Thursday, November 9, 2006
“The bearer is commended to a congregation”
Last Sunday we received a new member at our church. She is Therese Apel, of Holly Springs, who works for The Southern Sentinel in Ripley. Therese was received into our congregation by transfer of her church letter from the Presbyterian Church in Hazlehurst.
This is a common way of receiving and dismissing members among congregations of the same denomination, and in some cases between congregations of different denominations. But I find that many people wonder about “church letters” and how they work. Today, I’ll try to explain.
Every religious community has its own rules and procedures, but I would imagine that most churches work with a system something like the one I am about to describe.
Many people seem to think that in some dark corner of their home church, there is a filing cabinet containing a “church letter” for them — sort of like the permanent record that your high school keeps on every student. This is not the case.
Church letters or “certificates of membership transfer” are issued upon application of your new church to your old church, once you have moved and decided where you want to worship.
Nowadays, the certificates are issued using a standard form printed by the denominational publishing house.
In olden days actual letters were written by the pastor or church clerk. I like the old custom and usually compose a letter, stating some of the admirable qualities of the person we are commending to a new church home, or mentioning people our church knows in the other congregation.
Letters of transfer are issued from one church to another specific church. In most cases, they are not issued blank, so that a person can present them to any church that happens to catch their fancy. (Ecclesiastical statisticians do not like “loose members” floating about “out there,” unaccounted for and with no one in particular responsible for their pastoral care and spiritual well-being.) But in pioneer days when postage was expensive and mail delivery uncertain, people were often given letters by their home church before they set out for the frontier. These would say something like, “The bearer of these greetings is a member in good standing of such-and-such church, and is commended to a congregation of believers in the place wherein God’s providence they are moved to cast their lot.”
We have many examples of such letters among the old records of our church.
Often people do not bother to move their letters. They just “start over” in their new community. This is one reason that church rolls become inflated over the years. Many people are counted as members of several congregations. And in truth this does not matter except to preachers who like to brag about how big their churches are, or to genealogists and historians who are trying to trace out the stories of people they are trying to research.
So do church letters really matter? Apart from our fervent hope that the names recorded in our earthly church books correspond in some degree to “the Lamb’s book of life” where the Book of Revelation says our Lord records our call to be with Him for all eternity, church letters are really a curiosity from another time. Soon it will all be handled by computer (excepting the heavenly part, of course).
But it can matter, and I will tell you a story about a time that it did. When my mother’s family moved to the Mississippi Delta in 1926, Mama was a teenager, and had exactly the same Christian name as her mother. They all joined the church the first Sunday they were in Cleveland, and the church clerk, meeting a new family of five with unfamiliar names, accidentally recorded only one “Elizabeth Zeigel” on the membership roll. So for many years, Mama was not officially counted as a member of her church. But who besides people like me reads church register books?
The day came about 1980 when that congregation went through a terrible split. It was a division “right down the middle.” A ballot was taken for which group would get the church property. (I was off in seminary, but heard all about it.) People voted just like a regular election, with printed ballots, and their names solemnly checked off in the official church roll book.
But when they came to Mama’s name, it was not there! By this time she had been a member longer than just about anyone else, and fortunately the tellers knew she certainly was a member and she was allowed to place her vote in the ballot box without objection from any quarter.
Years later, I found among the papers of our old pastor (who had died long before the incident described above), the church letter dismissing my mother and her family from their church in Missouri, and commending them to the church in Cleveland.
All the names were properly listed on the document. The Cleveland church clerk had simply failed to record one of the “Elizabeths” in his roll book!
Now that balloting was decided by just a few votes. So could a church letter have made a difference? In that case it certainly could have.
In our church, presentation of a church letter does not assure you of the keys to heaven. But we do give all our members a key to the church building. So in Holly Springs, a church letter still opens a few doors.
(662) 252-4261 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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