Discovering Baptist History through Newspaper Research
By Robert L. Vaughn
This article is a revision of “Recovering Sacred History through Newspapers,” which first appeared in the Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter in December 2015 (Vol. 4, No. 2)
The general principles are the same, whether the topic is Baptist history, Sacred Harp, etc.
Baptist history is a field that has occupied much of my interest and research time for over 40 years. Louis Asher and J. W. Griffith were important mentors to me, each of whom was my pastor at one time – one when I was baptized and the other when I was ordained. They were historians and seminary professors. They nurtured my predisposition toward things historical.
Many facets of our Baptist history may seem hopelessly lost, like pieces of a puzzle misplaced and missing over time. Many churches, associations and conventions have been disbanded for years. Their records are gone. Many individual Baptists are gone and forgotten. Hopes of uncovering their stories may seem dim, but there are resources available that can offer surprising glimpses of the history of our tradition. Newspapers, correspondence, family histories, county histories, and genealogists can be sources of otherwise hidden information about our Baptist past. In this essay I offer some tips for recovering Baptist history by searching historical newspapers online, with a word on why I think this work is important.
Empty Spaces – the Need for Recovery
There is a need to recover Baptist history. There are empty spaces in the facts of our Baptist past. Knowledge is loaded in some areas and light in others. Often the focus has been on the major players to the disinterest in others. Denominational histories are useful, but evidently emphasize their own interests, understandings, and biases. Thus, a purported “History of Texas Baptists” likely is not a history of all Texas Baptists generally, but only a specific portion of them.
People, places, churches, and events are forgotten – maybe even entire denominations.[i] Time is passing away. Each passing day is one day farther away from our Baptist past, regardless of the area in which we live, or whether its history in that area dates from 1639 or 1939. Waiting increases the likelihood that meaningful data will not be recovered. Much information is missing. Records have been lost, destroyed, or are otherwise decaying. Memories fade.
Yet some things associated with the passing of time are helpful! The rise of the Internet made much information available that was previously inaccessible. The continued interest in and compilation of historical and genealogical materials gather many resources in a single, accessible place. Cemetery enumerations, such as Find-a-Grave, often are surprisingly comprehensive.[ii] Old newspapers are digitized and find their way onto cyberspace. Association proceedings, Fifth-Sunday meetings, revivals, announcements, building dedications, and obituaries have all found their way onto period newspaper pages. All is not lost. Hope arises.
Surprising Places – the Way of Recovery
Recovering our history requires research—intensive research. Don’t let that scare you. If you like history and love Baptists (or vice versa) the research can be a labor of love rather than a chore. The discovery of information can come from surprising places. One of those places is the medium of newspaper. In this article I will focus on discovering and recovering history through newspapers and other digital media.
Newspapers can be researched in physical and digital formats. Physical searching involves paging through hard copies of newspapers or microforms (film reproductions requiring a special reader). This is a time and labor intensive process that can be tiresomely challenging. To cut down on the tedium and increase the chance of success, searching through physical newspapers should begin with an idea of the time and place where relevant information might lie. Digital searching includes online newspaper archives and search engines such as Google that can lead to digitized newspaper articles. At least a few libraries have begun to digitize their microfilm holdings to make them searchable. Others have digitized hard copies of newspapers in their collections. Digital searching vastly reduces the time and labor, but introduces the problem of Optical Character Recognition not reading or recognizing what the human eye can and will.[iii]
Here are some tips for (mainly digital) searches, most of which I have learned by trial and error.
- Take advantage of free online newspaper archives, such as the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America or state-based archives such as the Portal to Texas History. Wikipedia.org publishes a list of online newspaper archives, including both free and subscription (pay) archives.
- Read newspaper microforms at the library, where they’re available for free. You can also purchase newspaper microfilm (from the Georgia Newspaper Project for example), but this can become expensive.
- Subscribe to an online newspaper archive. Many of the most comprehensive archives only sell subscriptions to academic libraries.[iv] Most archives that offer subscriptions to individuals have newspapers of interest to Baptists, since Baptists are spread widely across the U.S. Before signing up for a pay site, be sure that the given archive has papers that are specific to the time and location you are researching. (I subscribe to Newspapers.com, which offers a complete list of papers that they have available. Most other sites should do the same.)
- Vary your searches
- Search without quotes. This opens up the largest amount of results, though often with much peripheral or unrelated material through which to wade (sometimes necessarily).
- Search with quotes. This narrows the results to the exact phrase that is placed within quotation marks and makes the finding more likely to be relevant. (Be aware that quotation marks do not always function the same in all types of searches.)
- Use “advanced search” for resources with this capability, in order to be specific and narrow findings. At times change and browse by newspaper, location and date.
- Vary search engines for online searches (e.g. Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo). Sometimes one will find something another will not. Sometimes a search engine such as Google might search a site better than that site’s own search feature!
- Use variations of a person’s name. Searching for information on the founder of Free Will Baptists in Texas, I searched for “A. M. Stewart,” “Angus M. Stewart,” “Angus McAllister Stewart,” and “Rev. A. M. Stewart.” Even variant spellings or misspellings – such as McAlister or Stuart – should be considered. Older preachers often went by their initials rather than their names, so this should generally be the most common method of searching. But just because we know “J. R. Graves” doesn’t mean he won’t show up in a newspaper as “Jas. R. Graves.” Start simply. Search for a name, then narrow by time or place from the results page.
- Search for the common first, and then the uncommon to narrow results (as a general rule). When researching people, search for uncommon names over common names when it is possible that either one might yield the relevant information. If you are researching a Baptist association of which John Smith was the moderator and Mordecai Fowler Ham was the clerk, try searching for Mordecai Ham first!
- Remember that many search results are based on OCR text. In material where the image is not clear, OCR processing might read words incorrectly or miss them altogether. Finding nothing doesn’t mean there is nothing. Revert to old fashioned search methods when you believe you should have found something.
- Understand that some sites are more user friendly than others, and develop different techniques for different sites as you realize what works best in each place.
- Even misinformation can help. A genealogist might not get some detail right, but get it close enough for you to sense that you are on the right track or have found the right person.
- Record what you’ve searched, when, where and how—so you don’t duplicate your efforts by searching for the same terms over and over in the same context. (But do go back and search later; material is always being added to the web and newspaper archives; just because you don’t find something today does not mean you won’t find it next month or next year.) Save your results. Some sites go down, never to return to the World Wide Web.
- Create a good filing system. I’ve learned this the hard way. I’m always looking for something that I filed away who knows where! Keep insignificant bits of information. They might initially seem worthless now, but may help create an “aha” moment when you find another piece that fits this piece of the puzzle.
- Be sensible. Don’t let your preferences and prejudices trip you up. We don’t use the title “Reverend” in our church – but you can expect journalists did in their writing! Adding “Rev.” before the name of a preacher both narrows your search and enhances your finds. Also don’t forget the titles Elder/Eld., Dr. and maybe even Bishop.
- Realize that just because something is printed in a newspaper doesn’t mean it is correct. Learn to discern what can be relied on and what cannot. For example, if you find someone’s obituary in a paper it is most likely that they really died, but the obit may get other facts wrong—the day of death, when and where they were born, etc. Materials submitted by an organization (such as minutes supplied by an association clerk) are generally more reliable than those traced to a newspaper reporter; a journalist’s opinions and observations are just that. Verify from other sources if possible.
- Search, search, search. Persistence can be the mother of discovery. “If at first you don’t succeed: try, try, try again.”
I made a recent significant newspaper discovery while researching the history of Free Will Baptists in Texas. The traditional view is that Free Will Baptists in Texas were a product of the Northern branch of Freewill Baptists. Founder A. M. Stewart’s newspaper obituary clearly points to his roots in the Free Will Baptists in Georgia. Armed with this information, I found other sources (censuses, association minutes) that enhanced and supported it.
Leaving Traces – the Goal of Recovery
Discovering, recovering and recording facts can help us learn things we did not know and better understand things we already knew. Finding previously unsearched and unknown Baptist history brings new data to the Baptist field of study. New facts can be considered in the framework of present working knowledge, and pooling this data can help grow the reservoir of easily accessible information on Baptist history from which future writers and researchers can draw. Understanding who we are as Baptists is one of the higher goals of recovering our history. Knowing our past gives us a sense of our present and a guide for our future.[v]
If you have filled in some empty spaces in Baptist history with information found in surprising places, you must leave traces of what you have found for those who follow. Contributing to this communal project means sharing the results of your research! Posting information to a Baptist listserv or discussion group are ways to dispense information. It gets the attention of the wider community, where others may offer information, insight, and interpretations. An individual can start a Baptist-history related website or offer the information to existing sites of Baptist historical societies or a site like Jim Duvall’s “Baptist History Homepage.”[vi] Writing is another way to preserve some of our history. You could write an article for a Baptist periodical, historical journal, or genealogical newsletter. They are usually looking for good material.
What about the long term? Keep discoveries and documents as long as you need them for your continuing research. For all items, plan ahead. You may want to pass down sentimental-value materials through your family.[vii] For everything else, look into options for a permanent repository. Placing Baptist materials and research with such an institution will typically grant broader access to the items and ensure their preservation using proven techniques. Consider these possibilities:
- An organization operated by Baptists, like the Free Will Baptist Historical Commission, Primitive Baptist Library, and Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives [viii]
- A university library, archives, or special collections department
- Your state archives
- Your local library or church library
Many of the online materials we find will lack appeal for archives and museums, but they might find a nice home in the vertical files of your local library’s genealogical or historical department.
However you decide to go about it, let’s start discovering and recovering the missing pieces of our Baptist history. By combining our efforts, we can make a valuable contribution to this important effort.[ix]
[i] I use “denominations” in this piece to refer to sub-groups or sub-denominations of Baptists – such as ABCUSA, Bible Baptist, Free Will, Missionary, Old Regular, Primitive, Seventh-Day, and Southern.
[ii] Often offering biographical information on Baptist preachers, deacons, and laypersons, and sometimes pointing to sources of such information.
[iii] Optical Character Recognition, or OCR, is a technology in which computers attempt to automatically recognize text and reproduce it.
[iv] If you have access to an academic library, Baptist Museum conservator and historical consultant Christopher Sawula recommends the following databases, which include a number of local and regional papers: 19th Century U.S. Newspapers, America’s Historical Newspapers, African American Newspapers, 1827–1998, African American Newspapers: The 19th Century, America’s Historical Imprints, American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals, American Broadsides and Ephemera, Accessible Archives, and ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
[v] I mean this in terms of historical considerations. The Bible is the final and authoritative source for our faith and practice.
[vii] For example, an association minute book containing an obituary of an ancestor or relative might be of great interest for family members to preserve.
[ix] Research efforts ought to reach across Baptist denominational aisles. The history of Baptists intersects and intertwines in various dissenting and divided groups. We should not reject sincere offers of historical help and insight from others with whom we differ theologically. We will learn together (and better) by observing this suggestion.