The Church Archives at the Cumberland County Historical Society

by Richard Tritt

First Presbyterian Church is very fortunate to have a large and rich archives that was professionally catalogued and is now housed at the Cumberland County Historical Society (CCHS), located at 21 North Pitt Street, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Just what is in our Church Archives, why was it previously housed at Dickinson College, and why was it moved to the Historical Society (in August 2016)?

Our church and Dickinson College share a common early history. Members of our church helped to found the church-related Dickinson College in 1773, and actively guided the college during its early years up to 1833. Our third pastor, Dr. Robert Davidson, was first hired as a professor at Dickinson in 1783, and then acted as a temporary president. In 1785 the Rev. Dr. Charles Nisbet came from Scotland to fill the post of Dickinson’s first President. Nisbet also served our church as an associate minister under Dr. Davidson. For many years our building was used for college events and official gatherings, including commencement exercises. John Montgomery, an elder of our church, was a Dickinson trustee and laid the first stone of Old West, the oldest building on Dickinson campus. Other pastors of our church were members of the Dickinson faculty. Dickinson remained Presbyterian-affiliated until 1833, when after undergoing financial difficulties, control of the institution was given to the Methodist Church. The relationship between Dickinson College and our church, though less formal, has continued up to the present day.

The Church Archives was accumulated over many years and was last housed at the church in what is now the Tower Room. The archives consisted of church records and documents dating from 1736 forward, as well as a large parish library. It was decided in 1973, under the leadership of Rev. Russell Weer, to present for safekeeping, the church archives and records to the Special Collections at Dickinson College Library on indefinite loan. The old parish library was presented to the main library as an outright gift. These books were absorbed into the permanent collection and are identified with a special bookplate. The transfer of the archives took place while the college was celebrating its 200th Anniversary. It was felt that the archives and parish library would be safer under the supervision of professionally trained personnel and that the materials would be more readily available to qualified researchers and scholars. Second Presbyterian Church of Carlisle also presented their archives to Dickinson in 1973.

Since 1973 additional items were transferred periodically to the collection. These include church record books and session minutes. In 1997 items that were housed in a bank vault were also moved to the Church Archives. The two most important documents were the 1766 warrant (deed) for the church land, and the 1773 Penn charter for our congregation. The collection now consists of 21 document boxes, 2 oversized boxes, and 4 oversized folders. It is arranged into eleven record groups: Board of Trustees, Board of Deacons, Board of Session, Financial Records, Membership, Personnel, Physical Plant, Organizations, Printed Materials, Miscellaneous, and Photographs.

In 2015, Dickinson contacted several churches for whom they housed their archives. The college felt that the records would be used more if they were housed in a public facility that was more accessible to researchers.  Since CCHS has many other church records and original archives in its collection, it was the obvious choice.  The Historical Society houses a large library and archival collection, and works with numerous researchers on a daily basis.  So in August of 2016, the First Presbyterian Collection as well as several other church archives were moved to CCHS.

At Dickinson College, the Church Archives was catalogued and a search guide was available at the college and on line. That catalog can now be found at CCHS and on their website at Significant records have been copied and microfilmed, and copies of these are also available to researchers at CCHS. Visitors to CCHS may access the original materials for research purposes.

It is important to know that the Church Archives is on indefinite loan and is legally the property of First Presbyterian Church. The church may use the materials and remove items for special events following the Society’s outgoing loan policy. Either party has the right to terminate the agreement upon giving 90 days written notice. The collection would then be returned to the church.