In a little book entitled The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life, William Martin writes that there is no need to cling to the things than no longer identify you. “The closets of your mind can be cleaned of ideas no longer needed” (p. 62). For a retired church historian like me, the mental closets of ideas usually are accompanied with old paper files of research notes and partially written drafts of essays
Today, while purging obsolete tax papers, I stumbled across a folder three inches thick entitled “Notes on 19th Century Revivals.” Most of the material consists of photocopied chapters from books such as And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain Folk Camp Meeting Religion, 1800-1845, by Dickson D. Bruce, Jr (1974), and The Posthumous Work of the Reverend and Pious James McGrady Late Minister of the Gospel in Henderson, Kentucky, Ed. James Smith (1837). A small portion consists of hand-written reading notes taken from similar essays and books.
I was doing this research during the late 1980s and drew upon it for a paper that I presented to a section of the North American Academy of Liturgy. Almost simultaneously, the definitive work on this subject was published, Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period (1989). My paper was later published in Discipliana, the journal of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society (Spring 1994, pp. 2-19) with the title “The Sacramental Character of the Camp Meeting.”
What should be done with files like these? The easiest course of action, and on the gray, rainy day when I am writing this note the one that could easily be accomplished, is to dump them into a box of old papers to be recycled. Another possibility is to arrange them more carefully and include them in papers I hope will be kept permanently in my archives somewhere. From my own experience working with the archival papers of others, however, I cannot imagine that researchers in years to come would ever take the time to use these papers for their own research.
Maybe another idea concerning proper disposal will come to mind before I empty this thick file into a box already close to being full. In any case, the topic, 19th century revivals, already has been cleaned out of the closet of my mind. All that remains is to get rid of the paper trail.