to watch and share our new overview and research promotional videos to learn some of the ways we’re carrying out that mission in 2018, and to consider how you can support our ministry today.

Click above to see how researchers connect with history through the PHS collections.

This year, I am so proud of our staff, board, and volunteers. They continue to broaden the vision of PHS and enable us to serve more people in increasingly timely and vital ways. PHS is reaching new audiences with your active support. For everyone who has interacted with us in 2018, I am deeply grateful. Thank you!

2018 marked the public launch of several exciting initiatives. We started the year by announcing our participation in a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, and closed it by unveiling the Pam Byers Memorial Fund and LGBTQIA+ collecting initiative, which is bringing to PHS the stories and papers of individuals and congregations engaged in the forty-year movement for full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ Presbyterians and their families in the PC(USA). This effort makes our collections richer and fuller for all scholars and people of faith.

Some PHS Board Members with Beth, October 2018.

Over the summer and fall we began working on Building Knowledge & Breaking Barriers, a project supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage that enables PHS to ramp up our work with Community College of Philadelphia students and to undertake institutional change that creates a more welcoming and inclusive research experience. We also began digitizing a portion of our 68,000 images from the Religious News Service thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. With the help of a fabulous scholar panel we are exploring grantable projects and partnerships that will allow us to showcase these amazing photographs and the stories they tell about the twentieth century intersection of American religious experience and social movements around the world, including poverty, immigration, and civil rights.

Human Sexuality Committee at the 203rd General Assembly, Baltimore, Maryland, 1991. [Pearl ID: 141076]

Making collections accessible is key to our mission. The more individuals and organizations use the records kept with us, the more robust and helpful the conversations that emerge. We processed several large and important collections this year, making them fully accessible to researchers, including the papers of Rachel Henderlite, the first woman ordained in the PCUS and an influential 20th century educator; and the post-WWII Europe Mission Records. We also brought in hundreds of cubic feet of records from individuals, national agencies, mid councils, and congregations, including 217 cubic feet from 237 churches and the first congregation records at the PC(USA) national archives from Puerto Rico. As we collect records, we also offer Heritage Preservation Grants to smaller, historic congregations to defray the cost of obtaining digitized copies of their records; in 2018, we received 27 applications, an HPG record. At PHS, we believe the witness to God’s grace, reconciliation, transformation, and mission of our many small congregations constitutes an essential part of our larger history. Another project we worked on this year that shows the influence of Presbyterians across the nation is our Historic Sites Registry Map. We launched that in time for the General Assembly in St. Louis, where one of my personal highlights was the PHS luncheon address delivered by Crystal R. Sanders on the history of Head Start in Mississippi.

Arenales bible school, Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, 1930s. [Pearl ID: 142466]

More than 100,000 academics, students, churches, genealogists, and other researchers used our resources onsite, our expanding Pearl digital archives, our digital catalogs Calvin and the new-in-2018 Sheppard, and our online reference desk. Long-term visitors to our building included three Research Fellows, whose research was supported by donors during our successful #GivingTuesday campaign. Equally energizing were visits by four international film crews, who recorded PHS documents and interviews with our staff that have already resulted in two documentaries being aired internationally—one on the role of Protestant missionaries in the March 1 Movement, the Korean independence bid that marks its centennial in 2019; the second on the lasting influence of the Scots-Irish in America, including the ways Presbyterians have fostered education and a love of liberty and religious freedom. It is gratifying to know that the 300 years of documents in our archives contribute to greater learning around the globe.

PHS Records Archivist David Staniunas reviews the records of Dean Lewis in his New Mexico home, February 2018. 

PHS is unique among denominational archives for the size, quality, and ecumenical nature of our records; the number of people we serve; and the variety of ways we provide assistance. For the past two years we have focused our communications on the ways we collect and share. In 2019 we will emphasize the equally important role of preserving, and how our mission-driven work contributes to the Stated Clerk’s vision for the PC(USA). I am grateful for your support of records and for your financial gifts that enable us to serve.

If you have not already made a gift for 2018, please do so today. It’s a great way to show your appreciation of Presbyterian history, and to protect the future of the past.