A History of the Archives
The Church’s Archives traces its beginnings to the early 19th century and a point in time when it was unclear that The Episcopal Church had a credible future in the United States. The combination of its association with the Church of England, the anti-episcopal sentiment of a republican and egalitarian culture, and the sweeping embrace of fervent religion in the two Great Awakenings offered faint prospects for a Church that had yet discovered how to graft its Anglican inheritance of moderation in matters of worship and religious discourse on the American landscape.
The early American Episcopal Church was forced to innovate and did so in part by reclaiming its Anglican roots and broadcasting them as alive and ready to meet the demands of American life. A key innovation was the General Convention’s action in 1835 to commission the formal gathering of the archives of the early Church. This was a signal and precedent setting event.1 The archives were seen as an important bridge to the Church’s future—recognized as important testaments as both symbolic container of public presence and ongoing narrative of an emerging new identity.
The Rev. Francis Lister Hawks was appointed first “Conservator” and custodian of the archives, which were to be maintained in a separate depository at the General Theological Seminary (an official Seminary of The Episcopal Church). Hawks worked from 1835 to 1865 gathering original papers and manuscripts from the former colonial dioceses and copies of documents from England, creating eighteen bound volumes of the original papers and archives of the General Convention. Funding for the work came from several sources, including a large gift from Trinity Church, New York City.
The Rev. William Stevens Perry who succeeded Hawks in 1868 as custodian of the archives, reported in 1895 that the archives had been moved to, “a depository we now have at the Church Mission House for the preservation of our Church’s historical documents.” A Joint Standing Committee of the General Convention provided oversight of the Church archives during this period.
The gathering of the Church’s several boards and agencies into a single New York City based National Council in 1921 may have given rise to the need to find safer quarters for the early manuscript portion of the General Convention archives. In 1930 the General Convention’s archives as gathered by Hawkes and Perry were placed on deposit at the New-York Historical Society.
The absence of an active oversight committee or custodian created a problem for the centralized Church bodies as recent archives and operational records accumulated at the Church Mission House. The solution seemed to come in the form of the Church Historical Society (CHS) which saw the archives as a way to generate interest and purpose and connect the independent Church historians to the mission and work of the Church. In 1940 the General Convention designated the Church Historical Society (CHS)—at this time located at the Philadelphia Divinity School—to house, service, preserve and keep safe the General Convention’s more recent archives. The 1940 arrangement provided a block grant to the CHS for the care of the archives and the support of the Society and its journal publication.
Arrangements were made to move the Convention’s Archives and other historical collections to a modern building at the new Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin when it became clear that the Philadelphia seminary was closing. The first train car load of records arrived in Austin in 1957 and a full time archivist was hired two years later. The ancient archives were returned to the General Convention by the New-York Historical Society and for the first time since 1920, the collections were reunited. During this time a professional program of archives acquisition, processing, and reference service developed under the leadership of Dr. V. Nelle Bellamy and the CHS board.
By the early 1970s, the CHS board was having difficulty balancing the needs of the archives with their historical interests. Large collections of records were being held back by the Church’s national offices and the General Convention agencies as the separateness of the CHS and the remoteness of the Austin facility combined to weaken the administrative ties, governance support, and historical needs of the institutional Church. In 1986, under the leadership of Bishop Scott Field Bailey of West Texas, the General Convention created a separate Board of Archives by canon (I.1.5) to oversee the archival assets and the professional program on behalf of the General Convention.
The return of the Church archives to the custody of General Convention opened the door for the expansion of the archival holdings in the newly acquired space in the ETSS library building. The canonical reintegration and establishment of an accountability board set the stage for a new understanding of how the Church’s archives could become an integral component of the Church’s modern communication and information landscape. With that goal in mind, the Archives Board recruited and hired the second archivist, Mark J. Duffy in 1992.
Efforts turned to more firmly integrate the archives operation into the administrative umbrella of the Church’s corporate body, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. Funding for a records management officer and additional research support staff led to a greater visibility of the archives program in the aiding the work of the Convention and its Standing Commissions. Over 10,000 cu. ft. of historical records housed in basements, closets and storage rooms at the 815 headquarters were appraised, with about 60% of the material designated for the permanent archives or long term administrative retention – many of which dated back to the years when the archives were physically split between the CHS and the Church Missions House. By 2003, the Church’s archives were finally united intellectually but housed in four separate physical locations.
The Archives of the Episcopal Church continue to grow while the Church awaits a long-term solution to the pressing need to house its records in a single, environmentally sound repository. The Archives continues to adapt to the rapid social and technological changes affecting the way the community communicates and documents its mission. These efforts include the Digital Archives and electronic records management, and the development of an online catalog and an electronic records depository for Church-wide historical preservation. In its effort to “further the historical dimension of the mission of the Church,” the Archives acquires analog and digital collections of personal papers, records of Episcopal organizations, and special collections such as oral histories in addition to the official records.
The future of The Archives of the Episcopal Church is folded into the evolution of the Church’s understanding of God’s mission carried out in new and compelling ways in local parishes and Church-wide networks of dynamic ministry. We follow a compass line, which only appears to point in the one direction, but in truth follows an extended line of direction, informed from whence we came, and passing into the unknown but hope-filled future.
- 1. The commissioning of a Conservator for the General Convention’s archives came 31 years after the establishment of the New-York Historical Society (1804) and pre-dates the establishment of the Presbyterian (1852) and Baptist (1853) historical archives.