Fading voices from our past

By Donald Cochrane, Presbyterian Archives

“To arouse and sustain a missionary spirit among the congregations” read the Missions Committee report of 1 announcing the production of gramophone records of missionary addresses. To today hear these fragile but fervent and inspiring voices, recorded 67 years ago, is a spinetingling experience.

The recent chance discovery that a broadcast recording had been made of the 1940 Presbyterian Church Centennial service on the Petone foreshore means we can also re-live this historic occasion and hear those same venerable voices from our past.

These unique recordings appeal to our senses where written words can fail to sufficiently inspire, inform, or more importantly, give that indefinable “sense of occasion” and presence.

Unfortunately much has been lost through disinterest, overzealous clean-outs, and misguided perceptions that such items were of no further use. Many “old worthies” were interviewed in the 1960s about their days in ministry. Only one tape survives, that of 96-year-old the Rev W F Evans. His faith story is full and inspiring but leads one to consider what else might have been lost. Taped interviews with the intrepid Sister Annie James of South China Mission and Second World War fame were later destroyed and even our Church General Secretary mourned this loss. The 1948 Synod of Otago and Southland Centennial service cannot now be located in the radio archives, despite being set aside for preservation in 1956. As late as 1982, a large number of older sound tapes, including missionary addresses, were culled from the Department of Communication tape library and most have disappeared. Such losses must not continue.

But, what had prompted our Church to set up its own audio library and how did they achieve this? In 1955, the Publicity Committee foresaw the evolving need for sound tapes as an additional and effective resource tool for Parish, Christian education and promotional activities. Mr Ernest Adams (of baking fame) generously donated funds to purchase sound recording equipment to facilitate the production of reel-to-reel recordings in our very own sound studio. The Department of Information library catalogue offered audio tapes combined with religious slide sets and filmstrips. Anxious to ensure information was clearly and concisely delivered, the Department’s 1961 annual report emphasised: “we would require the sponsoring committee to have clearly in its mind what it wants to say and to whom it wants to say it to…”

There is now growing interest in recording our personal faith journeys. A significant acquisition has been the APW collection of interviews with those women who have served and made a noteworthy contribution in our Church. Stories collected from parish members should not be overlooked, reminding us of a comment in a 1930s parish history, “much of the most interesting matter gathered into this history has come, not from [written] records and documents but from people.”

General Assemblies have additionally been recorded since 1961; initially just addresses by official personages, but later of all Assembly business. Some parishes also had the foresight to record their jubilee speeches and services.

Evolving technology has taken us from gramophone records, to magnetic tapes, and now to digital compact discs; each format being inherently more unstable than the last. Rapidly changing then obsolete technology, the obvious risk of magnetic recordings on thin delicate tape, and the life expectancy of audio files on a CD being estimated at 10 years (no one really knows), fills one with dread that we are now the custodians of such an inherently unstable and fragile resource. Best advice now indicates that audio files should be stored on an external high capacity computer hard drive and migrated to new similar technology as available. We have no option but to proceed with such an expensive project if we ever hope to save this fragile resource for the future.

But who will use this hitherto overlooked material? Oral history is becoming an increasingly important aspect of academic and religious research as a means of gaining a greater first-hand understanding of events, of people, and of various events in the life of our Church. But what the tapes tell us about our Church, where we have been, how we have evolved in our faith including the issues we have encountered and overcome along the way is the greatest treasure. Have you a dust-laden box of semi-forgotten tapes in that storage cupboard? Hopefully we can yet fill some of the many gaps in our collections before these voices fade forever.

At the 1940 centennial service, the Moderator, the Right Rev J Lawson Robinson, eloquently addressed Presbyterians: “…the truths and principles of the Christian religion had been faithfully proclaimed by the churches of the land. Take away their influence, silence their voice and lower their ideals, and civilisation would soon become a byword and reproach.”

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