The University of Utah Marriott Library has established a Utah History and Religion Archives that will document the state's pluralistic religious and cultural history.
The library has, and continues to gather, a large collection of materials concerning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, explains Dr. Gregory C. Thompson, Marriott's assistant director for special collections.In addition, both the LDS and Catholic churches have their own archives in Salt Lake City.
Now the library is seeking to balance its collection by gathering, preserving and cataloging other denominational records. It will also gather papers of ministers and Utah religious leaders and of out-of-state scholars who have written about the Utah religious scene.
"We hope to become the official or semi-official repository for Utah churches," says Dr. Stan Larson, religion archives specialist and project coordinator.
Other university libraries, notably the University of Michigan, have played a similar role in their states.
Church records typically include minutes of meetings, weekly newsletters, membership lists, financial ledgers, publications, sermons and wedding and funeral records.
Such materials often end up in church basements or perhaps in the home of a volunteer church historian. Smaller churches don't have resources, such as acid-free folders, for records preservation or the expertise to catalog collections, says Larson.
For several years, many Utah churches have turned over their records to Marriott, but until now the library hasn't had funds for librarians to work with the materials.
Recently, the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City sought a grant from the Veatch Program, a national Unitarian foundation, to assist Marriott in preserving its church history.
Ordinarily, the foundation only finances buildings, but decided the Marriott archives were so significant that it made a grant of $17,000. The library then found an anonymous donor, a non-Unitarian, who matched the grant.
Those funds have enabled the library to hire Larson. Over the next five years, he and other Marriott staff members will contact churches around the state, write agreements for records donations, and enter items, including the backlog of earlier donations, into Marriott's manuscripts collection.
The final step will be preparing a register so church members, faculty, students and the public can access the records.
Archives materials could be used for historical, sociological and cultural studies; biographies; background for historical novels; and genealogical research.
"If we don't save records, history is lost," notes Larson. As a case in point, he cites First Trinity Baptist Church of Salt Lake City, which broke off from another Baptist church in the 1920s, flourished, then died in the 1930s.
In the 1940s, the Works Progress Administration produced a two-volume listing of church records in Utah. First Trinity Baptist was mentioned with the notation, "No records found." In fact, the records were in the attic of a church member, Eloise Randall. When she died, a neighbor found them and contacted Marriott.
The materials give a poignant glimpse at how the depression affected smaller organizations in Salt Lake City. "They show the church's finances flourishing for a few years, then going into slow demise until finally there were just a few dollars on the collection plate," says Larson.
The records could be used in a study of how churches respond to financial stress - why some survive and others don't - or even a broader study of the depression in Utah, he says.
The Utah History and Religion Archives is "a good example of a cooperative effort between the library and the community," notes Thompson.
For instance, First Unitarian Church not only secured the initial funding but will also supply volunteers to help process 150 boxes of its records.
In turn, Marriott's cataloging work "will assist the church greatly in writing the centennial history of Unitarianism in Utah, which will occur in 1991," says Lorille Miller, First Unitarian Church historian, a key supporter of the archives.
Another example is First Presbyterian Church of Salt Lake City. It could put its materials in national church archives in Philadelphia, notes Larson, but the materials would be too far away for church members to use them.
Other churches and church organizations that have deposited records include the Greek Orthodox Church, Kol Ami Jewish Congregation, Nichiren Buddhist Church, First Congregational Church and Zion Lutheran Church, all Salt Lake City; Community Congregational Church, Provo; United Church of Christ of Ogden; the Intermountain District of Congregational Churches; and the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.