Beacon Street Diary
The Congregational Library & Archives received five strong votes of confidence in 2015 in the form of grant awards from prestigious organizations. In this quiet time of year, we are reflecting on the successes of 2015, and gathering strength for the year ahead.
The New England's Hidden Histories program received two major grants in 2015, one from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the other from the Council on Library and information Resources.
These grants will help pay for NEHH processing and thousands of new digital scans, along with an online, fully searchable database of digital, transcribed documents. We are proud to partner with the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, New England Historic Genealogical Society, and the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ.
The H.W. Wilson Foundation has funded a vulnerability assessment for our collection, which will make sure our physical and online presences are secure. The assessment will help us understand the weak spots in our security, and will fund "first level" protection like stronger locks and video surveillance. Past grants from the H.W. Wilson Foundation have enabled us to upgrade and improve our technological capabilities, and we are grateful for the foundation's continued support.
The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) awarded us a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant for a preservation assessment. This federal funding, provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and administered by the MBLC, provides funding for the Northeast Document Conservation Center to conduct a preservation assessment on the library's collections. This assessment will form the basis of a five-year preservation plan to ensure our collections receive the highest level of stewardship and care for their long-term preservation and access.
Finally, Mass Humanities awarded us a grant to develop a walking tour mobile application (app) that explores Boston's early religious history, with a particular focus on the decision-making practices and contentious issues that characterized life in seventeenth-century Boston, with expert scholarship to help tourists understand the connection between American democracy and the Congregational tradition.
We are proud of what we achieved in 2015. Here's to making history matter in 2016!
The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed on Monday, January 18th in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have questions for the staff, please send an email or leave a voicemail, and we'll get back to you when we return to the office on Tuesday.
"We teach churches to care for their own records," says Jessica. "We always encourage churches to contact us with questions. Sometimes, I am able to go visit and work with them in person."
One such recent visit is to the First Church in Malden, where Jessica met Marilyn MacAskill, the church treasurer. "The First Church in Malden called initially to ask if we would take their records," says Jessica. "We don't take records from active churches, so we started talking about what the church could do with their material."
The First Church in Malden is a congregation in transition, moving from a church built in the early 1930s to a smaller space. "Our church building has been sold, and we're moving to a building with less storage space," explains Marilyn.
There are generations' worth of material in the Malden church, dating back to the 1870s. But with the move to a smaller building, space to store the records is becoming a problem.
"The big problem now is what we keep and what we do away with," says Marilyn.
After Jessica consulted with Marilyn on the phone about storage and management of the collection, she made the trip to the church.
"I am able to make recommendations in person and over the phone about what resources are available for disaster planning, records management planning, suppliers for archive-quality material. The thing that I try to emphasize to churches is scalable solutions. You can do a little thing, and it can make a big difference. You don't have to pick the Cadillac choice to do the right thing."
Simple choices, says Jessica, can make a difference for both digital and paper records.
"Like keeping only one version of something, naming files logically, trying to be thoughtful about organizing computer files so that it's not just a mess on your desktop. These things require time and thought, but not money."
"These are things that don’t require a lot of money, but they require time and interest."
Time and money are constraints for many churches, and some are turning to digitization, hoping for a solution. "Everybody's interested in scanning their records," says Jessica, but she is quick to warn against scanning a record and throwing the paper copy away. "The reason to scan something is because you want to make it available to the public. Pick your favorite thing, scan it, do it well, maintain it. Just don't throw it away when you’re done!"
Digital records are, in the long run, more fragile and more expensive to maintain, Jessica explains. "You will be able to read a piece of paper in 100, 200, maybe even 300 years," says Jessica. Even if the digitized files survived inevitable computer crashes, viruses, and were diligently transferred to each new computer, "You won't be able to read a Word document in twenty years," she says. "Scanning is a short-term solution, and not something to be done lightly. There are so many ways for valuable things to disappear."
Jessica recommends thoughtfully editing the records. "You cannot keep everything," she says. "Not only because it takes up space, but you can't make interesting records accessible when they are buried under unimportant things like cancelled checks," Jessica says.
Whenever possible, Jessica recommends churches work through their records with help from a professional archivist, and that's just what the church in Malden is doing. "Jessica suggested that we get an archivist come in to help in deciding what we should keep and what we should throw away," says Marilyn.
"But when it's not possible to hire an archivist, we need to empower congregations to take on the responsibilities of caring for historical records," says Jessica. "That's very much in keeping with how Congregationalism works, from the bottom up, letting the congregation make their choice on what to do with their records."
Church records are of clear importance to an active church, but they are also of significance to the wider community. "Those records are a window into a town's history," says Jessica. Marilyn agrees. "Our church is one year older than the town, so the town was actually formed in the church. The church was the governing body and the social outlet for everyone. It was where people went to meet and discuss things, as well as to have religious services."
Beyond New England history, church records tell stories that would have otherwise been forgotten, says Jessica. "They have details of people's lives, people who aren't in history books."
Sometimes, clearing out the cancelled checks is necessary to find that gold.
Now is the time to reserve your seat for this month's free lunchtime lecture.
Getting the most from our resources
Join our Digital Archivist Sari Mauro to learn more about the many resources available at the Congregational Library & Archives and how to get started on your research. Sari will cover online and on-site resources, how to begin investigating your topic, how to work with staff to get the most of what we have to offer, and what you can expect once you get here. For novice and experienced researchers alike, this presentation will get you started on the right track at the Congregational Library & Archives.
Thursday, January 14th
12:00 - 1:00 pm
The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed this coming Thursday and Friday, December 31 and January 1, to celebrate the New Year.
All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have a question you'd like to ask the staff, send an us email or leave a voicemail, and we'll get back to you when we return to the office on Monday, January 4th.
We wish all of you the best in 2016.
All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have a question you'd like to ask the staff, send an us email or leave a voicemail, and we'll get back to you when we return to the office on Monday, December 28th.
We wish all of you a safe and happy holiday.
star ornamement image by Nina Matthews via Wikimedia Commons
The Congregational Library and Archives has a collection of children's books that may have been given as Christmas gifts in the late 19th century. The Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society published children's books between 1841 and 1917, intended for use in Sunday school or in the home. The publishing house itself is an interesting story, one we have in our records.
In the 1890s, this was a topic of great interest and concern in churches. Many Americans were becoming wealthier than ever, but others around them were destitute. The growing disparity between the haves and have-nots was troubling to a growing number of ministers, who began to wonder what the church should do about it. Ministers asked, "What would Jesus do about the plight of the working poor among us? Is the gospel of Jesus a plan of personal salvation only, or is it also a plan of social salvation that requires social reform?" Their misgivings eventually solidified as the Social Gospel movement.
The Social Gospel split Congregationalists into two camps. Advocates of the Social Gospel believed the plight of the working poor was primarily due to social injustices that could be rectified through reform and legislative action. Opponents of this view insisted that poverty was inevitable because of human sinfulness, and advocated personal repentance.
The two stories discussed here show the dominance of the latter argument in the 1890s. Even books for children pushed the view that societal ills should not be of concern to Christians.
The first story, "The Best Possible Christmas," addresses this question. It was written by Rev. Alexander Twombly for his youngest parishioners at Winthrop Church in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and published by the Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society.
The story's protagonist, Pansy Trot, is shown three versions of Christmas in a dream. But instead of Christmas past, present or future, Pansy sees three versions of the best possible Christmas.
The first vision is a Christmas without poverty.
"In the square there was a great jubilee of children…Boys and girls were dancing about a huge pile of books, toys, pen-knives, dolls, wax candles, and everything else, and as they helped themselves, they sang a song,—beginning, ‘Old Poverty is dead so we'll be fed, With muffins hot and good white bread.'"
But the vision of a plentiful Christmas quickly sours. "Everybody Pansy met looked cross." The old washerwoman to whom Patsy's family usually brings gifts on Christmas morning is lonely: since she has everything she needs and Pansy's family no longer has a reason to visit. Even wealthy people are worse off after the death of poverty. Pansy sees a man who is angry that his gift has been turned down.
"A great Christmas this is! No poor folks, no chance to enjoy sending them turkeys or sixpences! Well I don't want to and I won't. What's the good in doing good for other people anyway? They never thank you."
Pansy begs to leave the first vision, since it is not the best possible Christmas. In the second dream, sickness is banished. Everyone is healthy and flush, but this vision also troubles Pansy. As she observes,
"Everybody was saying, ‘Isn't it a happy day? No more sickness, no more pain!' But nobody seemed to think they ought to go to church to thank the Author of their great deliverance."
This cannot be the best possible Christmas either. Pansy's third vision of Christmas is holy light shining on everything she sees. There is sickness, poverty, and death all around her, but people are able to bear it because of the light. This, she realizes, is the best possible Christmas.
"Even Pansy, though a child, had found out that no Christmas can be the best possible unless the Savior puts into it and into our hearts, his own sympathy with suffering. [Christmas] might come with poverty, it may have sickness in it; but it is the best—when the Wonderful Being born in Bethlehem is born again in human hearts, to bless and save."
Without suffering, the story says, families no longer care for each other, everybody is selfish, and people have no use for God. Sickness and poverty are presented as necessary evils, part of the path toward individual salvation. This stands in sharp contrast to the Social Gospel perspective that much poverty and suffering can be remedied through social reform.
The second story is titled "The Sleigh Ride" and comes from another collection, also published by the Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society. This story connects personal piety and kindness to the achievement of financial success. The story begins as Margaret, "a little girl, a child of very poor but respectable parents," asks for a sleigh ride from Joel, "a strong, rough boy, who was not very regular in his attendance at school." Joel tends not to be very generous, and yet he concedes to give Margaret a ride.
"When she said to Joel, with a timid voice, won't you give me a ride on your sled? he was at first disposed to reply, No! what business have you to have a ride? Something seemed to close his mouth against the utterance of those words."
Joel decides to pull Margaret through the town on his sled, and feels the immediate reward of being kind to others.
"Joel said to himself, am I not a fool for giving this girl a ride? I shall never get anything for it. She is little better than a poorhouse girl. At this moment, Margaret came out with so happy an expression of countenance that Joel could not help feeling its influence; and, without acknowledging it to himself, he felt that he had already got something for his kindness to the poor girl."
But seeing Margaret's happiness is not enough for the story. "The Sleigh Ride" ends with a rich gentleman witnessing Joel's compassion for Margaret. He gives Joel a job, and eventually helps him go into business for himself. Through the kindness of a capitalist, Joel was given access to economic advancement.
This version of success and social advancement places the emphasis on random acts of kindness and the generosity of social superiors, rather than the social structures and circumstances that trapped Margaret's family in poverty and kept Joel out of school.
Churches and parents used children's stories to imparting society's values to children. These two stories show how the prevailing Gilded Age values of individual virtue and personal piety were woven into Christian stories for children. The emphasis of most, if not all, was on the development of Christian character. No thought was given to the Social Gospel concerns of societal sin or social reform. Instead, Christian stories for children taught that social problems such as poverty, suffering and injustices were inevitable, but society's ills were made more bearable through one's faith in a loving Savior, and He is all the world needs. While not denying the truth of those religious sentiments, proponents of the Social Gospel fought an uphill battle for social reform to alleviate suffering and establish justice for all so that God's will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Read these stories in the upcoming issue of the Bulletin, free to all members of the Congregational Library and Archives. Become a member to make sure you get a copy.
-- Norman Erlendson and Joanna Albertson-Grove
illustration from The sleigh-ride, and other stories (1872)
The Congregational Library & Archives celebrates the life and mourns the loss of a great friend and scholar, Arvel M. Steece.
A devoted student of Congregational history, Arvel was eager to share his enthusiasm with everyone around him. In addition to his work with the ACA, he served as the NACCC historian from 1980-1988.
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Mauro knew Arvel well. She says, "Arvel was a keen scholar of extraordinary breadth and depth with a passion for Congregationalism. He immersed himself in books, creating an extensive personal library, and he had the intellectual gift of remembering all he read. He was keen to share his considerable knowledge to all who cared to learn from him and was a constant help and resource to seminarians preparing for ministry in Congregational churches. He was a bright light in Congregationalism and will be dearly missed."
"I stood in awe of him, always," said Jim Hopkins, a current member of the American Congregational Association Board of Directors. "He spoke with learned authority while eloquently championing the Congregational Way. I'm grateful to have lived in his time."
Our reading room will be closed to the public on Monday, December 7th for our board's quarterly meeting.
All of our online resources will be available as usual, and staff members will be in the office to answer questions over the phone or by email.
We are excited to share a newly digitized collection from the New England's Hidden Histories program. This month's new collection is from South Farms parish, Litchfield, Connecticut, an area of Litchfield now known as the town of Morris. The collection is small, but contains an unusually thorough account of the proceedings of an ecclesiastical council called in January 1781.
Rev. George Beckwith was the first pastor settled at the South Farms parish church in Litchfield, Conn. The parish and society of South Farms were both founded in 1767 and the church gathered a year later in 1768. Beckwith, a 1766 graduate of Yale College, was called and ordained into ministry at the church in 1772. Some nine years later discord between the pastor and church had grown so much that by mutual agreement of the two parties an ecclesiastical council of the vicinage was called to seek outside wisdom. As the vote and invitation both state, the council was to hear grievances from both sides and put forth a recommendation for how the church and pastor should proceed. In the end, it was the decision of the church to sever ties with Beckwith.
Check out this collection and keep an eye on the blog for a forthcoming post on the whys and wherefores of ecclesiastical councils, particularly in the colonial time period.