Church letters are something we don’t hear much about these days. The first mention of church letters—a “to whom it may concern” letter of introduction on behalf of an individual written from Church A to Church B—appeared in Christian Standard in 1869.
By the way, you’ll notice definite repetition in the headlines of these articles, which span 25 years. You will also notice there was consistent dissatisfaction with methods related to church letters, as evidenced by the first sentence of article 1.
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Oct. 23, 1869; p. 1
Our Church Letters are certainly defective. . . .
The common method of dismissing members who are moving to other parts, is to give them a letter of general commendation, except when they have designated the place of their future residence. The deacon’s clerk is authorized to give a letter, and, according to the usual form, he writes: “To all the saints in Christ, greeting, whomsoever it may concern. This is to certify,” &c. Letters of this kind are laid away in drawers and trunks, and are left there, very often, for years, without seeing the light, sometimes, it is true, for want of an opportunity to use them as was intended, and sometimes for a want of the disposition to do so. . . .
It is a very great disadvantage to our Churches to give letters in this general way; they ought to retain their membership in the Church where they belong till they find another, and then let the transfer be direct. . . .
This letter is to suggest our Church letter-system be radically changed; that we do not grant letters to the members of our Churches at all, except to traveling brethren, such as agents, evangelists, and persons doing any kind of business among the Churches.
When a brother leaves, to become a resident in some other place, let the Church withhold his letter till he shall designate the place of his residence. If there is no church in his neighborhood or town, he needs no letter; but if there is, let an “epistle of commendation” be written and sent—not to the brother himself, but to the elders of the Church through the post-office. Let the elders know where he may be found, committing him wholly to their care. In this way a brother or sister will not remain a stranger a year or two, as is generally the case. But it now becomes a duty of the elders to take account of this disciple. How many thousands, of both old and young, have gone down to ruin for the want of this Shepherd–care. Would it not be far better always to make the transfer of membership direct from shepherd to shepherd, and not give our members these roving letters, to be carried about in pockets.
These letters are generally but empty formulas at best. Our letters ought to describe character and standing. All delicacy upon this point is removed when we adopt the plan of writing letters to the elders directly. Can there be a good objection to this method?
—J. S. H.
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By R. Moffett
Jan. 9, 1875; p. 1
We find all over the country brethren who carry their church letters in their pockets. They are not amenable to any local church. True, there is a provision in some letters which does not release them from the church granting the letters until notice is received that it has been handed to some other organization. But this is only nominal. A man who goes fifty miles away from his congregation can not be made amenable to it practically. Clerks always take such names off their books. Allow me to suggest a remedy, vis: Let the transfer of name from one church to another be done by the officers of the two churches. The clerk of the church at A. writes to the clerk of the church at B. that C. is a member of the church in good standing (or poor standing, if need be) and that he has moved within the jurisdiction of the church at B. Let the clerk at B. then record his name, and let the pastor or pastors look after him. It might be well to give C. a letter of introduction to Bro. Pastor; but let the transfer of name be made by the officers of the two churches. This will make it impossible for brethren to stay out of the vineyard. They will have a membership name in the nearest congregation, and faithful pastors will see that they are kept alive. Besides, the pastors of one church can let the pastor of the church to which the member is moving know his exact standing, and give the knowledge they need in order to deal properly with him.
The chief difficulty would be with reference to moving into regions where there are no churches. In this case a letter of introduction to any congregation would be given, and as soon as the name of the congregation nearest to the home of the member is known, let the transfer be made in the regular form. What do our wise men think of this “innovation”?
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A Church Letter
March 31, 1894, p. 12 (editorial)
It is a question whether any thoughtful person among us is altogether satisfied with the methods in vogue among our churches in granting church letters.
. . . The practice of using printed forms, which give a stereotyped character to all to whom they are granted, are unsatisfactory to the church granting them, to the church receiving them, and often to the person recommended.
We suggested in these columns some years ago, that the transfer should be from church to church; that the member is not entitled to a letter which he can carry around in his pocket, but that when he has selected a church home, a certificate of his standing is due to the church with which he proposes to unite, and should be forwarded direct. To that basis we believe, we shall come finally. But at present we are dealing with the nature of the letter.
The best of the kind we have seen is the form in use by the church at Columbus, Ind., which is the result of long experience and careful thought. It is as follows:
It will be seen that this letter, if faithfully made out, is based on record and not on sentiment. It enables a church to bear witness to the faithfulness of the person bearing the certificate, by checking the appropriate grade in each column. When it falls below the lowest grade indicated, a specially drawn letter is, of course, in order.
We submit it for the consideration of many, who see the evil effects of the system generally in vogue, and who will welcome every improvement.
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[Under the heading “Correspondence”—a response to the above editorial]
May 5, 1894; p. 14
The form of church letter used by the congregation at Columbus, Ind., . . . is, in my judgment, very objectionable, and would do more harm than good if brought into general use. Certainly no one with sensitive feelings would want to present a letter of the third or fourth grade. It would be going to a new place under a cloud. Would it not have the effect to deter many from ever presenting their letter anywhere, and cause them to remain out entirely?
In the last twenty-five years I know from experience that church letters have caused a great deal of trouble and ill-feeling among members in the same congregation, and I believe it is a matter that ought to be disposed of in the spirit of the Master for the benefit of all.
In the giving of letters, as in everything else in the church, it should be done with the view of encouraging and helping one along in the Christian life, and not do something that will dishearten. You can not legislate nor drive people to heaven, and everything in church work that has the crack of the slave-driver’s whip should be eradicated.
Letters should be asked for in public congregation or church meeting, and should be given at once, without delay, if the person’s name is properly upon the church roll, and no charge is brought against him at the time the letter is called for.
As to form, I think the following would be sufficient in any and every case:
No grading, only the fact of membership.
O. F. Lyon.
Lone Pine, Pa.
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As with many matters of opinion in the church, there was, it seems, a lack of consensus.
—Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard