Beacon Street Diary blog

Harold Field Worthley

This past Friday, October 21, 2016, the Congregational Library & Archives lost one of its greatest friends. Harold Worthley — known to many as simply "Hal" — died after a brief illness. He was 88 years old.

Hal was director of the Congregational Library for nearly three decades, from 1977 to 2003. Many will remember him as the authoritative source on all things Congregational, a wry and gentle man with a deep knowledge of the tradition and an endless store of anecdotes and stories. Researchers came to know Hal as a friend, always generous with his time and ready to answer any and all questions, no matter how obscure or remote the subject area. We are all deeply grateful for his years of careful stewardship of the library's collection, ensuring its survival in spite of limited staffing and financial resources.

A native of Brewer, Maine, Hal was ordained a Congregational minister in 1954, and served parishes in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Between 1963 and 1977, he taught at Wheaton College in Norton, where he was College Chaplain and Associate Professor of Religion.

Hal's deepest passion was for history. A graduate of Boston University and Harvard Divinity School, where he received his Ph.D. in 1970, he also did postgraduate work at Northwestern University and Simmons College.

Hal was, bar none, the world authority on New England church records. His Harvard doctoral thesis focused on deacons and ruling elders of the early Congregational churches of Massachusetts — but it was the appendix to the thesis (which he sometimes called a 700-page footnote) that became his legacy. Hal took upon himself the massive task of creating an inventory of all the Congregational church records in colonial Massachusetts, tracking them down in churches, historical societies, banks, attics, and basements in every corner of the state. Published in 1970, An Inventory of the Records of the Particular (Congregational) Churches of Massachusetts Gathered 1620-1805 lists by name every original record book, as well as the ministers and lay officers of each congregation. The Inventory became iconic among researchers of early New England history and religion, and remains so nearly a half century after its publication.

Hal's work is foundational to the one of the CLA's most important projects, New England's Hidden Histories. In many ways we are continuing the project he began so long ago, retracing his steps to the last known sites of old church records, and then making them available to researchers anywhere by digitizing, transcribing, and placing them online.

Dr. Worthley's love for Congregational history did not end when he retired in 2003. He and his wife Barbara set to work transcribing documents, beginning with the diaries of missionary Gideon Hawley. They became indispensable to the Hidden Histories project as well. Hal was still transcribing the records of the church in Barnstable, Massachusetts, in his hospital bed.

Hal leaves his wife of 61 years, Barbara L. (Bent) Worthley, and his children: Susan L. Field of Cape Porpoise, ME; Laura M. Worthley and her husband, Andrew Lavash, of New Braunfels, TX; and David B. Worthley and his wife, Stephanie A. Worthley, of Norton, MA. He leaves five grandchildren: Jesse D. Field, Marshall D. Lavash, Morgan C. Lavash, Leah D. Worthley, and Nina B. Worthley. He was the brother of the late Bruce E. Worthley.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, November 5 at 2:00 PM, at the Trinitarian Congregational Church in Norton, MA. In lieu of flowers, Hal has requested that memorial gifts be sent to the Congregational Library & Archives, with a note that the gift supports New England's Hidden Histories.