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Beacon Street Diary blog

Puritan relations: possibly not what you think

Back in September we announced the opening of a new exhibit in our Reading Room featuring colonial church records. In that announcement, we mentioned that one of the record types on display are "relations". Relations, or perhaps more commonly referred to today as "conversion narratives", served as a written or oral public testimony of religious conversion or experience. These were usually made in front of a congregation as part of the process of becoming a member of that church. In each case, the congregation would then vote on whether or not the individual should be admitted to the covenanted membership of the church.

We tend to think of these relations as being a specifically New England (or maybe even Massachusetts) convention, but they were in fact common practice in Puritan and Congregational churches on both sides of the Atlantic.

There have been several studies of Puritan conversion narratives (including one which draws a nice comparison between those in New England and England), so I won't go into too much detail here.

Suffice it to say that these narratives are rather rare to find in a church's archival collection, for several reasons. One, there simply aren't that many churches that were founded in a time period when relations were the "done thing" whose archival collections still exist. Two, many relations were made orally, and the only records of their existence that can be found are notations in church minutes. Three, written relations were usually made on rather small pieces of paper, which can be difficult to organize and keep together. In many cases, time, closings, reorganizations, decay, and natural disasters have wiped out these very personal expressions of faith.


relation of Elijah Alden at Middleborough, 1794
click to enlarge

It's understandable, then, that we get pretty excited when we come across a previously-unknown trove of them. We get even more excited when we can share them with you! This will soon be possible as we get more and more collections online as part of New England's Hidden Histories. The relations found in some of these collections are from the 17th and 18th centuries, and they offer a great deal of insight into colonial public expressions of faith (stay tuned for more information!). We also recently uncovered some Civil War-era relations in a church collection from Pawtucket, RI. While we have no plans to offer these for online-access at this time, once the collection is available (watch this blog for that announcement), they will be available for researcher use.

--Sari

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