Beacon Street Diary
Archives: January 2021
by Sara Trotta, Librarian
A few weeks ago, I discussed the process library staff go through to find more information about specific people using our materials. Today, after a deep dive into our collection of Spiritualism materials, I’m channeling Billy Mays: but wait--there’s more!
As the Congregational Library, it’s not surprising that many of our patrons come to us hoping to learn more about individual churches. Sometimes, this is part of a genealogical project, i.e. “I know my ancestors were Congregationalists and lived in X town around Y year, can you help me find a baptismal/marriage/death certificate?”. Sometimes, this is research about their own church’s history, or part of another historical enterprise all together. The process for locating this information is similar regardless, but there are a few complicating factors to keep in mind.
First, historically Congregational churches operate (generally) independently which means each individual church will make its own choice about where their historical records are stored, and as a result Congregational church records are spread out in a number of different repositories. While a church is still open, they typically retain possession of their records, or they may make arrangements with local organizations to house their oldest records. The Congregational Library generally only accepts records from churches that have closed (with Park Street Church and Old South Church being two notable exceptions). The church itself is the best source of information on where its records are stored and how they can be accessed. This also means that there is no mandate for a church to deposit their records with us. While we try to reach out to churches that are closing to let them know that we are willing and available to preserve their records, each congregation makes the decision that is right for them. It may not serve a congregation in California well to have their historical records kept in New England where access to former members and their descendents would be difficult.
Secondly, things change! Congregational churches are some of the oldest in the country. Over hundreds of years--or sometimes far fewer--churches may undergo name changes, schisms or mergers with other churches. Town names and boundaries shift, or churches relocate, making them difficult to track down, especially if they may have closed a century ago or more. What was once the First Church of Rehoboth, MA could become the Congregational Church of Seekonk, MA, and eventually Newman Congregational Church of East Providence, RI.
Lastly, the historical record is fragile and incomplete. Records from the 17th or 18th centuries are rare and vulnerable to any number of natural or human disasters. Church records may have been destroyed or damaged in fires or floods, lost to time, or never kept (or kept in an incomplete, scattershot way) in the first place. Unfortunately, sometimes the historical information you’re looking for simply doesn’t exist.
I bring these points up not to discourage, but because I believe that forewarned is forearmed, especially when it comes to archival research. And of course, there are a number of tools at our disposal to help overcome some of these challenges. To find out which Congregational churches were active in a particular area at which time Richard Taylor’s regional indexes are the best resource. These books also have detailed information about changes to church names, mergers, splits, and whether a church is still open and more. This series includes The Churches of Christ of the Congregational Way in New England (digitized), Southern Congregational Churches, Congregational Churches of the West, Plan of Union and Congregational Churches in the Mid-Atlantic States, Congregational and Plan of Union Churches in the Great Lakes States, and Congregational Churches on the Plains. For locating the records of Massachusetts, former CLA Librarian Harold Worthley’s An Inventory of the Records of the Particular Congregational Churches of Massachusetts 1620-1805 is an excellent resource. For Massachusetts churches formed before 1805, it can tell which records exist, what they contain (vital statistics, etc), and where they are located at the time that it was published. Sometimes, if a church’s records were destroyed or lost, it will also note the nature and location of any copies.
If a church has closed, but the records did not find their way to the Congregational Library, there are a few places we can check. ArchiveGrid is an online resource that will search archival repositories across the countries for relevant records. It is thorough, but by no means complete so if you cannot find the records you’re looking for there, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Smaller institutions in particular are less likely to have their finding aids searchable through ArchiveGrid and these smaller institutions are often where Congregational Church records end up.
Congregational church records are often found in public libraries (especially ones with strong local history or genealogy collections), local or state historical societies, state archives, local college and university archives, or the archives of regional and national Congregational organizations like the UCC. Even if the records can’t be found there, local organizations may have information about what may have happened to them. It’s always worth inquiring.
These are the tools that library staff turn to when we are hunting down a church or its records, and it is my hope that sharing these resources can empower you to find more on your own. Of course, the path of historical research never did run smooth, so we are here (and happy!) to help navigate around roadblocks and pitfalls and answer your questions.
by Jules Thomson, associate archivist and social media manager
As an archivist and history buff, I've always found my work with New England's Hidden Histories and the in-house archival collections at the CLA to be extremely rewarding. After many years of residing and working in the UK heritage sector I was a relative newcomer to primary American sources, and have been fascinated by the new learning opportunities. But perhaps my favorite project so far has been assisting with the creation of a finding guide for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) within our Hidden Histories records.
Dr. Richard Boles of Oklahoma State University, author of Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North, had previously kindly provided us his own research guide, a carefully compiled and comprehensive list of references to Black and Indigenous members of various New England congregations, identified in the preliminary batch of digitized NEHH church records. (When the new guide was created, this list became the foundation of the "BIPOC in majority-white church records" section.)
Dr. Boles's list-style finding aid was already hosted by the Congregational Library's website, when in summer of 2020 Hidden Histories director Jeff Cooper floated the idea of a more significant expansion. With the blessing of CLA's directorship, we got in touch with Richard to ask if he would be willing to create contextualizing introductions to the newly digitized and identified materials. Between the three of us and our preexisting institutional familiarity with the NEHH materials, we were also able to identify the most pertinent collections to showcase.
Meanwhile, I set about identifying the top categories of our BIPOC-related records in order to split the guide up into more easily-navigable sections, and working within the parameters of our website to format these. We eventually settled on 5 categories, in addition to an introduction and bibliography, each with their own page.
Section one, Firsthand Writings by BIPOC, is a compilation of own voices material including clerical writings by America's first fully-ordained Black minister, Rev. Lemuel Haynes, and a number of relation of faith documents from African American and/or Indigenous congregants who had composed these semi-autobiographical accounts in order to solicit full church membership. These documents represent an unusually intimate glimpse into the spiritual lives of "ordinary" early Americans, rivalled only by diaries and personal correspondence.
The second category, BIPOC Churches and Institutions, showcases historical Black and Indigenous Congregational churches, including churches founded within missionary-established "praying towns". These, along with Black congregations, which were often birthed from a need to escape prejudice within majority-white churches, were relatively few and far between, and the existing records we do host are consequently of great importance.
Indigenous-Focused Records mainly comprise early missionary writings and observations by clergy adjacent to Native communities and churches, such as Rev. William Homes's diary entries mentioning the Wampanoag church and community on Martha's Vineyard. While sadly lacking in firsthand Native voices, this section nonetheless offers up exclusive historical information about several New England tribes. We also decided to include an external link to the already-digitized Mamusse wunneetu-panatamwe Up-Biblum God, John Eliot's translation of the bible into Wôpanâak, a physical version of which the CLA holds in our rare book collections.
BIPOC in Majority-White Church Records, as aforementioned, is primarily the fruit of Dr. Boles's examination of church record books containing racial identifiers next to the names of congregants. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, this practice, despite its origins in white-supremacist gatekeeping, has provided modern researchers with a better demographic picture of church attendance and an insight into lived experiences of people of color in early America, where they might otherwise remain invisible.
In Antislavery and Abolitionist Materials, there is (thus far) only a single manuscript collection - the records and minutes of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society. However, we decided to round out the category with an extensive number of catalog links to antislavery print materials held physically in the Congregational Library collections. Though these fall outside the purview of the NEHH digitization program (because they are printed rather than handwritten), many of them have been transcribed with the text available online.
The guide was finalized in consultation with Dr. Christopher Cameron of UNC Charlotte and Dr. Jean O'Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) of the University of Minnesota, two of the foremost experts respectively on African American and Indigenous experience in the colonial American mileue. It continues to be a work in progress, intended to evolve as more digitized collections are added to Hidden Histories.
The Congregational Library & Archives, while it certainly holds outsized significance for researchers and genealogists, is nonetheless a relatively small nonprofit institution. The fact that we were able to produce this guide on a relative shoestring via targeted networking and top-down prioritization of staff time is encouraging. My hope is that our guide might inspire other small and mid-sized cultural institutions to produce similar research tools. Such highlighting of historically marginalized communities is the low-hanging fruit of the heritage sector, and frankly a bare minimum, but it's at least one place to start.
by Sara Trotta, Librarian
At the risk of angering the great cabal of librarians, I’d like to reveal some of our trade secrets (and if I mysteriously disappear as a result, you’ll know what happened). My hope is that this will help readers find more of the information they’re looking for, or hone their questions so we can help them more easily, and to shed some light on the skills and work necessary to come up with the magic answers. Additionally, some of these resources are particular to the Congregational Library meaning even experienced researchers may not be familiar with them.
This time I’ll be walking you through tracking down people in our records, one of our most frequent questions. How we go about this is highly dependent on who we’re looking for:
Clergy are generally among the easiest types of people to track down, or at the very least determine whether we have any material about them.
First there is the online catalog. By searching the name of a minister you may be able to sermons they may have delivered and published, other material they may have written, and sometimes even photos or portraits from our image collection.
Then there is the obituary database which will provide citations for a clergy members’ obituary across a number of publications, primarily yearbooks, and include further instructions for online access. Most of the congregational yearbooks have been digitized on the Internet Archive up through about the mid-20th century. After that, these obituaries are still accessible in hard copy by library staff or researchers in our reading room. Obituaries will usually contain information about a minister’s birth, education, pastorates, and any other notable service in Congregational organizations. Living clergy can also be found listed in yearbooks.
Less frequently, we will have a minister’s personal or family papers in our archival collections or in the records of a church where they served. If this material exists, it will show up in a search of our online catalog.
The same tips when searching for clergy apply to searching for missionaries. They can often be found through their published writing, occasionally their personal papers and sometimes in the obituary database which also pulls necrologies printed in the Missionary Herald.
The published guide to the American Board for Commissioners of Foreign Missions microfilm collection includes listings of all ABCFM missionaries organized by name and also by mission station. This can be an excellent resource for locating additional primary source material about someone or providing more context for their experiences.
Annual reports of the American Board and other organizations like the American Missionary Association usually contain listings of active missionaries and reports of the activities of individual mission stations.
The complete records of the American Board are held by Harvard’s Houghton Library. They often have personal correspondence and other manuscript material written by missionaries during their service. The Congregational Library has the microfilm of much of this material.
The records of the American Missionary Association are held by the Amistad Research Center. They are the best resource for finding more information about missionaries who worked for the AMA. The Congregational Library also holds the microfilm of a large portion of their archival collection.
Tracking down someone who was not a minister or a missionary--or if you aren’t sure if they were a minister or a missionary--may prove more difficult. While this can be the proverbial needle-in-the-haystack sort of undertaking, there are a few things approaches that make this easier.
If you have a good idea of what church someone belonged to--because their close relatives belonged there, or some other reason--they may be found in the church’s records, either in listings of vital statistics like births, marriages and deaths, or in the regular activities of the church which was often a center of community life. Membership lists were often attached to printings of a church’s covenant or articles of faith--you can find many of these for congregational churches all over the country in our local church history files, though the time periods covered are often spotty.
If you know the general area where someone lived, you might be able to narrow down which church they attended and start your search there. The further back in time you go, the fewer churches there are to search through, but the more likely it is that their early records have been lost, damaged or destroyed over time. Typically, Congregational churches retain their own records while they are open, and if a church is closed and their records have not been deposited at the library, staff might be able to help locate them.
It is an unfortunate fact that the details of the lives of “ordinary” people are generally not preserved in the historical record, but there are many local public history organizations, like historical societies, doing work to make the material that exists more visible, and new technologies (like OCR which makes digitized images of text searchable) making material more accessible from a distance all the time.