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.'”