History Matters Series - "The Many and Sudden Deaths"
Epidemics and Awakenings in the First Congregational Church of Haverhill, Massachusetts, 1735-1740
In May of 1736, John Boynton of Haverhill, Massachusetts, proclaimed to fellow parishioners, "I have been awakened and put upon my duty by the many and sudden deaths in this place." While intense religious revivals had sprung up across the Atlantic world, this relation of faith found its inspiration in a biological event particular to the frontier communities of Northern New England. Beginning a year earlier, John had watched a new disease take thousands of lives across Essex County, Massachusetts and Rockingham County, New Hampshire. By the end of the following decade, the total lost would exceed ten thousand individuals; ninety-eight percent would be children. Despite these high death rates and the impact such an unusual event had on a community in the midst of religious upheaval, scholars have largely ignored both the disease and its social ramifications.
Using sources held in the Congregational Library & Archives, this talk explores the reactions of one town to this horrifying disease, Haverhill, Massachusetts. Combining traditional research methodologies with digital humanities technology, it reconstructs this catastrophic event from church records to reveal the magnitude of mortality in this town and the manner by which the unprecedented loss of so many children left parents isolated from supportive community networks, and thus, from the historical record. Far from stoically internalizing this grief in a manner consistent with a reductionist interpretation of Calvinist thought, parents living in these frontier settlements detached from their communities, many times stumbling through a grieving "darkness" toward early death. These otherwise silent sufferings, like dark matter in a universe of human experience, account for a missing mass of emotional outpour contemporary to the First Great Awakening. It provides a useful medical-historical analogue to post-colonial techniques for recovering subaltern "lost voices" while furnishing a new model for understanding these silences.
Tuesday, October 4th
noon - 1:00 pm