HENRY Herbert Edes, the founder of our Society, was for many years a member of the First Church in Boston and his keen antiquarian interest found scope not only in our Society but also in his filial devotion to the history and tradition of his church. The extensive collection of commemorative tablets to early members which line the walls of the present sanctuary are largely the result of his initiative, while in 1917 he persuaded our Society to erect the Thomas Hutchinson Memorial Doorway in the front of the Church. He was thoroughly acquainted with the ancient church records and tried at various times without success to have them printed. At the time of his death, the Colonial Society was publishing the Plymouth Church Records (Publications, xx, xxi, 1920–1923) and the Boston Church Records would have been a logical sequel, but the Society was already deep in the editing of the Harvard College Records (Collections, xv, xvi, 1925) and the getting of its Transactions into print.
Thomas Minns, a member of our Society from 1897 to 1913, offered in 1880 to contribute five hundred dollars toward the printing of the First Church records, but the Standing Committee felt unable at that time to appropriate the additional funds. The Standing Committee, on March 19, 1905, reconsidered the matter and voted “to consider the adviseability of having made and published a printed copy of the old records of the First Church,” but again nothing came of it.
Early in 1953, I proposed to the Trustees and Proprietors of the First Church that I was prepared to carry the records through the press if arrangements could be made for their publication. The two boards immediately placed at my disposal all of the extant records without restriction. The Council of the Colonial Society had earlier intimated that it might be receptive to proceeding with the publication and, on April 23, 1953, it was voted to invite me to undertake the editing and preparation of the text.
The First Church in Boston was gathered on July 30, 1630, and its records begin with that date. There are five principal volumes which contain the records through the year 1868, viz:
- Volume I containing a list of church members, 1630–1778, records of church meetings, 1719–1785, baptisms, 1630–1847, and recipients of the Penn Fund, 1712–1882.
- Volume II containing lists of members, 1786–1957, and records of church meetings, 1828–1841.
- Volume III containing records of church meetings, 1841–1919, funerals, 1919–1955, baptisms, 1858–1955, and a list of legacies, 1671–1815.
- Volume IV containing records of meetings of the church and congregation, 1786–1815.
- Volume V containing records of proprietors of pews, 1808–1868.
These records have been printed in their entirety, except for entries in Volume III after 1868.
In addition, the following records prior to 1868 are extant:
- Treasurer’s Book, 1699–1728
- Treasurer’s Book, 1755–1814
- Treasurer’s Cash Book, 1711–1788
- Treasurer’s Journal, 1711–1784
- Record of Sacramental and Poor Fund, 1699–1731
- Record of Sacramental and Poor Fund, 1779–1812
- Record of the Deacons’ Fund, c. 1834–1884
- Record of Marriages, 1800–1955
Other documents include an extensive set of records of assessments on pews, dating from 1779, and a loose file of papers, mostly receipts and business records, beginning in 1699. All of these latter volumes and papers have been examined and occasional notations have been added from these sources. In general, the text has been reproduced without modification of capitals, spelling, or punctuation but abbreviations and contractions have usually been expanded.
The earliest volume of church records appears to have been begun in 1636 and the entries for the preceding six years copied into it at that time. The book, measuring 8 by 12 inches, is in excellent state of repair and has suffered no mutilation. As early as 1728 it was carefully rebound with “not a Single Leaf or Line . . . left out” and a century later, in 1828, Dr. Frothingham had it placed in its present elegant tooled binding of Russian leather. In 1847, David Pulsifer, a professional copyist, was employed by the First Church at the request of the Massachusetts Historical Society to copy the entire volume. A second copy was retained by the Church and subsequently a third copy was deposited with the City Clerk so that this volume has been readily available to scholars for over a century. Mr. Pulsifer’s transcription is remarkably free from errors and has been of inestimable value to the present editor. Some baptismal records, supplementing the recorded Boston births, were published in The Report of the Record Commissioners containing Boston Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths, 1630–1699 (Boston, 1883), and the signers of the church covenant through 1639 were printed in the Memorial History of Boston (Boston, 1882), 1, 566–573.
The second volume is a quarto bound in calfskin, measuring 7 by 9¾ inches, and was begun in 1786 to record the names of signers of the covenant. In 1828, another section of the book was set aside for records of church meetings but was continued only to 1841. This “covenant book” was used until 1957 and contains the signatures of John Quincy Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson. An exception in this instance has been made in the arbitrary terminal publication date of 1868 and the list of church members has been carried through 1957.
The third volume is a full leather quarto, measuring 13½ by 8½ inches, and only those portions prior to 1868 have been reproduced.
The fourth volume is a folio bound in pigskin, measuring 8 by 13 inches, and contains records of church meetings from 1786 to 1815. It seems to have been lost during the early part of Dr. Frothingham’s ministry since Volume II, mentioned above, was used for such entries from 1828 to 1841 (cf. pp. 517–518).
The fifth volume is a leather bound folio, measuring 8½ by 13 inches, and contains the records of the proprietors of the Society from the building of the Chauncy Place Meeting House to the removal to Berkeley Street in 1868. The proprietors were the legal corporation of pew holders who owned the church building and managed the secular affairs of the Church. Gradually, however, many of the proprietors of pews ceased to have any active connection with the parish and it became increasingly desirable that the control of the church property be exercised by a more responsible body. Accordingly, a board of five trustees was created and, on April 22, 1922, a majority of the owners of pews conveyed their rights to five proprietors acting concurrently as trustees. By 1936 all the pews had been so transferred and the membership of the proprietors and trustees thereafter became identical. The Trustees, in addition to carrying the responsibilities of the pew proprietors, also act as successors to the elders and deacons in the holding and administering of charitable funds. The Trustees and Proprietors ordinarily restrict themselves to the management of the endowments and the real estate of the Church, while the Standing Committee, an elected body of the church members, is charged with the general business of the congregation.
These five volumes of records, as published, present an almost complete year-by-year picture of the life of a New England congregational church over a period of nearly two and a half centuries. Its affairs often inextricably interwoven with the secular and political events of Boston, the First Church has, nevertheless, always kept its own independence. It could, on occasion, lend its meetinghouse for a murder trial or an oration on the Boston Massacre but it could with equal firmness refuse to admit the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company because it had dirtied up the meetinghouse on a former occasion or inform an Abolition Society that it was “inexpedient” to give them hospitality.
The completion of a serious historical work is made possible only by the earlier labors and painstaking research of scores of fellow workers and precursors in the field. I have drawn freely from the great corpus of New England history—the writings of Winthrop, Sewall, and Hutchinson, the publications of the American Antiquarian Society and the Massachusetts Historical Society, numerous town histories and genealogies, to mention only a few. Particularly, however, I would here express my gratitude to Walter Muir Whitehill, the Editor of our Publications, who has given every assistance and encouragement throughout the progress of this work; to Robert Earle Moody, our Recording Secretary, who has for a score of years been a close friend and mentor in all matters historical; to William Stanley Parker, the Clerk of the Trustees and Proprietors of the First Church in Boston, whose family has been connected continuously with that Society since 1643 and who has freely placed at my disposal all the records of the Church; to Charles Edwards Park, D.D., minister emeritus of the First Church, a descendant of both Winthrop and Cotton, and now the senior member but two of our Society, who has followed the development of these volumes with kindly and paternal affection; to Clifford Kenyon Shipton, our President, whose exhaustive Harvard biographies defy further research and from which I have frequently plagiarized without shame; to the Reverend Rhys Williams, the present minister of the First Church, whose keen enthusiasm and constant friendship have done much to keep me on the job. The incredible skill of Miss Evelyn G. Coker of the Boston Athenæum in transcribing the text and the generous assistance of Mrs. Jacob Wirth of Boston in typing the name index have contributed materially to the accuracy of the volumes. Miss Helen W. Stearns, secretary of the First Church since 1919, has been ever helpful in countless ways and she is always ready to share her encyclopedic knowledge of the church and its history. I am especially indebted to the Reverend Richard G. Kimball, recently returned from Stockport, England, who, in addition to reviewing the entire text and checking the indices, has rendered invaluable assistance in carrying these volumes through the final stages of publication.
It has been a pleasure to work with The Anthoensen Press and its incomparably capable and efficient staff, especially Fred Anthoensen, Warren F. Skillings and Miss Ruth A. Chaplin. They have been long-suffering and ever patient; they have endured with unfailing courtesy my procrastination and vagaries, and withal they have produced three volumes whose perfection of format it can only be hoped is matched in some small measure by the work of the editor. E. Harold Hugo, our fellow member, of The Meriden Gravure Company of Meriden, Connecticut, has achieved his usual outstanding excellence in the production of the many collotypes which do much to enliven the text.
President S. Justus McKinley of Emerson College, Dr. Leonard M. Sizer of the University of West Virginia, the Reverend Dr. Duncan Howlett of Washington, D. C., and Roy A. Edstrom of Gwinn, Michigan, have each at critical stages of the work given needed encouragement to bring these volumes to a conclusion.
I am indebted to the following institutions which have graciously provided portraits and illustrations and their courtesy is hereby acknowledged: The Boston Athenæum, The Bostonian Society, The Concord Free Public Library, The Connecticut Historical Society, Harvard University, The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, and Yale University. Miss Gertrude Blake Ellis has contributed an early photograph of her grandfather, the Reverend Rufus Ellis, and William B. Osgood, our fellow member, has supplied an original oil painting of the Old Brick.
I should like to record my appreciation to the Boston Athenæum, the Massachusetts Historical Society, The London Library, and the Oxford and Cambridge Club of London and their respective staffs for many acts of helpfulness but most especially for providing havens of retreat from the endless interruptions and confusion of a dean’s office.
Richard D. Pierce
Emerson College, Boston
December 1, 1961