New England's Hidden Histories: Church Records and Church Practice in Colonial New England

By Cooper, James F., Jr. | Bunyan Studies, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

New England's Hidden Histories: Church Records and Church Practice in Colonial New England


Cooper, James F., Jr., Bunyan Studies


In 1677, the Reverend Samuel Phillips, the local pastor in Rowley, Massachusetts, requested a meeting with the local millwright, one Richard Holmes, because Holmes had vetoed the application for church membership of his neighbour, one Nehemiah Jewett. In the privacy of his study, Pastor Phillips demanded of Holmes the grounds of his objections to Jewett. At length, Holmes admitted to his pastor that he and his neighbour had engaged in an angry argument over the boundaries of their property and, Homes said, Jewett 'threated to cast [him] into the creek'.

Pastor Phillips reminded Holmes that Jewett had apologized for this outburst three different times. The minister then asked Holmes 'whether his actions were not worse than Jewett's words'. Was there any truth to the rumour, the pastor asked Holmes, that he had offered his knife to Jewett's breast? 'What if I did?' Holmes challenged. The pastor was incredulous. 'To dally with such tools in a passion! ' he exclaimed. 'What if Satan had been at your elbow to give a thrust?'1

This anecdote may help shatter some stereotypes about the pious New England Puritans, and it may reinforce others. But its main significance rests simply in its very existence. We know that such confrontations, some petty, some not, increasingly plagued New England communities toward the end of the seventeenth century. And historians have tied this contention to various social and economic developments of the times. But scholars interested in society and culture in early New England are rarely blessed with accounts as specific and detailed as the Rowley incident. The passage was drawn from the manuscript record book of the First Church of Rowley, Massachusetts, a volume that contains hundreds of pages of similar passages. And there are hundreds of volumes of manuscript church records, if not thousands of them, scattered throughout New England.

The significance of these manuscripts can hardly be overestimated. Genealogists have understood the value of these records for centuries. Documentation of early New England births, deaths, baptisms and marriages is typically not found in town records but in church records. Of even greater interest to scholars is the vast amount we can learn about community life and culture from these ledgers.

Little went on within a New England village that did not pass through the doors of the local church. Those involved in neighbourly disputes were hardly expected to haul their adversaries to court, much less to threaten them with lethal weapons. Such matters were to be resolved peaceably and privately, with the assistance of the local minister, if necessary. That failing, the elders brought such matters before the entire church. By and large, only local ministers consistently kept detailed records, and they often kept accounts of such conflict and community behaviour in the church's record book. Vast amounts of information on a wide range of social, cultural, political, and religious topics can be found nowhere else but in these manuscript ledgers.

New England church records also contain the minutes of church meetings and often include careful accounts of debates and votes upon church affairs. These records suggests that most of the discussion, instruction, and debate that shaped New Englanders' political thought over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries occurred not in town meetings, as was once thought, but in local churches.2 At their best, manuscript church records open a window through which scholars may gaze upon seventeenth- and eighteenth-century life, casting more light on colonial New England communities than any other discrete sets of primary records.

And yet for all that has been written on the history of early New England, virtually no scholar has examined the region through the lens of these church records. Why? Part of the answer rests in Harold F. Worthley's church records inventory. In the early 1960s, Worthley, later the director of the Congregational Library in Boston, devoted three years to the creation of an inventory of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Congregational church records located in Massachusetts. …

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