Beacon Street Diary

July 19, 2016

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.

-Peggy Bendroth

July 1, 2016

The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed on Monday, July 4th in observance of Independence 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 hope you have a safe and happy celebration.


image of fireworks over the Charles River in Boston courtesy of Pablo Valerio via Wikimedia Commons

June 29, 2016

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.

June 28, 2016

On a recent Thursday evening, we invited members of the Congregational Library & Archives to join us for a special evening lecture.

Dr. Peter Becker of the Harvard College Writing Program gave a lecture about slave narratives. The Congregational library & Archives has many examples of the writings of former slaves who escaped the South before the Civil War. Becker explored the slave narrative as a literary genre, and delved into its historic, social, and religious implications. He discussed how themes and tropes carried through centuries of narratives, from the first slave narrative in 1770s to contemporary works inspired by the slave narrative genre, like the films Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave. Along the historical and literary journey, Dr. Becker drew connections between slave narratives and works as divergent as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Toni Morrison's Beloved.

An unexpected guest joined the group that evening: The great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Jones, a one-time slave who penned a famous narrative (a copy of which is in our collection). She brought with her a collection of letters, including a letter of introduction written by William Lloyd Garrison to help Jones as he made his way in Canada.

The event was presented in collaboration with the National Park Service's Boston African American National Historic Site, one of our regular collaborators.

We periodically host special programs for members. Becoming a member of the Congregational Library & Archives gets you a seat at these events, and, even more importantly, helps preserve the history behind them.

June 13, 2016

This year marks the 425th anniversary of the birth of Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643), a prominent figure in Puritan New England. Her role in the Antinomian Controversy led to fierce theological debate in the colony, criminal and religious trials, and finally her excommunication from the church and banishment from Massachusetts. We're partnering with the Anne Marbury Hutchinson Foundation for two events as part of their commemoration of Mrs. Hutchinson's life. Reserve your tickets today.


Anne Hutchinson's 425th Birthday reception

Join fellow Anne Fans and Hutchinson descendants in a (pre-dinner) birthday celebration. Co-hosted by the CLA and the AMHF, guests will enjoy Puritan-fun delicacies and raise a toast together in "Mother Anne's" memory. Following a convivial swirl of conversation, hugs, and song the assembly will be invited to join arms and trot to local, Beacon Hill dining establishments for more history-loving cheers.

Wednesday, July 20th
5:30 - 7:00 pm


American Jezebel & Founding Mother

Join fellow "Anne fans" and Hutchinson descendants in a lecture and extended Q&A by Eve LaPlante, acclaimed author of American Jezebel. Co-hosted by the CLA and the AMHF, guests enjoy an informative presentation LaPlante as she explores the life and times of her ancestor, Founding Mother Anne Hutchinson, followed by a Q&A with fellow "Anne fans".

Thursday, July 21st
10:30 am - noon


June 8, 2016

There are two new additions to our New England's Hidden Histories program, both of which have experienced changes in geography since their creation.


Medway, Mass. First Church of Christ records, 1730-1876

The records of this church contain the usual meeting minutes and vital statistics, as well as a handful of disciplinary cases and two sermons. Although the church orginated in the town of Medway, the geography of the area has changed such that the building itself is now in Millis, Mass.


Brunswick, Maine. First Parish records, 1735-1829

This extensive collection contains a variety of materials. Something that may be of particular interest to some researchers is a group of documents relating to the call and ordination of Rev. Asa Mead, a process that isn't always so thoroughly recorded. The majority of these records date from before Maine's separation from Massachusetts.


Special Thanks

These digital resources have been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this resource do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

May 30, 2016

Don't forget to let us know if you'll be joining us for this month's free lunchtime lecture.

David Mislin is a historian of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, with a focus on American intellectual and religious history.

His latest book, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age, shows how Congregationalist ministers and laity in and around Boston were instrumental in encouraging Americans to start celebrating religious diversity during the late 19th and early 20th century.

He will discuss how shifting views in Boston helped inspire other mainline Protestants throughout the U.S. to adopt a similar outlook, and suggest that this shift was pivotal for fostering a more inclusive society.

Mislin received his Ph.D. from Boston University, where he taught before joining Temple University's intellectual Heritage faculty in the fall of 2014. in addition to his latest work, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Cornell University Press, 2015), he has also contributed chapters to several edited volumes on religion and American life, and he has published or has articles forthcoming in the Journal of the Historical Society, Religion and American Culture, and Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture. He is currently at work on a second book-length project, tentatively titled Evil in America: The Cultural History of an Idea.


Wednesday, June 1st
12:00 - 1:00 pm

Register through Eventbrite.

May 27, 2016

The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed on Monday, May 30th in observance of Memorial 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.


image of historical American flags courtesy of

May 25, 2016

If you missed Peggy Bendroth's recent talk on The Last Puritans, or simply want to hear it again, you're in luck. She'll be appearing at Old North Church as part of their Summer Speaker Series in two weeks.

The New England Puritans have had a powerful hold on the American imagination, as everything from the founders of democracy to witch-burning killjoys. The Congregational churches, whose tall white spires still dot the New England countryside, took enormous pride in their Puritan and Pilgrim roots, especially as, in the years after the Civil War, Thanksgiving became a premiere American holiday. But, as they quickly discovered, history can be an unwieldy burden. The heirs of the Pilgrim Fathers also had to keep up with the times, to meet modern challenges that their 17th century forebears never could have imagined. Margaret Bendroth, author of The Last Puritans, will explain how a religious tradition deeply knitted to the past struggled to honor their founders even as they ran up against their faults and limitations, growing to become one of the most progressive and forward-looking religious groups in American society.

Please join us for a reception and book signing following the lecture.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016
6:30 - 8:00 pm

Old North Church
193 Salem Street
Boston, MA 02113

RSVP through Eventbrite.

The Congregational Library & Archives is pleased to co-sponsor this event.

May 23, 2016

Range 2 of the library shelves, deep in the back of the stacks, is a tough neighborhood. Between tomes about white supremacists, the box of sermons about "Murder, dueling, etc." and the quarantine for damaged books, the range  contains stacks of pamphlets and reports about institutions with evocative names like, "The Church Home for Orphan and Destitute Children", "Relief of Aged Indigent Females", "Prevention of Pauperism", and "Consumptives Home". Among those pamphlets are two board reports from the Retreat for the Insane at Hartford, Connecticut, dated 1848 and 1851. Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we decided to page through the reports and get a snapshot of mental health treatment more than 150 years ago.

Opened in 1823, the Hartford Retreat for the Insane was the third mental institution in the United States and represented a new era of mental health care. The dungeon-like "lunatic asylums" of the past were falling out of favor, and the focus was on trying to improve patients' conditions. The Retreat started as a fifty-bed facility for upper-class patients. The founders were interested in "moral treatment" more than the pharmacology of the day, which still involved bleeding and herbal remedies. The two reports reflect this focus on therapy. The superintendent physician, John S. Butler, wrote both accounts to the Retreat's board. He writes about patients participating in walking and riding groups in the Retreat's grounds, reading circles, and cultural activities in Hartford. Despite the Retreat’s growing indigent population, Butler's writing makes it clear his focus was still on therapy.

Budgets provide another window into the operation of the Retreat. Both reports include detailed lines about how much was spent on staff salaries and wages, different types of food, and maintenance. Tellingly, "Wine and Medicine" were aggregated into a single line item that accounted for just a few hundred dollars of the Retreat's $25,000 operating budget. Butler's report also discusses an expansion completed in 1848, necessary to keep up with the Retreat's growing population.

Perhaps most interesting are the statistical tables at the end of each report. They organize the patients by county of origin, gender, profession, age, and cause of illness. Eyebrow-raising tidbits emerge. Common causes of illness included "Intemperance" and "Over-work", as well as the rarer "Religious excitement" and "Erroneous education". "Farmer" was the most common profession for men entering the hospital in both years, while for women it was "Domestic pursuits".


In some cases, Butler editorialized on the statistics. Hartford and New Haven counties produced the most patients, and Butler wrote in the 1848 report that urban areas are not conducive to physical health, and therefore cannot support mental health.

Butler also remarks on the frequency with which young women come through the doors of the retreat, suffering from an affliction that Betty Friedan, writing a hundred years later, might call "the problem with no name". Butler pins the blame on their husbands, who he says did not recognize the labor involved in domestic pursuits, and take advantage of wives' free labor to make more money. In Butler's estimation, many of these women just needed a break. He believed all mental illness could be cured with enough rest, exercise, talk, and patience.

The medical establishment's belief in the ability to cure mental illness withered over the next decade. Butler claimed a 52.5% recovery rate in 1851, but also describes a growing number of patients who are not helped: those who died in the hospital, shortly after exiting the hospital, and patients who leave the Retreat unimproved, most likely for financial reasons.  

The reports make it clear that a stay in the Retreat was not possible for everyone. The minimum length of stay was three months, and the cost put it out of reach for impoverished patients. Butler recommended the creation of economical accommodations for less well-off patients in the 1848 report, but by 1851, they had not yet materialized.  But the number of low-income and chronically ill patients grew over the next two decades, and Retreat devoted more and more of its resources to custodial care for chronic patients.

Connecticut's state mental hospital opened in the late 1860s. The new facility relieved pressure on the Retreat, which had until then been the only mental health care facility in the state. The Retreat returned to its role as an upper-class haven. It is still in operation today, as the Institute of Living, and is part of Hartford Hospital, a large teaching hospital. A little part of its history is in our Range 2, among other small fragments of mental health care history and a puzzle of American history stretching across the stacks.


engraving of the Hartford Retreat for the Insane courtesy of the National Library of Medicine