Thursday, July 31, 2014
In Church Attics, Clues to the Private Life of Early America
By MICHAEL PAULSON
JULY 29, 2014
Preserving the Church’s Past
Margaret Bendroth, the executive director at the Congregational Library in Boston, reflected on its mission to preserve centuries-old artifacts that come from churches in Massachusetts. Video Credit By Katherine Taylor on Publish Date July 29, 2014.
STURBRIDGE, Mass. — Sarah Blanchard was sorry she skipped a worship service. Sarah Wood apologized for denouncing infant baptisms. And as for the Cheneys, Joseph and Abigail? Well, “with shame, humiliation and sorrow,” they acknowledged having had sex before marriage.
More than 250 years ago, their confessions of sin were dutifully logged by the minister of the church here, alongside records of baptisms, marriages and deaths, notes about meetings heated and routine, accounts of finances, texts of sermons, and, in some cases, personal accounts of conversion experiences from young adults.
Now, in a regionwide scavenger hunt, a pair of historians is rummaging through New England church basements and attics, file cabinets, safes and even coat closets, searching for these records of early American life. The historians are racing against inexorable church closings, occasional fires, and a more mundane but not uncommon peril: the actual loss of documents, which most often occurs when a church elder dies and no one can remember the whereabouts of historical papers.
A congregation record dating to 1744, found in the basement of a church in Dudley, Mass. Credit Katherine Taylor for The New York Times
“I have seen them be destroyed, lost, covered with mold or just forgotten,” said the Rev. Janet Leighninger, the pastor of the Federated Church of Sturbridge and Fiskdale here. “And as finances get tighter, as they are everywhere, and as congregations shrink, and they are doing that in many places, it becomes a matter of, ‘Do we do the ministry we are called to do, or do we preserve the past?’ ”
The historians — James Fenimore Cooper Jr., a professor of history at Oklahoma State University, and Margaret Bendroth, the executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston — are trying to persuade small town church leaders to turn over their records for digitization and preservation. They are focusing largely on Massachusetts because the record keeping there was especially careful, and on congregational churches, or their successors, because those were the official churches in colonial Massachusetts.
“There is no other discrete set of sources that will similarly transport us into colonial America,” said Dr. Cooper, who has been searching for hidden church records for years. Among the treasures he has described: a 1773 application from a slave named Cuffee to join a church in Middleboro.
The records, especially those that are not bound into books, are often in poor shape. In Sturbridge, a church member in 1896 described a set of papers as “much worn and mutilated”; now, more than a century later, those same papers are in a faded yellow envelope marked “extremely poor condition.” The churches themselves, which are Protestant and are called Congregational because each is independent and has the authority to make its own decisions, are endangered as well. There remain 372 in Massachusetts affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the largest congregational denomination, down from 625 in 1932.
James Fenimore Cooper Jr. worked with Linda Grant, the administrator of the Faith Community Church of Hopkinton, Mass., to find and preserve treasures. Credit Katherine Taylor for The New York Times
The record-retrieval effort is painstaking. Every summer, Dr. Cooper (no relation to the 19th-century author; his grandparents were just admirers) and Dr. Bendroth travel from church to church, trying to persuade ministers and lay leaders to part with treasured documents. In some cases, churches are excited to do so. But for some of the churches, letting go of documents is difficult — the papers, even if brittle and faded, are a form of patrimony, like silver and pewter communion vessels, to be treasured.
One evening this summer, Dr. Cooper visited the Federated Church of Sturbridge and Fiskdale, a congregation that resulted from a merger of several different churches and that is now affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist Churches, and the Unitarian Universalist Association. The congregation’s records — at least those representing its congregational past, which began in 1736 — had been retrieved from a safe at a member’s office.
As about a dozen members of a church council sat on folding chairs and tired couches, Dr. Cooper made his pitch. He showed them an iPad photo of a recent church fire in Somers, Conn., as a cautionary tale, and he urged them to make a permanent, but revocable, loan of the records to the Congregational Library, which could store them in a climate-controlled rare book room. After a number of questions about security, access and backup plans, and a brief closed-door debate, the congregation agreed. Ms. Leighninger called the decision a relief and a godsend, because the records would be protected and available to genealogists, historians and anyone else through the library’s digital archive.
Dr. Cooper methodically went through dozens of documents, looking for those published before 1860, and choosing about 25 he deemed of historical significance. There were letters bound with string, accounts of “meetings of the brethren,” lists of “confessions for scandals and offenses,” and ledgers detailing the activities of the Sturbridge Ladies Benevolent Society. He packed them in boxes and loaded them in his red Prius before walking across the street to take pictures of the historic cemetery in the fading light.
Dr. Cooper, a historian at Oklahoma State University, looked over documents at the First Congregational Church of Dudley, Mass. He and a colleague, Margaret Bendroth, are visiting churches in New England in their search for records of early American life. Credit Katherine Taylor for The New York Times
The next day, in Dudley, Mass., where a congregation was established in 1732, Thompson Boyd, a history teacher who volunteers as the church’s historian, showed Dr. Cooper a page from a Bible translated into Algonquian by John Eliot, who was seeking to convert the local Nipmuc Indians. There were also notes for an 1822 sermon (opening line: “The corruption of mankind is very great”); molten metal from the church’s bell before it was destroyed by fire; and shards of glass from a stained-glass window before it was blown out in a hurricane. The church’s documents had been kept in a narthex cloakroom for years, but were recently moved into a locked fireproof file cabinet.
Mr. Boyd said he would have to discuss with his church’s council whether to allow the transfer of the documents to Boston for safekeeping, noting that from time to time people stop by looking for records of their ancestors, and that they like seeing the original papers.
“I have mixed feelings,” he said. “I still use them. But what if something happens to me?”
A few hours later, Dr. Cooper and Dr. Bendroth visited an evangelical congregation in Hopkinton, Mass. Faith Community Church is the successor of the original Congregational church in town, founded in 1724, and had the original records carefully cataloged, boxed and stored in a locked basement room, alongside an early pastor’s 1740 Queen Anne side chair with a bullet hole in the back.
The documents included a list of excommunicants and notification of a fine levied against a local man who resisted joining the Army during the Revolution, as well as multiple “relations” — letters describing faith journeys. They include one from Benjamin Pond, who described how, despite being raised in a Christian home, he had fallen “into a state of stupidity and wickedness” until, after multiple deaths in his family, including of his child, he had a conversion experience. “That’s the first time that’s been heard in 200 years,” Dr. Bendroth said after reading Mr. Pond’s relation. “I just think that’s really amazing.”
A version of this article appears in print on July 30, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: In Church Attics, Private Life of Early America.