DIGITAL NEW LIGHTS 1: JOSHUA BOWLES (BOSTON, 1737–1776)

 Image courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston.

Image courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston.

It took nearly two decades of patient archival research to assemble the sources for Darkness Falls on the Land of Light. Thankfully, many of the most significant manuscript texts in the book have appeared online in recent years. More turn up every month. Here’s a wonderful example: the commonplace book of Joshua Bowles (1722–1794). Owned by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, the Bowles manuscript is included in a recently published collection of fascinating eighteenth-century commonplace books.

The aspiring Boston furniture carver was only fifteen when he began inscribing family prayers in"Joshua Bowles his Book Anno 1737." Shortly after Gilbert Tennent arrived in Boston in three years later, Bowles transformed his record of private devotions into a makeshift sermon notebook. Throughout the peak months of the Whitefieldian revivals, Bowles crammed sermon notes onto nearly every open space in the manuscript. He recorded preaching performances by local ministers as well as touring evangelists such as Daniel Rogers, who delivered a powerful sermon on the “sandy foundations” of faith in Boston on July 10, 1741 (see below). Bowles's commonplace book is one of the most important surviving revival chronicles written by a layperson in colonial British North America. And the shift from his carefully ruled and beautifully written family prayers to hastily scribbled sermon notes stands as a powerful visual reminder of the abrupt changes the Great Awakening brought to countless people in eighteenth-century New England.

 Image courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston.

Image courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston.

Other notable documents in the New England Historic Genealogical Society's new online collection include the commonplace books of puritan immigrant John Dane, Hampton, New Hampshire, minister Seaborn Cotton, and Baptist clergyman Samuel Maxwell. Published in John Demos's Remarkable Providences, 1600–1760: Readings on Early American History, rev. ed. (Boston, 1991), 60–69, Dane’s autobiographical "Declaration of Remarkabell Prouendenses in the Corse of My Lyfe" is an outstanding teaching text. For an excellent analysis of this narrative, see Michael P. Winship's "Encountering Providence in the Seventeenth Century: The Experiences of a Yeoman and a Minister," Essex Institute Historical Collections 126 (1990): 27–36. Cotton filled his commonplace book with poetry, theological notes, genealogical information, and church records (including the relation of John Clifford, Jr., on page 37). The Maxwell manuscript includes an unusual reference to a prayer bill written on behalf of the unconverted during the Whitefieldian revivals (see my "Newbury Prayer Bill Hoax" essay, pages 72–73). I discuss the Bowles manuscript in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, 153–154.

In the months to come, I’ll be working to keep readers of The People Called New Lights Blog updated on exciting new collections like this one. And I’d love to hear from you. If you discover any Digital New Lights who have made their way online, contact me at dwiniars@richmond.edu!