Beacon Street Diary
The title comes from another congregation up in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, a wonderful line from their church covenant of 1798.
Joshua 4: 1-9
[Sermon preached August 21, 2016 at Orleans, MA]
When my children were small I used to be pretty systematic about keeping "memory boxes." Everybody has these, right? They were a place to keep family mementos: the first pair of shoes, old report cards, years' worth of Mothers' Day cards, leftover casts from broken bones, collars from long-dead pets.
I'm a lot less intentional these days: in fact I keep running across things that I simply don't know what to do with. Now I’ve got rocks from various European countries, shells that once looked beautiful on a beach somewhere, a watch I think one day I will have fixed, and single earrings I keep because who knows maybe someday the other one will turn up. All impossible to throw away. Someday, of course, I'm going to gather it all up, create a spreadsheet and organize it all: one box for family memories, one for Goodwill, and one for the trash. I will go to Ikea and get some metal shelves, and create a little archive in my basement.
Actually, no I won't. Unless some miracle or personality transplant happens, all of this flotsam and jetsam is going to keep roaming aimlessly around my house and I'm going to keep wondering why I don't do something about it.
There's a name for this kind of aimless keeping: we call it hoarding. Of course, my house isn't anything like the ones you see on reality television, brimming with beer cans or cats or old food. But the basic principle is there: not knowing what to keep and what not to, not being able to distinguish between something important and valuable and something that is not.
It's a metaphor of sorts for our culture today — there are more museums devoted to everything than ever before — not just American history and modern art, but Spam, lunchboxes, a giant ball of string. Back in the days of P.T. Barnum people went to museums to see things they couldn't anywhere else — two-headed calves, ten-foot spiders, Egyptian mummies — but now we are happy to see something utterly familiar.
And as I know from my work at the Congregational Library, the digital universe is exploding. We have millions of old documents in digital form on the internet, from medieval Spain or ancient Peru, all available in the comfort of your living room. We are, as people often say, an amnesiac culture, in love with anything new and improved; but we're also obsessed with the past. The obsession grows out of anxiety, the fear that we might lose something valuable, though we don't know what it is, fear of forgetting and of loss.
Christian remembering, as we might call it, is something different. This is what I'd like to talk about this morning, why people of faith need to have good memories. This is your 370th anniversary, and it can be an opportunity to do some creative thinking about your past and what it means to the present and in the future — to honor the past without dwelling on it.
We all know that there's a certain kind of remembering that churches are good at, and I can almost feel pastors shuddering when I bring up the subject. Mrs. Magillicuddy will never forget the time the pastor's wife walked right by her in coffee hour without even saying anything, Mr. Bumpkins can't get over the way the building and grounds committee dismissed his idea for a three-story parking garage in the church lot, the pastor lives with simmering resentment over the way Mrs. Magillicuddy and Mr. Bumpkins took it all out on him or her. And many churches live with regret, over missed opportunities, families we let leave, programs we were enthusiastic over at the beginning but let linger and die. That's not Christian remembering.
Remembering as a spiritual practice is life-giving; telling stories about the past strengthens communities, builds common bonds, a sense of solidarity with each other, opens our hearts and minds to the world. Both Christianity and Judaism are, as Abraham Joshua Heschel has called them, "religions of remembrance." In other words we are both basically story-tellers; history for us is not just a hobby, a pastime for "buffs" or people with an insatiable need for useless facts. It's what we do. It's the reason why the Bible is a book of stories about people in the past, a record for us of their lived experience of faith. What is the Passover seder but a re-enactment of a historical event — the same is true for the Lord's Supper, in which we are told to "remember and believe." It is more than just a re-enactment, as history is for us more than a rundown of names and dates and bits of information. It is a story we tell to each other that places us here in the present day in Orleans, Massachusetts, within a multitude, across time as well as space. We are sharing a story with Christians in first-century Corinth, Elizabethan England, fifteenth-century Japan, twentieth-century Africa.
There's nothing nostalgic about this kind of relationship with the past. When Christ commanded us to celebrate communion “in memory of me,” he wasn't suggesting we pull out all the old picture albums and trade our favorite stories about the first century. Remembering for the people of Israel and in the words of Jesus means that we are re-upping our commitment, throwing in our lot with others. We are placing ourselves into a story, into a community of memory, receiving the promise that we are not alone. We are also entering into a story that matters, one that is going to make demands of us.
Thus our story in Joshua: "In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever."
If you know anything of the background of this story, it's a big moment in Israelite history, when they are finally ending forty long years of wandering the Sinai peninsula and crossing the Jordan into the promised land. The future ahead of them is full of promise, but it will also bring frightening challenges. And it's in this moment that God commands them to stop, literally in the middle of things, and set up a memorial, a pile of stones meant as a message to future generations. It wasn't enough, in other words, just to write it down and put it in the archives — there had to be something concrete, something visible, maybe even something cumbersome and heavy, something that took extra special effort — hauling heavy stones — to make sure the memory did not fade away easily.
There's not a day that goes by, at least between April and October, when I'm reminded that Paul Revere is buried below my window. Somehow everybody who comes across him feels the need to yell "the British are coming." But they also do something else — I look down and see on the monument and on the sidewalk around it, and see that they have left stones behind.
Stones appear in the Bible a fair amount. They are used as altars, even projectiles, and they formed protective walls. Jacob was even using one as a pillow when he had a dream about a ladder reaching up to heaven. They are also used in ancient rituals, as carriers of memory. As we saw in Joshua's story, stones have a religious meaning in Jewish culture, one that goes way back. People left stones on graves for practical reasons, to mark a corpse, to make sure no one unknowingly stumbled upon a spot of ground that was ritually unclean. But they were also there to allow the grieving to come back, to keep up a connection with someone who was gone, but should not be forgotten. Stones weigh down a soul that might otherwise drift away — it keeps the dead from forgetting about us. They also are a symbol of permanence. Unlike flowers, our object of choice in cemeteries, stones do not wither and dry up. They are always there, no matter what.
We come from a tradition with deep reservations about ritual. Our Puritan ancestors have been criticized a lot for being intolerant and nit-picky, and perhaps with justification. But that's not what they were really about — they wanted to keep religion clear and simple — no stained glass, choir lofts, ministers' robes, crosses, incense. They wanted religion to be fresh, immediate, unencumbered by rote forms and mindless repetition. Churches needed to be as bare and plain as possible, worship services as straightforward as they could be, so that nothing would get in God's way.
Is there a way to keep that idea, really the genius of our tradition, and have some regular practices that keep us from being so present-minded, so easily forgetful about the people who have minded and built this church for the last 370 years?
Are there practices, habits, you could keep, almost like a string around the finger, to bring to mind the people who established both of the congregations you represent, both of the religious traditions? Are there ways you might recognize that, all told, you number in the thousands, and this church has had a reach and an influence over the past nearly 4 centuries that you cannot even begin to imagine? How will you maintain the continuity with the past? And what will you tell those lined up to take our places? How will they learn your story?
This does not have to be dead serious or require a lot of studying. We all need a connection with the past that is life-giving (which means it might even be fun), more than just nostalgia. This means we will not overly romanticize the past, and how much better things must have been back then. And we also won't condescend to our ancestors, as somehow not quite as smart or tolerant or progressive as we are, "back there," or lower down on the ladder of progress. (Yes, we've come a long way in some respects, but we've also discovered ways to do damage to each other that they could never have imagined.) What we need is a mature, grown-up relationship with our ancestors in the faith — and in this church.
In the course of my work I visit lots of local Congregational churches, and as you might guess, I've seen everything. I remember one in particular, in an old church building that over the course of time had found itself surrounded by a mini-mall and a few car dealerships. The congregation was kind of hanging on for dear life, the whole building felt kind of aging and depressed. After my presentation one of the members sidled over to ask me a question: "what would they think about us today?" And I knew the deeper fear was, are we a big disappointment? Would they be angry at how far we've drifted from the founding vision?
I probably mouthed a few comforting platitudes at the time — this was a profound and unusual question. But if we believe we are a community of memory, one that includes both the living and the dead, those kind of questions are going to come up.
What would our ancestors wonder about if they could see us today? They'd probably wonder why my sermon is going to finish so soon (and of course about my gender) and why we aren't coming back for another two hour sermon after lunch. They'd be astonished that most of us can't tell the difference between a Presbyterian and a Congregationalist, much less an Episcopalian and a Catholic.
But I think they'd also wonder why we don't tell more stories about our history, whether we have any idea of how much we owe to them and to others — all the things they've given us: songs to sing, pews to sit in, books and ideas that inspire us, the names and layout of our streets. Novelist Wendell Barry calls this a "long choosing," that we and our world are the result of the thousands of decisions by other people, about who to marry and where to live, what to care about.
I think it's going to take a lot of rethinking and undoing of old spiritual habits before we can break through all the layers of indifference, condescension, and confusion that have accumulated around faith and history over so many years. We can start just by saying thank you, acknowledging over and over again that we are not making all of this stuff up as we go along, but are stewards of memory for our ancestors in the faith — and for generations still ahead.
In a way we are talking about remaking our Christian imagination so that we can see the cloud of witnesses around us, recover an older language of faith. "Seeing dead people," as I sometimes call it, is a profoundly countercultural act — it can be scary and uncomfortable, and a little weird sometimes too — but it's not optional and it's not something you have to do every twenty-five or fifty years. It's the responsibility, promise, and adventure of our Christian faith.
The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed to the public on Thursday, August 25th for a staff training day.
If you have questions that need staff attention, please send an email or leave a voicemail and we'll get back to you as soon as we can. We apologize for any inconvenience and thank you for your patience as we work to provide you with the best service possible.
The Congregational church in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, is marking its 250th anniversary this year, and my husband and I drove up this past weekend to join the festivities. I offered greetings from the Congregational Library & Archives and gave the Sunday sermon, a twenty-minute drop in the bucket compared to the months, even years this congregation has spent on putting together a creative, thoughtful celebration.
The entire weekend up in Maine made for musing about the distance between what we see and what we don't. To anyone else my husband and I probably looked like run of the mill tourists with Massachusetts plates, checking one more destination off of our bucket list before moving on. But Boothbay Harbor is not an ordinary place for us. My husband's family has roots in the area, and we used to visit his grandma when we were first married. We kept going up there after she died and when our children were small, staying in the family cottage — a grandiose term for a Rube Goldberg cabin, rooms randomly added over the years. Back then we didn't have a lot of money to spend on vacations and so we amused ourselves in inexpensive ways, picking blueberries in the back yard, hanging out in the hammock for hours at a time, taking the dogs for a walk down to the Sheepscot River, where we'd all enjoy the smell and muck of low tide. The little splurges were memorable.
I arrived early for the Sunday service, and since I had a little extra time to roam around, I did what most nosy historians do, visit the local graveyard. The Boothbay church had been founded by Scots-Irish Presbyterians, some of whose family still lived in the area and were part of the congregation, and I thought I might spot one or two on a tombstone, maybe find a story or two to tell at coffee hour. As in most old cemeteries, Boothbay Harbor's dead were grouped into extended families of parents and children, husbands and wives. The inhabitants were right out of a Melville novel, sea captains named Uzziah and Elijah, wives named Prudence and Sarah and Priscilla.
And then there was Cinderella Smith. Gravestones are fairly sparse information-wise and hers only made he wonder further. This woman had died relatively young, before the Civil War, perhaps of one of the epidemics that took people with depressing regularity during that time. She'd also lost both her parents at an early age — her tombstone included their birth and death dates — and, even more tantalizingly, it indicated that she'd been adopted by other couple with the same last name. Though adoption was a fairly common, informal practice among families back when a head cold could turn into a fever and an infection that brought death in days, I've never seen the actual word on a nineteenth-century gravestone. Nor have I ever come across a Cinderella.
She must have come from special people, who named her for a fairy tale character and then kept her close within the family after what must have been a tragic loss. And I wouldn't doubt that a local historian or an expert on New England graveyards could piece together a lot more of the mystery than I can. But do you really want to know? Isn't it enough that almost two centuries ago, back in the days when Mainers made their living on fishing smacks and hard-scrabble farms, someone loved a little girl enough to name her Cinderella? The past loves to keep its secrets, I've found, and sometimes it's more than enough to enjoy the mystery.
The streets of Boston are alive with visitors and locals alike, taking in these few fleeting weeks of summer. Down the street, we can see tourists buying slushes and taking photos on the Boston Common, while locals sprawl out on the grass with books. Our Assistant Librarian Sara Belmonte picked out some books you might enjoy reading on the Common, or under another shady tree in your area.
Geraldine Clifford turned the personal writings of women teachers into a larger historical statement about the role women have played as teachers in the United States. The book covers the colonial era and the 19th century, and brings to light the often-overlooked voices of women.
Puritans are often portrayed as stern and rigid, but Abram C. Van Engen smashes that misconception. He contends that Puritan theological thought and practice emphasized the importance of sympathy and compassion, not buckled hats and witch burnings.
A different kind of beach read! The Atlantic Ocean serves as a backdrop for 17th century transatlantic voyages. James Oglethorpe's 1735 journey from London to Georgia is the main story, and Stephen R. Berry's book expands from there across the 18th century transatlantic world. Berry was a 2004 fellow of the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium.
Janice P. Namura's meticulously researched book tells the story of five young Japanese women sent to the U.S. by the Japanese government in the 1870s. After ten years, they return home and are faced with the task of reforming Japan's educational system. Much of the collection at the Congregational Library & Archives deals with American and Western European missionaries bringing their culture to other parts of the world, so it is particularly interesting to see the cultural exchange go the other way.
Those of you who attended our History Matters lecture this past March will recognize the name Heath W. Carter, the Valparaiso labor historian who explored the intersection of religion and labor in the 19th century. In his book Union Made, Carter reframes the rise of the Social Gospel to focus on the contributions of the labor movement of the 19th century. Anyone interested in the tension between revivalists and Social Gospel adherents will appreciate this book, as will readers who wish to view labor history through an unconventional lens.
Members of the Congregational Library & Archives can check these books out. Become a member today, and enjoy these books wherever you do your summer reading.
The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed to the public on Tuesday, July 26th for a staff training day.
If you have questions that need staff attention, please send an email or leave a voicemail and we'll get back to you as soon as we can. We apologize for any inconvenience and thank you for your patience as we prepare some exciting projects for the coming year.
This week the Congregational Library & Archives is helping to host a series of events marking the 425th anniversary of Anne Hutchinson's birth. Besides Anne, seventeenth-century Boston's famous Puritan dissenter, the list of attendees and speakers is pretty impressive. Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who issued a pardon in 1987 revoking the General Court's order of banishment, was present at an opening commemoration at the Hutchinson memorial on the State House Lawn last evening; afterwards, we retired to the Congregational Library & Archives for birthday cake and toasting. This morning Eve LaPlante, author of American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans, will give a talk in the library's reading room. This afternoon, three prominent historians Mary Beth Norton, Catherine Brekus, and Robert Charles Anderson, will participate in a panel on Hutchinson's life and legacy, a conversation our executive director Peggy Bendroth be moderating at the New England Historic Genealogical Society.Anne Marbury Hutchinson Foundation website for further information about schedule and tickets.) It's a tribute to an unusual and gifted woman who charted her own path — and paid the price for doing so.
Involvement in these events makes sense for the Congregational Library & Archives, as we live at the intersection of serious academic scholarship and the wider world of people who are just plain interested in history. We are committed to supporting excellent historical research in every way possible, but more than that to provide occasions for two-way conversations between academics and readers from other professions and walks of life. That's why we host "History Matters" lunches: we want to build a conversation between professional historians and people who, though they might not read through an entire academic tome footnotes and all, want to know what it's about and why it's important.
In the case of Anne Hutchinson, that intersection is tricky. Most people do not have an opportunity to learn much about the New England Puritans. Our average tourist here in Boston, for example, can go on a Duckboat and hear a spiel about Quakers being hanged or might go up to Salem and visit the "witch museum". Everything else is the American Revolution: Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, Redcoats and Tea Parties. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but why stop there? We'd argue that you can't really understand what happened in 1776 without first knowing something about the Puritans — not lore and stereotypes but history in all its nuance and complexity. They were, after all, the ones who laid the ground rules for participatory democracy, in churches that gave voice to ordinary church members and demanded accountability from those in power.
The Puritans were not, in other words, a monolithic group of killjoys terrified of free speech, so afraid of Anne Hutchinson that they drove her into exile. They were people — just like us — who wanted a close-knit community, motivated by a common vision of the common good. And, like us, they stumbled over the problem of dissent, the clash between individual freedom and community integrity. Back in the 1630s Anne Hutchinson paid a steep price for challenging those categories — but are we any different now? Our own debates about gay marriage and immigration are in many ways the continuation of one started in Puritan Boston long ago.
Of course, there's another mythology about the Puritans that's just as inaccurate and potentially harmful as the witch-burning stereotypes. It's the declaration that they were the source of everything good and decent about American society, the ones who established the United States as a "Christian nation". That's a disservice not only to the Native Americans who fell in the Puritans' wake but to all those other founding fathers and mothers in other colonies like, say, Virginia.
To my mind, Anne Hutchinson fits best in between all of our myths and legends about the Puritans. She was, at bottom, a woman who was willing to defy categorization, and accepted the price for doing so. Now that's a birthday worth celebrating.
Our reading room will be closed to researchers on Thursday, July 21st from 9 am to 2 pm for an event.
If you would like to join us for Founding Mothers Celebration - American Jezebel & Founding Mother with esteemed author Eve LaPlante, a few tickets are still available.
I spent last week at the Kenyon Institute, a program for writers held at Kenyon College in Ohio. This one was geared toward people interested in things spiritual — for a whole host of reasons, I soon discovered — and brought together a mix of rabbis, ministers, and priests, as well as riffraff like me, who defied easy categorization. It was a lot like summer camp, making new friends and challenging yourself to do something scary — reading your composition out loud to your writing group was every bit as nerve-wracking as jumping off a rope swing into the lake — complaining about the food and then eating way too much of it.
Over the course of the week we tried out different kinds of writing: lyrical essays, personal memoir, and even blogging and op-eds. We talked about midrash and juxtapositions, scripture and poetry. Once we opened Bibles and with our eyes closed, put our fingers on a text, Augustine style, and wrote what came to mind. (How did I end up in 2 Esdras?) Every afternoon was free for working on assignments, napping or reflecting, or in my case logging a few miles on the treadmill (it was way too hot to spend much time outside) and playing music in a quiet practice room. By the end of the week I had no problem spending an hour or more just lying on the grass, listening to birds and looking at clouds.
On the first morning I told my writing group that my goal for the week was to escape from footnotes. Historians are trained to build their ideas on those of others, which means we are very uncomfortable going for more than a paragraph without some kind of outside reference. The more the better, in fact. For us, writing is a slow, deliberate process of crafting an original thought from hours, days, years of reading what other people have written, constructing an argument with nuance and precision, absolutely faithful to the texts that those others left behind. I often think of historical writing like sculpting a block of marble into a statue, one deliberately planned chip at a time.
That means that historians don't normally just sit down and write things, any more than an astronaut would jump out of the mother ship without a tether and a decent supply of oxygen. We stay close to our sources as a matter of respect — and if we were perfectly honest, out of an abundance of personal caution.
Turned out, however, that I had no trouble leaving footnotes behind. In fact, jumping off the cliff on a rope swing was the easiest thing I did all week, fully accomplished before lunch the first day. The real problem, one I shared with the ministers and rabbis in my writing group, was much more complicated. Writing is by its nature anti-social. It requires time and distance apart. And of course, in an age of social isolation and media feeds targeted toward our personal algorithms, it's far too easy to fall into the trap of writing for and about me, me, me. Writing can be the ultimate act of self-indulgence.
In the end my most important reboot had nothing to do with footnotes. It was learning to see writing as a form of compassion, a way of engaging other people with respect, clarity, and vulnerability. That means leaving behind the preachy sermon mode — read this, it will be good for you — and, for the historian-expert in full footnote body armor, accepting the risk of exposure, being willing to be, at least for a little while, a party of one. That takes a lot more courage than most of us realize, not just to be honest and vulnerable, but, as I am learning, to fight against easy distractions, whether it's social media or the pile of oughts and shoulds clamoring from my calendar and smart phone. Somewhere out there, I keep reminding myself, are birds waiting to be listened to, and clouds waiting to be watched.
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 hope you have a safe and happy celebration.
image of fireworks over the Charles River in Boston courtesy of Pablo Valerio via Wikimedia Commons
At the beginning of summer, we find ourselves daydreaming about summer road trips, escapes to cabins and cottages, and the afternoons when we might slip away to the beach. Others, including some of the library staff, travel to conferences and industry meetings.
One summer, over 100 years ago, a group of businessmen made a very long journey: across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Seattle, Washington. Shortly after their arrival, they were photographed in Spokane. Their shiny top hats create a striking contrast against the rough logs of the building behind them. In the upper right-hand area of the photo, you can see the curious face of a child, straining for a glance of the visitors.
This group arrived just over fifty years after the Treaty of Amity and Commerce opened up diplomatic and commercial relations between Japan and the United States. The exchange was facilitated by Eiichi Shibusawa, a prolific Japanese entrepreneur and an advocate for stronger ties with the West.
The visitors met with President William H. Taft, J.P Morgan, and Thomas Edison among many others famous Americans of the day. They began in Seattle and traveled by train across the United States for three months, ending on the east coast. Along the way, they stopped in Spokane and posed for a group photo.
How the photograph wound up in our collection is a mystery to the library's current staff, but they speculate that it was among the papers given to us by a minister of missionary.
We have hundreds of other images in our collection, many of which can be viewed online. It's not quite like a vacation, but they can still transport you.