As anyone who’s spent an afternoon looking through one of the archival collections at the Brooklyn Historical Society undoubtedly knows, archival research is an imaginative exercise. Scrapbooks, ledgers, letters, pamphlets, record books, collectibles, photos – such things work primarily to provoke the imagination, pointing to the human activity that may have produced them. And if one is willing to take the time to look carefully through them, archives can show us important things about a particular historical social world: what was important to the people in that world, where some of their investments and commitments lay, how they negotiated the terms by which their lives would be lived.
Nowhere is this truer than with regard to the multifaceted sphere that we call “religion,” which is often named without a careful consideration of what we mean by it. However, what people often seem to mean is a set of propositions or teachings – in other words, a theology. Now, there’s no denying that such theology is often part of religious life. But theology couldn’t exist without actual flesh-and-blood people who are constantly engaging with these teachings – creating (and abandoning) communities, founding (and dissolving) relationships of all kinds, forming (and re-forming) orthodoxies and accepted practices. In fact, such acts – and the social context within which these acts take place – actually shape theology. Religion, viewed this way, isn’t a “thing.” Rather, it’s an “act”; it’s only truly found in the doing. And while the self-understanding of people who identify in some way as “religious” can certainly be informed by a theology, it is an error to assume that religious life is somehow congruent with a set of teachings or other “official documents.”
And yet the results of a recent, well-publicized Pew survey seem to indicate how stubbornly this assumption about religion persists. For those who are not familiar with it, I am referring to the September 2010 U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, which purported to demonstrate that many “religious people” are actually quite ignorant about their own tradition’s teachings. Among the survey’s findings: Only 25 percent of Catholics were aware of the official church teaching regarding the non-symbolic nature of communion bread and wine. Roughly half of Protestants weren’t aware that the Reformation was initiated by Martin Luther. Atheists and agnostics, however, appeared to be well informed about both these things. The conclusion, then, seems clear: Atheists and agnostics – people who are, by self-understanding, outside of traditions – know those traditions better than those within them.
However, I would like to submit that “religious people” are not actually ignorant of the things in a tradition that are truly important to them. This is where the archives of religious groups that are found here at the Brooklyn Historical Society can perhaps offer a more complete picture, by demonstrating some of the ways in which theological teachings and community life have interacted, each helping to produce the other. For instance, in our vertical file on church newsletters, there’s documentary evidence of what people actually did from week to week – groups that met (sewing societies, missionary and charitable organizations), choirs that sang, social occasions that were planned. Looking through them, you’d find information about how finances were collected and allocated; you’d learn about individual lives of people who had given their time to a particular religious organization.
You’d also, via such things as notes from ministers, get some sense of the church’s teaching and theology. But the theology you’ll find here is deeply contextualized, embedded within the life of the religious organization that swirls about it. For instance, a pastoral letter from the Rev. Henry Kern, written for St. Francis of Assisi Church in 1972, points clearly to the connection of teaching and community. “We belong to each other in a special way,” Kern writes, “and we belong to Him [God] in a special way; through His creation of us, His redemption of us and Grace which is the vital life and love of God within us.” For Kern, the church’s teachings cannot exist apart from the specific context of human relationships in which these teachings dwell — and vice versa.
The same is true of our extensive archive on Henry Ward Beecher, the well-known former minister of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, and one of the most notable minister/theologians in U.S. history. Indeed, the archive contains lots of Beecher’s sermons, letters, notes, and lectures. But as the archive makes clear, his anti-slavery theology and teachings didn’t take place in the absence of a community. Therefore, just like the files mentioned above, the Beecher/Plymouth Church collection also contains lots of information on the church Beecher served: Sunday school records and reports, committee meeting minutes, calendars, and even play programs. An “Articles of Faith, and Principles and Rules” booklet from 1884 makes the importance of social life quite plain to potential new members: “You have separated yourselves from this congregation, dear friends,” the manual states, “to perform one of the momentous and yet joyful acts of your life. You will never cease to feel the effect of the dedication which you now make.”
Another major archive, that of the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, presents a similarly broad view of religious social life over a lengthy period of time. (For more on the First Unitarian archive, you can also check out this recent Brooklyn Historical Society blog post.)
These archival collections are, of course, just a few views of documentary, textual evidence. They can’t “reproduce” social life – nothing can. But they can provide a necessary link to a time and place – to people’s social being – that can be lost when rendering “religion” as a set of facts or teachings. Our archives can offer not so much a privileged vantage point as an immersive one – one that offers the opportunity to envision a world not one’s own, and come away with a deepened understanding of it.