Beacon Street Diary

July 21, 2016

This week the Congregational Library & Archives is helping to host a series of events marking the 425th anniversary of Anne Hutchinson's birth. Besides Anne, seventeenth-century Boston's famous Puritan dissenter, the list of attendees and speakers is pretty impressive. Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who issued a pardon in 1987 revoking the General Court's order of banishment, was present at an opening commemoration at the Hutchinson memorial on the State House Lawn last evening; afterwards, we retired to the Congregational Library & Archives for birthday cake and toasting. This morning Eve LaPlante, author of American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans, will give a talk in the library's reading room. This afternoon, three prominent historians Mary Beth Norton, Catherine Brekus, and Robert Charles Anderson, will participate in a panel on Hutchinson's life and legacy, a conversation our executive director Peggy Bendroth be moderating at the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

That's only the tip of the iceberg, though. The celebration also includes other events in Boston, including a walking tour, and an expanded itinerary following Anne's travels from Massachusetts to Rhode Island and then New York. (See the Anne Marbury Hutchinson Foundation website for further information about schedule and tickets.) It's a tribute to an unusual and gifted woman who charted her own path — and paid the price for doing so.

Involvement in these events makes sense for the Congregational Library & Archives, as we live at the intersection of serious academic scholarship and the wider world of people who are just plain interested in history. We are committed to supporting excellent historical research in every way possible, but more than that to provide occasions for two-way conversations between academics and readers from other professions and walks of life. That's why we host "History Matters" lunches: we want to build a conversation between professional historians and people who, though they might not read through an entire academic tome footnotes and all, want to know what it's about and why it's important.

In the case of Anne Hutchinson, that intersection is tricky. Most people do not have an opportunity to learn much about the New England Puritans. Our average tourist here in Boston, for example, can go on a Duckboat and hear a spiel about Quakers being hanged or might go up to Salem and visit the "witch museum". Everything else is the American Revolution: Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, Redcoats and Tea Parties. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but why stop there? We'd argue that you can't really understand what happened in 1776 without first knowing something about the Puritans — not lore and stereotypes but history in all its nuance and complexity. They were, after all, the ones who laid the ground rules for participatory democracy, in churches that gave voice to ordinary church members and demanded accountability from those in power.

The Puritans were not, in other words, a monolithic group of killjoys terrified of free speech, so afraid of Anne Hutchinson that they drove her into exile. They were people — just like us — who wanted a close-knit community, motivated by a common vision of the common good. And, like us, they stumbled over the problem of dissent, the clash between individual freedom and community integrity. Back in the 1630s Anne Hutchinson paid a steep price for challenging those categories — but are we any different now? Our own debates about gay marriage and immigration are in many ways the continuation of one started in Puritan Boston long ago.

Of course, there's another mythology about the Puritans that's just as inaccurate and potentially harmful as the witch-burning stereotypes. It's the declaration that they were the source of everything good and decent about American society, the ones who established the United States as a "Christian nation". That's a disservice not only to the Native Americans who fell in the Puritans' wake but to all those other founding fathers and mothers in other colonies like, say, Virginia.

To my mind, Anne Hutchinson fits best in between all of our myths and legends about the Puritans. She was, at bottom, a woman who was willing to defy categorization, and accepted the price for doing so. Now that's a birthday worth celebrating.

July 20, 2016

Our reading room will be closed to researchers on Thursday, July 21st from 9 am to 2 pm for an event.

If you would like to join us for Founding Mothers Celebration - American Jezebel & Founding Mother with esteemed author Eve LaPlante, a few tickets are still available.

July 19, 2016

I spent last week at the Kenyon Institute, a program for writers held at Kenyon College in Ohio. This one was geared toward people interested in things spiritual — for a whole host of reasons, I soon discovered — and brought together a mix of rabbis, ministers, and priests, as well as riffraff like me, who defied easy categorization. It was a lot like summer camp, making new friends and challenging yourself to do something scary — reading your composition out loud to your writing group was every bit as nerve-wracking as jumping off a rope swing into the lake — complaining about the food and then eating way too much of it.

Over the course of the week we tried out different kinds of writing: lyrical essays, personal memoir, and even blogging and op-eds. We talked about midrash and juxtapositions, scripture and poetry. Once we opened Bibles and with our eyes closed, put our fingers on a text, Augustine style, and wrote what came to mind. (How did I end up in 2 Esdras?) Every afternoon was free for working on assignments, napping or reflecting, or in my case logging a few miles on the treadmill (it was way too hot to spend much time outside) and playing music in a quiet practice room. By the end of the week I had no problem spending an hour or more just lying on the grass, listening to birds and looking at clouds.

On the first morning I told my writing group that my goal for the week was to escape from footnotes. Historians are trained to build their ideas on those of others, which means we are very uncomfortable going for more than a paragraph without some kind of outside reference. The more the better, in fact. For us, writing is a slow, deliberate process of crafting an original thought from hours, days, years of reading what other people have written, constructing an argument with nuance and precision, absolutely faithful to the texts that those others left behind. I often think of historical writing like sculpting a block of marble into a statue, one deliberately planned chip at a time.

That means that historians don't normally just sit down and write things, any more than an astronaut would jump out of the mother ship without a tether and a decent supply of oxygen. We stay close to our sources as a matter of respect — and if we were perfectly honest, out of an abundance of personal caution.

Turned out, however, that I had no trouble leaving footnotes behind. In fact, jumping off the cliff on a rope swing was the easiest thing I did all week, fully accomplished before lunch the first day. The real problem, one I shared with the ministers and rabbis in my writing group, was much more complicated. Writing is by its nature anti-social. It requires time and distance apart. And of course, in an age of social isolation and media feeds targeted toward our personal algorithms, it's far too easy to fall into the trap of writing for and about me, me, me. Writing can be the ultimate act of self-indulgence.

In the end my most important reboot had nothing to do with footnotes. It was learning to see writing as a form of compassion, a way of engaging other people with respect, clarity, and vulnerability. That means leaving behind the preachy sermon mode — read this, it will be good for you — and, for the historian-expert in full footnote body armor, accepting the risk of exposure, being willing to be, at least for a little while, a party of one. That takes a lot more courage than most of us realize, not just to be honest and vulnerable, but, as I am learning, to fight against easy distractions, whether it's social media or the pile of oughts and shoulds clamoring from my calendar and smart phone. Somewhere out there, I keep reminding myself, are birds waiting to be listened to, and clouds waiting to be watched.

-Peggy Bendroth

July 1, 2016

The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed on Monday, July 4th in observance of Independence 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'll get back to you when we return to the office on Tuesday.

We hope you have a safe and happy celebration.

 


image of fireworks over the Charles River in Boston courtesy of Pablo Valerio via Wikimedia Commons

June 29, 2016

At the beginning of summer, we find ourselves daydreaming about summer road trips, escapes to cabins and cottages, and the afternoons when we might slip away to the beach. Others, including some of the library staff, travel to conferences and industry meetings.

One summer, over 100 years ago, a group of businessmen made a very long journey: across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Seattle, Washington. Shortly after their arrival, they were photographed in Spokane. Their shiny top hats create a striking contrast against the rough logs of the building behind them. In the upper right-hand area of the photo, you can see the curious face of a child, straining for a glance of the visitors.

This group arrived just over fifty years after the Treaty of Amity and Commerce opened up diplomatic and commercial relations between Japan and the United States. The exchange was facilitated by Eiichi Shibusawa, a prolific Japanese entrepreneur and an advocate for stronger ties with the West.

The visitors met with President William H. Taft, J.P Morgan, and Thomas Edison among many others famous Americans of the day. They began in Seattle and traveled by train across the United States for three months, ending on the east coast. Along the way, they stopped in Spokane and posed for a group photo.

How the photograph wound up in our collection is a mystery to the library's current staff, but they speculate that it was among the papers given to us by a minister of missionary.

We have hundreds of other images in our collection, many of which can be viewed online. It's not quite like a vacation, but they can still transport you.

June 28, 2016

On a recent Thursday evening, we invited members of the Congregational Library & Archives to join us for a special evening lecture.

Dr. Peter Becker of the Harvard College Writing Program gave a lecture about slave narratives. The Congregational library & Archives has many examples of the writings of former slaves who escaped the South before the Civil War. Becker explored the slave narrative as a literary genre, and delved into its historic, social, and religious implications. He discussed how themes and tropes carried through centuries of narratives, from the first slave narrative in 1770s to contemporary works inspired by the slave narrative genre, like the films Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave. Along the historical and literary journey, Dr. Becker drew connections between slave narratives and works as divergent as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Toni Morrison's Beloved.

An unexpected guest joined the group that evening: The great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Jones, a one-time slave who penned a famous narrative (a copy of which is in our collection). She brought with her a collection of letters, including a letter of introduction written by William Lloyd Garrison to help Jones as he made his way in Canada.

The event was presented in collaboration with the National Park Service's Boston African American National Historic Site, one of our regular collaborators.

We periodically host special programs for members. Becoming a member of the Congregational Library & Archives gets you a seat at these events, and, even more importantly, helps preserve the history behind them.

June 13, 2016

This year marks the 425th anniversary of the birth of Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643), a prominent figure in Puritan New England. Her role in the Antinomian Controversy led to fierce theological debate in the colony, criminal and religious trials, and finally her excommunication from the church and banishment from Massachusetts. We're partnering with the Anne Marbury Hutchinson Foundation for two events as part of their commemoration of Mrs. Hutchinson's life. Reserve your tickets today.

 

Anne Hutchinson's 425th Birthday reception

Join fellow Anne Fans and Hutchinson descendants in a (pre-dinner) birthday celebration. Co-hosted by the CLA and the AMHF, guests will enjoy Puritan-fun delicacies and raise a toast together in "Mother Anne's" memory. Following a convivial swirl of conversation, hugs, and song the assembly will be invited to join arms and trot to local, Beacon Hill dining establishments for more history-loving cheers.

Wednesday, July 20th
5:30 - 7:00 pm

 

American Jezebel & Founding Mother

Join fellow "Anne fans" and Hutchinson descendants in a lecture and extended Q&A by Eve LaPlante, acclaimed author of American Jezebel. Co-hosted by the CLA and the AMHF, guests enjoy an informative presentation LaPlante as she explores the life and times of her ancestor, Founding Mother Anne Hutchinson, followed by a Q&A with fellow "Anne fans".

Thursday, July 21st
10:30 am - noon

 

June 8, 2016

There are two new additions to our New England's Hidden Histories program, both of which have experienced changes in geography since their creation.

 

Medway, Mass. First Church of Christ records, 1730-1876

The records of this church contain the usual meeting minutes and vital statistics, as well as a handful of disciplinary cases and two sermons. Although the church orginated in the town of Medway, the geography of the area has changed such that the building itself is now in Millis, Mass.

 

Brunswick, Maine. First Parish records, 1735-1829

This extensive collection contains a variety of materials. Something that may be of particular interest to some researchers is a group of documents relating to the call and ordination of Rev. Asa Mead, a process that isn't always so thoroughly recorded. The majority of these records date from before Maine's separation from Massachusetts.

 


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 this resource do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

May 30, 2016

Don't forget to let us know if you'll be joining us for this month's free lunchtime lecture.


David Mislin is a historian of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, with a focus on American intellectual and religious history.

His latest book, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age, shows how Congregationalist ministers and laity in and around Boston were instrumental in encouraging Americans to start celebrating religious diversity during the late 19th and early 20th century.

He will discuss how shifting views in Boston helped inspire other mainline Protestants throughout the U.S. to adopt a similar outlook, and suggest that this shift was pivotal for fostering a more inclusive society.

Mislin received his Ph.D. from Boston University, where he taught before joining Temple University's intellectual Heritage faculty in the fall of 2014. in addition to his latest work, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Cornell University Press, 2015), he has also contributed chapters to several edited volumes on religion and American life, and he has published or has articles forthcoming in the Journal of the Historical Society, Religion and American Culture, and Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture. He is currently at work on a second book-length project, tentatively titled Evil in America: The Cultural History of an Idea.

 

Wednesday, June 1st
12:00 - 1:00 pm

Free.
Register through Eventbrite.

May 27, 2016

The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed on Monday, May 30th in observance of Memorial 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'll get back to you when we return to the office on Tuesday.

 


image of historical American flags courtesy of PBS.org

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