Beacon Street Diary

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."

August 5, 2015

The latest addition to our New England's Hidden Histories program is the common-place book of Thomas Weld (1702-1757), a pastor in New England from 1727 until his death in 1757/8.

This notebook from his time at Harvard University contains notes on various subjects and topics, mostly of a religious nature. Of note is that different handwriting appears in the latter half of the book, but it is presumed that the first half is Weld's. It is unknown who else has written in this book, but sometime after 1723 the book was gifted to politician John Fairfield (1797-1847) who gifted it to his nephew, J. Wingate Thornton (1818-1878) who was attending Harvard, two inscriptions on the inner cover document these events.

Thomas Weld was born November, 1702 in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Weld graduated from Harvard University in 1723, and with his degree taught at Roxbury Latin School until he went to preach at Southborough, and the frontier. In 1735 he became the minister at the newly formed town of Upton. Difference in theology as well as rumors of an illicit relationship with Weld's landlord's daughter, Ms. Wheeler, forced Weld to leave Upton in 1744. After suing for his wages, and defamation against Ms. Wheeler, Weld became one of two ministers in Middleborough. When the other minister, Conant, was ordained in 1745, the church split with Weld remaining in Middleborough preaching to a small group of New-Lights. By 1749/50 Weld's congregation had grown tired of his ministry, and elected to rejoin the other church. After disputing the wages owed to him, Weld returned to Roxbury before going back to the frontier to preach. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763) he joined army as a chaplain before dying in 1757 or 1758.

You can learn more about the history of this collection by viewing the finding aid, or go directly to the NEHH collection page and start reading.

July 24, 2015

Charleston came together after the shootings at Mother Emanuel. "There was really a sense of unity and camaraderie," said Matthew Lewellyn, Circular Congregational Church's youth minister at the time of the shootings. "Maybe people were so tired of being angry and the anger transformed into this need for unity," he said. Louise Turrentine is the congregation president at Circular Congregational. "I'm very glad that we've handled this without violence. Circular has been a very strong voice in that," she says. The violence in Charleston affected people differently, explains Louise. "For some people the response was a call to grieve, and for some it was a call to action."

American Congregationalists have been the vanguard of racial justice issues in the since Samuel Sewall published New England's first abolitionist pamphlet in 1700. In the wake of the shootings in Charleston and the eight fires at African-American churches in the last month: seven in the south and one in Ohio, Congregationalists are once again demonstrating their support by raising money for the nine devastated churches. The United Church of Christ has earmarked its 'Emergency USA' fund.

"The first Sunday after everything happened, our attendance was through the roof. We had to roll up the doors, put up extra chairs, it filled up the fellowship hall, and there were people sitting in the choir loft upstairs. We took that moment and collected a special offering for Mother Emanuel." That offering was the largest Louise has ever seen the church collect.

"Within all the hate and violence, there are these small stories of love," said Rev. Lewellyn.

Another small story of love is unfolding within the Congregational community. Last week, the Circular Congregational received a shipment of origami paper cranes. "We received a beautiful letter about the history of these cranes," said Louise. The letter explained that the cranes have passed through UCC churches in communities marred by tragedy, offering solace to grieving congregations in Newtown, Connecticut; Boston's Old South Church; Ferguson, Missouri; Everett, Washington, and now Charleston. "As I was reading the letter to our congregation, I just saw eyes widening in surprise at the long list of places these cranes had been, widening in a real shock of how many places have been. Now, unfortunately, we have them," said Louise.

Members of Circular Congregational have worked alongside traditionally black churches in Charleston since the shooting. They have participated in vigils and memorial services, and were very active in the effort to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds.

The Congregational Library & Archives contains many records of Congregationalists seeking peace and justice. The upcoming issue of the Bulletin features several stories of Congregationalists in the abolition movement. Get your copy of the Bulletin by becoming a member of the Congregational Library & Archives.

July 17, 2015

Now that I have your attention, here's something to think about. In spite of all the stereotyping about Puritans as repressed, angry woman-haters, we really don't know what they'd make of our world today. I'm guessing they'd be repelled as anybody at the coarseness we now take for granted, the easy vulgarities on public media and in the conversations we overhear during the course of a day. You don't have to be a religious prude, I think, to feel a sense of loss. We do know that the Puritans thought about sex a lot, and I don't mean just the daydreaming kind. They knew it was important, powerful, and needed to be everybody's concern — it had to be a community matter, not shouldered by isolated individuals.

I used to teach women's history and often used A Midwife's Tale, a film based on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's book about Martha Ballard and her life in rural Maine during the late 1700s. There were a few fairly detailed childbirth scenes in the movie, which I'm sure my young students did not forget easily. I remember one in particular — Martha and the women of the town were attending an unmarried woman and, as was the practice at the time, at the height of labor asked her to name the father. This young girl did, though not with the extra adjectives one would imagine, and everyone took note. But no one was standing with a scarlet "A", getting ready to shame the couple. Naming the father was simply in everyone's interest: a man was now on record in front of the community, and it would be his responsibility, not just theirs, to support the mother and child. And witnesses were there to see that he did.

The twentieth-century descendants of the Puritans didn't have anywhere near their frankness around sins of the flesh, but they did inherit a basic understanding. The two great passions of the Congregational churches, up through the 1950s and 1960s, were ecumenism — cooperation between churches and denominations — and human rights.

They were tireless promoters of Christian unity, even at cost to themselves, and as early as the 1930s in the vanguard of civil rights, worker's rights, the rights of refugees, and the rights of farmers. The Commission for Social Action, established in 1934, was their signal achievement, an agency staffed by rebels and visionaries who would put the average mainline functionary today to shame. They recognized that religion had to be about more than my particular denomination or my personal relationship with God — people of faith had to care about the good of everybody.

And though it might seem a little outside of things for the Congregational Library & Archives to house a collection about the UCC Coalition, a post-1957 organization for gay and lesbian rights, it is historically accurate. We're not, of course, an advocacy organization and we have no political agenda. And I'm sure that there is no single Congregational opinion about the goals of the Coalition, much less the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. We shouldn't expect one. But there is no brick wall separating the concerns of the present from those of the past. There is instead an internal logic, a tradition of care for the common good — one that the New England ancestors might recognize and, I think, genuinely respect.

-Peggy Bendroth



July 15, 2015

Our neighbors at Trinity Church in Copley Square will be hosting a conference on spirituality this fall, sponsored by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Private Faith, Public Witness of Boston Colonial Women

What can our Boston Colonial forebears teach us about spirituality today? How did they cultivate an inner life in the midst of family responsibilities? How do we decide what spiritual practices and rhythms are for us? How did the Colonials' spirituality affect their views on marriage? Does marriage matter to society? Join us to gain a deeper understanding of our ancestors through three fascinating short lectures by experts in the field.

Trinity Church Boston
206 Clarendon Street, Boston

Sunday, October 25, 2015
1:30 - 5:00 pm

Download the flyer for speaker and registration information, and keep an eye on Trinity's website for further details as the date grows closer.