Historian as Detective

When writing a history of a church (such as Zion’s), typically the history is divided into segments or chapters that are either arranged by minister (kind of like teaching United States history by presidential administrations) or by theme (“Sunday School at Zion’s”).  My intent is to blend the two, including some thematic sections (such as focusing on affiliated organizations, such as choir, Sunday School, or assorted men’s and women’s groups) as well as some chronological sections (such as Zion’s during wartime, focusing on the history of a German congregation during World War I and World War II—services were still conducted in German during the First World War, and some contributors to the church may have been active in the local Nazi bund during the Second World War).  This will involve using a variety of sources beyond the church records that I am organizing, but while I am arranging the records I am starting to take notes on how the records could be used when writing the church’s history.

This week I continued working with (processing, arranging, and filing) the materials from the large tub I opened last week.  It has been a tedious process, but one that also involved a bit of research/detective work.  As I mentioned in the last blog, one of the group of items that I found were sermons tucked inside church bulletins.  I should clarify that…most sermons were tucked inside church bulletins, and a few were loose.  So it was relatively easy to set up file folders for all but four of the sermons; I just labeled the folder with the sermon title, date, and minister’s name.  The four extra sermons provided the chance to play detective.

Fortunately, when this minister wrote a sermon, he indicated within the sermon which book of the Bible was the focus of the sermon (in other words, he indicated which of the Scripture readings he focused on in the sermon).  This made the task a bit easier; I could use the church bulletins to find the sermon titles (all but one of the sermons were from the same year, and the one given the previous year was written in a different color ink).  So I checked the bulletins for the weeks I didn’t already have sermons and found “homes” for all of the wayward sermons.

The sermons themselves are not something I intend to use in my research on the history of Zion’s for several reasons.  I only have a small sample—about twenty sermons from 1965 and one from 1964, all from the same minister.  They do provide a bit of insight into the psyche of the minister and how he interpreted the Scriptures, but other than that they aren’t historically significant (and I can get enough insight about his psyche by reading his instructions and announcements in church bulletins).  Plus, while they are reasonably easy to read (he did have nice handwriting), there isn’t a real “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” moment among them (unfortunately, the selection doesn’t include the “God is Dead” sermon that led to my parents leaving the congregation in the mid-1960s).

Other than placing the sermons in file folders and labeling the folders (and arranging more church bulletins from the 1980s), not much was accomplished this week.  There were two reasons:  first, I traveled out of town (I did bring materials to work with while in the Boston area seeing La Cage aux Folles at North Shore Music Theatre, but they got set aside for more urgent matters), and second, the news broke at Mansfield University that two members of my department are on the retrenchment list (which means that their jobs/positions are gone after this academic year).  As senior member of the History program (and second in seniority in the department), I’m safe.  But I also feel a moral responsibility to help, because I was involved in hiring both of these people to their current positions and consider them friends.  So, two colleagues and I have begun working on an impact statement for the administration in which we will make our case that the university/administrators should reconsider their decision to eliminate these positions—eliminating either (or both) positions would be devastating to the department, to the students, and to the university.  It’s not what I’m supposed to be doing on my sabbatical (according to the department secretary, I’m on sabbatical leave so I should leave when I go in to check mail), but I know how my mind works, and I can’t focus on folding, sorting, or filing church bulletins when my colleagues’ lives have been turned upside down.  I’ve been in their position; at my previous job before coming to Mansfield, I found out the first day of the spring semester (right before I was scheduled to teach a class at a local community college) that I was being downsized at my full-time job for budgetary reasons.  I was able to bounce back; it actually cost the company more to downsize me from full-time (paid for 40 hours per week) to seasonal (paid hourly) when I worked 70 hours a week during the summer, but I also understand how my colleagues are distracted and probably not focused on doing the best teaching they can while at the same time questioning their loyalty to a university that effectively has abandoned them.

This coming week I will continue to work on organizing the materials…more church bulletins, meeting minutes, and newsletters in file folders.  But I also will be meeting with my colleagues to draft the impact statement, and I will attend a department meeting (yes, even though I’m on sabbatical) where we will discuss the impact statement and the future of the department.   There’s one more tub to open (one that I used last year when writing the conference paper mentioned in a previous blog), and that one is mostly bound volumes of church records from its inception in 1881 to the closing of the congregation in 2010.  Then the next step:  stacking the folders into piles for the various categories, moving on to the next level of arrangement.


About Karen

History Professor. Baseball fan. Author of two books, one of which I force my students to buy and read. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team.
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4 Responses to Historian as Detective

  1. sciencecollins says:

    This sounds like such an interesting experience! I look forward to more posts about your experiences with the records. I am sending positive thoughts your way about the impact statement.

    • Karen says:


      Thanks! You should send some to Dr. Dodson, too, because they are losing two new positions in Geography and Geology.

  2. Coty says:

    Please let me know how I or other students could help the department. A bunch of us are talking through things privately on Facebook, so any direction other than contacting administrators here and in Harrisburg would be welcome.

    • Karen says:

      I will keep you posted…and contacting administrators here wouldn’t be a bad idea (or going to the next Council of Trustees meeting). It would be nice if the administration would provide us with the budget numbers that clearly show that the faculty cuts need to be made; instead, the numbers we’ve been given state the opposite, at least in our department.

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