Minute for History #1
Hillsborough Reformed Church Archives Committee Report to the Congregation
I’m here this morning to tell you a little about the activities and plans of the Archives Committee. This committee was formed with the inspiration of Lorrie Larew, to catalogue and preserve our historic church documents and records. Members of the committee now include Hazel Dickinson, Christine Fung, Robert Mettler, Barbara Mueller, Portia Orton, and myself. We have been meeting every other week in the church basement since last winter, enjoying learning about our church’s history.
In our initial meetings we had a special guest, Russ Gasero, who is the official Archivist of the Reformed Church in America, and also the editor of a valuable reference work on the pastors of the Reformed Church in America. Russ taught us about the process of preserving and cataloguing a large number of very old and sometimes fragile pieces of paper. He directed us to the best archival materials, and even filmed and recorded some of our early sessions for a project to help other churches with their own archives projects.
We then developed a system of assigning a unique document number to each item, using the initials of the pastor at the time, the year, and a number for each. We log each document on a form that tells the unique number, the author, condition of the document, first line, and a summary of what it says, and then we file the document between acid free sheets in an acid-free folder. The folders are kept in acid-free file boxes, one for the 1700s, one for the 1800s, and one for the 1900s. Very large and very fragile documents are put in mylar sleeves and kept in a bigger file box. Russ Gasero has told us that we are on the cutting edge of RCA congregation archives!
Although we have been working for months, there are still many more documents in the safe to catalogue. Some even have to be translated from the original Dutch. But when we are done, we will put all of the information from the summary sheets into a computer data base so that people can search for things that interest them.
This is important -- some of our most precious documents were found, not in the church, but in people’s homes. The first building our congregation worshipped in was burned by the British, and meetings of the Consistory were held, not in the church building, but in the local tavern (yes, true). So that means many of the records were not kept in the "church office" because there was no such place, but in peoples’ homes. Hazel Dickinson and Robert Mettler have already been sources of important documents, and if any of you have old papers at home that you think are related to the church’s history, we would urge you to bring them in – we will take good care of them!
We plan to make this “Minute for History” a regular event at worship services, so that the committee can share all that we are learning about the wonderful history of our church with all of you. Every month or so, we will choose a document and make a copy for the bulletin. Today in your bulletin you have a copy of one of the oldest documents in our archive – a receipt for the salary paid to the first pastor of the church, Christian Foering. He received from the consistory 40 pounds (yes, they were still using British currency) in the year 1775. You have heard of him before, he is commemorated on the plaque at the back of the sanctuary and is buried somewhere under the church. This is one of the many ordinary, humble documents that is little more than a record of a transaction. But there are many things to notice about it. Like many of our oldest documents, it is not written on a standard size piece of paper. And it has rough edges, meaning it was torn. Paper was expensive, and they wasted nothing. Most of our very old records fit the paper perfectly. If there was extra, they ripped off the unused part and saved it. And of course it is handwritten – they had a lot of style, didn’t they? The ink that was used in this document has eaten through the paper in places because of the acid in it. You can’t see the color but it is brownish black, and the acid came from the burnt carbon that was mixed into their ink.
Christian Foering was also a lively young man with a family. We know that he was from Germany and migrated to Philadelphia; that his wife’s name was Katherine Mueller; that he first served churches in Philadelphia and then New York before coming to Millstone. And we all know the famous story about how he preached passionate patriotic sermons, and urged his congregation members to rise up against the British. When the British came looking for him, he barely escaped, hid in barns during the cold winter, got pneumonia and died.
But this little piece of paper tells us that our congregation, with considerable sacrifice, raised the money for his salary, supported his family, valued his preaching of the gospel, and made him welcome in our little town.
So that is a little story about one document. There are hundreds more, and we look forward to bringing them to you. But remember, please, if you have or know of historic documents relating to the history of our church, please speak to any of us on the committee. Thank you!