A History of General Assembly Record Keeping

Is the Preservation - and lack of - Church Records anything new ? Well, apparently not !

The first actual recorded major "loss" of church records we can find occurred at the beginning of the 4th century A.D. - over 2,000 years ago!

"The same supremacy which 'claimed' the right of tolerating Christianity, then 'assumed' the power of witholding it. [The Roman Emperor] Diocletian, yielding to his son's superstitious fears, and the persuasions of others, ordered the magnificent church of Nicodemia to be destroyed, and then issued three successive edicts against the Christians. These were finally followed by a fourth, in the year 304 A.D., by which all Christians, without exception, were forced to worship the images of the Roman gods. The churches in general were ordered to be demolished, the assemblies for religious worship were prohibited upon pain of death, and church property confiscated. Christians were commanded, under severe penalties, to deliver up their books and sacred writings to the magistrates to be burnt.... Persecution reigned, and continued more of less till [The Roman Emperor] Constantine's influence preponderated in the empire." (source : "The Scottish Presbyterian" Sept 1848)

As early as 1616 (almost 400 years ago), the General Assembly of The Church of Scotland became concerned at the lack of proper record-keeping within Parishes of Baptismal Registers, and made the following rather threatening pronouncement :

"Every minister have ane perfect and formall register, quherein he sall have registrat the particular of every baptisme of every infant within his paroche, and quha wer witness thereto,.... and that they have the same to be in readiness to be presentit be every ane at their next Synod Assemblie, under the paine of suspension of the minister, not fulfilling the same, from his ministry." (1616)

In 1703, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed the following Act relating to the preservation of their records :

"Eadem Sessione - Act for supplying and preserving the Registers and Papers belonging to the General Assemblies, Committees, and Commissions thereof :
The General Assembly, taking into consideration the great loss the Church has sustained by the burning of several of their registers and some papers, in that dreadful fire which happened in the Lawnmarket of Edinburgh, upon the 28th day of October 1701, do, for the making up of that loss, as far as may be, and for the better preservation of their registers in time coming, enact and appoint that there be two authenticated copies thereof, both subscribed by the Moderator and Clerk, one copy whereof to lie in the Clerk's custody, and the other copy to be sealed, and laid in some secure place in the New Church of Edinburgh, or where the General Assembly or Commission shall appoint.... And recommends to such persons as have any of the old registers or papers belonging to the General Assembly, Commissions or Committees therof, in their custody, to deliver up the same to the Clerk of the Assembly, to be by him kept for the public use of the Church; and that Ministers and Presbyteries be at pains in dealing with persons to that effect; and it is recommended to the Commission to gratify those who shall bring in to their Clerk any of the papers or registers foresaid, as they shall find such persons deserve." (1703)

The Loss of the Great Booke of the Universall Kirk :

Later, in 1733, the Church of Scotland commenced negotiations to reclaim that most important record of its history and inception from the time of John Knox, being the "Booke of the Universall Kirk" which contained the written minutes of the first General Assembly meetings from 1560 to 1616. Through a variety of unfortunate circumstances, including religious and political turmoil, this record had been "surreptitiously purloined" by persons who had no right to its ownership. In about 1733, the then current 'holder', failing in a bid to extract a large sum of money from the Church of Scotland together with humiliating conditions for its return, entered into a Deed of Trust agreement with Sion College in London to hand over the record to them upon strict conditions of future usage and access. That he was not the rightful owner of this record appears not to have been seriously considered. This had the effect of detaining these records from their rightful owners for nearly a century.

In 1822, the Church of Scotland "Committee upon the Manuscripts belonging to the Church", being convened as early as 1820 to gather together historic and valuable Church documents, was charged with the responsibility of endeavouring to obtain the restitution of the "Booke of the Universalle Kirk" to its rightful owner.

"The hardship is deeply felt by all members of the Church of Scotland, who are aware of the importance of these books, not merely as the only sure and satisfactory memorials of the course of Ecclesiastical affairs in the times succeeding the Reformation, but also because they are capable of shedding additional light on a most interesting and instructive period of our Civil history" (1828)

Negotiations with Sion College continued until 1834 by which time a petition had been delivered to Parliament and the assistance of the Lord Bishop of London had been requested.  The trustees of Sion College were in fact constrained by the terms of the original deed of trust document to which they were legally bound to uphold. By 1834, when the near prospect of reclaiming these records appeared imminent, they were ordered to be produced by a Committee of the House of Commons in connection with an investigation into Church Patronage. Whilst in the care of the Clerks of the Committee, they perished in that great conflagration which consumed the Houses of Parliament by fire on the 16th October 1834.
With at least a small measure of luck, a transcript had been made in 1839 of the content of the books from 1560 to 1602, while some excerpts survive for the later period to 1616.

Elements of these interesting but also very poignant stories have been repeated with countless NZ Church Committee and Parish records which have also been "surreptitiously purloined" into private hands, never recorded in the first place, disposed of as 'worthless' old records or sold by private individuals as 'valuable' old records, destroyed by fire or the ravages of time, and damaged by inappropriate handling and inadequate storage.

Is this the heritage you wish to leave for future generations ?

The History of General Assembly Record Keeping in New Zealand :

Communications Department -

  • During an audit of the Department's reel to reel sound tape collection in 1982, many less well used tapes were removed from the lending catalogue and library. Only about a third of the tapes removed have found their way into the Archives collection. Many of the missing tapes included talks given by Missionaries. 

Foreign Missions Committee -

  • In late 1906, a depot in Dunedin used for the storage of Mission booklets was detroyed by fire. The Committee resolved "that 2000 Indian copies of the Indian booklet be reprinted at a cost of £18:10/- The Chinese and New Hebrides booklets also the Cycle of Prayer not to be reprinted in the meantime."
  • Inthe early 1920's the Committee apparently approved the destruction of a large number of "outdated" photographs relating to overseas Missions and of Missionaries with some relief being expressed as to the clearance. 
Life & Work Committee

Manawatu Maori Mission -

  • The Rev James Duncan worked among the Maori in the Manawatu region from 1844 to 1871. He requested his daughter to destroy all of his papers after his death in 1908, therefore information on his activities among the Maori are very limited.

Maori & Home Mission Committees -

  • A large amount of correspondence and associated material was destroyed, particularly dating from the 1920's and 1930's. It was the belief of the Superintendent of the Missions Committee (Rev G. Budd) that retaining Minute Books was quite sufficient.

Maori Synod -

  • The Maori Missions office in Whakatane suffered a fire in the 1930's which resulted in the loss of most records from 1918 onwards.

Missions Committee -

  • General correspondence and financial records for the period 1935 to 1948 have been "thinned out" in a rather haphazard manner.

New Life Committee -

  • The majority of these papers are missing.

Publicity Committee -

  • A large amount of old cine film taken of our Mission in South China and in India during the 1930's appears to have been lost. We are still trying to ascertain it's fate. Some old film is held with our collection in the NZ Film Archive and has yet to be properly identified however the amount held still leaves a considerable amount of  film unaccounted for. 
  • Photographic negatives held by this Committee for the period c.1948 to about 1958 are missing. These included many publicity related images and images taken in South China, India and the New Hebrides. While many photographic prints of these images survive, the loss of the negatives is unfortunate. We believe that some of the earlier negatives (a few have been found) were on Nitrate filmstock which may account for their disposal on safety grounds. 
Miscellaneous Items -

Despite being set aside for preservation in 1956 by the Director of Broadcasting at their archives in Timaru, and after an exhaustive search (in Nov 2006), the following sound recordings can no longer be found:

  1. A service at St David's Auckland led by the Rev W Bower Black.
  2. 'Extracts' of a service in St John's Presbyterian Church Rotorua attended by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, Jan 1954.
  3. Synod of Otago and Southland Centennial service, March 1948 (assumed to be the service in First Church Dunedin attended by the Governor-General and the Prime Minister).

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