Know Your Archives, Part III -- A Confused Geek's Tour through some Southern Religious Archives

Paul Harvey

John Turner and Randall Stephens' last two posts, concerning the new Church History Library in Salt Lake and the beautiful Congregational Library in Boston, made me think that we should solicit more contributions about our experiences researching (sorry for you general readers and non-historians out there -- occasionally we like to geek out on the blog).

A number of other blogs have "how to" and advice lists for how to organize your research trip, what to bring, etc., so we won't duplicate that here. Instead, maybe we can follow our last two know your archives posts with some more that talk about other libraries, archives, museums, or other places where you've had memorable research experiences related in any way to American religious history. So if you're interested in sending me a contribution, please feel free; I'd be especially interested to hear from anyone who's been to some off-the-beaten-tracks archives that you want to tell us about. Sure, I've loved researching at the Newberry in Chicago, at the Harvard Library, at the Schomburg Center in New York, at the Denver Public Library, and at the peerless Southern Historical Collection in Chapel Hill -- all beautiful places, both aesthetically and in terms of priceless and massive collections. But it's the archives where you hit the jackpot when you least expected it that most attract my geek love.

Matt Sutton researched at Bob Jones U., so I'm expecting a funny contribution from you any time now, Sutton. And he also of course researched the life of Aimee Semple McPherson -- enough said.

I spent the better part of one year (1988) following the archive trail around the country for my first book, but most of it was spent at a really great place that ought to get more use by scholars, the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives (SBHLA) in Nashville. It's not set in a grand old building like the Congregationalist Archives, and no I'm not going to do any RiAH TV for this particular post like Randall did for his. But the SBHLA is really a treasure trove for anyone doing anything that relates, directly or indirectly, to Baptists. Besides wonderful archival resources, they've also microfilmed seemingly everything from every other repository that has Baptist material. I found there an incredible collection of local black Baptist church, association, and convention minutes (some held in hard copy at the American Baptist archives in Rochester, and some just collected from God knows where), as well as black Baptist publications that you just can't find anywhere. One of my former students (Sue Marasco, who has blogged here before), combed through correspondence there concerning Nannie Burroughs, the black Baptist woman's leader and founder of the National Training School for Women and Girls. We know about her life until 1920 from Evelyn Higginbotham's Righteous Discontent, but not much about her afterwards -- the material is there, a good deal of it at the SBHLA.

Also, recently on our blog and elsewhere we've had considerable discussions of John Stauffer and Sally Jenkins, The State of Jones, about Newton Knight and Unionism in Mississippi during the Civil War. Knight may have been a Primitive Baptist, and his parents probably were before the war. We were discussing what his Primitive Baptism would have had to do (if anything) with his dissent from Confederate and Redemptionist views. Further work through the Primitive Baptist materials there (I did a little bit of that, but not all that much) would help further answer some of those questions. The SBHLA has a grant program to help fund research there.

More recently, about ten years ago I think, I spent a little bit of time at a very different kind of place, the small library at the headquarters of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church in Oklahoma City. In the basement of their headquarters was a small and, I admit, most unpromising looking library. If the SBHLA had the look of a really well-run, professional archive, with outstanding material and a full lineup of personnel, the IPHC archive was in one small room presided over by
Pentecostal historian Harold Hunter. After a short conversation with Harold, he began pulling out some of their materials (including the great early Pentecostal paper Live Coals of Fire, whose articles carried all sorts of awesome fire and dynamite metaphors for explaining the work of the Holy Spirit), and I had a feeling that I'd hit the jackpot. While not voluminous, the materials were the one-of-a-kind stuff that any geek historian dreams about.

Not all experiences are so wonderful, of course. At the Virginia Baptist Library at the University of Richmond (back in 1988 again), I was scared off from some of their rich material from an archivist who rather haughtily told me that my topic had been done before, and he wasn't quite sure what I was doing there. As a novice researcher, not actually sure what I was looking for other than just to snoop around and read, I just kind of slinked off and wondered if I should find another line of work. Probably I just misunderstood the archivist and was too inarticulate to explain what I was doing. Too bad, because that place has a peerless collection of early (especially eighteenth century) material; just ask Rhys Isaac.

But leaving there led me to stumble into the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. There was no "archive" there at all in 1988, just a room with a bunch of busy people and a microfiche machine in the middle. The librarian there, Edie Jeter, got me set up reading microfiche of missionary letters from the 19th century -- not what I was in Richmond to work on, but I am naturally nosy and like to read other people's letters (a pre-requisite of being a historian, I think), so there you go. They were hard to read on those old microfiche, and not made easier by the fact that it was a bustling office in which this ill-fed, ill-housed, and ill-clothed researcher happened to be sitting in the middle (fortunately this was in the South, where people tend to be polite even to confused geeks, and I won't even go into what I probably smelled like). From the couple of days I spent there I spun out an entire book idea based on these letters, which were incredible and very personal. I later moved on to other projects and never got around to pursuing this idea, but in the meantime I believe this material has moved to the SBHLA, where it awaits its historian.

There's plenty of good stuff out there for you geeks, so get busy. Write me with your archival finds and experiences and I'll post them here.


Randall at: September 3, 2009 at 3:16 PM said...

Paul: Thanks for the insightful comments on these playgrounds for religious history nerds. I also spent quite a lot of time at the IPHC archives in Oklahoma City. Had some really good material. Indoor/outdoor carpet, too, if I remember right.

The Church of the Nazarene Archives, under the direction of Stan Ingersol, has recently moved to a suburb of KC. Wondering how that's changed things for them?

Paul Harvey at: September 3, 2009 at 3:26 PM said...

Yes, I remember that carpet, and the aesthetics were definitely OKC style. But that just makes you appreciate the Congregationalist architecture, even while it's fun feeling like you're rooting out stuff that will get you some high points on the geek scale at a place like the IPHC. Harold taught me a lot about Pentecostal history, too, which I appreciated.

Joe Creech went to some really out of the way archives in North Carolina for his diss./book on Populism, hoping he checks in here and contributes.

Neil at: September 10, 2009 at 9:35 AM said...

I spent a wonderful two weeks at the SBHLA (with nice research money from them!) in the spring of 2006. The staff there is terrific, especially archivists Bill Sumners and Taffey Hall. They couldn't be nicer, and Taffey treated me to some of her delicious red velvet cake one afternoon.

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