Beacon Street Diary
Archives: December 2020
by Jules Thomson, Associate Archivist & Social Media Manager
Taking my cue from Dickens's Ghost of Christmas Past, and because I am decidedly not a subject specialist, I want to highlight pieces that some of our former, significantly more knowledgeable, bloggers have written about Christmas in the Congregational tradition.
The first "blog of Christmas past" is this 2011 essay by our former Executive Director and historian, Peggy Bendroth, in which she discusses the oft-maligned Puritan "ban" on Christmas. Given the contemporary allegations of a War on Christmas, it's interesting to consider that the Puritans were perhaps its most staunch footsoldiers.
Dr. Bendroth doesn't exactly refute the church fathers' aversion to celebration of the holiday (for an example, see this Cotton Mather sermon with a very long name) but she does attempt to contextualize their scroodgeyness as both an exhortation to spiritual piety, and as a reaction against the remarkable excesses of the Anglican court.
With its prodding of stereotypes, the essay is similar to our recent "myth busting" episodes around the Thanksgiving holiday, the Mayflower Compact, and modern misconceptions about the Puritans (coming soon!).
Reader, I was floored by this 2015 essay, courtesy of Norman Erlendson and Joanna Albertson-Grove, in which they examine two childrens' Christmas stories published by The Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society in the 1890s.
Excerpts from the two amusing tales demonstrate "how the prevailing Gilded Age values of individual virtue and personal piety were woven into Christian stories for children". This philosophy was a reaction to, and rejection of, the concept of the Social Gospel, in which Christians were considered responsible for the betterment of society.
If A Christmas Carol, published several decades earlier in 1843, falls into this latter category with its implied critique of prisons, workhouses, and unchecked capitalist greed, the Congregational Sunday-School stories are decidedly anti-Dickensian in spirit, emphasizing personal salvation over social reform, charity and trickle-down largesse over systemic change. I can't be the only one who sees some modern relevance to these competing philosophies beyond their legacy within Congregationalism - demonstrating once again the CLA slogan that "History Matters," even history as encapsulated in a whimsical book of childrens' Christmas stories.
by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist
Much has been said of how Quartex will change, and make better, the ways in which we present our digital resources to our users. And most of that, at least from me, has been related to the flexibility Quartex offers in terms of the creation, display, and link-ability of metadata. But it is one thing to talk about how this will work in theory. It is another to show how this works with real world examples. Fortunately, I have been busy migrating digital resources into Quartex (already 7 collections, encompassing 58 individual resources and 2,590 image files have been successfully migrated) and already I have found a New England’s Hidden Histories (NEHH) collection which demonstrates just how useful Quartex’s metadata controls will be to us from both descriptive and user-experience perspectives.
Within NEHH there is a collection titled “Boylston, Mass. First Church”. While not an inaccurate title, technically, it is deceptive in its simplicity and hides quite a bit about what the record within it is about. To explain why this statement is true requires going into a bit of history with how NEHH is currently organized. To make browsing somewhat easier, NEHH collections are divided into three overarching series (an archival term basically meaning a group of related “stuff”): Church records, Personal papers, and Conference/Association records. Seems simple enough, but not all records fall easily into these three series. For example, this “Boylston, Mass. First Church” collection should technically be a part of the Personal papers series, rather than the Church records series it was placed into.
See, the single record book in this collection was created by a single individual, Ebenezer Morse, who was the pastor of the First Church in Boylston. So why was the collection placed in the Church records series if the only item in it was created by a single person? Well, the records maintained by Morse are technically church records and include everything from meeting minutes to vital records. So, at the time that this collection was intellectually “created” (scare quotes since creation here is an abstract archival concept), probably in 2017, it was decided that classifying this collection as church records would likely help people discover the collection better than if they were classified as personal papers. In other words, it was a decision intended to help discoverability, but at the cost of precision in description.
The title, “Boylston, Mass. First Church” is not entirely accurate even if we ignore the issue of Ebenezer Moses’s authorship. That is because the First Church in Boylston was, at the beginning of the record book, the Second Parish Church in Shrewsbury. As with many of the early churches in Massachusetts, the Second Parish Church in Shrewsbury changed its name when the Second Parish itself was incorporated as the town of Boylston, separating itself from Shrewsbury. By both internal policies, as well as external best archival practices, we name collections based on the latest legal name of a church found within the records. And while the name Second Parish Church in Shrewsbury is found in a sub-title beneath the collection title on the series page, it does not really help describe what exactly the collection contains or the complex history that led to these two names describing the same church.
Quartex, as I have said before, solves many of the issues brought up by this single collection. For one, Quartex allows us to describe individual items, rather than collections. There is no need to create these artificial series, or even collection titles, because every bit of description appears at the individual item level. Where once we had a collection titled “Boylston, Mass. First Church” which contained a single item, titled “Account book, 1718-1859”, we now have an item in Quartex titled “Account book of Ebenezer Morse, 1718-1859”. This is already a much more descriptive, and accurate, title that clearly indicates who the creator of the item is, as well as what the item itself is. It is also significantly closer to the title provided to the physical item by its owner the New England Historic Genealogical Society. But things gets even better!
Even from the browse page, and certainly within the record itself, we are presented with a wealth of information. Including, in the Names field, the controlled vocabulary terms, First Congregational Church (Boylston, Mass.) and Second Parish Church (Shrewsbury, Mass.). Instead of one term taking precedent due to its later user, both terms are equally presented side-by-side. Other metadata also becomes front and center, such as a list of subject terms which helps the user to understand what types of records might be present in the volume. Better yet, any of these terms can be clicked to bring up a search result for all other items that include these terms. And since all these terms are attached to the item-level record, no matter how someone searches, whether for churches in Shrewsbury, or for works by Ebenezer Morse, or even just by searching for Marriage records, this item will always appear within the list of results.
In the past, we had to sometimes bend the rules governing description to make an already imperfect system of browsing work best for our users at the cost of precision in description. While these decisions were made in good faith and internally consistent with policies, depending on peoples searches or expectations, this method of organizing and titling collections could easily obfuscate records from those who needed them. Quartex, with its ability to create true and complex item-level descriptions, largely solves this problem, by making all the metadata, complex and confusing as it might be, front and center.
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 I want to highlight RG4936, the Cranston, Rhode Island, Knightsville-Franklin Congregational Church records; 1807, 1863-2008. The collection was donated by the church in April 2010 with additional materials arriving in December 2011. The collection was first processed in July of 2010 and updated in January 2012.
The Knightsville Meetinghouse was built in 1807 for the Benevolent Baptist Society in Cranston, Rhode Island. The meetinghouse was not only used for the society, but also served as the town meeting center. Around 1864, the Knightsville Mission Sabbath School was established and started to thrive quickly. Members of the school decided to organize into a church. In 1878, the organization officially became a branch of the Union Congregational Church of Providence, Rhode Island. Following a merger between Union Congregational and Plymouth Congregational Church in 1928, Knightsville Congregational Church officially became its own entity. The membership base started to grow, along with many auxiliary groups. The Franklin Congregational Church, founded in 1873, started to share minister Paul E. Duhamel in 1964 due to declining membership. The two groups officially merged in 1967, forming the Knightsville-Franklin Congregational Church. The community continued to see decline throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. In 2006, the members voted to leave the United Church of Christ and join the National Association for Congregational Christian Churches. The members voted to close the church in 2009 and officially ended in October 2009.
The collection is split into 9 different series across 11 boxes. Series 1, Governance, contains annual reports, committee reports, and other records dealing with church activities and decision making. Series 2 covers the financial records as early as 1863. Series 3 contains records related to the ministers, mostly focused on the church's search for new ministers. Series 4 is all about membership and contains an index card list, transfers, and a remembrance book. Series 5 chronicles the auxiliary organizations such as a women's club, the Fellowship Club, and the Sunday School. Series 6 contains published materials such as order of worships, pamphlets, and newsletters. Series 7 has historical material which covers anniversaries, certificates, and historical notes. Series 8 covers photos and has a videocassette from the 1994 Rhode Island conference. The final series is all about the dissolution of the church from 2009. As you can see, the collection has a wide variety of highlights that would be interesting to all our patrons!
The legacy 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 email@example.com. Stay safe and have a great day!
Guest Blog by Francis J. Bremer: Coordinator, New England Beginnings; Editor, the Winthrop Papers; Professor Emeritus of History, Millersville University; Program Commitee Chair; CLA Board
Recently, there has been considerable attention devoted to the “Mayflower Compact,” the agreement signed by the male passengers on the Mayflower on November 21, 1620, four hundred years ago. Some of the commentary overstates the significance of the document, while other treatments are based on misunderstandings of the background of the signatories. Since we will likely hear much more about the Compact and the Plymouth colony during the ongoing commemorations of the 400th anniversary of the colony, I would like to offer some reflections on the document and its genesis.
While in the nineteenth century statesmen such as John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster praised the “Compact,” some of the new attention the “Compact” has received has gone further with assertions that it was the critical event in the formation of America, “the beginning of ordered liberty in the New World” as one individual has expressed it and “one of the great turning points in Christianity” as stated elsewhere. The context for this new attention is largely a reaction to the “1619 Project” launched by the New York Times in August of last year. That publication was a self-proclaimed effort to reframe our national history by pointing to the beginning of slavery in Virginia in August 1619, making slavery and race the determinative factors in the history of our country, and interpreting all that came later from the perspective of slavery and race.
One can, as I do, applaud efforts to devote more attention to the role of race in the history of the country, including the importance of racial dimensions in the colonial history of New England, while at the same time pointing out (as many scholars have) the exaggerations and lack of evidence for some of the bolder interpretations of the “1619 Project.” But as is often the case, a bold call to revise our understanding of the past prompts negative critiques that are themselves polemical more than scholarly. Thus, some (not all) political conservatives and religious evangelicals have responded to the 1619 Project with their own counter-proposals, one of which is the so-called “1620 Project.” Books and articles have appeared denying that America’s beginning is to be found in the enslavement of African men and women, and contending that the true beginning was the assertion of self-governance and religious liberty by the Pilgrims in 1620.
The danger such efforts for historians, and for Americans as citizens, lies in trying to point to any one event or idea as the beginning of the nation. If one engages in such an enterprise, there are many events that could be pointed to as the beginning of America – 1492, the settlement of Jamestown in 1607, the arrival of slavery in 1619, the Mayflower Compact in 1620, the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, and so on and so forth. Picking one – any one -- is an expression of what the particular investigator sees as the character of the country. It is simplistic and misleading. But, as the scholar Abram Van Engen has explained, our understanding of the past is “dynamic and provisional.”
Examining different perspectives and evidence is a process of “engaging in the effort to see from a new angle what before had gone unseen, developing the capacity to read in a new way what before had been read over, and practicing the skill of reading carefully what before might never have been read at all.” “History,” he concludes, “is not just an account of the period covered but an accrual or perceptions.” What we need to do is to give up the effort to find one single source of America and its values, and to continue to explore the many influences that shaped our culture.
To come back to the “Mayflower Compact,” 400 years after its signing, it is appropriate to examine what that document contributed to the character of America. But we need to avoid overstating its importance, and our examination has to be factually accurate. First, let’s set out what we know. The passengers on the Mayflower had planned to settle in the colony of Virginia, authorized to do so by a patent from the Virginia Company, which controlled that colony. In an effort to attract more colonists, such as those on the Mayflower, the Virginia Company had adopted a policy of granting settler groups a large amount of autonomy in ordering their own affairs under the broad supervision of the colony government. The specific patent granted to the Pilgrims does not survive and, additionally, we have no information on how they would have used the freedom the patent gave them. We also need to remember that the colonial venture was being subsidized by a group of English merchants, and the colonists were contractually obligated to them for certain details of how the colony would operate. When it became evident that it would not be possible to reach their intended destination and that they would be settling in an area outside the Virginia colony, the passengers on the Mayflower needed to reach an understanding regarding how they would be governed.
Here we come across one of the misperceptions that I previously alluded to. In a book, Saints and Strangers, written in 1945, George Willison wrongly identified most of the Mayflower passengers as non-Pilgrims and interpreted the colony’s early history as representing the triumph of more secular profit-seekers over a minority of religious fanatics. This interpretation has been remarkably resilient, with the characterization of the majority of the passengers as non-religious leading to the argument that the Mayflower Compact was a plan of government imposed by a small religious minority over a secularly inclined majority. The basis for this argument – that most of the passengers were seeking gold rather than God – is false. Jeremy Bangs, the foremost scholar of the Pilgrims’ time in Leiden, has established that of the 102 passengers, eighty were either from Leiden or likely to have been from Leiden. Furthermore, of the remaining two score, many had clear puritan sympathies that united them to the Pilgrims, as evidenced by the fact that some had been cited by the English church authorities for puritan behavior. There were indeed some passengers who had expressed the idea that if they settled outside the land specified in the patent, they would be free to behave anyway they wished, but there is no evidence that more than a few claimed this freedom.
Someone, most likely William Brewster, the religious elder of the congregation, who had previous experience of government and diplomacy, drew up the compact, the essence of which was that those who signed did (to quote from the document) “solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation …, and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, act, constitutions, and offices, from time to time as shall be thought mete and convenient for the general good of the colony.” All adult males signed it, thus agreeing to come together as a single community, choose their own leaders, and obey the laws approved by the majority.
The Pilgrims were puritan congregationalists, and the Mayflower Compact was clearly derived from their religious background. Over a decade earlier a group of men and women had gathered in Scrooby Manor House, William Brewster’s English home, and “by the most wise and good providence of God [been] brought together … to unite ourselves into one congregation or church.” They had promised and bound themselves “to walk in all our ways according to the Rule of the Gospel and in all sincere conformity to His holy ordinances and in mutual love to and watchfulness over one another.” Prior to their departure and to their failure to reach Virginia, the Pilgrim’s pastor, John Robinson, had advised the colonists on the need to govern themselves in such a fashion. Perhaps suggesting how they should operate under the terms of the Virginia Colony patent, Robinson had urged them as a body to “let your wisdom and godliness appear, not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good.” He also advised them to repress all impulses that might detract from the common good. This last point, a commitment to the welfare of all over individual aspirations – what I have elsewhere referred to as the puritan social gospel – was implicit in the covenant of the Scrooby congregation, and in the Mayflower Compact.
The values expressed in the Mayflower Compact did contribute to the character of New England. Puritan congregationalism was a system of participatory democracy, reflecting a trust in the individual believer that expanded into the civil realm, as in the Mayflower Compact. That impulse, spreading from the formation and governance of a church of believers, to a colony system of government, would underpin the system of town meetings whereby local New England communities would be governed. This was not the only source for the democracy that took shape in our country, but it was one contribution to that process. That does not mean that we ignore other, less positive parts of our history, nor the ways in which the early English settlers of New England violated the principles that their faith seemed to demand. But it is something worth commemorating and considering four hundred years later.