Writers of historical fiction can have a rough time with authenticity. You can scour through pages of historical research and original sources, and even then you can be left asking yourself: Am I really getting into the lives of these people?
The New York Times recently clued us in to an effort to preserve one remarkable source of information about the real lives of historical people: the records stored in old churches. According to the evocatively named Dr. James Fenimore Cooper, who is a professor of history at Oklahoma State, “There is no other discrete set of sources that will similarly transport us into colonial America.”
And what sorts of details do you find in those sources?
Sarah Blanchard was sorry she skipped a worship service. Sarah Wood apologized for denouncing infant baptisms. And as for the Cheneys, Joseph and Abigail? Well, “with shame, humiliation and sorrow,” they acknowledged having had sex before marriage.
More than 250 years ago, their confessions of sin were dutifully logged by the minister of the church here, alongside records of baptisms, marriages and deaths, notes about meetings heated and routine, accounts of finances, texts of sermons, and, in some cases, personal accounts of conversion experiences from young adults.
Other neat tidbits include fines levied for refusing to fight in the Revolution, a translation made for the Nipmuc Indians, a membership application from a slave named Cuffee, the tale of a man whose “state of stupidity and wickedness” was ended by a series of deaths in his family, and records stored next to a 1740 Queen Anne chair with a bullet hole in its back.