Beacon Street Diary
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.
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."
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."
"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."
"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."
engraving of George Whitefield by Frederick Halpin (ca. 1870) based on a painting by John Greenwood (ca. 1768)
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.
Don't miss out on this month's free lunchtime lecture.
Inventing George Whitefield
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.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
engraving of George Whitefield by Frederick Halpin (ca. 1870) based on a painting by John Greenwood (ca. 1768)
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 ThanksNational 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.
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 pleasant Easter weekend.
excerpt from "Field Of Easter Lilies" (2008) submitted to Wikimedia Commons by user ForestWander
Don't miss out on next week's free lunchtime discussion with our own executive director and resident historian.
Peggy Bendroth is executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston. She is author of Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present, among other books.
Wednesday, March 23rd
12:00 - 1:00 pm
In the mid-1800s, as mission work expanded in scope, the ABCFM began to actively recruit women missionaries. The goal of the missions — to create self-sustaining churches — required not only pastors, but nurses, doctors, and teachers. While ministers' wives and even single women had long gone to work in missions, the ABCFM formalized women's involvement by establishing the Women's Board of Missions in 1868.
The green-printed cover of one folded brochure speaks directly to young middle-class women:
"TO YOU who are enjoying all the rich fruitage of a Christian education and who are seeking the largest opportunities for sharing what you have received with others, unless you are detained in this land by imperative obligations, the call is to go."
Inside the brochure, women read descriptions of missions in South Africa, Turkey, India, China, Japan, and Micronesia. There were positions for teachers, nurses, even doctors in addition to the more traditional "evangelistic worker". The pamphlet spoke to worried mothers as well, assuring that as their daughters were called to go, they were called to let go.
In a pamphlet with the simple title Being a Missionary, missionary worker Mrs. H. S. Calder spoke directly to other women who are considering missionary work. She addressed both their concerns and their hopes.
"When you mention to your friends that you are thinking of becoming a foreign missionary, some of them will tell you that you are quite too good for this work,-- that some one who has had fewer advantages, some one of less culture, some one made of a coarser fiber, not such a choice spirit as you, some one whose life is more allied to those people in whom you have developed this sudden interest, some one not so far above them in education and refinement,-- that such a person will do that work far better than you can do it; that it is your duty to use your superior talents where they will avail the most, and that it is wrong to 'cast pearls before swine.' …But they need your help and stimulus."
Calder wrote of the challenges educated women would have as missionaries, and spoke frankly about her own struggles.
"You are fond of school work, and feel that you can succeed in that, but you find your attention and time taken by the most uninteresting and distasteful details of domestic work, toward which you never had any learning, and which you know little about. I well remember how appalled I was when, in the first or second year of missionary experience, I was in charge of the schoolgirls for an hour while they were mending their clothes, and one of them quietly said to me, 'Will you please cut my dress?' I stood aghast. I, not at all adept at dressmaking, then and there, without patterns, cut a dress for a girl sixteen years old? Don't ask me the end of this story, for it might be unpleasant for me, but remember that you need to be better equipped for your position than I was for mine."
But the hard work would be fulfilling. Calder wrote, "If you are weak, under this experience you will grow strong. If you are severe, you will soften. I have seen it."
Congregational missionaries worked to engage women who stayed in the United States as well. The Women's Board of Missions of the Interior, based in Chicago, focused primarily on fundraising to support the missions. The WBMI provided opportunities for engagement to women who were not able to venture out into the field, but who wished to support others who went abroad as foreign missionaries. In one pamphlet, the WBMI explains its mission:
"Its object is the engage the earnest, systemic co-operation of Christian women in sending out and supporting women as missionaries, native teachers, and Bible readers to women and Children in Christless lands."
The WBMI published letters from women currently serving in missions in their magazines. Ann Ellis Pullen, Kennesaw State University professor emerita, wrote about the life of Nellie Arnott, who was engaged both in missionary work and in marketing the missions. Arnott wrote letters designed to be read in public and articles for WBMI magazines about her life in Angola, to help raise money for the missions and persuade other women to follow her overseas.
"It was clear to Arnott that pert of her responsibility was to write circular letters to her supporters at home to encourage donations, to encourage just thinking about the missions, and coming to the missions," says Pullen. "The women's magazines were certainly intended to be a marketing tool."
Pullen notes that Arnott's diaries are often discouraged about the mission and her role on it, but the letters she wrote to friends and for publication were upbeat and cheerful. "The female missionaries were encouraged to become missionary journalists in a very positive way, as a marketing tool," she said.
Even if it is propagandistic, these pamphlets and articles are examples of women speaking directly to women in the early 20th century in the marketing of mission work. Through their words, we can begin to understand what mattered to Congregational women, and what might have persuaded a young woman from Iowa to pick up and move to Angola, as Nellie Arnott did. These pamphlets are important records, helping us remember women's dreams, women's frustrations, and voices like Calder's encouraging middle-class women to claim a little agency, and go on an adventure.
The American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missionaries was active in Hawaii from 1820 until 1863. Missionary Album: Portraits and Biographical Sketches of American Protestant Missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands offers glimpses into the lives of women missionaries who came to Hawaii nearly two hundred years ago.
The biographical details for women in the Missionary Album are often spare, usually just listing the dates of their birth and death, and the names of their children. Some are more in-depth, and a few contain eyebrow-raising details: for example, Mrs. Lucia Holman is believed to be the first American woman to have circumnavigated the globe.
Most missionary women came with their husbands, but single women missionaries were present almost from the beginning of the mission. These women typically had some experience as teachers or in mission work. One exception, Betsey Stockton, had worked for many years as a servant in a Connecticut minister's home. A largely self-taught woman, she shared her knowledge with Hawaiian farmers and their wives. She conducted a school in Hawaii for two years after her extreme piousness led her to serve as a missionary.
Women's experiences on missions were incredibly varied, as we can learn from the Missionary Album. Some stayed for only two or three years, while others settled in Hawaii for several decades. Different women played different roles, but as missionary Ursula Emerson wrote in her journal in 1832, each missionary woman wore several hats. "A missionary here must not only be a pastor and a spiritual guide, but also a school-teacher, doctor, farmer and mechanic, and this is not for a few hundred, but for thousands."
portrait of Miss Betsey Stockton, first single female missionary of the American Board, and teacher at the American Board school at Lahaina, Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands) from Missionary Album, Sesquicentennial Edition, 1820-1970 Hawaiian Mission Children's Society. Honolulu, HI: 1969. p.186
For my sixty-hour internship, I processed and created a finding aid for a collection of records from the Congregational Conference of Illinois and its member associations. Because this was my first hands-on experience in the archival field, many aspects of processing surprised me. For example, the importance of preserving original order has been drilled into my mind in class. However, I discovered on my first day at the CLA that I would be imposing an artificial order onto a collection.