Now Processed: Ralph Carter Papers | Presbyterian Historical Society

You are here

Now Processed: Ralph Carter Papers

November 14, 2023
Items from the Ralph Carter Papers, RG 543.

The Ralph Carter Papers have been processed as Record Group 543 and as part of the Pam Byers Memorial Collection (PBMC), and the guide to the records is now available:

The collection, processed by Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church (Chicago, Illinois) historian Barry Smith then donated to the Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS), totals 3 boxes. The collection's scope covers the life and LGBTQIA+ activism work of Ralph Campbell Carter, specifically his involvement with the More Light Movement, Presbyterians for Lesbian/Gay Concerns (PLGC), CREATE*: Justice, the More Light Churches Network (MLCN), More Light Presbyterians (MLP), and That All May Freely Serve (TAMFS). The materials are primarily in English. Previously, Smith did similar processing work on the David Sindt Papers (Record Group 521), one of the foundational collections of the PBMC. The Ralph Carter Papers collection serves as a strong supplement to the David Sindt Papers, with both collections documenting the struggle for LGBTQIA+ marriage and ordination rights within the Presbyterian Church.

Presbyterians for Lesbian/Gay Concerns (PLGC) Mid-Winter Conference. Held at Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Illinois. David Sindt is on left toward front sitting next to empty chair, February 1985. Pearl ID: islandora:346634 [RG 543, Box 2, Folder 68]

Ralph Campbell Carter, Jr. grew up in Chipley, Florida. His family was active in the First Presbyterian Church of Chipley. He served as a Youth Advisory Delegate from the Florida Presbytery to the 116th General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1976. At that time, he wondered if he was the only gay Presbyterian in his denomination. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Engineering in 1979 from Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. In 1979, Carter moved to Rochester, New York and began working for the Xerox Corporation where he would spend the rest of his working career.

Barry Smith shares information about who Ralph Carter was, his impact on the movement for gay ordination in the PC(USA), the scope of the collection, and more.


After moving to Rochester, Carter attended a monthly potluck supper sponsored by the Genesee Valley chapter of Presbyterians for Gay Concerns (PGC). He soon discovered Rochester's Third Presbyterian Church, a tall-steeple church. He became a member in the fall of 1979. At the PGC gatherings, he learned that several group members were upset that the 1978 United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) GA completely overturned the recommendation from the two-year undertaking of its Task Force to Study Homosexuality, which focused on whether to ordain practicing homosexuals. The task force's majority report/statement, a recommendation to reaffirm the historic power of sessions and presbyteries to decide who to ordain, was rejected. Instead, the GA voted to approve the minority statement, which offered “Definitive Guidance” that homosexuals may not be ordained to any of the offices of the church. In response to the actions of the 1978 GA, the West-Park Presbyterian Church in New York City adopted a statement opposing the actions of the 1978 GA and specifically welcomed LGBTQIA+ people to full membership. Other churches followed suit. In 1979, PGC decided to call these congregations More Light Churches.

Front cover of More Light Churches Network pamphlet, October 27, 1994. Pearl ID: islandora:346590 [RG 543, Box 1, Folder 12]

Carter learned that prior to his move to Rochester in 1979, the PGC chapter had identified and visited several congregations to speak with their sessions, including Third Presbyterian Church. Each congregation was invited to formally welcome lesbian and gay members and to join other like-minded congregations around the country as More Light Churches. Third Presbyterian Church committed to respond to the PGC. In order to address Third Presbyterian Church’s 1979 commitment to make the congregation more welcoming to lesbians and gays, the Session secretly authorized an undisclosed study group to consider issues of human sexuality from 1981 to 1982. The person who agreed to chair the study group did so with the condition that a gay person be included in the group to assure some modicum of authentic consideration. Since Carter had come out to the pastoral staff by this time, he was invited to join the study group.

Carter gradually came out formally to the Third Presbyterian Church study group. The group convinced the Session to offer a Theologian-in-Residence weekend on the topic of human sexuality for the congregation. Reverend Dr. Peggy Way of Vanderbilt Theological Seminary led the congregation in a weekend conversation about issues of human sexuality, from which two primary issues emerged: homosexuality and divorce. The Sunday following Way’s visit, during the debrief meeting with interested congregants, two task groups formed: one related to support for families experiencing divorce, and the other on homosexuality. The Task Group on Homosexuality determined that in order for the congregation to fully discuss homosexuality, which could take a long time, a Gay and Lesbian Support Group should be formed for gay/lesbian members of the congregation and their families. The Session authorized the Support Group in 1983, with the understanding that the facilitator would report back to the Session periodically. The Support Group was active for several decades.

Front cover of handwritten Presbyterian Gay Caucus brochure, circa 1974-1975. Pearl ID: islandora:346581 [RG 543, Box 1, Folder 3]

For the next several years, the congregation engaged in multiple study series, utilizing materials from PLGC and the increasing number of More Light Churches. In 1986, the Third Presbyterian Church Session authorized a group within the Session to lead internal discussion. The Session scheduled a vote in early 1987 on whether it should declare Third Presbyterian Church a More Light Church. The week prior to the Session’s vote, the Sunday Forum held a gathering. Members were asked for their input prior to the upcoming Session meeting. The next week, on January 13, 1987, the Session voted to adopt a More Light statement and authorized the formation of a More Light Committee of Session to oversee implementation of its commitment.

The collection chiefly documents Ralph Carter's involvement with a number of organizations advocating for LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the Presbyterian Church. Materials include organizational and programmatic records (correspondence, minutes, publications and printed items, reports, and other records) for PLGC, the MLCN, MLP, CREATE*: Justice, and TAMFS. Other materials document Carter's life in Rochester, New York, specifically his involvement in Third Presbyterian Church, including that church's More Light efforts. Additionally, there are audiovisual materials (chiefly audiocassettes) mostly pertaining to the Lazarus Project, Reverend Jane Spahr, and the Fifth More Light Conference.

Front cover of That All May Freely Serve's (TAMFS) "Heart and Soul" publication, which contains reflections from members at the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), June 18-25, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. Pearl ID: islandora:346606 [RG 543, Box 2, Folder 67]

Click here to access the guide to the Ralph Carter Papers and read more about the contents of the collection. Additionally, click here to access Barry Smith's index to the Ralph Carter Papers for even more detailed information about the contents of each folder in the collection.