STILLWATER — A few years ago, Jeff Cooper walked into a Congregational church in Middleboro, Mass., hoping to find a trove of records dating to the town's colonial days.
Cooper, an Oklahoma State University history professor, found the papers in a coat closet, stacked in boxes between garment bags and cartons of dinner plates.
Hidden among the papers were “relations” — statements of faith from congregation members, including one written by a Middleboro slave that Cooper said is probably one of the only documents of its kind.
Documents like the ones he found in Middleboro offer a glimpse into New England's colonial days that Cooper said historians can't get anywhere else. But sometimes the churches don't even know what documents they have.
Cooper, director of the New England Hidden Histories project, tries to persuade churches to allow their records to be digitized and preserved at Boston's Congregational Library.
“The task essentially is to explain how important these records are and why they should not just be squirreled away in their church,” Cooper said.
The documents provide a wide range of details about everyday life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Cooper said. Much of that information is difficult to find elsewhere because most people didn't write down what went on from one day to the next.
Paper was expensive, and not everybody was literate. But many ministers wrote down nearly everything that happened in their communities, including church votes and disputes among members of the congregation.
The records often also include birth, baptism and death dates of members of the community, making them a valuable resource for anybody interested in researching genealogy, Cooper said.
“These ministers, at their best, acted as virtual audio recorders,” Cooper said. “It actually opens a window to what life was like in early America that we don't have in other sources.”
But many of the churches aren't thrilled about turning over the records to the library — at least not immediately. In some cases, the churches have had the records in their possession for more than 300 years, and are reluctant to part with them.
“They're practically sacred artifacts for many of these churches,” he said. “You can't just knock on the door and say ‘Hey, it would be a good thing if you digitized your records. It would be a good thing if you moved them to Boston.'”
Once the situation is fully explained to them, church leaders tend to be more receptive. Often, all it takes is for Cooper to show them a photo of the Somers Congregational United Church of Christ in Somers, Conn.
The church, which dated to 1830, burned to the ground last year. The church's records were saved because leaders had sent them to the Connecticut State Library in Hartford for preservation, Cooper said.
“That kind of makes a powerful impression on people,” he said.
Gordon Lothrop, the church historian for Old North Church in Marblehead, Mass., took over responsibility for the church's nine volumes of historical documents when the previous historian abruptly stepped down from the job.
After the previous historian left, Lothrop wasn't even sure where the church's documents were, he said. But he asked around and found out they were in a safe-deposit box at a local bank. He went to the bank to see what records were in the collection.
What he found in the safe deposit box were records of births, deaths and marriages, as well as commentary from church pastors through the years. Different ministers recorded different information, he said. One pastor, for example, kept dutiful records of how much money the church spent on communion bread and wine.
Not long after Lothrop found the records, he got a call from Cooper, who asked to see them. After looking over the documents, Cooper told Lothrop that there was a way to preserve the books and the information in them for much longer than they would last at the bank.
Lothrop liked the idea of sending the documents to the Congregational Library, he said. But he still needed to win over other church leaders. So he brought the records to a church meeting to show the condition they were in.
Some members of the congregation were worried that the church would never be able to get the records back from the library. Lothrop suggested the church place the books in a revocable trust, so that the church could get the records back anytime they liked.
After some salesmanship and politicking, Lothrop persuaded the congregation to move forward with Cooper's plan, he said.
“It wasn't too difficult,” he said. “What he presented seemed like a really good plan.”