Back in 2007 we made an amazing discovery. Jeff Cooper, professor of history at Oklahoma State University and the "man on the ground" of our church records project, contacted us with great news about a remarkable document with a mysterious backstory, the so-called Phillips diary of the First Church of Rowley, MA. Long thought to be lost, the diary had just resurfaced when a local bank was going out of business — it was in a safe-deposit box in a bag marked "dimes". The "great white whale" was finally on the hook, and is now safe in the climate-controlled archives of the Congregational Library.
Among all the hundreds of records from colonial Massachusetts, the Phillips diary is flat-out exceptional. Written mostly by the pastor Samuel Phillips, who served from 1651-1696, it contains the usual run of meeting minutes, church covenants, and baptisms, marriages, and death lists — but that is just the beginning. From there the 500 pages of tightly written text go into all kinds of detail about seventeenth-century life, including hundreds of pages of correspondence between churches about misbehaving members and theological conundrums, as well as accounts of the ecclesiastical councils church leaders convened to make decisions. There is no doubt that the Phillips diary will provide historians with a wealth of new material on life in Massachusetts Bay. Most of the diary dates to the 1660s and 1670s, after the first generation of settlers had died off and a second generation arose to take their place — a critical period with relatively little in the way of documentation.
Since its discovery, with the help of the Rowley Congregational church and a Community Preservation Grant from the state of Massachusetts, the diary has been preserved and digitized. Now all that dense text needs to be transcribed into electronic typewritten text, a task that will not only take many, many hours but will require the help of highly trained experts in seventeenth-century script.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, that work can now begin. Our own Jeff Cooper and Ken Minkema, friend of the Congregational Library and director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, wrote the grant proposal, and designed the project, which they will direct. The project itself is a joint effort by the Jonathan Edwards Center, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and the Congregational Library.
The first step will be to engage an expert professional transcriber for the hardest and most densely-written pages and set him or her to work. There are many other pages in the diary, however, that are almost legible and don't necessarily require special training to read. And so these will be part of a community-sourcing project, done by volunteers working with another expert transcriber.
The end result will be a full transcription, to be published by the Colonial Society some time after 2016. So kudos to Jeff and Ken, the Rowley church (especially Dave and Donna Irving), and a heads up to all of you volunteer transcribers out there. We are hoping to start work soon and will be issuing the call before too long.