Beacon Street Diary

October 6, 2016

We're pleased to announce the availability of three new collections in our New England's Hidden Histories program. All of them contain some interesting history and insights into the lives of the people who created them.


Northampton, Mass. First Church of Christ (1661-1846)

The church was gathered June 18, 1661. The congregation was established with representatives from the Churches of Christ from Dorchester, Roxbury, Springfield, and Hadley. Their first minister was Elezear Mather, followed by Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard's grandson, Jonathan Edwards, became their third minister, and served from 1727-1750.

This volume contains articles of faith, a covenant, meeting minutes, admissions, dismissions, membership lists, baptisms, deaths, and marriages, and an index for members by name. The original book is owned by and housed at the Forbes Library in Northampton. We are grateful for their participation in this program.


Braintree, Mass. First Church (1697-1825)

The Mount Wollaston Parish Meeting House was established in 1639 in the present-day Quincy Area, and by 1640 the town was renamed Braintree. Braintree originally included present-day Braintree, Quincy, Randolph, and Holbrook. The Parish Meeting House was the site of the original church, which first gathered on September 10, 1707. In 1708, old Braintree was divided into the North Precinct (Quincy) and the South Precinct (Braintree). When Quincy became an official town in 1792, the 1707 church was designated as the First Church in Braintree.

The records in this collection include the journal of Samuel Niles dating 1697 to 1777, a volume of the Braintree Precinct's Financial Records dating 1708 to 1796, and a volume of church records dating 1790 to 1825.


Avery, David. The Case of the Pastor in Wrentham (1794)

Rev. David Avery (1746-1817) was born in Franklin, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale in 1769, studied theology at Dartmouth College, and was ordained as a missionary to the Native Americans in 1771. After serving as an army chaplain during the Revolutionary War, he was installed as the pastor in Bennington, Vermont in 1780. He moved to Wrentham, Massachusetts in 1783 to replace a minister who had died. The difficulties described in this volume grew, and he was dismissed from his service in Wrentham in 1794.

This manuscript was prepared by Rev. David Avery and sent to David Howell, Esq. "for his judgment & advice" about the strife that had grown between Avery and his congregation.


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 these resources do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

October 3, 2016

Don't forget to let us know if you'll be joining us for tomorrow's free lunchtime lecture. There are still a few seats available.

Epidemics and Awakenings in the First Congregational Church of Haverhill, Massachusetts, 1735-1740

In May of 1736, John Boynton of Haverhill, Massachusetts, proclaimed to fellow parishioners, "I have been awakened and put upon my duty by the many and sudden deaths in this place." While intense religious revivals had sprung up across the Atlantic world, this relation of faith found its inspiration in a biological event particular to the frontier communities of Northern New England. Beginning a year earlier, John had watched a new disease take thousands of lives across Essex County, Massachusetts and Rockingham County, New Hampshire. By the end of the following decade, the total lost would exceed ten thousand individuals; ninety-eight percent would be children. Despite these high death rates and the impact such an unusual event had on a community in the midst of religious upheaval, scholars have largely ignored both the disease and its social ramifications.

Using sources held in the Congregational Library & Archives, this talk explores the reactions of one town to this horrifying disease, Haverhill, Massachusetts. Combining traditional research methodologies with digital humanities technology, it reconstructs this catastrophic event from church records to reveal the magnitude of mortality in this town and the manner by which the unprecedented loss of so many children left parents isolated from supportive community networks, and thus, from the historical record. Far from stoically internalizing this grief in a manner consistent with a reductionist interpretation of Calvinist thought, parents living in these frontier settlements detached from their communities, many times stumbling through a grieving "darkness" toward early death. These otherwise silent sufferings, like dark matter in a universe of human experience, account for a missing mass of emotional outpour contemporary to the First Great Awakening. It provides a useful medical-historical analogue to post-colonial techniques for recovering subaltern "lost voices" while furnishing a new model for understanding these silences.

Nicholas E. Bonneau is a doctoral candidate and instructor in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame and will be the Carpenter Fellow in Early American Religious Studies and a Friends of the MCEAS Dissertation Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies for the 2016–2017 academic year. He specializes in the global environmental history of emerging infectious disease, concentrating on seventeenth to early nineteenth century North America. He is interested in the memory of epidemics and what factors influence how they succeed or fail to find a place in the historical record. Nicholas is the creator of the Death Records of Early America Database, linking hundreds of thousands of individuals' vital records from the seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries across the Atlantic World. This database allows scholars to track individuals and groups through births, marriages and deaths as well as social networks including family links, parish affiliation, and common employers. He has received fellowships though the National Science Foundation IGERT, the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, American Antiquarian Society, Philadelphia Consortium for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (formerly PACHS), as well as research residencies at the Philadelphia College of Physicians and the Philips Library of the Peabody-Essex Museum. Nicholas teaches US History (to 1877) at the University of Notre Dame and the History of Medicine at the Westville Correctional Facility through a partnership with Holy Cross and Bard Colleges. His dissertation, "Unspeakable Loss, Distempered Awakenings: North America's Invisible Throat Distemper Epidemics, 1735 – 1765", is scheduled for defense in the spring of 2017.

Tuesday, October 4th
noon - 1:00 pm

Register through Eventbrite.

September 30, 2016

Congregational missions reached around the world. In addition to Hawaii, contingencies brought educational and social services to the Asia and the Near East. Many schools founded by missionaries still exist in Turkey, but our story comes from a school in rural Kansas where three students at the Royal Valley Middle School in Mayetta tell the story about an unsung hero, Emma Darling Cushman.

Cushman, an American nurse, saved the lives of thousands of Armenian children during the Armenian genocide. In addition to caring for countless orphans, Cushman served as Acting Consul of the Allies and Neutral Nations, overseeing millions of dollars in relief funds and prisoner exchanges. Their video that documents Cushman's heroism earned the $7,500 Top Prize in International Discovery Award Competition from the Lowell Miliken Center for Unsung Heroes. In addition, the students have been given the honor of providing the inscription on her unmarked headstone at the American Cemetery in Cairo. The students can be commended for their extensive research and interviews.

One stop on their quest was The Congregational Library & Archives. Archivist Jessica Steytler worked with the young researchers and their teacher Nate McAlister to locate significant images from our collection. Jessica tells the story, "The students discovered through our online resources that we had photographs of Emma Darling Cushman, and we were able to provide details on how to request copies of the images that landed in the students' documentary.  While it's our number one priority to make the collections accessible to anyone who wishes to use our resources, being able to assist young researchers is particularly special."

We hope that you get a chance to watch the video; you will be glad that you did.

September 28, 2016

Traffic stops as eager students clamber onto school buses, traveling toward new adventures. Their rides vary in length from 15 minutes to the 2-hour trek that Nate McAlister's students make through the Kansas Prairie (see this Friday's article) but none travel as far as the sons and daughters of missionaries did when they sailed from Hawaii to Boston seeking an formal education. The journey rounding Cape Horn lasted from 5 to 6 months and students, once in North America, were unable to return home for many years.

The voyages, let alone long separations, took their toll on the missionary families and in 1841 a school was founded on the lands of Ka Punahou, named for natural spring discovered centuries before. From the first class of 15 students Punahou has grown to 3,768 students.

No longer just for children of missionaries, the K-12 institution strives to provide unparalleled opportunities to cultivate students' unique interests and talents through rigorous academics, programs in athletics and the arts, and an array of co-curricular opportunities. Punahou boasts of many accomplished graduates including Congregational Library & Archives members and its best known, Barack Obama, 44th American president.

Last month visitors from Punahou made their way to Boston as part of a pilgrimage to trace their early beginnings and found many clues right here at 14 Beacon Street. After a visit at Park Street Church, ACA board member Rich Elliott brought the group to the library. Group member Dita Ramler wrote about their visit in the school's blog.

September 9, 2016

Our reading room will be closed to the public on Monday, September 12th 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 7, 2016

The latest additions to our New England's Hidden Histories program come from two churches that have survived many changes.


Granville, Mass. First Congregational Church records, 1757-1848

This diverse collection contains the expected administrative, membership, and disciplinary records, as well as a handful of ecclesiastical councils, sermons, and essays. There is also a selection of letters from Rev. Lemuel Haynes, the first ordained African American minister, to Rev. Timothy Cooley who was serving as pastor to Granville at the time.


Sturbridge, Mass. Congregational Church records, 1736-1831

Many of the volumes in this collection were transcribed from deteriorating or disorganized original versions by the church's clerks and pastors in order to preserve its history. As such, they are very well organized and indexed, making it easy to find the meeting minutes, membership records, disciplinary cases, correspondence, and other information you might be seeking.


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.

September 2, 2016

The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed on Monday, September 5th 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 25, 2016

I don't usually post sermons, for a lot of good reasons. Number one, I have never taken a course in sermon-writing or biblical exegesis, so other than sitting through thousands of them over my lifetime, I'm a rank amateur. The other reason is that if I post this I'm going to have to write something entirely new for the next congregation. But that's a good thing. The third reason is that I hope it might get a few other congregations thinking about their practices of remembering, anniversary years or not.

The title comes from another congregation up in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, a wonderful line from their church covenant of 1798.


Lively Stones
Joshua 4: 1-9
[Sermon preached August 21, 2016 at Orleans, MA]
Peggy Bendroth

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.


Photograph of the memorial cairn at the top of Popolopen Torne in New York state courtesy of user Kafziel via Wikimedia Commons.

August 24, 2016

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.


August 18, 2016

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.

Most impressive to me, they had assembled a team of church members with a bent for research and writing, and produced one of the best local church histories I'd ever seen. The book included the usual narrative of ministers and building projects, but folded these into the relevant social context, wars and changing social mores, and the ups and downs of the coastal Maine economy. It also told much more of the story than we often hear, introducing us to sinners as well as saints, not just the long-dead variety but those involved in more recent struggles. The specifics won't surprise anyone who's ever been part of a church for any length of time, and especially not me, doubly wary as a cynical historian and a pastor's wife for over thirty years. We all know that every congregation has secrets — but very few of them make them part of their written history.

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.

-Peggy Bendroth