Doing Oral History

By Melody Maxwell

What were the stories of the first women ordained to ministry by Atlantic Baptists?

This question led me to embark on my first oral history project. Research assistant Samantha Diotte and I attempted to contact the first women ordained by churches in what was known as the United Baptist Convention of the Maritime Provinces, then the United Baptist Convention of the Atlantic Provinces (and is today called Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada).

Rev. Miriam Uhrstrom, who ministered in several churches in Atlantic Canada, participated in the oral history project

The first woman to receive that honour, Josephine Kinley Moore, was ordained in 1954 and has since passed away. Two other women were also deceased, and one woman’s health did not permit an interview. This reinforced for me the urgency of conducting this project at this time, while we were still able to capture the women’s stories.

We contacted and interviewed eight women who were ordained between 1976 and 1987, when the convention voted to affirm churches’ right to put forward female candidates for the denomination’s examining council. These women were pioneers in ministry, and their stories demonstrated a commitment to follow their callings no matter the circumstances. You can read more about our interviews with them in this blog post or this article.

As I work on expanding my research to women ordained after 1987, I have been reflecting on the importance of oral history for Baptist studies. Below are a few advantages of doing oral history.

  • Oral history provides many fascinating stories we would otherwise lose. Most of these have not been written down anywhere and have not been widely shared.
  • Oral history supplies a firsthand perspective that is missing from official sources. Oral history doesn’t just tell us what happened; it often tells us how people felt about and reacted to what happened.
  • Oral history can provide us with historical perspective on women and other understudied groups. While members of these groups might not have written formal historical accounts, they are generally willing to share their own experiences with interviewers.
  • Oral history can provide social history as opposed to—or in addition to—institutional history. Interviews can extend beyond famous figures to everyday laypeople, yielding broader insights into the historical narrative.
  • Oral history provides information about more recent history, which has usually been less well studied than the history of previous periods. Much has happened among Baptists since the mid-twentieth century; oral history helps capture some of these stories.

Those seeking to conduct oral history projects should also keep a few cautions in mind.

  • Interviewees’ memories can be faulty. Over time, stories can become distorted or embellished.
  • An oral history represents one person’s perspective. Others who participated in the historical event might have quite different perspectives.
  • For accurate information about specific groups in history, whether it be Baptist women, or Atlantic Baptists, or any other group, researchers should compile and compare multiple oral histories rather than just one or two.
  • Oral histories should be used to supplement institutional histories, and vice versa. The two complement each other and should be compared to produce the most accurate historical narrative.

When done well, oral history can be a useful historical method that yields rich insights into the past, as I have learned from interviewing pioneering ordained women. I hope that more Baptist historians will use this technique to help us better understand our recent history.

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Melody Maxwell, PhD, is Associate Professor of Christian History at Acadia Divinity College and Director of the Acadia Centre for Baptist and Anabaptist Studies. She is Member at Large with the Canadian Baptist Historical Society.

**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**

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