Archives of West Virginia Methodism Dates Back to 1950s

By Paula McGrew

The Archives of West Virginia Methodism has a history dating to the early 1950s and the construction of the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library at West Virginia Wesleyan College, according to Brett Miller, director of library services and archivist.

In an e-mail interview, Miller discussed the history of the archives, some of the treasures held in the collection, the types of materials in the archives, and access to the collection.       

When the library was built, a “Methodist Historical Room” was created to hold conference records and to serve as a library of theological volumes of interest to Methodist researchers, Miller said.

Since that time, West Virginia Wesleyan’s library staff, in conjunction with the Conference Commission on Archives and History, have played an important role in preserving and making accessible the history and heritage of Methodism around the region.

Miller said that when EvUnBreth Acres was closed in the early 1980s, the records of the Evangelical United Brethren Church were transferred to Wesleyan. The archives were moved to Benson House (on the corner of Meade Street and College Avenue) in the late 1980s. When Benson House was remodeled to become Wesleyan’s Erickson Alumni Center in 1992, the materials were transferred to the library. The archives have remained under the care of the library staff since that time.

A $2 million renovation of the library in 2019 necessitated a temporary relocation of the archives to a storage facility elsewhere on Wesleyan’s campus, Miller said. The return of the archives to the library in the spring and summer of 2020 was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. This in turn has restricted access to the collection.

“We are hopeful that as the crisis abates, the work of returning the collection to the library can continue and we can more easily make collection materials available to researchers,” Miller said.

Collection Treasures

“Among some of our most interesting treasures, we are proud to hold a handwritten letter from John Wesley to one of his ministers in America,” Miller said.

“A few years ago, we acquired the collection of Melville Homer Cummings, who, in addition to being a minister in the conference, was also a poet, hymn writer, and publisher. Using a letterset press in his home, he composed and printed numerous gospel hymns, which he assembled into booklets and distributed around the state. In addition to the printed hymns, we acquired the letterset press plates that he used to create these “hymnals.”

Miller said work is underway to make the conference journals of each branch of Methodism accessible online.

“The past two years have seen the Commission on Archives and History support digitization projects for the Methodist Episcopal Church journals (1848-1939) and the Methodist Church journals (1939-1967),” he said. “The archives staff are working to upload these journals to a digital repository where they will be full-text searchable. We hope to have that project completed during summer 2020, with continuing digitization of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Methodist Protestant Church, and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in future years. This will make a plethora of historical, genealogical, and local church information available to researchers, wherever they are.”

Types of materials

Miller said archive materials include conference journals for all branches of Methodism (generally dating to the mid-1800s), active and closed church files, minister papers and collections, conference publications, annual conference printed materials and audiovisuals, published books and manuscripts about West Virginia Methodism or by West Virginia Methodists, collections related to a variety of agencies and Methodist activities around the state.

He said the materials seldom contain material of genealogical interest. “We encourage family researchers to consult other resources such as local historical societies, genealogical libraries, and online ancestry research tools prior to addressing genealogical questions to the Methodist archives.

“In some cases, closed church records will contain baptism and church membership records, though this is not a given in every case,” he added. “Likewise, some information on ordained Methodist ministers is contained in collections, though historical information on local or supply pastors is not often recorded in official conference records prior to the 1968 merger of the United Methodist Church.

Access to the collection

Physical access is by appointment only with at least 24 hours’ advance notice. “Remote requests for information are accepted, and our preference is a detailed e-mail to ensure we receive all pertinent information and have correct spellings,” Miller said. “Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we have seen a disruption in our access to the collections and are limited in what requests we can answer at this time.”

Suitable items

“The Methodist archives is always interested in capturing the activity of West Virginia Methodism, both at the local church level, as well as at the conference level,” Miller said. “We encourage local churches to submit church histories and other pertinent information to the archives so there is a record for other researchers.”

“Active churches may take advantage of the archives to store their records if they are not comfortable with the adequacy of their local facility to ensure long term preservation of their records,” he said. “Any closed church records should be transferred to the Conference Archives. We also accept collections that document the activity of ministers in the conference, as well as records related to the history of agencies and organizations within the bounds of the West Virginia Annual Conference.

Due to space constraints, the Methodist archives cannot accept large pieces of furniture or other museum-type artifacts. Examples would include church pews, pulpits, stained glass windows, offering plates, etc.

Large pulpit Bibles are only accepted if they contain genealogical information or pertinent historical information about a specific WV Conference church.

“Additionally, we are generally not able to accommodate collections or estate gifts of books that do not relate specifically to West Virginia Methodism,” Miller said. “General biblical commentaries, theological volumes, sermon preparation materials, Sunday School curricula, and Bible studies are examples of materials we would generally not accept unless they were written or published by West Virginia Methodists or by the West Virginia Annual Conference.

“If you are unsure about what we accept or don’t accept, or have specific questions, we would prefer you reach out and check with us first,” Miller said. “We’d rather err on the side of caution than to lose important historical records!”

Regarding the photo of the plaque on the main page: In 1953 this bronze plaque was unveiled at the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College. The plaque commemorates the 1939 conference that re-united the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the Methodist Protestant Church. Modeled after a photo taken at the 1939 conference, the plaque depicts (from left): Bishop John M. Moore of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, Bishop James H. Straughn of the Methodist Protestant Church and Bishop Edwin H. Hughes of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The plaque was created by Atlanta sculptor Julian Hoke Harris, who later created the statue of John Wesley which stands in front of West Virginia Wesleyan’s chapel.