J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Preserving New England’s Church Records

Yesterday’s New York Times had a front-page article about an ongoing search for old New England church records. Many churches still have those records, but in less than ideal conditions.

The region’s Congregationalist heritage means two things. First, every town’s meetinghouse kept its own records, and New England towns have a tradition of not giving up such things to a central authority. Second, with the number of Congregationalists diminishing, there aren’t that many people left to keep track of these documents.

The article follows Prof. James Fenimore Cooper, Jr., of Oklahoma State University, and Margaret Bendroth, Executive Director of the Congregational Library in Boston, as they seek out those documents and seek to convince churches to send them to the library for digitization and safekeeping.

Here’s one vignette:
A few hours later, Dr. Cooper and Dr. Bendroth visited an evangelical congregation in Hopkinton, Mass. Faith Community Church is the successor of the original Congregational church in town, founded in 1724, and had the original records carefully cataloged, boxed and stored in a locked basement room, alongside an early pastor’s 1740 Queen Anne side chair with a bullet hole in the back.

The documents included a list of excommunicants and notification of a fine levied against a local man who resisted joining the Army during the Revolution, as well as multiple “relations” — letters describing faith journeys. They include one from Benjamin Pond, who described how, despite being raised in a Christian home, he had fallen “into a state of stupidity and wickedness” until, after multiple deaths in his family, including of his child, he had a conversion experience. “That’s the first time that’s been heard in 200 years,” Dr. Bendroth said after reading Mr. Pond’s relation. “I just think that’s really amazing.”
The Times article doesn’t say it, but the researchers’ work leads to the Congregational Library’s New England Hidden Histories project, discussed in this Religion News article last year.

The Times illustrated its story with a photograph from those Hopkinton records, showing a church decision on a delicate matter:
February 26th. 1773. The Church met at the meeting-house (pursuant to adjournment) and unanimously Voted, That the Charge brought against Mrs. Seaver, appear’d to them to be Sufficiently prov’d; and that therefore they could not Consent to her owning the Covenant, and receiving Baptism for her Child.
So immediately I wondered what that was about.

TOMORROW: Tracking down Mrs. Seaver.

3 comments:

Randy Seaver said...

I'll be interested to see what you found out about Mrs. Seaver. She's probably not my ancestor, but I'm still interested!

Cheers -- Randy

Joe Bauman said...

In the NY Times article, Thompson Boyd admits to having mixed feelings about transferring ancient church records to Boston for safekeeping. Since the documents mean something to church members -- and might even be valuable in a sale that could raise money for the church -- why not just copy and digitize them, and let the church keep the originals?

J. L. Bell said...

I'm sure that the option of digitizing without transferring ownership is discussed. Even probably digitizing and storing the records at a central repository while legally maintaining them as the property of the individual church. That would seem to have advantages over the situation described in the article where the papers could be damaged, misplaced, and so on.

I have a hard time imagining one of these churches selling those documents, though. I know some New England churches have sold communion silver, bells, and antique books they don't use, but all those have value as collectibles. Is there a market for church records outside of the data they contain? Also, church records seem more integral to the actual existence of a church as an ongoing institution (perhaps the reason congregations are reluctant to hand over these documents). But maybe there are examples I don't know about.