Visiting Charleston, West Virginia | Presbyterian Historical Society

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Visiting Charleston, West Virginia

March 6, 2020
Presbytery of West Virginia meeting at Riverlawn Presbyterian Church (St. Albans, W. Va.)

On February 15 and 16 I was in Charleston, West Virginia for a meeting of the Presbytery of West Virginia, and to spend time with the congregation (and archives) of First Presbyterian Church. We're grateful to the people of the presbytery for their real hospitality -- specifically to Maureen Wright and Ed Thompson -- and to Nancy Kahaian and Sharon Heidt of First Charleston.

On Saturday I was the presbytery's guest speaker, talking for a bit less than an hour about archival appraisal, digital preservation, and climate change. It's my hope that our friends come to understand what it takes to maintain access to history over the long-term, and that they think about these questions in new ways. People in the presbytery, as everywhere, are addressing themselves to the climate crisis, and it was a treat to see folks from the Stewardship of Creation Ministry Team there.

Sunday morning I worshipped at First Presbyterian Church of Charleston, which is close to their sibling congregation, Kanawha United Presbyterian Church. Afterward, I spent time with Sharon and Sarah, volunteer keepers of the archives at First Charleston. Among the things we talked about were the preservation of open reel audio tapes. First Charleston had a long-running series of lectures in theology, typically drawing teachers from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va. After speaking a little about our experience of the limited shelf-life of plastics, I was allowed to bring some tapes back to Philadelphia for future digitization.

Charleston is built on chemicals. European settlers mined and refined salt on the banks of the Kanawha River from underground deposits. Over the course of the 20th century, the river valley boomed with the production of munitions and by-products of the coal industry used in dyes and plastics. Though it has existed since 1819, First Presbyterian Church of Charleston peaked along with the chemical industry in the middle of the twentieth century, twice hosting the PCUS General Assembly.


Framed panorama of the 1922 Presbyterian Church in the U.S. General Assembly, in the archives of First Charleston

An encapsulation of this background is still held in the archives there -- a set of plastic dishes, gifted to commissioners of the 1952 General Assembly by the people of Union Carbide.

The dishes remained with the congregation's archives, along with almost all of its other collection materials. The only exceptions were the tapes and two boxes of historic congregation records I boxed and shipped back to Philadelphia, which were waiting to be accessioned on Tuesday morning.

It's always good to share time with our constituents, and it's my hope that more West Virginia congregations consider us their national archives. As ever, if your congregation has records of permanent value that aren't frequently used, we're happy to serve them here.