Pittsburgh creates congregational history model

The Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, Penn., has a long and storied history and now much of that history is posted on the congregation’s website. With the help of a grant from the Unitarian Universalist Funding Panel, the congregation has posted a collection of letters and sermons dating from 1825. The letters describe the state of religion in western Pennsylvania in that early time and the difficulties encountered by Unitarians.

The letters include some from Martha St. John, wife of a minister, describing church life in the 1890s from her perspective. There are also many sermons from the congregation’s long line of ministers.

Kathleen Parker, coordinator of the project and a member of First Unitarian, said several factors came together to make it happen. “First, there were people in our congregation who knew enough to save valuable records over time. Second, I’m a historian and I was open to a new project.” Parker is editor of the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History.

Parker spent six years writing Here We Have Gathered: The Story of Unitarian Universalism in Western Pennsylvania, 1808-2008. She catalogued the records of the six area congregations. The collection is now housed at the Heinz Regional History Center in Pittsburgh. She also had 65 photos enlarged into photo panels for an exhibit. In addition to the book, the collection of paper records, and the photo exhibit, a fourth part of the project was to put some of the sermons and other documents online.

She explained why her congregation’s history means so much to her. “When I stand in the congregation of my church and we are singing our favorite hymns, or listening to the choir, I often look around at our 110-year-old sanctuary and consider the many generations of congregants who met in the same space and shared the same liberal outlook that we hold today. It’s important to realize that, yes,  they were here––and the photographs and documents that remain remind us of the reality of their presence and the words they wrote speak of their devotion to liberal religion and what it meant to live out that ideal in their time.”

She added, “The documents that church members of the past left behind are precious keys to the vital heritage we have inherited and should preserve––a heritage we cannot know unless we search the lessons found in these valuable records.”

The UU History and Heritage Society invites congregations to contact it for help in collecting their own histories. Its webpage includes the following: Tools for Creating Congregational Histories. An InterConnections article on creating congregational histories is here.

People who made the world better

A new book, Stirring the Nation’s Heart: Eighteen Stories of Prophetic Unitarians and Universalists of the Nineteenth Century, describes how these 18 religious folk, from Julia Ward Howe to Theodore Park and Dorothea Dix, had an idea about how the world could be better, and made that change happen.

Written by Polly Peterson, a freelance writer and member of First Parish in Concord, Mass., Stirring the Nation’s Heart will be useful for religious educators as well as UUs and others wanting to learn more about the big ideas that began with many of our spiritual forbears, including reform of education and treatment of the mentally ill, women’s suffrage, and antiracism work. These were social reformers who played key roles in UU and U.S. history and whose life work made the world a better place. Each chapter includes discussion questions.

Stirring the Nation’s Heart is published by the Unitarian Universalist Association and is available from the UUA Bookstore for $15.

Keep church history intact

Q. We are processing the papers of a longtime minister and we’re having a difference of opinion. One member thinks it would be prudent to black out a number of negative references this strong-minded minister made about other people in his correspondence. Others of us worry about losing part of our history if this happens. Could you give us advice?

A. InterConnections posed this question to members of the UU Historical Society’s Board of Trustees. Here are perspectives from three of them.

The Rev. Paul Sprecher of Hingham, Mass., recommends  separating out those papers with negative references and placing restrictions on them until some date in the future or until those referenced have died. An alternative would be to make copies of the originals and redact the copies, he says.

Kathleen Parker of Pittsburgh, Pa., says, “I would not recommend blacking out the negative references. We would forever lose whatever “truth” we might gain from those artifacts. I have found letters at the Andover Harvard Archives that reveal things that are not very flattering––but the fact that they are in the archives in uncensored form tells me that it was thought that these items should not be lost to history. Negative references to others may be a reflection of many things––and a good historian will take that into account.”

The Rev. Gordon Gibson of Knoxville, Tenn., suggests the possibility of interviewing key remaining witnesses or participants. “If a curmudgeonly minister’s papers––or his or her antagonist’s papers––vividly describe a church fight, is there anyone still alive whose testimony should be recorded? Of course, care should be taken not to reopen wide any congregational wounds that are nearly healed.”

The UU Historical Society sponsors the Dictionary of UU Biography, and offers an annual prize to a youth who writes about a historical subject. It also has information on creating congregational histories.