Beacon Street Diary

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

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

May 25, 2016

If you missed Peggy Bendroth's recent talk on The Last Puritans, or simply want to hear it again, you're in luck. She'll be appearing at Old North Church as part of their Summer Speaker Series in two weeks.

The New England Puritans have had a powerful hold on the American imagination, as everything from the founders of democracy to witch-burning killjoys. The Congregational churches, whose tall white spires still dot the New England countryside, took enormous pride in their Puritan and Pilgrim roots, especially as, in the years after the Civil War, Thanksgiving became a premiere American holiday. But, as they quickly discovered, history can be an unwieldy burden. The heirs of the Pilgrim Fathers also had to keep up with the times, to meet modern challenges that their 17th century forebears never could have imagined. Margaret Bendroth, author of The Last Puritans, will explain how a religious tradition deeply knitted to the past struggled to honor their founders even as they ran up against their faults and limitations, growing to become one of the most progressive and forward-looking religious groups in American society.

Please join us for a reception and book signing following the lecture.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016
6:30 - 8:00 pm

Old North Church
193 Salem Street
Boston, MA 02113

RSVP through Eventbrite.

The Congregational Library & Archives is pleased to co-sponsor this event.

May 23, 2016

Range 2 of the library shelves, deep in the back of the stacks, is a tough neighborhood. Between tomes about white supremacists, the box of sermons about "Murder, dueling, etc." and the quarantine for damaged books, the range  contains stacks of pamphlets and reports about institutions with evocative names like, "The Church Home for Orphan and Destitute Children", "Relief of Aged Indigent Females", "Prevention of Pauperism", and "Consumptives Home". Among those pamphlets are two board reports from the Retreat for the Insane at Hartford, Connecticut, dated 1848 and 1851. Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we decided to page through the reports and get a snapshot of mental health treatment more than 150 years ago.

Opened in 1823, the Hartford Retreat for the Insane was the third mental institution in the United States and represented a new era of mental health care. The dungeon-like "lunatic asylums" of the past were falling out of favor, and the focus was on trying to improve patients' conditions. The Retreat started as a fifty-bed facility for upper-class patients. The founders were interested in "moral treatment" more than the pharmacology of the day, which still involved bleeding and herbal remedies. The two reports reflect this focus on therapy. The superintendent physician, John S. Butler, wrote both accounts to the Retreat's board. He writes about patients participating in walking and riding groups in the Retreat's grounds, reading circles, and cultural activities in Hartford. Despite the Retreat’s growing indigent population, Butler's writing makes it clear his focus was still on therapy.

Budgets provide another window into the operation of the Retreat. Both reports include detailed lines about how much was spent on staff salaries and wages, different types of food, and maintenance. Tellingly, "Wine and Medicine" were aggregated into a single line item that accounted for just a few hundred dollars of the Retreat's $25,000 operating budget. Butler's report also discusses an expansion completed in 1848, necessary to keep up with the Retreat's growing population.

Perhaps most interesting are the statistical tables at the end of each report. They organize the patients by county of origin, gender, profession, age, and cause of illness. Eyebrow-raising tidbits emerge. Common causes of illness included "Intemperance" and "Over-work", as well as the rarer "Religious excitement" and "Erroneous education". "Farmer" was the most common profession for men entering the hospital in both years, while for women it was "Domestic pursuits".


In some cases, Butler editorialized on the statistics. Hartford and New Haven counties produced the most patients, and Butler wrote in the 1848 report that urban areas are not conducive to physical health, and therefore cannot support mental health.

Butler also remarks on the frequency with which young women come through the doors of the retreat, suffering from an affliction that Betty Friedan, writing a hundred years later, might call "the problem with no name". Butler pins the blame on their husbands, who he says did not recognize the labor involved in domestic pursuits, and take advantage of wives' free labor to make more money. In Butler's estimation, many of these women just needed a break. He believed all mental illness could be cured with enough rest, exercise, talk, and patience.

The medical establishment's belief in the ability to cure mental illness withered over the next decade. Butler claimed a 52.5% recovery rate in 1851, but also describes a growing number of patients who are not helped: those who died in the hospital, shortly after exiting the hospital, and patients who leave the Retreat unimproved, most likely for financial reasons.  

The reports make it clear that a stay in the Retreat was not possible for everyone. The minimum length of stay was three months, and the cost put it out of reach for impoverished patients. Butler recommended the creation of economical accommodations for less well-off patients in the 1848 report, but by 1851, they had not yet materialized.  But the number of low-income and chronically ill patients grew over the next two decades, and Retreat devoted more and more of its resources to custodial care for chronic patients.

Connecticut's state mental hospital opened in the late 1860s. The new facility relieved pressure on the Retreat, which had until then been the only mental health care facility in the state. The Retreat returned to its role as an upper-class haven. It is still in operation today, as the Institute of Living, and is part of Hartford Hospital, a large teaching hospital. A little part of its history is in our Range 2, among other small fragments of mental health care history and a puzzle of American history stretching across the stacks.


engraving of the Hartford Retreat for the Insane courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

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