On writing a congregational history
- A congregational history is very helpful when preparing a packet for ministry candidates, applying for a grant, or writing a brochure for prospective members.
- It gives both young and old members a sense of where their Sunday meeting place came from, how it evolved, and how it is connected to the UU movement and the nation’s history. Knowing these things deepens pride in membership.
- It preserves knowledge of the past that could otherwise be lost.
These are some reasons why the UU History and Heritage Society and the History and Heritage Committee of the MidAmerica Region are encouraging congregations to write their histories. Our goal is to develop a database of congregational histories, so that every society’s history is available to all the others.
How to get started
- Form a task force. The first job will be to determine the scope of the history. A small congregation in existence for, say, 40 years might find it appropriate to write a small hard-copy volume or an online version. A large congregation that has been around for a century or more would require a longer work. (And the proud governing board might be disposed to be generous with the budget.)
- Look at some examples and see what might be a model or jumping-off point for your group. We have provided links to histories that vary in length, approach, and “production values.”
- Plan and schedule the project. Write out the milestones you want to reach and set dates for reaching them. This helps you stay on track.
- Be sure to include the following:
- All significant events, pleasant or not.
- The social, political, and economic context of your congregation’s story.
- Locations of your meeting places.
- All leaders: ministers, presidents, board chairs, RE directors, musical directors.
- Membership figures over the years.
It might work well to put some information in lists separate from the text, such as rosters of leaders. A timeline separate from the main text is also useful.
More on what to include
All significant events? “But,” you say, “this history is part of a celebration! Why can’t we just present the ‘smiling aspects’ of our story and glide over the painful and difficult times?”
Why? Because, as William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” For example, a congregation calls a minister whose tenure ends in a painful negotiated departure. Things then improve, and it seems as if Reverend X was never there. So, when the history is written, Reverend X is simply left out—this has happened! But the traumatic memory has conditioned much of the congregation’s behavior and policies—notably the decision to remain lay-led.
Yes, some matters are best not mentioned in a history written for a general audience. Preserve the information in a separate document for governing board members, clergy, and other decision makers who might need to know.
What to include and exclude is not always easy to decide. Suggested reading on the topic:
The Weight of Congregational History: An Introduction and Philosophy, by Margaret Bendroth, director of the UUA Congregational Library.
Resources for writing history and managing archives
Consult the Congregational History Project of the UU History & Heritage Society (uuhhs.org), particularly the essays on history and archiving. (This link includes the Margaret Bendroth essay cited above.)
Another resource is this recent MidAmerica Region webinar on congregational history.
You might be interested in which economic strata of society made up your congregation over the years. (Even in Boston, it wasn’t just the “Brahmins” who were Unitarians.) See the Appendix.
Here is a review of two congregational histories (Kansas City and Omaha). It also includes some advice and resources.
Dan McKanan recommends “the recent, exquisitely researched, book-length histories of the First Parish Church of Scituate [MA] (by Richard Stower), First Unitarian Portland [Oregon] (by Cindy Cumfer) and First Unitarian of Oakland [California] (Sheri Prud’homme)—all winners of the UUHHS’s congregational history prize.” First Unitarian of Portland has a short history on its website.
The First Universalist Church of Minneapolis issued its sesquicentennial history in 2009 and has since put a good share of it—with updates—on line.
A less ambitious but well-done sesquicentennial history has been posted on line by the First UU Congregation of Ann Arbor, MI.
Of course, the length and elaborateness of your history will depend on your congregation’s size and age. Ultimately it’s up to you. But looking at online examples will be a great help.
See How to get started, above, and get started!
Appendix: Socioeconomic profiling of past membership
Editor’s note: Using some of the resources listed below might help deepen the narrative of your congregation’s past, but a general congregational history need hardly include an exhaustive “socioeconomic profile” of past members.
The late Dorothy Emerson taught us that, because of the patriarchal structures of congregational power, we would have to look elsewhere for information about the vast majority of regular people. These are some of the ways I tried to search out class information when doing my history of First UU Society, Burlington, VT (whose second edition is now being prepared for wider circulation.)
- Find any subscription, pledge, donation lists, letters, appeals that exist. Burlington is fortunate to have had many savers of such records.
- It is customary to look at the top names on the lists of donors and bemoan our privileged ranks. But in Burlington, the lists went on extensively, and the vast majority of donations to every single effort reveal much more modest means to have been the prevalent condition.
- Insofar as addresses can be found, plot them on the city map of the era. Housing has historically been our nation's primary driver of privilege. Indeed, I would contend that the UU movement to the suburbs in the late twentieth century represents our capitulation to class segregation on a massive scale, whether we liked it or not.
- Always with the city directories. Another source of those pesky addresses, but also used to list professions of absolutely everyone. And look at everything. If any of your parishioners have taken out ads for their businesses, you can draw a few conclusions from that. Also, there might be women's names in a family that you're not sure who they are. In some cases, you can skip the federal census, if the directories list the women as having a separate interest.
- Same with old newspapers. Not only did we have ads from parishioners, but in some cases there were "closing" and "going out of business" notices.
- Don't assume that your most active members were your most affluent. Always check their names against subscription lists and city directories. One of Burlington's pillars turned out to have been a schoolteacher for many decades, a spinster with few nickels to rub together. But what a capacious heart and endless energy she brought to us!
- Don't assume your most affluent were insensitive. Yes, they centered themselves, but in many cases they spent decades working on class-based outreach measures. Up here the Men's Group ran a neighborhood club for boys which drew in all sorts and conditions (the area around the meetinghouse being heavily working class). As the local Catholics and Jews were able to build up their own community structures, our outreach became less needed. Perhaps it was always less welcome.
- Don't assume everything you need is in English. There was a huge German humanist movement here at the turn of the twentieth century, and French scientism at the end of the nineteenth. Sons and daughters, or possibly grandsons and granddaughters, of these radicals in some cases became UUs. Including me: my leftist religious and political heritage is all German-American, blended with more high-brow but reformist Episcopalians and Congregationalists.
What fun to cast my mind back over these many happy hours of history nerdiness. Hopefully in each community we will see ways in which various forms of diversity and tensions played themselves out. It is likely to be unique to each locale.
The Reverend Elz Curtiss, Burlington, VT
June 4, 2019