Compiling knowledge

Applicants to the Society of the Descendants of the Colonial Clergy (SDCC) must have “a proven lineal lawful descent from a clergyman who was regularly ordained, installed, or settled over a Christian church within the limits of the thirteen colonies prior to 4 July 1776.” Although not a descendant of a colonial clergy ancestor, I was invited to attend the SDCC business meeting on Saturday, 4 November 2017, because I was a speaker during their annual meeting luncheon.

The meeting was held this year at the First Church Universal Unitarian of Brewster, Massachusetts. The meeting included minutes, old and new business, reports (especially budgetary), and election of officers. The luncheon was held down the street in “The Mansion,” once owned by the Roland Crosby Nickerson family and now part of the Ocean Edge Resort and Golf Club of Brewster.

As part of their mission, SDCC seeks to “preserve documents, histories, biographical sketches and memorials pertaining to the colonial clergy of America and the parishes which they served.” My presentation concerned a review of two projects funded by SDCC and a discussion of NEHGS' R. Stanton Avery Special Collection’s proposal for a potential project.

Project 1. Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England and Parts Adjacent records, 1685–1787.

This project involved SDCC funding the digitization of The Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England and Parts Adjacent records, 1685–1787, held by R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, Mss 1193. Influenced by the missionary efforts of John Eliot (1604–1690), The Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England was created by British Parliament on 27 July 1649.

The Corporation appointed commissioners and a treasurer in New England, who, with the income transmitted to them by the Corporation in England, paid itinerant missionaries and school teachers among Native-Americans. The material held by NEHGS consists of meeting minutes (1731–1784) and treasurers’ accounts (1729–1785) for the Boston Commissioners; correspondence between the Boston and the London Boards (1751–1887); and loose documents (1685–1787), including bonds, deeds, receipts, and correspondence concerning the Boston Commissioners, missionaries, schoolmasters, and Native Americans, particularly those living in Freetown, Martha’s Vineyard, Mashpee, Natick, and Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The uploading of digital images for this collection continues and we look forward to its completion in 2018.

Project 2. Commonplace book of Francis Dane, approximately 1648–1697.

This project involved SDCC funding the conservation and digitization of the Commonplace book of Francis Dane, 1649–1697, held by R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, Mss A 1966. Wikipedia defines a commonplace book as “a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books … recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas … as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they have learned. Each commonplace book is unique to its creator’s particular interests.”

The Francis Dane commonplace book contains handwritten extracts from readings, recipes, and other items recorded by Reverend Francis Dane (1615–1697), minister of North Parish in Andover, Massachusetts from 1649 until 1697. Although Dane was an important figure during the Salem Witch Trials, the extremely poor condition of this document had severely limited its use. After conservation treatment and imaging (funded over two years), the digital images of this unique record are now freely available for scholarship through the NEHGS digital collections website (please note that the first 64 images are of paper scraps, so full pages begin with image 65).

Project 3. Account book of Samuel Sewall, 1670–1728

At the SDCC annual meeting in November 2017, the group approved the funding of a project to conserve and digitize the account book of Samuel Sewall, 1670–1728, held by R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, Mss 514. This project will take place in 2018. Although not a minister, Samuel Sewall (1652–1729) was commissioner of the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England and Parts Adjacent (1699–1730), so this proposal relates to our first project. In addition, Sewall was an overseer of Harvard College and Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Judicature (1718–1728). Although there are no entries relating to the Witch Trials, Sewall’s account book includes many entries relating to colonial clergy as well as other entries of interest to a wide range of scholars.

Thanks to the generous funding provided by the Society of the Descendants of the Colonial Clergy, high quality digital images of these important manuscripts can now be accessed via the NEHGS Digital Collections website with significantly improved discoverability and accessibility. We hope to eventually add transcriptions for these records to broaden their use by amateur historians, students, and the public.

NEHGS’ R. Stanton Avery Special Collections holds many other significant resources related to colonial clergy including biographies, church records, commonplace books, diaries, and sermons. These records contain valuable data for genealogists, historians, lineage societies, and other scholars. NEHGS looks forward to future collaborations with SDCC so additional colonial clergy related resources held by our Society can be conserved and digitized. If you have a colonial clergy ancestor, please consider joining this wonderful group and supporting its mission.

Timothy Salls

About Timothy Salls

Timothy Salls managed the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections Manuscripts Department, which includes the Society's manuscript collections and archives, until 2020. Tim received a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and an M.S. in Information and Library Science from Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library & Information Science with an Archives concentration.View all posts by Timothy Salls