Beacon Street Diary

Archives: April 2016

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

April 22, 2016

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."

The 17th-century revivalist George Whitefield is one of the first to preach outside of church, drawing thousands to his open-air sermons. Art historian Linda Johnson analyzes three portraits of the preacher, showing the progression of Whitefield’s life through art. Discussing a portrait by Joseph Badger, she writes,

"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."

The Bulletin follows thread of evangelism into the 19th century. Before women were ordained in any mainline denomination, Abigail Roberts preached and helped to found at least fourteen congregations during the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s. Marjorie Royle has the story of how the post-Revolutionary political and social climate allowed a woman to become an influential religious figure.

"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."

Make sure you get your copy of the Bulletin by donating today. Not sure if you are a current member? Email us or call 617-523-0470 ext. 230.


engraving of George Whitefield by Frederick Halpin (ca. 1870) based on a painting by John Greenwood (ca. 1768)

April 15, 2016

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.

April 8, 2016

Don't miss out on this month's free lunchtime lecture.

Inventing George Whitefield

On a fall day in 1838, a cortege wound through the streets of Newburyport, Massachusetts, headed for Old South Presbyterian Church. A box contained the humerus bone of eighteenth-century English preacher George Whitefield, who had been previously interred in the basement crypt of the church following his death in September 1770. The reinterment ceremony restored the bone, which had been pilfered by a British admirer of Whitefield's, to its former resting place.

This nineteenth-century memorialization was the latest in a long series of contentious and sometimes strange events involving Whitefield since he first set foot in New England in 1740, at the invitation of Benjamin Colman, Jonathan Edwards, and a small handful of Congregationalists with revivalist sympathies. The invitation of Whitefield was not without controversy among New England's ministerial elite. While Whitefield's sponsors hoped that his visit would renew a waning interest in religious life, his detractors worried that his visit would undermine the authority of clergy and upset the region's fractious peace. Reactions to Whitefield varied, with members of the old Congregationalist guard, such as Charles Chauncy, lamenting Whitefield's effect on religious life in the colonies.

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.

Jessica Parr is a historian, specializing in the history of race and religion in the Early Modern Atlantic World. She received her PhD from the University of New Hampshire at Durham in 2012 and also holds an MA in History and and MS in Archives Management from Simmons College. Parr is a regular contributor to 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

Register through Eventbrite.


engraving of George Whitefield by Frederick Halpin (ca. 1870) based on a painting by John Greenwood (ca. 1768)


April 6, 2016

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 Thanks

These digital resources have been made possible in part by the National 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.