New England Church Records make front page of NY Times
The New York Times recently gave pride of place on its front page to an ongoing search to recover New England’s colonial church records. (You can view the article here.) The effort is led by James F. Cooper, Jr of Oklahoma State University and Margaret Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston, and is part of their larger ‘New England’s Hidden Histories’ project.
Unlike most British dissenting records, which were brought into various archives over time or into county record offices during the 1960s, many of New England’s colonial-era church records remain in the hands of local churches. They were famously cataloged in the 1960s by Harold F. Worthley, former librarian and executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston. After three years and 28,000 miles of travel he produced his famous 716-page ‘Worthley Inventory’ of early congregational church records. But now, over 50 years on, many have gone missing.
Drs Bendroth and Cooper are recreating Worthley’s travels and rummaging through church closets, file cabinets, drawers, and safety deposit boxes in hopes of finding and preserving these valuable records. Their aim is to persuade churches to protect their past by permanently loaning these records to the Congregational Library in Boston, where they can be protected and restored.
They are also making the records available to the public. Increasing numbers of these records can be found digitized and transcribed on the Library’s ‘New England’s Hidden Histories’ website. The website (found here) is an invaluable source for exploring colonial religion.
It is a fascinating project that is drawing considerable attention (the Washington Post covered the story last year). But it also provides an interesting look into some of the challenges and opportunities historians have in collecting and publishing non-state records.