Know Your Archives: Presbyterian Historical Society

Andrea L. Turpin

Happy 10th birthday, RiAH! One of the things I have most appreciated about this blog is its breadth. In the words of John Fea, paying tribute to blog founder Paul Harvey, RiAH combines “opinion, news from the profession, historical reflection on current events, and new research” and also fosters a “sense of community” around these shared interests. I love that I can come here to read about research in progress, how religious history intersects with current events, and also tips for best practices on all aspects of teaching, researching, and writing about the history of American religion. In large part these objectives are accomplished by having so many contributors with diverse passions centered around a common theme.

I only joined this illustrious company in 2017, so I figured the best tribute I could offer this month would be to add a piece to one of the great series on the blog, Know Your Archives.

I spent two weeks last month at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia researching for my second book project, on how Protestant women’s organizations navigated the fundamentalist-
Presbyterian Historical Society (author's photograph)
modernist controversy. The Presbyterian Historical Society is the national archives of the PC(USA) denomination, and I was privileged to be a recipient of one of the Society’s very generous Research Fellowships (following in the footsteps of fellow RiAH blogger Paul Putz). While I was there, I also had the privilege of meeting fellow recipient Anna Holdorf and fellow RiAH blogger Monica Mercado, who was in Philly for a conference. The PHS Research Fellowship application deadline for next year is February 2, 2018 and everyone should apply! I cannot recommend the archives highly enough as a source of information on American religious history.

After my first few days there, I concluded that Presbyterian polity is perfectly designed to create the maximum amount of paperwork. Seriously. Presbyterians operate both democratically and hierarchically: controversial questions proceed up the chain of command, but at every level a council debates and votes rather than one pastor or bishop just making a decision. The local congregation has a session, then there’s a presbytery, then a synod, and finally the national General Assembly meets annually. The paper trail this process leaves behind is a historian’s goldmine.

Presbyterians not only generate paperwork, they also organize it well. The archives have five main types of search aids: the Society’s online catalog, CALVIN (get it?); a separate online catalog to their digital collections which is named PEARL (after Presbyterian missionary and author Pearl Buck); an online Guides to Archival Collections (finding aids); various online vertical files indexes; and a physical card catalog. Many items are listed in more than one place, but some are available only in one. All but the card catalog are accessible remotely via the Society’s clear and well-maintained website.

Perhaps most important of all, the archival staff are incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. Just one example: I had discovered what looked like it would be a key document cited in a book, but after the book's publication an archival reorganization had moved that document from its original location. Over the course of conducting the rest of my research at the archives, I had managed to look in every place I thought it could logically be and still couldn’t find it. I finally broke down and took my own advice to ask an archivist. She found it within 20 minutes.

As if all of this were not sufficient reason to visit, the Presbyterian Historical Society is itself located in a beautiful historic building in a vibrant area of Philadelphia. The building is well kept and well lit, and the reading room looks onto a lovely interior courtyard. In other words, it is an all-around pleasant place to work. Be sure to check it out!


Curtis J. Evans said…
I concur. I have been spent many days in the rich archives. And exploring the local cuisine nearby. Most people probably know that the archives for the Federal and National Council of Churches are located at PHS. It is also an excellent source for pamphlets, public statements and position announcements by a number of mainline churches in the 1930s to the 1950s on race, social reform, and economic issues.