Beacon Street Diary

Archives: July 2020

July 29, 2020

by Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist / NEHH Publications

Perhaps the most accurate thing one can say about the Salem witch trials is that our modern cultural understanding of them is plagued by inaccuracy. One such misconception is simple seasonality. Salem, both the town itself and the wider cultural concept, is now indelibly associated with Halloween, but the executions of the falsely-accused victims of the hysteria actually occured in the heat of the Massachusetts summer, from June to September, 1692.

An omnipresent darling of American folklore, the witch trials narrative is enjoying a notable resurgence ushered in with the publication of Stacy Schiff's The Witches, and, albeit on a less scholarly note, a plethora of TV shows including WGN's Salem, the Travel Channel's Witches of Salem, and Freeform's Motherland: Fort Salem. The latter features an alternate history in which the "witches" A) were actual witches, and B) shacked up with the local militia to provide supernatural assistance in battle, and seem to have subsequently been conscripted into the U.S. army.

I personally enjoy such whimsical adaptations and artistic license - Disney's Halloween classic Hocus Pocus remains one of my favorite films of all time - and censorship in the name of historical accuracy would be downright, well, Puritanical. However, I frequently find myself wondering how the events of 1692 have become so twisted in the American imagination. Outside of Massachusetts, the witch trials of the North Shore merit only a passing mention in the historical curriculum, high-school theater productions of The Crucible notwithstanding, allowing popular misinformation to flourish.

Sometimes misconception takes the form of conflation with the long-lived European trials, much more severe in both brutality and body count; although torture was also utilized in Salem, the total death toll was "only" 25. At the opposite end of the spectrum, supernatural powers continue to be attributed to the accused, who were in fact hapless victims of religious hysteria and score-settling, and mostly faithful church-goers. Not to mention the more subtle, but no less popular, proliferation of reductivist theories around the hysteria, like blaming the entire thing on moldy rye.

Popular scholarly tomes like Schiff's go some way toward redressing this balance. I am proud to say that the Congregational Library also played its part in advocating for better research and access, as part of the New England's Hidden Histories program. During CLIR-funded project work in 2016-17, we partnered with the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, digitizing and publishing their archival collections related to Congregationalism. Among these were a number of witchcraft trial records, which fall under the same nascent-Congregationalist category as other Puritan sources.

Unsurprisingly, PEM/Phillips holds a substantial portion of the legal documentation produced during the trials, including testimony and court transcripts, since the events occurred in their metaphorical backyard. (Others are held variously by the Boston Public Library, Massachusetts Historical Society, Massachusetts Archives, Essex County Court Archives, Essex Institute, New York Public Library, and Maine Historical Society). Most of the Phillips Library trial records had already been digitized by the University of Virginia in 2002, as part of their comprehensive Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive project - even now the project website remains the "hub" for Salem witch trial research, a treasure trove of original records, transcriptions, and contextual information.

However, subsequent to UVA/PEM's digitization of the records in the early 2000s, several other trial documents were identified within the collections. These were the primary subject of the Hidden Histories digitization and publication scheme. In our Salem Witchcraft Trials collection page, we aligned our newly digitized records with UVA's digital library, filling in occasional gaps, and in some cases providing higher-resolution surrogates of previously digitized records. The resulting collection is the most complete roster of the PEM/Phillips trial documents available online.

I lately found myself returning to the primary-source narratives while listening to the audiobook of Schiff's The Witches, borrowed free-of-charge from my local library via the Libby smartphone app (FYI). For the second time since working with the digitized records, it struck me that the historical details of the trials and their supernatural testimonials are perhaps stranger than any modern re-imagining (yes, even Motherland: Fort Salem). Strolling along the Deer Island waterfront near my home in Winthrop, Mass. I can just glimpse the distant headlands of Salem and Marblehead, often overshadowed by dark pillars of cloud. On these blisteringly hot summer days, the events of 1692 seem very far away indeed. But the more I delve into the real story of Salem, the more I am reminded that these spectres of history are closer than we think, and certainly not relegated to Halloween alone.

July 21, 2020

The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP was first published in 1910. It is still available in digital form today where it is described as “a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color”. W.E.B. DuBois was already a well-known scholar and spokesman for African Americans and civil rights when he became founding editor of the magazine. He served as editor-in-chief until 1934.

Under DuBois’s leadership, the magazine flourished, growing from 1,000 subscribers in its first year to over 100,000 by 1918. DuBois exerted a tremendous amount of creative control during his tenure and used the magazine as a vehicle to express many of his own political views. He was particularly interested in promoting a progressive, dignified image of African-American people, promoting the rise of African American colleges, and expressing support for the Pan-African movement.  He also used the magazine to expose and criticize discrimination and call for action in response to violence and civil rights abuses perpetrated against Black people. In particular, he called attention to lynching, advocated a ban on the White supremacist film, Birth of a Nation, and discrimination faced by African-American military servicemen.

Politics and news was a major topical focus for the magazine, but under literary editor Jessie Redmon Fauset’s leadership, The Crisis became a major showcase for African-American literary and artistic talent during the Harlem Renaissance. She published early works from such luminaries as Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.

The Congregational Library holds issues from 1911-1926, some of the magazine’s most influential years. This includes Langston Hughes’s first published poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, originally printed in the June 1921 issue. These holdings and the fact that they came to us via a contemporary subscription rather than a donation are reflective of Congregationalists’ historical support for and involvement in civil rights movements. While the library’s reading room remains closed to the public, many of these issues have been digitized and are available for free online. If you have questions or would like a closer look at some of these issues (which I highly recommend--the illustrations and photographs are fantastic!), please email us at

July 16, 2020

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

In past years, the Congregational Library & Archives has offered a workshop and booklet dedicated to helping church communities establish, develop, and maintain their own records management programs. I am happy to use this blog space to announce that we are currently working on a newly revised versions of these important resources. Over time, the information described in previous incarnations had become outdated and obsolete prompting our current endeavor. It is hoped that a new booklet might become available in the coming months, and that an in-person workshop will be developed shortly there-after.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to use this space to discuss some actions you and your church community can do to setup a records retention program. First though, it is important to note how a church records program is different from a church archive. While both hold your records, only the records program contains what are considered “active” documents. Active documents are living records which are maintained for legal, business, tax, or administrative purposes. These include everything from tax forms to employment records to board reports to policy documents. Anything that is an active record is something which may need to be quickly and readily retrieved as part of your organization’s daily operations. When they become inactive records, and are therefore no longer part of a records program, they are either destroyed or permanently placed into the archive.

A records retention program, simply put, is a set of policies which determine what happens to today’s records after they are produced. These are the records your church organization produces daily and may include everything from the Parish Committee’s meeting minutes, to the employee manual, to financial audit forms, to an email from the office admin to the head deaconess. It can be daunting to think about the plethora of documents you make year in and out, but by creating policies now, you can ensure that important records, and memories, are kept forever more. Below is an overview of steps your church can take to begin thinking about, and drafting policies for, your records retention program.

Step 1 – Create a Records Committee:

Establishing a Records Committee will be an important first step. More heads are better than one, especially when it comes to trying to get a handle on your church’s records. The committee should ideally include members of your church organization’s administrative staff, ministerial staff, volunteers, and parishioners. If your church has a history or archives committee, the records committee should include someone from those committees, but should otherwise be a separate entity which works alongside the archival program.

Step 2 – Audit your Records:

This will be the most difficult and time-consuming step. The records committee should, over a period of 1-3 months, establish a protocol to systematically determine the types and volume of records your church organization regularly produces. This audit should also determine how those records are stored, either physically or digitally, and if there are any current policies in place which affect the storage and preservation of those records. It may be best to assign record types to broad categories, such as financial records, administrative records, building records, board records, and activity/social records, to help break down this task into smaller parts and to help further contextualize your records.

Step 3 - Create a Draft Retention Schedule:

One of the most valuable tools for a records management program is a retention schedule, a broad policy document which uses the information from the audit to specify how long each record type is kept and maintained as an active document before either transferring to the archive or being destroyed. Every state will have slightly different rules for employment and financial records, but the MissionBox Global Network has a simple guide for how long most record types should be maintained for non-profit organizations which may be adapted for use by churches: Document Retention for US Nonprofits: A Simple Guide. May records created which do not fall into business, legal, and tax related categories may be able to be retained for short periods of time, less than a year, before transferring to an archive.

Step 4 – Create a Records Storage Policy

With a draft retention policy in place, the next step is to create a singular repository to store those records. This can be as simple as a filing cabinet or as complex as a storage closet, depending on your church’s physical space and resources, but in general, the goal is to create a policy which clearly states where records types should be stored while they remain active documents. This policy should also cover electronic records; one easy method to create a central repository for digital records is to purchase an external hard drive upon which copies of all digital records may be transferred. It is ideal, when handling digital records, to create a policy on how digital files should be named and to create a well-documented file folder structure into which digital files are placed.

Step 5 – Create a Transfer and Destruction Policy

Simply put, not all records, digital or physical, can be kept permanently. Using the audit and retention schedule, the records committee, in dialogue with the archives committee if applicable, should determine which records, after they become inactive, should be preserved, and transferred to a permanent archive, and which should be destroyed. There is not a perfect formula to determine this, and every church community will have different standards and practices that best fit their needs. As a starting point though, I find it helpful to think about which record types tell a story. For example, while board reports tell a story about the happenings of a church at specific moments in time, IRS forms typically say little about a church organization’s daily life that is not documented elsewhere. Another general rule to think about is that records which include personally identifiable information, such as bank account and social security numbers, are generally safer to destroy rather than keep permanently as part of an archive.

These five steps are broad and without much detail, but my hope is that they can become a starting point as you and your church organization think about creating a records retention program. And during this time of remote work and zoom meetings, much of this work can be done remotely. Of course, the CLA is always happy to help too; please always feel free to send us an email. Our goal is the preservation of your memories, regardless if your records are held with us or not. And of course, we look forward to going into more detail with our newly revised booklet in the near future.

Further Reading:

3 Steps to Establishing a Record Retention Schedule

Document Retention Best Practices & State Guidelines

Fundamentals of Records Retention Schedule

July 14, 2020

by William McCarthy, Processing and Reference Archivist

While the staff of the CLA have been working from home, we have continued to remain engaged with our collections even while separated from them. These posts will highlight some of our less well-known collections. Please note that the collections highlighted are not available online unless otherwise noted.

Today we are going to look at collection RG0069, Dorchester, Mass. Second Church records. This collection originally formed out of a donation in 1963 but was not properly added to the collection until 1989. In 2019, the CLA received a large deposit of material and the collection was re-processed in June 2019. Our collection spans the entire life of the church, including records from before it was established.

The beginnings of Second Church in Dorchester started when it was organized on January 1, 1808 by 64 members of First Church of Dorchester. These 64 members included 27 men and 37 women who had decided to split from the "Mother Church". On January 19, 1810, the group voted to name the new church South Church in Dorchester. This name only lasted two years when on April 3, 1812 they renamed the church "Second Church". The expansion into a new church was mainly meant to tackle the expanding population of the area. The first official pastor for the newly formed Second Church was Dr. John Codman. Rev. Codman was a member of an influential family and graduated from Harvard. His pastorate would be the longest for the church and during this time the church was visited by Daniel Webster and (on occasion) John Adams. The records in our collection continue up until 1991, shortly after the transfer of the church to the Church of the Nazarene. (1)

This collection is over 30 full boxes and contains a wealth of information on the day-to-day happenings of the Second Church. One thing to note is that the collection holds records from 40 auxiliary organizations. Some highlights from this section include the Chinese Sunday School's Copy of The Book of Acts in Mandarin (1909), the Couples Club records (1943-1953) and the Dorchester Gentlemen's Driving Club (1913-1915). Another area I want to draw attention too is the church building information. Included here is information on the selling of land in 1854, the purchasing of an organ in 1857 and various plans on additional projects across the 20th century. Overall, the collection gives a complete picture of church operations and desires extra attention and research.

The finding aid for this collection can be found here. If you have any interest in viewing this collection once the library reopens, or you have any other CLA related questions, do not hesitate to reach out to us at Stay safe and have a great day!

Bib: "History." Second Church in Dorchester. March 23, 2019. Accessed July 8, 2020. http://

July 7, 2020

page from Joseph Green's diary

by Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist / NEHH Publication

Appropriately enough for a blog called "Beacon Street Diary", today I've compiled a list of diaries and journals within our current New England's Hidden Histories collections. The materials listed below (in alphabetical order by surname) are digitized and made available online via NEHH and our project partners. 

All of these diaries are sourced from the rich seam of personal documents which comprise Series 2, and perhaps represent the most intimate voices available within the digitized records. More so even than "relation of faith" documents, diaries provide a relatively unfiltered glimpse into the minds of people living in the 17-19th centuries. That is not to say, however, that they are homogenous in tone or breadth. The writers themselves run the gamut in terms of livelihoods, community standing, and even gender; Mary Cleaveland's diary provides a rare 18th-century women's perspective. Other diarists include farmers, the proprieter of a forge, clergymen, missionaries, and even Cotton Mather himself. The content of the diaries, too, is as diverse as the authors, dealing variously with agricultural concerns, child-rearing, business and finance, churchgoing, and personal spirituality.

It is my opinion that these records constitute one of the most valuable facets of NEHH overall, and are certainly unparalleled as a source of qualitative data about daily life in Colonial New England. 

Mary Cleaveland's diary, 1742-1762

Mary Cleaveland (nee Dodge) was the wife of Rev. John Cleveland, minister to Ipswich Second (Chebacco) Church and wartime chaplain. Her sporatic diary entries detail the birth of her children and the death of relatives and prominent acquaintances, as well as notable events about town.

Zaccheus Collins's diary, 1726-1769

The diary of this Lynn, Mass., man details a 43-year period of daily life, including agricultural tasks, notations on attendance at religious meetings, visits from his friends, and observations about the weather. The diary is contained within two bound volumes, the first comprising the years 1726-1750, and the second 1750-1769.

Joseph Green's diary, 1700-1715

Rev. Joseph Green was a celebrated minister of the First Church of Salem. Ordained in 1698, he inherited a divided and traumatized congregation after the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692. He replaced the controversial Rev. Samuel Parris, reuniting the church and facilitating reconciliation between perpetrators and victims of the witchcraft hysteria. His diary of 1700-1715 deals mainly with day-to-day concerns such as religious study, errands and meetings, though it also touches on more monumental events such as Ann Putnam’s public admission that she had falsely accused others of witchcraft.

Gideon Hawley's journals, 1754-1806

Rev. Gideon Hawley, a noted missionary, worked for the Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Indians under the supervision of Jonathan Edwards. Hawley accepted a position from the Society to establish a mission among the Six Nations on the Susquehanna; he was ordained in Old South Church, Boston, July 31, 1754 for this position and left for the site, near the contemporary town of Windsor, New York. With the arrival of the French and Indian War, Hawley returned to Boston and accepted a commission as chaplain to Colonel Richard Gridley's regiment. He was later appointed as minister to the Mashpee living in Mashpee, Massachusetts. The NEHH digital collections consist of four consecutive journal volumes spanning 1754-1806. These cover Rev. Hawley's time as a missionary traveling through "the Country of the Six Nations" and his experiences durig the Seven Years War. Also of note are records relating to Hawley’s long-time translator, Rebecca Kellogg Ashley.

Thomas Josselyn's diary, 1743-1775

Thomas Josselyn of Hanover and Hingham, Mass. was deacon of Hingham First Church and proprietor of a forge. On the first page of his diary, he describes his intent "to keep an account of the affairs of Divine providence, concerning myself and my family and the Church of God…". The volume consists of daily entries in which Josselyn usually devotes a sentence or two to details of his work, meetings, church attendance, visits with friends and family, and travel to Boston and other locales.

Cotton Mather's diary, 1716

Rev. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), one of the most influential Puritan ministers of Colonial America, needs little introduction. Rev. Mather was ordained in 1684 at Second Church in Boston, also known as "Old North" Church or "the Church of the Mathers". He was a prolific author, publishing some 280 distinct items. He is perhaps best remembered today for his endorsement of inoculation as a means of fighting smallpox, and for his persecutory role in the Salem witchcraft trials. NEHH's digitized material includes a portion of one of his diaries, containing entries starting in February of 1715/16 (Mather uses dual Julian/Gregorian calendar dating) and ending December 1716.

Ebenezer Storer's diary, 1749-1764

Ebenezer Storer was a Harvard and Yale-educated lay person who went on to become Treasurer of Harvard College in 1777. He was deacon of the Congregational Church in Brattle Square, Cambridge, as well as an early member of the Society for Propagating the Gospel in North America, the American Academy of Arts and Science, and several other organizations. He updated his journal intermittently, with long form entries detailing deaths in his family, spiritual reflections and prayers, and segments of poetry. He also includes occasional genealogical or family information, as well as passing observations on current events. The entry for March 11, 1764, mentions the spread of smallpox and Storer's decision to have his children inoculated.

Stephen Williams's diary, 1716-1782

This collection consists of handwritten journal entries, memoranda, and sermon notes kept occasionally by Rev. Stephen Williams from 1716 to his death in 1782. Rev. Williams’s early life was remarkable; he grew up in Deerfield, Massachusetts and was captured by French and Indigenous allies during their raid on the town in 1704 when he was eleven years old. He was liberated after almost two years in captivity, going on to graduate from Yale College in 1713 and subsequently ministering to the Congregational Church of Longmeadow, Mass. He also served as a chaplain during the French and Indian War. Rev. Williams focuses heavily on ecclesiastical matters in his journal entries. Many entries consist of written prayers and brief meditations on bible verses.