By Lauretta Scheller
PEORIA – Conference Historian, the Rev. Richard Chrisman, was honored by the IGRC Historical Society at its annual luncheon for 31 years of service in preserving the stories and history of the people called Methodists in Illinois.
The luncheon featured a This is Your Life presentation on Chrisman, who is stepping down this year. We have become accustomed to our conference historian, Richard Chrisman, presenting us with an historical topic of Illinois Methodism that he has uncovered and found intriguing. We turn the podium around and spotlight our historian and announce that Richard has officially retired as conference historian after 31 years of service. Those of you sitting here may be asking yourself “How does one serve as the conference historian for 31 years?” It’s easy, just indicate your love of research, publish and edit well-written articles for the Historical Messenger, preach the Cartwright or Prentice sermons, be present at other historical functions but most of all, have no competition for your job each quadrennium. Today, Richard, this is your life.
Richard grew up a farmer’s son in both Illinois and Indiana the family finally returning to Illinois to settle on a farm in Danville when he was eleven. He grew up as a United Brethren, attending Farmer’s Chapel in Danville. As a student at Bismarck high school, he worked on the school newspaper and edited the school year book. He participated in the 4-H Club, raising chickens, where he met his future wife, Anna Marie, a fellow 4H-er who raised sheep. Her family attended the Bowman Avenue Methodist Church.
While a junior in high school he felt a calling to the ministry. He received his license to preach from Bowman Avenue in 1950. After high school graduation he began his studies at Danville Junior College and transferred at the end of the first year to Illinois Wesleyan, stepping onto a campus where his great-grandfather Boggess had graduated from during the university’s early years. Richard attributes his religious convictions to Dr. Lowell Hazzard, a Central Illinois Conference elder and professor for 28 years at Wesleyan.
He accepted his first appointment as a student pastor at Ludlow in 1951. Anna Marie agreed to become the spouse of an itinerant minister and the two married three weeks after his arrival at Ludlow, this was the first merger of the United Brethren and the Methodists. He continued with his education at Wesleyan supplementing on-campus classes with correspondence courses. While a senior, Flanagan-Rooks Creek became his next appointment as a student pastor. Following his graduation in 1953 with a Bachelor’s Degree in sociology, he continued his education at Garrett Biblical Institute for his Bachelor’s of Divinity. Attending Garrett required commuting to Evanston for a five day stay on campus, returning home on the weekends to be with Anna Marie, a young family and two churches to serve. Additionally, as a student pastor he was required to be at school one quarter term and off a quarter term to attend to church responsibilities. The bachelor’s degree became a five year odyssey at Garrett. All during this busy time of schooling and pastoral work, Richard and Anna Marie became the parents of four children, Nancy, Paul, Greg and Stephen so there was some recreation time available.
Woe to those pastors suffering reviews from the Pastor-Parish Committee at the quarterly conference. Following a review at Flanagan as “diffident” the conference moved Richard and Anna Marie to DeSelm-Ritchie. He continued his education at Northwestern for his master’s. Richard’s interest in rural churches grew from his beginnings as a farmer’s son and his appointments to rural churches, further encouraged by two professors - Dr. Samuel Ratcliffe at Illinois Wesleyan and Dr. Rockwell “Rocky” Smith at Garrett. With Dr. Smith’s influence Richard was selected to conduct church and community studies in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. His thesis “The Relationship of Farm Tenancy to Participation in the Methodist Churches of Central Illinois” was the culmination of these studies of small rural congregations. At the request of the Board of Missions of the Methodist Church, Richard surveyed the rural churches in the Wisconsin Dells Charge, published later by the Board in 1966. This work brought notice to Richard for a nomination to the Nebraska Council of Churches and the Board of Missions of the Methodist Church. Even though he didn’t secure either position, it was an honor to be nominated.
In 1959 the conference appointed Richard to Ellsworth-Pleasant Grove-Cooksville, an appointment he remembers with fondness. For Ellsworth, Richard was the first ordained minister they’d had in eleven years. He and Anna Marie enjoyed working with the youth of the churches, especially the yearly trips the membership classes traveled together to tour Nashville and Methodist sites. At Ellsworth, he initiated a building program to add a much needed Fellowship Hall addition to the church to house a kitchen, conference room and pastor’s study. He served as chair of the Building Committee and after the end of construction, was treasurer of the building fund. Richard and Anna Marie also became good friends with two couples from Ellsworth, all of whom enjoyed camping together every year.
From Ellsworth they moved on to Woodhull-Clover Chapel-Osco charge where they remained three years.
Continuing to focus on youth within his ministry, at the next appointment at Hanna City and Trivoli, which was an eight-year appointment, Richard and Anna Marie took the youth on field trips, chaperoned lock-ins, and assisted in building floats for the annual town festival.
In October 1974 the conference appointed Richard as directing pastor to Streator Grace, Hope and Manville. He was assisted by Thomas Marean. Manville, however, closed within a few months. At this charge working with the youth was a little easier as he had an excellent volunteer leader. The youth ministry traveled work trips to Wiley College and Kentucky. In Kentucky they aided the Appalachian Service Project with home repairs. At Streator Grace, the historian in Richard was ignited.
A church member Ralph Hoobler and a great-grandson of a United Brethren preacher, John Hoobler, recounted stories of John’s life as an early circuit rider in the Wabash Valley. Intrigued, Richard researched in public libraries, archives and historical societies, corresponding across the country, and in Richard’s words “taking Hoobler vacations in Illinois” he authored his first book, Grace, Grit and Gumption, a biographical account of the preacher John Hobbler in the Wabash Valley. He selected this title from a statement made by another circuit rider who said that the only way to have success as circuit rider in the Wabash Valley was with grace, grit and gumption. While at Streator Grace, he researched and wrote their church history. He also collected research material of surrounding churches for future writings.
Richard presented a paper from this book “Uncle Johnny the Church Builder” at an Illinois State Historical Society history symposium in 1982, and then two years later the ISHS published this paper in Selected Papers from the 1982 History Symposium. Between 1982 and 2014, Richard has spoken seven times at the Illinois History Symposium, six of those topics concentrated on Methodism in Illinois. In 2000, he attended as a commentator for a session of presenters.
In 1979, Richard’s next appointment was at Chrisman-Scottland. And if you’re wondering, yes, a distant ancestor and migrant from Kentucky, Matthias Chrisman, owned land where the town was built. He researched family history at libraries, historical societies and visited cemeteries. He wrote church histories for both Chrisman and Scottland. He came to the notice of their district’s state Representative, Babe Woodyard, who invited Richard to give invocations at the House of Representatives on two occasions. In researching family history during this time, Richard discovered articles written by Daniel O. Root about Civil War experiences that he later edited and published in a book, War Time Stories.
Richard’s last appointment in his 41 years of ministry was at Mason City in 1984, the first one-church charge since Ludlow. He wrote their church history for their centennial celebration. Furthermore, when he arrived at Mason City, he was informed he was also a member of the Community Development Committee, which planned, raised money and built an area-wide nursing home. He was president of Rotary Club for one year and secretary for several years.
During the years of his active ministry Richard served on the Council of Ministries and secretary of the Town and Country Commission. Richard served as assistant to conference secretary, Larry Lawler, and was elected as conference secretary in 1980. Another era without computers the job required a lot of manual labor. At a particular lowly last-day-resolution debate session, a call from the floor requested the secretary to “parade before us the remaining list of resolutions.” At the urging of Bishop Hodapp, Richard strutted his stuff across the platform eliciting laughter and applause from everyone, breaking the tension in the hall. Anna Marie recalls the perks of marriage to the conference secretary. When the conference met at Western Illinois University, she and Richard had “penthouse” accommodations at the university’s motel, an upgrade from sharing a dorm room with bunk beds.
In 1984 he was elected the conference historian. Within a few short months, the society elected him as chair to serve as dual roles. Anyone who is a member of the historical society receives our quarterly publication, Historical Messenger, which advances our knowledge as United Methodists in Illinois. Over 31 years, Richard has contributed 39 articles to the Messenger. Many areas of his research are so extensive it takes two to three issues to complete the writing. And usually one article per year is a presentation we have heard him give at the annual meeting of the historical society held during annual conference.
In early 1985, Richard wrote: “[I] hope to foster more interest in local churches concerning the importance of preserving their church histories… [ I] expect to use the Historical Messenger as a vehicle for sharing knowledge of historical import about United Methodist history in the state of Illinois, and for guidance to local churches in the collection and safe-keeping of important records and memorabilia.”
Besides the Messenger, the United Methodist Reporter, The Current and Methodist History (a United Methodist Historical Society publication) have included his writings. He has even worked as a ghost writer of a sort, authoring six vignettes “Remembering Our Heritage” for Bishop Lawson to read during the “last days” of the Central Illinois Conference in 1996. The conference published these vignettes in the Reporter in the weeks following the annual session.
In other venues outside of the conference, he continually promotes the history of Methodism in Illinois with papers given at the Conference on Illinois History, at a Sangamon County Historical Society tour, at a meeting of the Midwest Archives Conference in Iowa, and through articles appearing in local newspapers and various county historical society publications.
Besides Illinois Methodism, Abraham Lincoln is another historical interest, of whom he has written about for secular publications.
In retirement, Richard chaired the Commission on Archives and History during the transition years to the new merged conference, all the while writing and editing for the Messenger.
And between the years of the first appointment and the packing and moving from the last appointment to their first home in Bloomington, Richard experienced the highs and lows of a United Methodist preacher. He conducted a funeral for a seven-year-old boy who had been killed in a car-bicycle accident. A distressful time for sure as Richard and Anna Marie had a son of the same age. Richard recalls another funeral scheduled for his return from East Bay Camp. The funeral had to be postponed because of a flooded cemetery from a huge rainstorm that occurred during the week. This was the same rainstorm that flooded the car Anna Marie was driving with 4 kids in tow. During the turbulent sixties and seventies, their daughter, Nancy, and another girl presented a liturgical dance during worship. Because of this the congregation deemed his preaching controversial.
During the move to the Streator appointment, the family van broke down requiring a tow into town; Richard’s brother was killed in a feed mill accident on a Monday and a week later, Richard walked Nancy down the aisle. While vacationing in Texas with the family, a fire at the Streator Grace Fellowship House destroyed Richard’s library and most of his research material, an era before computers.
Throughout his 41 years of ministry, 31 years as historian, Anna Marie has been by his side. For their 25th wedding anniversary, she and a friend made a banner with the words “Wither thou goest, I will go.” Unfortunately a fire destroyed this banner but for their 50th anniversary, she made another. She was there by his side when he received his elder ordination at Bloomington Wesley. They have hosted foreign exchange students from Ecuador, Turkey and Wales. They traveled to Wales for the student’s wedding where he was to give an invocation at the reception. One of the wedding guests thought Richard was the Vicar.
Because of Richard, we have gained incredible knowledge of the history of Methodism in Illinois and how churches grew from small societies within farming communities, who were served by itinerant circuit riders sometimes on a four to six week circuit. These societies planted the seeds of the rural churches that comprised the early Illinois Conference.
However, today the conference experiences the closing of many rural churches. As Richard wrote “the closing of small rural churches is a sad fact of life in most conferences. After years of devoted service, the declining population and escalating costs, churches find it impossible to continue… While the sadness of closing a church remains, faithful people continue their service. Local church historians can assist in this transition.” He was not pastor at the time of their closing but many of Richard’s small rural church appointments have concluded their ministry: Flanagan, Rook’s Creek, Clover Chapel, Streator Grace and Hope, Woodhull, Manville and DeSelm. Although Richard hasn’t written about these churches in particular for the Messenger or The Current, he has indirectly provided their history to us through the countless topics covering the United Brethren Church, German Methodists in Illinois, the history of the Illinois Conference, the Swedish church in Illinois, women’s history within the conference, the lives of the circuit riders and many, many more.
As a history lover myself, I admire the tenacity in his research and the well-written articles of Illinois Methodism. His writings in the Historical Messenger made it easier for me to be your conference’s archivist as many of you know, my background is not a Methodist. In closing, I speak for the Commission on Archives and History, the conference, and to many who love history, thank you Richard for researching the past, enlightening the present, and preserving history for the future.