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Historians in Race Against Time to Discover Secrets to America's Past in Some of the Most Unexpected Places


"...information that is simply not available in any other records from that time."

Image source: United Church of Christ, Abington/

Historians looking to preserve centuries-old colonial records are in a race against time, as their quest to discover secrets about America's past is oft-times impeded by the loss of centuries-documents to fires, decay or accidental loss at the hands of faith leaders.

But Professor James Fenimore Cooper Jr. of Oklahoma State University, and Margaret Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, Massachusetts, are determined to collect as many documents as possible, according to the New York Times.

In fact, the two are encouraging congregational churches — the historical houses of worship that make decisions for themselves, even if they are part of a denomination — to hand over centuries-old documents sitting in their basements and attics so that they can be archived and properly protected.

The Congregational Library and Archive's website best explains the historians' reasoning for so staunchly seeking to preserve the past, calling church records "an unparalleled source of information about the religious activities of the early colonists, and about many other aspects of early American life as well."

"[These records] provide a richly detailed view of town governments and social customs, data on births and marriages and deaths, and demonstrate the ways that ordinary people participated in community-wide decision-making — information that is simply not available in any other records from that time," the website explains.

According to the Times, Cooper and Bendroth go from church to church, mainly in the Massachusetts area each summer, to ask pastors to give them their most prized documents. But while some are more than willing to comply, others are reportedly more hesitant about parting ways with the pasts.

Cooper and Bendroth comfort churches by promising the safekeeping of their prized historical records. Not only are they digitized, but records are also stored in a climate controlled room inside the Congregational Library — a move that ensures their protection.

Image source: United Church of Christ, Abington/ A digital copy of a historical record from the United Church of Christ (Image source: United Church of Christ, Abington/Congregational Archive and Library)

Records of confessions, sins, baptisms and other church-related activities are among those generally present in the piles the historians discover in some of the most random and forgotten locations.

Consider what Cooper and Bendroth found at Faith Community Church in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, a church that succeeded a house of worship founded in 1724: nearly 300-year old original church records, including excommunications and letters detailing personal faith journeys.

In a separate find, the library has uncovered rare documents at a church in Middleboro, Massachusetts, back in 2011 — over 300 colonial-era stories of personal religious conversions.

Written in the hand of men and women looking to achieve membership local churches, the documents provide a rare look into the lives of individuals from various backgrounds, according to the library's website.

The Congregational Library is currently working to transcribe these personal stories and the public is invited to take part. Read more about the project here.

(H/T: New York Times)

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