Beacon Street Diary

October 2, 2015

As we mentioned back in June, our executive director Peggy Bendroth is an esteemed historian and prolific author. Her latest book, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past, has now been published and added to our collection. You can order a copy of your own from your favorite online or brick-and-mortar bookseller, or become a member of the Congregational Library and Archives to borrow one of ours.

Congregationalists, the oldest group of American Protestants, are the heirs of New England's first founders. While they were key characters in the story of early American history, from Plymouth Rock and the founding of Harvard and Yale to the Revolutionary War, their luster and numbers have faded. But Margaret Bendroth's critical history of Congregationalism over the past two centuries reveals how the denomination is essential for understanding mainline Protestantism in the making.

Bendroth chronicles how the New England Puritans, known for their moral and doctrinal rigor, came to be the antecedents of the United Church of Christ, one of the most liberal of all Protestant denominations today. The demands of competition in the American religious marketplace spurred Congregationalists, Bendroth argues, to face their distinctive history. By engaging deeply with their denomination's storied past, they recast their modern identity. The soul-searching took diverse forms — from letter writing and eloquent sermonizing to Pilgrim-celebrating Thanksgiving pageants — as Congregationalists renegotiated old obligations to their seventeenth-century spiritual ancestors. The result was a modern piety that stood a respectful but ironic distance from the past and made a crucial contribution to the American ethos of religious tolerance.

September 29, 2015

This Thursday, our archivists will be participating in the #AskAnArchivist Day social media event initiated by the Society of American Archivists.

On October 1, archivists around the country will take to Twitter to answer your questions about any and all things archives. This day-long event, sponsored by the Society of American Archivists, will give you the opportunity to connect directly with archivists in your community — and around the country — to ask questions, get information, or just satisfy your curiosity.

As professional experts who do the exciting work of protecting and sharing important historical materials, archivists have many stories to share about the work they do every day in preserving fascinating documents, photographs, audio and visual materials, and artifacts. Increasingly, archival work extends beyond the physical and includes digital materials. #AskAnArchivist Day will give you a chance to connect with archivists who are tackling the challenges of preserving our digital heritage for the future.

What questions can be asked?

Archivists participating in #AskAnArchivist Day are eager to respond to any and all questions you have about archives and archival work.

No question is too silly…

  • What's the craziest thing you’ve come across in your collections?
  • If your archives had a soundtrack, what songs would be on it?
  • What do archivists talk about around the water cooler?

…and no question is too practical!

  • What should I do to be sure that my emails won’t get lost?
  • I've got scads of digital images on my phone. How should I store them so I can access them later on?
  • How do you decide which items to keep and which to weed out from a collection?
  • As a teacher, how can I get my students more interested in using archives for projects?

How does it work?

#AskAnArchivist Day is open to everyone — all you need is a Twitter account. To participate, just tweet a question and include the hashtag #AskAnArchivist in your tweet. Your question will be seen instantly by archivists around the country who are standing by to respond directly to you.

Have a question for a specific archives or archivist? Include their Twitter handle with your question. They may not know every answer right away, but they will get back to you after they’ve had the chance to do some digging.

Don't have a question right away? Search Twitter for #AskAnArchivist and follow along as questions and answers are shared.

So get ready!

Archivists from universities, museums, historical societies, churches, businesses, local and state governments, and other organizations are taking to Twitter to answer your questions all day long on October 1 at #AskAnArchivist.

Congregational Library and Archives staff will be answering your questions on our Twitter stream and Facebook page. Come see what others are asking and make an inquiry of your own.

September 17, 2015

College freshmen are settling into their new dorm rooms and starting classes this month, congregating on campuses with the common goal of improving their minds. It was the same in the fall of 1850 when Aaron Lucius Chapin addressed Beloit College. "Year by year, it gathers into its bosom a crowd of bright youth drawn from families of every rank and profession." Chapin was a Congregational minister and the first president of Beloit College. Inspired by Congregational missionaries in the United States and abroad, he was part of a movement to found a dozen Congregational colleges in the mid-1800s.

Chapin and his contemporaries took up mission work to make New England values, religion, and education accessible to people outside the northeastern United States. A Yale graduate himself, Chapin felt obligated to extend the privilege of his education to others by replicating a Yale education, and what he called the 'virtuous society' he found in new England across the growing country. Writing in 1850, Chapin saw this process beginning.

"You and I, brother, as sons of Yale, have enjoyed singular advantages, and it behooves us to do what we can to transmit these blessings to succeeding generations, who shall occupy these verdant prairies and be planted along this silvery stream, destined at no distant day to become the crowded residence of wealth, intelligence, and refinement, and all the attractions of virtuous society, in its highest style and development. What was, fifteen years back, the wild man's hunting ground, in fifteen years more, will be as near a paradise as we shall be likely to find on this side Heaven."

For Chapin, academic discipline was inseparable from spiritual rigor, and a college was the best place to instill both in young people. The state universities springing up in the Midwest were too secular for Chapin's taste. He preferred colleges like Yale and Harvard, where New England Congregational values blended with English university academics. But Chapin saw those colleges as distant trees, whose seeds of education could hardly be expected to float all the way to Wisconsin. If a college was local, thought Chapin, its virtuous influence on the community would be stronger.

"A hand from the East will be stretched out to help on the establishment of genuine Christian colleges, judiciously located here and there in the West," wrote Chapin. Beloit College was part of a larger project by Congregationalists at the time to extend their influence outside of New England. Congregational missionaries travelled to frontier towns from the East Coast, both to convert native people and to keep settlers on the proper Christian path. Education was one of the central goals of the Congregational missionaries because it was so closely intertwined with their faith. In 1878, Chapin spoke before to the Mission Board.

"To secure and make abiding these results in all of those young States, colleges have been founded. They are the natural outgrowth of Home Missions. They stand as fortresses to maintain the ascendancy of the truth. In them recruits are trained for service on the field. They are living fountains in which science and religion — kindred elements — are blended according to their natural affinity, to pour forth into the forthcoming civilization healthful streams of intelligence and refined culture."

Many early graduates of Beloit College fulfilled Chapin's vision, and went on to serve as missionaries elsewhere in the United States and abroad.

Congregationalist missionaries founded colleges stretching from Pennsylvania to Utah, all founded in the same spirit of bringing New England values to people in the West. The colleges were meant to be "permanent centers of Christian influence," as Chapin wrote. History intervened.

"In the 1950s and early 1960s, Beloit College had transferred to a more civic-religious sense of identity. It still called itself a Christian college, but it had moved away from call itself Congregational," explained Bill Conover, who runs Beloit's present-day Spiritual Life Program. "The 1960s brought a sense of secularism and a sense of upheaval across our campus and other Christian institutions. The faculty took a vote to take 'Christian' out of the college's name an identity." A Protestant chaplaincy remained until the 1970s, but it was cut during a budget crisis.

Ashley Cleere is the chaplain of Piedmont College, one of two colleges still affiliated with the Congregational tradition. She thinks the gradual secularization of Congregational colleges was a result of Congregationalism's decentralized nature. "Congregational colleges don't have the burden of doctrine they have to maintain on campus, and we don't have something like a denomination giving us money," said Cleere. "It's part of the nature of Congregationalism that made it easy to drift away."

"I would guess that I'm one of a handful of people who even know about the historic connection with the Congregational church," said Beloit's Conover.

Although the explicit Christianity is gone from most Congregational colleges, the tradition of learning, openness, and self-improvement is as strong for the freshmen who started at Beloit College this month as it was for the students Chapin addressed in 1850. Conover sees Congregationalism's stamp even on the secular Beloit College campus. "In the life of the institution, someone who knows Congregational values would really see them," he says. "Congregationalism is really associated with a strong emphasis on freedom of conscience and speech. I feel like there is kind of a Puritan-influenced sense of the necessity of constant improvement, and we really value the project of endless improvement and reform."

The Congregational Library & Archives' collections include many documents related to Congregational colleges founded by American missionaries.

September 14, 2015

Don't forget to reserve your seat for this month's free lunchtime event.

Join archaeologist and author Emerson "Tad" Baker for a discussion of his latest book, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience.

In 1692 Salem Village in colonial Massachusetts witnessed the largest and most lethal outbreak of witchcraft in early America. The resulting Salem Witch Trials, culminating in the execution of 19 villagers, persists as one of the most mysterious and fascinating events in American history. Historians have speculated on a web of possible causes for the witchcraft that started in Salem and spread across the region but most agree that there was no single factor. Rather, as Emerson Baker illustrates in this seminal new work, Salem was "a perfect storm": a unique convergence of conditions and events that produced something extraordinary throughout New England in 1692 and the following years, and which has haunted us ever since.

Dr. Baker is a longtime professor at Salem State University specializing in the history of seventeenth-century New England. He has served as a consultant for dozens of documentaries and other television productions, published a number of books, and co-developed educational mobile apps relating to significant historical events.


Wednesday, September 16th
12:00 - 1:00 pm

Register through Eventbrite.

September 11, 2015

Our reading room will be closed to the public on Monday, September 14th 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.


September 4, 2015

The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed on Monday, September 7th in observance of Labor 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.

August 21, 2015

In June, I spent the longest day of the year in Salt Lake City. More specifically I passed all those daylight hours in the bowels of a hotel, in and out of a conference I was attending, trying to look purposeful while searching for food or a way to fill a few hours between sessions. The view of the mountains from my hotel room window was wonderful, changing color and outline over the course of the day from sunrise to sunset, but other than that the hotel could have been anywhere. I could have been down the street for all I knew.

In other ways, though, Salt Lake City was a revelation. As a historian of American religion, I always get a thrill experiencing Big Places up close, following the same horizon line that Brigham Young might have contemplated, imagining what the valley looked like to people bringing their belongings on pushcarts across the Great Plains. I also love to visit other people's archives, and thanks to a generous and hospitable colleague, I was treated to a backstage tour of the LDS holdings. The tour was all that I imagined and more: not just the collection, lovingly and carefully arranged and preserved, or the climate control, which took up two whole floors and looked like the engine room of the starship Enterprise. What stuck with me, and what I ended up quietly envying, was the obvious, deeply-rooted love for history.

Being a Latter Day Saint is a full-time occupation, and to an outsider it can seem like a long list of volunteer opportunities and obligations. The shy young maidens who led me on a tour of Brigham Young's house started off by telling me that they were missionaries, one from Salt Lake and the other from South Africa. The same was true of the flocks of young men in short-sleeved white shirts and black ties, hurrying around the Temple Square. Outside of the tourists like me, probably most of the people I saw were serving as unpaid volunteers.

They do it because of history, as my historian friend explained. I'm certainly no expert on LDS doctrine, but the more he talked I could understand the impact of Mormonism as a faith built on stories — of Joseph Smith's revelations in upstate New York, the prehistory of North America and the epic clash between the Nephites and Lamanites, and the violent persecution that drove the Saints from Ohio and Missouri across the Plains to Utah. But the story is even bigger than that. Those early saints believed they were re-enacting biblical history; they were latter-day Israelites escaping from Egypt and journeying to Canaan, the land of milk and honey. In other words, being a Mormon isn't simply agreeing to a set of doctrines or going on a church mission, it's living into a story.

The opening chapter in a recent book on Mormonism is entitled "Mormon Envy", an eye-catching phrase but also a telling one. Quite honestly, all during my tour of the LDS archives I kept thinking of all the history being forgotten or discarded in Congregational churches. In that sense they're not all that much different from most American Protestants, but certainly for them the loss is pretty considerable, and worth a special thought or two.

Why do we so often find eighteenth-century Congregational church records stored in the pastor's closet or crammed into a cubbyhole under the organ? Why do so many of these documents turn up on eBay, destined for some private collection somewhere or, even worse, a waste basket? The problem goes beyond the people who don't know the difference between a Pilgrim and Puritan, or the surprise of some parishioners who discover that those Puritans were their spiritual ancestors. It's the quick dismissal of the past as boring or benighted, the snide comments about "how we've progressed" beyond our founders. And it's the toe-tapping pastor hoping to get on to truly important church business once we're done rooting through those closets and cubbyholes.

Where does this lack of energy come from? Did the UCC merger cut so many Congregational churches off from their history — or is the problem wider and deeper? It's certainly not just one denomination's predicament, or even an issue just affecting church people.

Lately I've been re-reading George Orwell's 1984, not for any exalted intellectual reason but because I needed to grab some reading material before a long trip on the Boston subway system. The actual year 1984 ended up a lot more prosaic than Orwell predicted, but the substance of his critique is eerily accurate. Winston Smith's job, as you'll remember, was literally re-writing history, throwing old unwanted documents down the "memory hole" next to his desk in the Ministry of Truth. At the heart of his transformation was his dawning conviction that the past was real and that refusing to forget it was the ultimate act of rebellion. Perhaps the recovery of history in Congregational and UCC churches is the awareness that history not only matters — it's a dangerous business. It's where we appeal for justice and find hope for change. It's essential and critical, and if we're not careful, it will disappear, like the yellowed clippings of yesterday's news from Winston Smith's desk, into the memory hole.

-Peggy Bendroth


image of researchers at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City courtesy of


August 17, 2015

If you're looking for something to do this coming weekend, we have a suggestion.

The Congregational Library & Archives is proud to participate in Boston's Middle Passage remembrance ceremony, to take place at Boston's Faneuil Hall from 3:00 - 5:00 PM on Sunday, August 23rd.

We trumpet anti-slavery Congregationalists in our latest Bulletin, but history is never simple. The library got involved in the Middle Passage Remembrance Ceremony to acknowledge the fact that some early Congregational ministers were slaveholders, complicit in the transatlantic slave trade.

This event is part of the national Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project. The ceremonies commemorate the captive Africans who perished in the Middle Passage during the 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as to honor the survivors of that perilous journey and acknowledge the role they and their descendants have played in building this nation.
August 13, 2015

What better way to spend the last weeks of summer than with a good book? Whether you're headed to the beach or taking refuge in air conditioning, Associate Librarian Steve Picazio has five suggestions for you summer reading list. Brush up on your Congregational history and knowledge of early New England with these summer reads, all available to borrowing members of the Congregational Library & Archives.

David Powers' work Damnable Heresy is a rich, fascinating look at the first book banned in Boston. It's a biography of William Pynchon, an influential landowner whose work The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption was burned on the Common in 1650 for its argument against Puritan theology.

Francis Bremer's new work, Lay Empowerment and the Development of Puritanism, looks at how laypeople influenced Puritan society, where religious figures had an outsize influence on government, society, and private life. Frank will be speaking at the CLA on November 12 as part of our History Matters speaker series.

Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750 is a great pick for younger readers. It features twenty-five stories told by an eclectic mix of comic artists, authors, professors, and historians. Colonial Comics provides an inclusive history of New England's first century: Stories about women, slaves, and Native Americans appear alongside familiar stories of the Puritans' migration, and well-known characters like Cotton Mather.

If you're not already familiar with Cotton Mather, try The First American Evangelical by Rick Kennedy. This entertaining biography recasts Mather as a neighborhood preacher, instead of a larger-than-life religious figure, or overzealous witch hunter. Kennedy is a Mather expert, and spoke at the Library's Mather Redux program in 2013.

A Storm of Witchcraft is a new survey of the Salem Witch Trials. Salem State University professor Emerson Baker has synthesized the many theories about why the witch trials happened. It's great for anyone casually interested in the witch trials, or as a jumping-off point for deeper study. If you're in the Boston area, you can hear Dr. Baker speak at 14 Beacon on September 16 as part of the History Matters series.

Executive Director Peggy Bendroth recommends The Rainborowes: One Family's Quest to Build a New England. The book follows one of the original English families to settle at Plymouth, Massachusetts, tracing their influence through a generation in England and New England. From the father's taste for adventure, to his daughters' social ambition, to his sons' passion for democracy, this English family embodied American values. Adrian Tinniswood's new biography resurrects the all-but-forgotten clan that left its mark on England and the United States alike.
August 11, 2015

Boston is well known for having a literary past — Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and earlier writers like African American poet Phillis Wheatley. But Boston present is in the midst of a literary renaissance.

We have a vibrant community of writers and readers, and that vibrancy is expressed in organizations across the city, from the Boston Public Library to the Boston Athenaeum to the preeminent writers group GrubStreet. Now, with all things literary under the one Literary District roof, the writing community has a stronger platform to showcase its art, and the reading community has a one-stop clearinghouse to find out what’s going on — what writers are speaking where, what literary panels are being presented, what literary works are being performed, on and so on.

The Congregational Library & Archives is a proud partner in Boston's new Literary District. Stretching from the corner of Charles and Boylston, the site of the Poe Returning to Boston sculpture to Gloucester Street on the Commonwealth Mall where sculpted figures of Abigail Adams, Lucy Stone, and Phillis Wheatley comprise the Boston Woman's Memorial, the District is the first of its kind in the Commonwealth

"The best part may be that the Boston Literary District will tap readers who don't yet know they are readers." says the District's coordinator Larry Lindner, and he adds, "For many people, reading is sort of like math — something they feel phobic about. But if you go see an author speak, if you can see a literary work performed, reading becomes less of an abstract thing — it's now more something you can reach out and touch, and it will make people more comfortable about engaging with the written word. So not only writers benefit — everyone will."