ATHENS, Tenn. -- When Daniel Ferkin walked in to his first day on the job as Holston Conference archivist, he encountered a jumbled room full of piled-up boxes.
It looked more like a college student’s move-in day than a venerable collection of Methodist books and artifacts from as far back as the 1700s.
“It was chaos,” recalls the Rev. Brad Scott, then president of the Holston Conference Historical Society.
Instead of turning away, Ferkin says he had a sense of, “I can do this.” Fresh out of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with a master’s degree in library and information science, Ferkin had been warned about the archives’ unorganized state by the search team that hired him.
“My first reaction was like, ‘Oh, wow,’” Ferkin remembers. “It was overwhelming to be asked to do this but I also thought, ‘Hey, they actually trust me to do this.’”
Since then, the archivist has worked diligently for three years in a basement at Tennessee Wesleyan University. Even through the challenges of a pandemic, he chipped away at organizing and shelving 480 cubic feet of records that not only include books and church histories, but also a circuit rider’s saddle and hewn logs from a house where Francis Asbury preached.
Along the way, the Memphis native who was raised in the Reform Judaism faith has looked through many windows into the United Methodist history of Holston Conference.
“Going through the collection, I have seen quite the diversity of thought and perspectives from Methodists going back to the late 1700s to the present,” he says. “I am especially impressed by their dedication to education and literacy at a time long before public education was the norm.”
Formally established in the 1940s, Holston Conference's archive collection was housed for decades at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia. The archives were relocated in 2016 when the college experienced budget cuts and needed the space, according to the Rev. Charles Maynard, a Holston historian.
The collection was moved to Sevierville, Tennessee -- to a large church building then known as the “Connexion” -- leased by Holston’s congregational development office. When the lease was up in 2018, Holston staff moved the archives again to rented storage in Knoxville, Tennessee, until a partnership and space could be arranged with Tennessee Wesleyan University.
“I give thanks to God for the good stewardship of President [Harley] Knowles and the administration and trustees of Tennessee Wesleyan for giving us a home,” the Rev. David St. Clair said in July 2018. “I think Tennessee Wesleyan and Athens are a very fitting location for these vital assets.” St. Clair was then chair of the Holston Commission on Archives and History.
The relocations destroyed most of the cataloging, which is where Ferkin comes in, Scott said. “I saw the archives after he started working on them. He had to reinvent all that.”
Ferkin’s first day was June 10, 2019. While the Holston Annual Conference was in session in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, Ferkin began unpacking the boxes 150 miles away in Tennessee Wesleyan’s Sherman Hall.
A month later, he took his first “reference request,” an inquiry from someone looking for assistance with a research question. By October 2019, all the books were unpacked and placed on shelves. By July 2020, all the boxes were organized, placed on shelves, and initial processing was completed.
To date, Ferkin has answered 169 reference requests. He has taught classes, worked with interns and hosted visitors, including a group of Baptist preachers who wanted to see the Bible that belonged to 19th century evangelist and circuit rider Robert Sheffey.
This summer, the entirety of the collection was reprocessed and cataloged.
“The majority of the collection, give or take 70%, is materials from Holston Conference churches, institutions, universities, clergy, and lay people,” Ferkin says.
About 20% is related to the general United Methodist Church institutions, including General Conference minutes, various periodicals, and materials from neighboring districts formerly part of Holston Conference.
“The remaining part of the collection, or about 10%, deals with general historical materials dealing with East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, and a variety of unique documents and artifacts held by Holston clergy but not specifically related to Methodism,” he added.
The collection houses more than 1,100 biographical files on individual Holston ministers and notables, 600 to 700 church histories, over 1,400 books, 82 reels of microfilm, 220 audiocassettes, 50 VHS cassettes and DVDs, 20 framed works of art and nearly two dozen unique historical artifacts.
The archive also includes newspaper editions of “The Call” and its predecessor publications dating back to 1827. (Holston’s official newspaper, “The Call” converted from newsprint to digital in January 2011.)
In addition to Sheffey’s Bible and the saddle belonging to the Rev. Charles Andrew Pangle of Wise, Virginia (a picture shows him saddling up in 1912), the archive includes a 1792 “Book of Discipline.”
A graduate of the University of Memphis with a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology, Ferkin says he’s not only impressed by the early Methodists’ founding of colleges that still exist today, including Tennessee Wesleyan. He’s also impressed that Methodists seemed “ahead of their time” in dedication to social justice.
“Religion as a whole gets labeled with a reactionary connotation, and there were and still are divisive debates within Methodism about the role of the church in social issues,” he said. “But going through different items in the collection has illustrated to me that there were many people in Methodism who saw combating social inequality and injustice as inseparable from their faith.”
Ferkin cited a magazine that shows Methodist college students fighting segregation and racism in the 1940s and 1950s, a time when “most of white America was indifferent to civil rights.” In the 1960s and ‘70s, the same “Motive Magazine” showed Methodists speaking up for the rights of women and the LGBTQ community and against the Vietnam War.
“I want the archive to be a place that celebrates diversity and openness, a place that allows for everyone to be able to utilize in their own way,” Ferkin said. “I want to demonstrate that by showcasing how many Methodists throughout history took stands against injustice and sought to promote a more equitable world for everyone.”
Thirty new collections have been added to the archive since Ferkin started in 2019, and he’s interested in adding more, especially items beyond the 1990s, where the archive seems to “top off.”
An upcoming initiative and challenge, both Ferkin and Scott noted, is accessing the written histories and other artifacts of local churches that disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church. As Holston Conference approaches its 200th anniversary in 2024, historians are discussing ways to commemorate the milestone as well as how to relate with disaffiliated churches -- “because we share a common history,” Scott said.
For Ferkin, the archives’ mission statement provides guidance in how to approach the next era:
The Holston Archive seeks to preserve and provide access to local and regional Methodist history to both assist in maintaining the history and legacy of the United Methodist Church in Holston and to assist in facilitating Holston communities to be able to tell their stories.
“My job is not just to maintain these documents and artifacts, but to allow people to interact with them in a meaningful way,” he said.
The pieces of stories that are now carefully cataloged and cared for on the bottom floor of Sherman Hall are ready and available to shed light on where the Methodists have been and where they’re going.
Sign up for a free weekly email subscription to The Call. Holston Conference includes 842 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia. Holston Conference's main offices are located in Alcoa, Tennessee.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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