“Make sure you tell your children”: Preserving Australian Pentecostal Oral History

Oral history is the systematic collection of living peoples’ experiences and contributions in order to preserve history for generations to come. Joel 1:3 states: “Make sure you tell your children, and your children tell their children, and their children their children. Don’t let this message die out”. This is what oral history is all about! The Australasian Pentecostal Studies Centre (APSC), based at AC Central in Parramatta, is the largest collection of Pentecostal archives in Australia, including an extensive living repository of oral sources and collections of early literary materials. As such, the APSC collection is the only one of its kind in the world and is a vital component of preserving Australia’s spiritual heritage. There is an old saying that each time a person dies, a whole library burns to the ground. There is an urgent need to collect the oral histories of our Australian Pentecostal pioneers before these stories are lost forever. As an historian, in this article I have outlined the need for preserving our oral history and ways in which all of us can be participants in this important process.

Why?

Sociologist Peter Berger, argues that Pentecostalism is the most important popular movement serving as a vehicle of cultural globalisation (Many globalizations. Oxford University Press, 2002, 8). Further, theologian Wolfgang Vondey, believes Pentecostalism is in a “process” of going beyond its cultural heritage and morphing into a new global culture (Beyond Pentecostalism. William B. Eerdmans, 2010, 7). Pentecostalism is an oral culture and, owing to the nature of its ecclesiological tendencies, there are few requirements regarding preserving local church historical records. Therefore, many original documents have been misplaced or thrown away. This makes it even more vital that we preserve the memories of those who have made important contributions to the origins, development and growth of this movement. The APSC oral history collection has been built up by researchers over the past 20 years and continues to grow. Many of the original pioneers of what is now the second largest practicing religious constituency in Australia have now passed on, leaving this as the most significant collection of remaining materials from which to tell their stories.

How?

There are many ways and reasons to collect oral history. Through trial and error, I have settled on a methodology which I find to be helpful. Using the snowball technique to choose interviewees, I usually focus on four major areas: (1) conversion as the most transformational experience in a person’s life (2) baptism in the Holy Spirit which shapes Pentecostal identity (3) vocational calling which Max Weber says brings organisation to the believer’s private and public life and (4) contributions that the person as made over their life time. The questioning format is unstructured and open-ended to allow opportunities for interviewees to volunteer novel materials not anticipated in the interview protocols. If the research goals are more specifically defined, then a more structured and systematic approach may be used.

Challenges

Humility is a wonderful virtue in the Christian life, although it does make gathering data a challenge at times. People often think they have nothing worth sharing and it is only when you ease them into conversation that you find a gold mine of information. I recall one beautiful Australian Indigenous woman told me at first: “Oh, I don’t know why you want to interview me. I haven’t done anything.” It was only after chatting with her for an hour that I discovered that she was integral in pioneering Pentecostal assemblies all over Queensland, including in rural Australian Indigenous communities.

The reliability of memory can also be questioned. One man I interviewed quipped: “You do realise you’re asking me about things that happened 76 years ago?” Although, I can assure you, his memory was as sharp as a tack! Nevertheless, many academic historians have looked down on oral history because the accuracy of memories and sense of what is important is not always dependable. Information is coloured by perceptions, choice of questions, time limits, and people available. However, most of these problems are also found in printed archives and written source material. Where possible, limitations are overcome by cross-referencing, triangulation and researcher judgement. Therefore, oral history is starting to be acknowledged as one of the most important ways history can be preserved.

Protocols

It is extremely important to recognise that interviewees’ own the copyright to the interview, unless otherwise stated. Therefore, recorded or transcribed interviews should not be distributed either privately or publicly, unless signed consent forms are obtained. In order to publish oral history research, it may be necessary to obtain official ethical clearance from a research or educational institution, particularly if interviewing minority groups or children. If possible, it is preferable to video record the interview but only if the interviewee gives written permission.

Ensure that the environment is quiet and comfortable which helps the person relax. However, sometimes this is not possible and I have successfully interviewed key people in a wide variety of places, including in cars, hotel foyers and airports. The volume of oral history also varies. As a general rule, interviews go for no more than two hours at a time, as they can be quite demanding and often emotional. In some cases, when writing a biography, I have collected over 30 hours of oral history from one person. At other times, just a ten minute interview with a key leader can be useful.

Next Steps

With increasing reliance on digital communication and a reduced emphasis on written correspondence, oral history is going to continue to increase in importance. It is a unique way to capture the vibrant witness of Australian Pentecostalism and is a vital source of non-renewable historical knowledge. I encourage you to consider collecting recorded oral history, with signed consent forms, and contribute toward building up the APSC collection. With careful preservation of our past, this great cloud of witnesses will continue to speak to us through stories previously untold or forgotten.

About the Author:  Denise A. Austin is the Director of the Australasian Pentecostal Studies Centre and an Associate Professor of History at Alphacrucis College.