Digital New Lights 2: New England’s Hidden Histories

Historians of religion in early America ought to be shouting “Huzzah!” for the Congregational Library these days. Since 2011, Jeff Cooper and a team of scholars at this important research archive on Boston’s Beacon Hill have been gathering at-risk Congregational church records from basements, bank vaults, and private homes. The goal of the library’s New England’s Hidden Histories project is stunningly ambitious: to preserve, digitize, and transcribe tens of thousands of pages of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century church records.

I’ve been fortunate to serve on the steering committee for the program, which is led by Cooper and the Congregational Library’s executive director, Peggy Bendroth. Many of the key manuscript collections cited in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light are now available online through the NEHH portal, while many others are coming soon.

 Testimony of Hannah Corey, April 5, 1749, Sturbridge, Mass., Separatist Congregational Church Records, 1745–1762, Congregational Library, Boston (available online at  NEHH )

Testimony of Hannah Corey, April 5, 1749, Sturbridge, Mass., Separatist Congregational Church Records, 1745–1762, Congregational Library, Boston (available online at NEHH)

Highlights from the NEHH collection (so far) include:

  • More than 500 church admission relations from Haverhill, Middleborough, and Essex, Massachusetts—all in full, glorious color!
  • Church records from the “praying Indian” church at Natick;
  • Ministerial association record books from nearly every county in Connecticut;
  • Lists of men and women admitted to the First Church of Ipswich, Massachusetts, site of one of the largest religious revivals of eighteenth-century North America;
  • Minutes from the Grafton, Massachusetts, church record book, with transcription, detailing the troubled pastorate of the ardent revivalist clergyman Solomon Prentice and his separatist wife, Sarah;
  • Disciplinary records resulting from the bitter New Light church schisms in Newbury and Sturbridge, Massachusetts;
  • Miscellaneous church papers from Granville, Massachusetts, featuring letters by the celebrated African American preacher Lemuel Haynes;
  • And a wide range of sermons, theological notebooks, and personal papers by eighteenth-century Congregational clergymen, including luminaries Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, and Samuel Hopkins.

Cooper and Bendroth have forged partnerships with New England’s leading history institutions, including the American Antiquarian Society and Peabody Essex Museum. And they have digitized An Inventory of the Records of the Particular (Congregational) Churches of Massachusetts Gathered 1620–1805, the indispensable guide compiled by Bendroth’s predecessor, Harold Field Worthley.

For teachers eager to show their students what seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history is made of; for undergraduate and graduate students seeking primary texts for papers; for genealogists searching for baptismal records of long-lost ancestors; for scholars engaged in major book projects—NEHH is now the go-to hub for online research on the history of New England puritanism and the Congregational tradition.

As with all digital history initiatives, NEHH is a work in progress. They’re always looking for volunteers to support their crowd-sourced transcription projects. It’s a great opportunity to involve students in the production of new historical knowledge. For more information, contact Jeff Cooper or Helen Gelinas, director of transcription.

Thanks to a second $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bendroth, Cooper and their colleagues at the Congregational Library will be churning out high quality digital images and transcriptions of rare Congregational manuscript church records for years to come. Congratulations, CLA! Huzzah!

To read more about the NEH grant, check out this article from the Christian Science Monitor.

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!