Beacon Street Diary

May 20, 2016

Member profile: C. Ronald Wilson

Few of us can claim as interesting a background as Ron Wilson, a longtime member of the Congregational Library & Archives and of the Tappan Society. The Congregational Library & Archives has followed Ron through the varied chapters of his life. The Malden, MA native quit school after ninth grade, joined the Navy at seventeen and eventually became a well-respected UCC pastor and an author. Throw in that he worked as a professional magician, was deported from Honduras for a pamphlet which dealt with social issues, owned the largest Guatemalan import business in the U.S., and created a children's book, and it starts to sound more like material for a Netflix series.

Ron's initial encounter with the Congregational Library & Archives happened by chance. He was delivering his summer camp application to the Boston City Mission Society when he turned and saw our big glass doors with the words "Congregational Library" stamped in gold across the lintel.

Ron has fond memories of the camp, but the iconic image of the doors stuck with him through his stint in the Navy and his time at the University of Connecticut (how he managed to be accepted without a high school diploma is another story altogether). In 1967, Ron returned to 14 Beacon Street as a Bangor Seminary student and walked through those glass doors.

Given free rein by librarian Hal Worthley, Ron spent days at a time in the stacks digging through sermons dealing with slavery, uncovering roots. He was pursuing his thesis on the influence of Puritan Theology on the Abolitionist movement. After receiving his Masters of Divinity, and with Worthley's encouragement, he continued to borrow books for his own preaching as it took him overseas, and then to Connecticut, Ohio, and Arizona.

From 1998 until 2010, Ron served the Library & Archives as a member of the Board of Directors. He continues his relationship today as a patron, a member and a donor. His most recent research in the archives explores the story of the Congregational church in the Marshall Islands through the lens of the Morning Star (a ship paid for by Sunday school children in 1857 to bring the Gospel to the South Pacific). Ron is working closely with archivist Jessica Steytler from his home in Tempe, Arizona. Jessica is helping him work through resources in our collection — Necrologies of Missionaries correspondence, missionaries' personal papers, and the newspaper The Missionary Herald — and is excited to be involved in Ron's research.

Ron and his wife Dona became legacy donors in 2015 because they have great faith in the Congregational Library & Archives as a preserver of history. It is history that "connects the dots, and connecting the dots gives you a different prism to look through," says Ron. He sees the influence of the Congregational Way throughout time, a tradition that reveals itself in "very personal" ways.

One such example comes from the Church-in-the-Gardens in Forest Hills, New York where Ron served as interim pastor. Branch Rickey, the man who helped make history by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a member of Church-in-the-Gardens. "Where did the moral fiber come from?" asks Ron of Rickey's brave decision. "It was not insignificant that Rickey was a Congregationalist." Ron can point to many others who drew strength from their roots in the Congregational tradition.

Ron knows that the history in our archives continues to tell the story of an influential intellectual and spiritual tradition, linked to the development of this nation and its future. His Tappan Society legacy gift will help sustain the Library & Archives and the Congregational story. Learn more about making your own legacy gift.

May 18, 2016

It is almost impossible to find the beginning of the story of the Congregational Church of the Marshall Islands.

We could start with the faith of Hawaii. In less than thirty years after the first missionary's first sermon the people of this island nation were ready to send missionaries forth from their own flock. A beginning date could be the formation of the Hawaiian Missionary Society and their partnership with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Clearly the story of the Morning Star can claim that first place position in the history of this great church. She was so much more than a ship. The very name conjured up images of adventure, faith and commitment. Built with the support of the children and young people of the Congregational Church, her name alone kept the enthusiasm for foreign missions alive in that fellowship for generations.

The first group of missionaries sailed to Micronesia in the Caroline in 1852. The years that followed saw small and uncomfortable ships charted to take the missionaries to the islands. The story was known of the ship John Williams, a missionary ship built by the children of England. One Titus Coan suggested that the children of the United States could do likewise. The name first suggested was the Day Star. Shares in this new vessel were to be sold at ten cents a share. In August 1856 the American Board made its first appeal. Support poured in; one Sunday school in Hawaii took out 300 shares. On November 12, 1856 the Morning Star was launched, and on December 2, 1856 she sailed from Boston, Massachusetts. The Morning Star arrived at Honolulu on April 24th. On April 29th, a service of "Order of Exercises at the Presentation of a Signal Flag to the Morning Star" took place. Addresses were given in Hawaiian and English. The Honorable John Ii gave an address in Hawaiian and one was given in English by Rev. S. C. Damon. Songs were sung in both languages. Prayers were given in Hawaiian by Rev. L. Smith, and the presentation was made by Rev. R. Armstrong. The benediction was given by Rev. E. W. Clark. In view of thousands the new flag was hoisted by Captain Moore, and the story of the hundred and fifty years of the Congregational Church of the Marshall Islands begins.

-C. Ronald Wilson

May 17, 2016

Reserve your seat for tomorrow's free lunchtime lecture.

David M. Powers will speak about William Pynchon, the founder of Springfield, MA. Two things stand out about Pynchon's life: he enjoyed uniquely positive relationships with Native peoples. And he wrote the first book "banned in Boston", and publicly burned in the market place, where the Old State House is today.

Powers has written the first book-length study of William Pynchon, entitled Damnable Heresy: William Pynchon, the Indians, and the First Book Banned (and Burned) in Boston. It traces the stages of his momentous life: from origins in England, transatlantic crossing in 1630 to Roxbury, trek to Springfield (which he founded), his forced return to England in 1652, to his end ten years later. And, along the way, misunderstandings between races and hostilities between cultures. Anxiety from living in a time of war in one's own land. Being accused of profiteering when food was scarce. falseUnruly residents in a remote frontier community. Charges of speaking the unspeakable and publishing the unprintable.

David is a native of Springfield. He is a graduate of Carleton College and Harvard Divinity School. Since retirement from ministry in the United Church of Christ he has focused particularly on researching and writing on early New England history. He lives on Cape Cod.


Wednesday, May 18th
12:00 - 1:00 pm

Register through Eventbrite.


illustration by Frank T. Merrill showing the burning of Pynchon’s book from The History of Springfield in Massachusetts, for the Young (1921) by Charles H. Barrows

May 9, 2016

Our reading room will be closed to the public on Tuesday, March 10th, so that our staff can review safety procedures that protect ourselves, our patrons, and the invaluable materials under our care.

If you have questions for the staff, please send an email or leave a voicemail, and we will get back to you as soon as we can.


May 4, 2016

Our reading room will be closed to the public on Thursday, March 5th, so that our staff can learn about upcoming improvements to our online catalog system.

If you have questions for the staff, please send an email or leave a voicemail, and we will get back to you as soon as we can.

Researchers will start seeing the transition to the new version of our catalog next week, and we plan to complete the necessary updates on our website by the end of the month. If you have any questions in the meantime, feel free to get in touch.

April 25, 2016

Spring is finally here in Boston: the Granary Burying Ground is turning green, the leaves are budding on Beacon Street, and tourists are walking the Freedom Trail again. Spring also signals the end of cold and flu season. Considering health and wellness reminded us of a researcher who visited the Congregational Library & Archives a few years ago.

Nicholas Bonneau, a PhD candidate at Notre Dame University, is on the trail of a 1730s outbreak.

"I was interested in diseases, in the history of diseases spreading through populations," said Bonneau. "My questions were more historical; I was interested in how things changed after European contact in the Americas." Bonneau wants to know how we look back at past diseases from the present. His dissertation research centers on an outbreak of throat distemper that killed thousands of people in just a few years — and has been largely omitted from the history of New England.

"I was looking at the burial records for Rowley, Massachusetts. There was this huge spike [in burials] in 1736. I wasn't looking for it but it was there. I thought it might have been a mistake." After seeing similar spikes in nearby towns, Bonneau knew he was onto something big.

"Investigating further into church records and town records throughout the region really settled that this was a legitimate thing that had been underreported in the mainstream narrative of prerevolutionary New England." From 1735 to 1740, an epidemic of a disease called 'throat distemper' ravaged towns in coastal New Hampshire, southern Maine, and northern Massachusetts.

The throat distemper killed some 5,000 people in the first 4 years of the outbreak, 95 percent of them children under the age of 20, says Bonneau. It was a major event in New England, but it has been mostly forgotten. "I really wanted to explore more why this hadn't reached into the mainstream of our accepted narrative of the time."

Bonneau came to the Congregational Library & Archives to comb through our church records, looking for evidence of distemper. He leaned heavily on collections from our New England's Hidden Histories program. The CLA's collection appealed to him because of its focus on churches, which were the center of religious and secular life in early New England. "Beyond anything, the parish community is really important to the history of New England. I was hoping to use a parish community as my focal point, to see what could go from there."

The disease's effect on families, parishes, and towns was most interesting to Bonneau. "People were dealing with the loss of five or six of their children within a few weeks, sometimes even worse. What was going on with people who were sort of in the midst of this?" Bonneau was curious to know how communities responded to the loss of life.

Bonneau worked with the faith relations (the written explanation for why a person chose to join the church) and other digitized documents from the First Church in Haverhill. In the relations, he began to find mention of disease. Other church records, the dry accounting of town life, also provided clues.

"A big part of what we're doing is going through church records: not just death, but births and marriages." Any notes in the records or marginalia might be a clue about the distemper outbreak, Bonneau says, because the epidemic was very rarely addressed directly in sermons. "A couple times here and there, you might find a clergyman saying 'These deaths were really awful.' Those are things you wouldn't look for in things that were supposed to be a list," said Bonneau of the records. "But they're written by people."

Our collection of sermons show a possible explanation of why the disease was underreported: Sermons from the time rarely mentioned it. "There wasn't as much in sermons as one might expect. There seemed to be a few hints here and there," Bonneau said.

The sermons also provided Bonneau with clues about how communities responded to the distemper. "The sermons were very, very useful," he said. "I wanted to compare how specific preachers had compared before and after the epidemic. It was a little bit opposite of what I expected, and it's been a little bit difficult to parse out." Before the epidemic, warning children that they could die at any time was a common trope in sermons. Bonneau saw this kind of message wane in the 1740s and 1750s. "There is sort of drop-off in the call to early piety to children."

The human and emotional aspects of the throat distemper are most interesting to Bonneau. "I hope that my work with disease and with trying to understand how to think about the grief of parents falls under those same lines. This is something that tells us about the human experience across time. I'm trying to give voice to a voluntarily voiceless group of grieving parents."

Life changes after a disaster of this magnitude, and Bonneau wants to figure out how people dealt with their losses in the 1730s. "We need to find a way of accounting for this 'dark matter' of grieving in our histories," said Bonneau. Parents who lost children and others may have moved to different towns because of their losses, he says, or changed some other aspect of their lives in response. "The study of disease is the study of loss, and this is outside of history in certain ways, but it connects us with the past in that we can identify with past actors on their own terms."

Through our records, Bonneau says, you can see people renegotiating their relationships with pastors, community, and religion. "Your collection in particular is something people are looking to from a confession aspect: this is their face and they're very much alive, and these traditions feed into a larger tradition."


"By a Sickbed" (1879) by Michael Ancher courtesy of The Hirschsprung Collection, found via Wikimedia Commons

April 22, 2016

The latest issue of our journal, the Bulletin of the Congregational Library & Archives, is due out in a few weeks. Become a member now to make sure you get your copy. All it takes is an annual contribution of $50, and just $25 for current students.  The upcoming issue of the Bulletin is dedicated to evangelists.

Executive Director Dr. Peggy Bendroth starts it off with, writing, "We know so little of these people and their colorful lives, perhaps because the misdeeds of televangelists have all but ruined the reputation of other gospel preachers. But, as you'll find in this issue, they are worth knowing, people who resisted the easy fashions of their day, famous but not afraid to be unpopular, the ultimate non-conformists in the long history of the Congregational Christian tradition."

The 17th-century revivalist George Whitefield is one of the first to preach outside of church, drawing thousands to his open-air sermons. Art historian Linda Johnson analyzes three portraits of the preacher, showing the progression of Whitefield’s life through art. Discussing a portrait by Joseph Badger, she writes,

"Painted only a few years following his conversion experience, Whitefield's image demonstrates his meditative efforts during an early period of his ministry, where the experience of God was embodied in the bodily "touch" of his left hand "painted" over the physical space of his heart. Once "quickened" by the "flames" of scripture the experience of "seeing" with the eyes of the heart was revealed. This was dependent on the faith of Christ's presence in this moment to apply grace. Badger composed a dark and closed composition suggestive of an intimate moment where Whitefield (like David in the pages he holds before him) "sings" about his personal relationship with God."

Dr. Jessica Parr discusses not a portrait, but a supernatural image of the preacher and explores Whitefield's fascinating life after death:

"An article appeared in 1781, following the burning of New London, Connecticut. It claimed that the ghost of eighteenth-century evangelical preacher George Whitefield had frightened a company of British regulars, led by turncoat Benedict Arnold, "into a burnt offering of all their finery," on threat of damnation."

The Bulletin follows thread of evangelism into the 19th century. Before women were ordained in any mainline denomination, Abigail Roberts preached and helped to found at least fourteen congregations during the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s. Marjorie Royle has the story of how the post-Revolutionary political and social climate allowed a woman to become an influential religious figure.

"By the 1840s and 50s, as the Christian Connection and similar groups grew and became more like the established denominations, they became much less open to women's leadership. Abigail Roberts and other women evangelists thus were in the right place at the right time.

Whitefield wouldn't be the last evangelist on Boston Common. As Dr. Bendroth writes, he began a tradition that continues today.

"Other outdoor preachers followed. A few decades later, in 1790, the famous Methodist evangelist Jesse Lee stood on a table and preached to a huge crowd under the "old elm," a tree said to have been standing when the first Puritan settlers arrived in Boston in 1630. The Methodists would not be the last to experience the power and immediacy of religion in the open air. In fact, as Boston grew larger and more diverse, the Common was also becoming prime real estate for anyone with an axe to grind or a soapbox to stand on."

Make sure you get your copy of the Bulletin by donating today. Not sure if you are a current member? Email us or call 617-523-0470 ext. 230.


engraving of George Whitefield by Frederick Halpin (ca. 1870) based on a painting by John Greenwood (ca. 1768)

April 15, 2016

The Congregational Library and Archives will be closed this Monday, April 18th, for Patriots' Day.

All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have questions for the staff, please send an email or leave a voicemail, and we will get back to you when we return to the office on Tuesday.

Good luck to everyone participating in the 120th Boston Marathon.

April 8, 2016

Don't miss out on this month's free lunchtime lecture.

Inventing George Whitefield

On a fall day in 1838, a cortege wound through the streets of Newburyport, Massachusetts, headed for Old South Presbyterian Church. A box contained the humerus bone of eighteenth-century English preacher George Whitefield, who had been previously interred in the basement crypt of the church following his death in September 1770. The reinterment ceremony restored the bone, which had been pilfered by a British admirer of Whitefield's, to its former resting place.

This nineteenth-century memorialization was the latest in a long series of contentious and sometimes strange events involving Whitefield since he first set foot in New England in 1740, at the invitation of Benjamin Colman, Jonathan Edwards, and a small handful of Congregationalists with revivalist sympathies. The invitation of Whitefield was not without controversy among New England's ministerial elite. While Whitefield's sponsors hoped that his visit would renew a waning interest in religious life, his detractors worried that his visit would undermine the authority of clergy and upset the region's fractious peace. Reactions to Whitefield varied, with members of the old Congregationalist guard, such as Charles Chauncy, lamenting Whitefield's effect on religious life in the colonies.

This presentation will discuss what Whitefield's arrival in New England meant for its religious culture, as well as how an itinerant Anglican preacher came to be buried in a Presbyterian Church. It will also discuss how Whitefield's tomb because a site of pilgrimage for his followers.

Jessica Parr is a historian, specializing in the history of race and religion in the Early Modern Atlantic World. She received her PhD from the University of New Hampshire at Durham in 2012 and also holds an MA in History and and MS in Archives Management from Simmons College. Parr is a regular contributor to The Junto: a Group Blog on Early American History, and a co-editor at H-Net. Her first book, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2015. Parr teaches at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester and Emmanuel College.


Tuesday, April 12th
12:00 - 1:00 pm

Register through Eventbrite.


engraving of George Whitefield by Frederick Halpin (ca. 1870) based on a painting by John Greenwood (ca. 1768)


April 6, 2016

Today is a big day for New England's Hidden Histories and the Congregational Library & Archives!

We are pleased to announce the addition of two new collections to our New England's Hidden Histories program — the early records from West Parish Church in Barnstable, and a volume of advice from an anonymous man facing his own mortality. Together these collections add over 500 new pages to NEHH. We are very pleased to be able to provide these collections and would like to give special thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities, whose Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant helped with the processing and digitization.

We are also excited today to launch our updated document viewer. The viewer now comes with new features and a sleek new design. You can rotate images by 90-degree increments and zoom in while retaining the crispness of the image. As we begin adding transcriptions to collections, more features will become available.

Keep an eye on this blog for a user's guide for the new viewer (coming soon) and for more collections digitized with the help of the NEH.


Special Thanks

These digital resources have been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in these resources do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.