New Book Reflects ‘Fascinating Century’ in Church History

Post a Comment » Written on November 3rd, 2008     
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CHICAGO, IL (November 3, 2008) – A new book on the history of North Park Covenant Church provides a case study for how local congregations across the country developed amid the theological and social changes in the 20th century.

Historian Stephen Graham – former dean of faculty and professor at North Park University – wrote Come to the Table to help celebrate the church’s 110th anniversary. The book was introduced Sunday night during a dinner celebrating the church’s milestone.

The book covers the 100 years between the church’s founding in 1898 and 1998. The church life spanned what Graham calls a “fascinating century” in American religious history.

“It was a fascinating century.”

Graham, who also is a member of the congregation, interweaves narratives of how the church handled issues that include the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, immigration and assimilation, the adaptation of the church to a changing neighborhood, and changes in culture.

“It was a fascinating century,” Graham says.

Although the book documents the service of the different pastors and various committees, the book actually is accessible reading for people who have never attended the church, Graham says. Reading how one church responded to the issues of its times can help give guidance to other congregations as they confront issues that still remain or are similar.

“The particular people might not be known to people outside, but they do represent something much larger,” Graham says.

For example, the thought processes and differences of opinion that went into making the transition from the Swedish to English language during worship services still are relevant today, Graham says. “A lot of different ethnic groups struggled with holding on to the good with one’s heritage and yet being able to move into the new day.”

The modernist-fundamentalist debates of the 1920s tore some churches apart. “Within the Swedish-American press, there were some pretty harsh things being said back and forth,” Graham says. “One of the interesting things about this story is you had people on different side of that debate who are working in the same congregation.

“But that’s just the character of the church – it’s a divine and human institution, from the smallest church to the largest denomination.”

That doesn’t mean it was easy, and Graham documents some of the internal struggles related to that as well as others. Graham does not shy away from parts of the church’s history that includes its failings and transgressions. “I did that just because I thought I had to do it to be honest.

“It’s part of the story, and it shaped the character of the place,” Graham adds. “Those opportunities also revealed strengths and qualities that allowed it to endure. But that’s just the character of the church – it’s a divine and human institution, from the smallest church to the largest denomination.”

Graham also details the work of church members in areas of community development and justice. He quotes church minutes when he reports that in September 1960, the diaconate recommended “that the pastors select and contact a negro speaker for Race Relations Sunday, February 12, 1961.”

The book is painstakingly researched. Graham and others immersed themselves in old church records and interviewed many members for the book. Endnotes are located at the end of each chapter.

While Graham was researching the book, he also read the manuscript of a similar history being prepared by his former thesis advisor Martin Marty. “It was stunning to me to see the parallels that were there – the periods of growth and kinds of institutional growth, the building of buildings. Both churches have their share of scandals and hardships.”

The book also recounts discussions of issues that seemed important at the time. While they may seem quaint and even bring a chuckle now, they still play out in different forms today.

Graham writes: “Popular amusements became a topic for conversation and guidance. In March 1949, the Sunday school leadership distributed a list of comic books to the boys and girls. The list categorized comics as ‘highly objectionable, unsuitable, passable’ and ‘O.K.’ No criteria were given for determining where the comics should be listed, but Captain Easy and the Human Torch were listed as highly objectionable, Abbot and Costello was listed as unsuitable, Superman appeared passable, and Roy Rogers and Little Lulu were graded O.K.”

The book, Graham says, confirms that the church is both a human and divine institution.

Click here to order the book online from Covenant Bookstore.

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