The region’s Congregationalist heritage means two things. First, every town’s meetinghouse kept its own records, and New England towns have a tradition of not giving up such things to a central authority. Second, with the number of Congregationalists diminishing, there aren’t that many people left to keep track of these documents.
The article follows Prof. James Fenimore Cooper, Jr., of Oklahoma State University, and Margaret Bendroth, Executive Director of the Congregational Library in Boston, as they seek out those documents and seek to convince churches to send them to the library for digitization and safekeeping.
Here’s one vignette:
A few hours later, Dr. Cooper and Dr. Bendroth visited an evangelical congregation in Hopkinton, Mass. Faith Community Church is the successor of the original Congregational church in town, founded in 1724, and had the original records carefully cataloged, boxed and stored in a locked basement room, alongside an early pastor’s 1740 Queen Anne side chair with a bullet hole in the back.The Times article doesn’t say it, but the researchers’ work leads to the Congregational Library’s New England Hidden Histories project, discussed in this Religion News article last year.
The documents included a list of excommunicants and notification of a fine levied against a local man who resisted joining the Army during the Revolution, as well as multiple “relations” — letters describing faith journeys. They include one from Benjamin Pond, who described how, despite being raised in a Christian home, he had fallen “into a state of stupidity and wickedness” until, after multiple deaths in his family, including of his child, he had a conversion experience. “That’s the first time that’s been heard in 200 years,” Dr. Bendroth said after reading Mr. Pond’s relation. “I just think that’s really amazing.”
The Times illustrated its story with a photograph from those Hopkinton records, showing a church decision on a delicate matter:
February 26th. 1773. The Church met at the meeting-house (pursuant to adjournment) and unanimously Voted, That the Charge brought against Mrs. Seaver, appear’d to them to be Sufficiently prov’d; and that therefore they could not Consent to her owning the Covenant, and receiving Baptism for her Child.So immediately I wondered what that was about.
TOMORROW: Tracking down Mrs. Seaver.