Beacon Street Diary

May 3, 2018

Our reading room will be closed to the public on Friday, May 4th from noon to the end of business. The staff will be doing some reorganizing of our stacks, and don't wish to disrupt any researchers with the noise.

All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have questions that require staff assistance, please send an email or leave a voicemail, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

April 30, 2018
By: Douglas Winiarski
Historians of religion in early America ought to be shouting “Huzzah!” for the Congregational Library & Archives 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.
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.

This blog was originally featured in Douglas Winiarski's blog The People Called New Lights

April 23, 2018

On Tuesday, April 17, James “Jim” Matarazzo, Dean and Professor Emeritus, Simmons College School of Library and Information Science, passed away in Boston. To those of us in the Library and Archives’ field, Jim was a legend. For almost 50 years, he guided students from the classroom to successful careers, always being available and never forgetting anyone and their life. His gentle and humble nature belied a brilliant and cagey navigator of the working world…and he always paved the way into that world for his students.

The mention of Jim’s name always elicits a smile to the many whose lives he touched. The image of Jim’s pleasant smiling visage with his beloved pipe will forever be etched in my heart. His ability to remain calm and understanding while subtly being relentless in your behalf were the building blocks of his success. He was the Will Rogers of the Library and Archives world…never meeting a person he didn’t like and he took that easy-going nature a step further and always connected good people with each other.

Here at the Congregational Library and Archives, we are forever indebted to Jim for his tireless work on our behalf to help move many projects and endeavors forward with wisdom and funding. Many a student has walked through our doors with confidence and abilities that Jim helped craft.

We are among the many who will miss Jim dearly, but his confidence in us (and everyone) is contagious. A day won’t pass without someone whispering thank you for a successful path he started.

April 9, 2018

The Congregational Library & Archives is happy to announce that our “New England’s Hidden Histories” project, which seeks to locate, digitize, transcribe, and place online New England’s earliest manuscript church records, has been selected to receive a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Grant supports projects that provide an essential underpinning for scholarship, education, and public programming in the humanities. Funding from this program strengthens efforts to extend the life of such materials and make their intellectual content widely accessible through the use of digital technology, which closely aligns with the mission and directive of “New England’s Hidden Histories.”

“New England’s Hidden Histories” will collect and publish an additional 18,000 pages of records from the nation’s founding era from the archives of churches in the American Northeast; 7,000 of these pages will be transcribed. The documents are of immeasurable value to anyone "exploring political culture, social history, linguistics, epidemiology and well as to genealogists and members of the public interested in a range of subjects," The National Endowment for the Humanities said in its announcement.

Early New Englanders recorded the most intimate details of their lives and communities in their manuscript church records. Spirited church debates, disciplinary hearings, personal narratives, and vital statistics listing marriages, births, and deaths, can all be found in often lost or hidden church records. “New England’s Hidden Histories” looks to reveal the texture of early New England society, sharing the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary detail. The project has already produced tens of thousands of digital images of these documents in its ongoing effort to freely share this historical resource with scholars, teachers, genealogists, and all interested members of the public on the website of the Congregational Library & Archives.

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at:

March 29, 2018

The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed this Friday, March 30th, in observance of Good Friday.

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 next week.

We hope you have a lovely Easter weekend.


image of Springtime (ca. 1860) by Charles Jacque, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

March 26, 2018

When I was ten, my personal hero was Patrick Henry. He was the Revolutionary War figure who demanded "liberty or death" — in retrospect, not a surprising choice for a bookish, secretly rebellious pre-adolescent. But by the time I reached college, I had switched to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the outspoken leader of the woman suffrage movement. I had discovered "women's history".

I shouldn't have had to choose one over the other, but that's the way history had been done for a long time. The stories revolved around wars and politics, and so in spite of an occasional Molly Pitcher or a Queen Elizabeth, the average textbook was pretty male-dominated. When changes came, they were incremental. In the new textbooks famous women appeared in text boxes, set off to one side, and probably not on the final exam.

Women's historians called this the "add women and stir" approach, a way of writing history not unlike adding chocolate chips to cookie dough. The cookies would certainly be edible without the chocolate chips and the chips don't turn the cookie into a ham roast. But the chocolate chips — and the women — are extra. They don't really alter the final product.

How much we miss! Lately one group of women has fascinated me, at least partly because I've found so much material about them in the Congregational Library. These women lived in the mid-twentieth century, after the suffrage amendment but well before the National Organization for Women and The Feminine Mystique. They lived out their faith in organizations like United Church Women, but also as deeply loyal Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists. These were women who enjoyed taking leadership, lobbying presidents and generals and atomic scientists — but who hated being called feminists. 

In fact, they always preferred to go by their husbands' names. They were "Mrs. Harper Sibley", "Mrs. Samuel Cavert", "Mrs. Theodore Wedel", and "Mrs. Douglas Horton". Their husbands were prominent, accomplished men, but thee wives were incredibly competent on their own. Cynthia Wedel had a Ph.D. in psychology and was the first female president of the National Council of Churches. Mildred McAfee Horton was the president of Wellesley College and in World War II commander of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, the women's division of the Naval Reserve).

To me, these stories are every bit as much "hidden history" as are the church records we collect and digitize on our website. It's not hard, for example, to find Douglas Horton, the main architect of the merger that created the United Church of Christ, in our collection — but where is the intrepid Mildred Horton?  

These are some of the stories we'll consider next week at the library, as we observe Women's History Month. You are all cordially invited to attend or watch live-streamed a talk I'll be giving on "Liberal Women in Conservative Times" at 4:00pm on Tuesday, April 3rd. Please RSVP on Eventbrite.

-Peggy Bendroth

March 14, 2018

Since a snow emergency is still in effect for the city of Boston, our reading room will remain closed on Wednesday, March 14th.

All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have a question that requires staff attention, please send us an email or leave a voicemail, and we'll respond when we return to the office.

March 12, 2018

Due to the impending severe winter weather and the state of emergency declared by the city of Boston, our reading room will be closed on Tuesday, March 13th.

All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have a question you'd like to ask the staff, send an us email or leave a voicemail, and we'll get back to you when we return to the office on Wednesday, March 14th.

We hope all of our local friends are safe and warm.


photograph "Bokeh Snow tree branches in Massachusetts blizzard" by D Sharon Pruitt, via Wikimedia Commons

March 8, 2018

The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed today, Thursday, March 8th due to inclement weather conditions.

All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have a question you'd like to ask the staff, send us an email or leave a voicemail, and we'll get back to you when we return to the office.

Please check this blog or our Facebook page for updates regarding Friday's hours.

Stay warm and stay safe!


snowflake ornament image courtesy of Petr Kratochvil via Wikimedia Commons

March 1, 2018

I haven’t made it a practice to comment on current events in our blog—we’re a library after all and have enough work to do seeing to the past without also taking on the present and the future.

But the recent death of Billy Graham has seemed an exception—and so you are welcome to keep reading, or if the subject is not your cup of tea, to move along and keep browsing our website.

Two years ago I was asked to write an “afterward” to a book of essays on Graham. (Billy Graham: American Pilgrim, was published by Oxford University Press in 2017 and edited by Andrew Finstuen Anne Blue Wills, and Grant Wacker.) My job was to try and answer the “what next” question: will there be another evangelist in Billy’s mold, and if so, who?

I worried a lot about that article. No historian wants to get caught prognosticating, after all, but even worse, I had read plenty of surveys that showed large numbers of people simply did not know who Billy Graham was. For many younger Americans he was a distant memory (or in some cases, a rock impresario).

Nevertheless, I dutifully ticked through all of the “next Billy Graham” candidates—family members, evangelical bigwigs like Rick Warren and Max Lucado, prosperity preachers like T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen. One thing seemed reasonably certain at the time, that if another Graham-like figure was to come on the scene, he (or she) would come from the “next Christendom,” where the majority of Christians now live, in Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

At the time, I had no idea of the biggest problem facing my prognosticatings. In 2016 many people were already declaring the demise of evangelicalism—in fact, many evangelicals themselves were admitting that they had lost the culture wars and would need to adjust to being, as one of them put it, the “away team rather than the home team.” But that was all before the election of 2016 and the dramatic role evangelicals would play in the election of Donald Trump.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I would write the article if I were given the assignment now. Two years ago I was skeptical of any radical changes in the offing—paradigms, I wrote, shift far less often than we think they do. Since then, we’ve become less sanguine. Many of my fellow historians of American religion have issued sharply critical denunciations of evangelicalism, some declaring its final demise, others wondering whether the category even made sense in the first place. Without a doubt the evangelicalism that Graham represented, the white, middle-class nexus of Wheaton College, Christianity Today, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is no longer with us. “Evangelicalism” today looks more and more like an unknowable hodgepodge of religious and political agendas, alarmingly responsive to social media and stubbornly resistant to criticism.

At the very least, if I were writing the article now, I’d add a caveat: this is not a time for crowning successors. Billy Graham came on the stage in the midst of an evangelical revival that arose in the shadow of the Cold War, an era in which hope overrode fear. Conservative evangelicals, many of whom had become convinced that the end of the world was near, chose a brighter future, an America that might after all become truly Christian. Most of us today would see that optimism as narrow and naïve, and might also rightly wonder about Graham’s message. Despite the flurry of post-mortems in the press and on social media, we are only beginning to understand his complex impact on American society.

I might also risk some more open editorializing. These are dauntingly different times from the era that crowned Billy Graham an evangelical leader. Now we can measure, as never before perhaps, the hopes and expectations that all of us, evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike, have quietly relinquished, how fear has become such a normal state of mind. I think that the “next Billy Graham,” if such a person does come along, will know this. His or her message may well be every bit as simple and “biblical” as Graham’s, but in a different way. It will, like the Bible itself, make the most sense to people living in hard times, facing an uncertain future.

-Peggy Bendroth