The Presbyterian Historical Society has processed and made available to researchers the James and Melva Costen Papers (Record Group 538). Access full information about the 11-box collection here.
The collection’s scope chiefly covers the Rev. Dr. James H. Costen’s election and actions as moderator of the 194th and 195th General Assemblies of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA), his career as dean of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and president of the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) and his development and fundraising work with the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA).
In relation to Dr. Melva Costen, the collection’s scope chiefly covers her teaching and higher education career as faculty of ITC as the Helmar Nielsen Professor of Music and Worship and her academic and publishing pursuits. The collection materials are in English.
James Costen was born on October 5, 1931, in Omaha, Nebraska, and went on to attended Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he graduated in 1953 with a bachelor's degree. While attending JCSU, he met Melva Wilson, who also graduated in 1953. The two married at the JCSU campus chapel the same year. James Costen went on to attend Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, receiving a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1956. In 1964, he graduated with a Master of Theology degree in religious education from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where he was one of the first African American students.
James Costen was ordained by the Presbytery of Cape Fear in 1956 and served as pastor of Mount Pisgah Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. There, he and Melva Costen won a lawsuit to integrate an elementary school, allowing their children to attend. The family was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan for their civil rights activism, which included working closely with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to organize his visit to Rocky Mount in 1962.
In 1965, James Costen was called to serve as pastor of the Church of the Master Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, one of the first interracial Presbyterian congregation in the city. In 1969, he became dean of JCSU, which under his guidance had been newly relocated to ITC in Atlanta. James Costen became ITC president in 1983, serving in that role until his retirement in 1998.
In 1974, James Costen visited Kenya for the first time, where he built relationships with the PCEA. After his retirement from ITC, he served the PCEA as volunteer director of development.
The moderator years highlighted in Record Group 538 include James Costen’s leadership at the UPCUSA’s 194th General Assembly in Hartford, Connecticut in 1982 and at the 195th General Assembly in Atlanta the following year, when the UPCUSA and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.(PCUS) reunited to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Melva Ruby Wilson was born in Due West, South Carolina, in 1933. She graduated from Harbison Junior College in Irmo in 1948 and and obtained a bachelor's degree in education from JCSU in 1953, a Master of Arts in Teaching Music degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1964, and a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, with music as a cognate area, from Georgia State University in 1978.
When James Costen was called as pastor of the Church of the Master Presbyterian Church in Atlanta in 1965, Melva Costen served as director of music. She joined the faculty of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary at ITC in 1973 and became the Helmar Nielsen Professor of Music and Worship in 1987, also directing the Center Chorus. She retired in April 2005 and later became Visiting Professor of Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.
Melva Costen’s activities in the Presbyterian Church include service as clerk of the session of Church of the Master Presbyterian Church, as vice-moderator of the Presbytery of Georgia and as vice-chairperson of the Advisory Council on Discipleship and Worship. She directed the choir of the reuniting service of the UPCUSA and the PCUS in 1983 and served as chairperson of the New Presbyterian Hymnbook Committee to develop “Presbyterian Hymnal: Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Songs,” published in 1990.
Learn about material formats and item descriptions for both Series I, Melva Costen Papers (1934-2019) and Series II, James H. Costen Papers (circa 1949-2009) from the full finding aid: https://www.history.pcusa.org/collections/research-tools/guides-archival-collections/rg-538
This article is based on a Presbyterian Historical Society blog by the author.