Presbyterians of the Past

Online Resources, Internet Archive

As resources are added to the Internet daily, more and more publications, manuscripts, judicatory minutes, images, and other materials relevant to Presbyterian and Reformed history and theology are becoming available. Those who are interested in Presbyterians of the past have a considerable amount of material readily accessible via their fingertips dancing across the keys at a number of sites. There is considerable potential for students to compose more interesting and varied class papers for their professors, which may result in their delight in reading something new after several years of reading the same material over and over. However, dissertation and thesis writing is currently inhibited by the limited amount of digitized primary sources such as manuscript diaries and correspondence. The online resource presented in this article is Internet Archive.

Internet Archive ( is a mega online library that was founded in 1996. It is commented on the site’s “About” page that it hopes to become the digital version of the Library of Alexandria, the great ancient archive that was said to contain a copy of every book in the world until it was destroyed by fire. Currently, Internet Archive says that it holds “millions of free books, movies, software, music, and more.” A multitude of church historical and theological publications are held on its site thanks to the digitization of resources from several educational institutions, specialized libraries, and archives. The PDF and other format digital publications are available because they were produced before 1923. For example, a search of Internet Archive using the words in quotes, Presbyterian Church, yielded nearly 10,000 hits for texts along with another 5,000 for other types of media. Searches for other denominational names would likely yield similar results.

PCUSA GA Minutes Title Page, 1884, 5-27-2016Some especially helpful resources in the Internet Archive collection are judicatory minutes—session, presbytery, synod, and general assembly, most of which are available as scanned from their published forms but there are also some hand written minutes that have been provided from micro-form images. For example, the published minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) from its earliest days, through the two sets of minutes required during the Old School-New School division, 1837-1869, and then on through the minutes of the reunited PCUSA through 1922 are almost all available on Internet Archive, in some cases the separate volumes of committee reports for each year are also available. Note that the New School General Assembly met at two or three year intervals in some cases, so its minutes are not available in a continuous year to year run. With the Old School-New School division continuing in the North when the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA) separated from the Old School in 1861, a new series of minutes became necessary for another line of Presbyterianism. Thus, when the war ended, the PCCSA remained a denomination primarily associated with the South but the name was changed to Presbyterian Church in the United Sates (PCUS). The PCUS minutes, inclusive of the Civil War period, are cataloged under the title, Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, which appears to be an error given the change of the name of the denomination to PCUS in 1865, but it may in fact have been a planned error in order to provide easier access to the minutes. If the actual name of the PCUS had been used for cataloging instead of the PCCSA, then if one searched Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, or some selection from those words, one would find included in the list of hits not only the minutes sought but also those of the PCUSA. The use of the title, Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, or simply a string of the three words, Minutes Presbyterian Confederate, for searching provides a filter to eliminate unwanted hits and achieve quicker access to the PCUS minutes. It would have been so helpful if in 1865 the PCUS would have chosen a name more dissimilar to that of the PCUSA.

In some cases there are also lower judicatory minutes and histories on Internet Archive. For example, the minutes of the Synod of South Carolina including those of its predecessor, the Synod of Georgia and South Carolina, are available on Internet Archive thanks mostly to the South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina. Also, the minutes of the Synod of North Carolina are available thanks to the University of North Carolina and other holding entities. Some presbytery minutes are available, but more libraries and archives need to supply lesser judicatory records to make the collection more complete in order to build an accessible and free resource for historians, theologians, and genealogists. A small number of session minutes are available but they are often included in a published history of a particular congregation; they are difficult to locate because they are not usually included in the catalog description of the book.

Cover, History PC, Iowa, 1900, 5-30-2016The biographical resources available on Internet Archive are many. For example, Princeton Theological Seminary published the series, Necrological Reports and Annual Proceedings of the Alumni Association of Princeton Theological Seminary, between 1875 and 1932. This series provides memorials for alumni that died during the previous year. The Necrological Reports vary in quality and information, but if one does not know where to begin they provide a helpful starting point. A quick search of Internet Archive shows that biographical catalogs, institutional histories, and annual catalogs are available not only for Princeton, but also for Auburn, Xenia, Western (Allegheny), Andover/Newton, Union Seminary (both Virginia and New York), Lane, Columbia, and McCormick seminaries among others. Biographical books, histories, and annual catalogs are also available for colleges including Davidson, Washington and Jefferson, and Presbyterian College among many others. Histories of presbyteries, synods, and a denomination within a particular state have been digitized too. In the case of presbyteries, a few available are, Carlisle, Indianapolis, Huntingdon, Erie, Philadelphia, Steuben, Washington, and Hanover. State and Synod histories include but are not limited to Iowa, South Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Hints for Using Internet Archive

(1) Be persistent in your searches. I have often found that the words first selected for search terms did not find the source desired, but then when the source was finally located using other terms the original words searched were included in the item’s title or description. It is as if the search engine could not read the catalog entry. This may be because metadata accessed for search purposes did not accurately reflect the title and content of the item. So, if at first you don’t succeed, try some different words, and remember less is more when searching because each word added to the search terms increases the chance of error and could exclude some hits that might be beneficial. Begin with the least number of words and if the hits are too many, then add a word for the next search, etc.

(2) Presbyterians of the Past primarily tells about Presbyterian and Reformed history from the earliest days of the American colonies into the first quarter of the twentieth century, so it helps to think, as much as one can, like a person who lived during the era being researched. In the past, the church was generally respected, considered news worthy for good reasons, and its ministers were viewed with some level of respect and believed to be important for general history as well as ecclesiastical. In those days the church was as much a part of American history as were industry, government, philosophy, art, education, science, and politics. For example, there is often information regarding churches and ministers in old local and state history books. An example of this would be a few works by William H. Foote. He published two volumes titled Sketches of Virginia, Historical and Biographical, 1850, 1855, and one on North Carolina titled, Sketches of North Carolina, Historical and Biographical Illustrative of the Principles of a Portion of Her Early Settlers, 1846. In the case of the North Carolina book, who were “Her Early Settlers” noted in the title? Many of them were Scots-Irish that had entered the state via the Wagon Road down the Shenandoah Valley from Pennsylvania, or they may have been Scots that entered the state from its eastern ports and settled in the south-eastern half of the state, maybe even in Scotland County. Which church did the Scots and Scots-Irish attend? It was very often the church of John Knox, the Presbyterian Church.

(3) In many cases there is more than just one copy of an item on Internet Archive, sometimes even ten or more, but be careful of different editions. Personally, I appreciate digital copies that look like the original, that is, they look like real pages, tanned, dirty, quality frontispieces, color when appropriate, and if odors could be digitized, they would smell musty through a computer olfactory device. Often, the digital copies have been made from microform so they are instead bland black and white images, or Sgt. Joe Friday “Just the facts, ma’am,” versions. Sometimes, in the case of PDF format publications, Internet Archive has the choice of a black and white version or one in color available for downloading. Thus, if you prefer the more aesthetically pleasing digital copies, right click your mouse and open in new tabs all the duplicate copies that populated your hit list. Then, simply, go through the tabs until you find a pleasing example.

(4) Internet Archive provides the opportunity for a “virtual library card,” which allows users to create a personal digital study carrel. Thus, one signs in and all the materials that have been selected for personal use are readily available on your own virtual shelves. For the full experience all you have to do is imagine yourself seated in the dank and dusty basement of an old university or seminary while clicking your way through your reading list.

(5) On occasion, a search will yield the wrong item. That is, when a hit is clicked in the list created from a search, the item accessed is simply the wrong one because it was not accurately cataloged. It is a good idea to take a few minutes and contact Internet Archive and inform them of the error, be clear and precise as to the nature of the problem. When a digital item is linked to the wrong catalog information, just as it is with a hard-copy book gone astray in a library, the item is lost until accidentally rediscovered and properly re-cataloged.


The photograph of the library in the header was taken by the author. The images of the title page and cover are from Internet Archive. For a brief explanation on Presbyterians of the Past of the terms Old School and New School, click HERE.

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