Feb 24

TEAMS: Transcribing Early American Manuscript Sermons

I’d like to gauge interest in and to field suggestions on how best to pursue a long-term professional goal: creating a free, electronic archive of early American manuscript sermons. In The New England Soul (1986) Harry Stout challenged “the assumption that printed sermons are the best comprehensive index to ‘what was said and done publicly’” in colonial New England, arguing that manuscript sermons do not reflect the “shift from piety to moralism” suggested by the published record. Stout’s work with manuscript sermons overturned most basic assumptions about theology and lived religion in New England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but his contributions have never been fully accepted by the scholarly community (I have heard early Americanists refer skeptically to his claims on a number of occasions) at least in part because his work is not easily replicable or verifiable. Stout read manuscript sermons in a dozen different archives over nine years; given the increasingly tight budgets at institutions across the country, most scholars will be lucky if they make a dozen trips to archives over the course of a career. Meredith Neuman’s forthcoming volume, Jeremiah’s Scribes (2013) will be the first major work to treat manuscript sermons since Stout–but still does not solve the larger problem of access. Establishing an electronic archive of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century manuscript sermons would allow budget-strapped early Americanists to extend the important work begun by Stout and now furthered by Neuman.


I have begun by identifying more than 60 different collections of manuscript sermons written before 1800 housed in eight different archives. While Stout’s work (and, I assume, Neuman’s) primarily treats sermons produced by Congregational ministers in New England, my proposed digital archive would provide a representative sample of sermons from multiple denominations and locations. I have already located sermons produced in New England, South Carolina, Virginia, New York, and New Jersey by Congregational, Presbyterian, and Episcopal preachers. These collections also include sermons written from multiple ideological perspectives, by Loyalists and Patriots, by advocates of Native evangelization and advocates of violence against Native Americans.


During this proposed breakout session, I’d love to hear your thoughts on such a project’s feasibility, appeal, problems, and design. Help, please!


  1. phillipc

    Zach, this sounds like a fascinating and very important project, the kind that can do for early American religion studies what The Walt Whitman Archive has done for Whitman studies. My guess is that you could get a good number of people on board to pitch in with the editing (myself included). So glad we’re going to be talking about this at SEATC!

  2. jbdibbell

    Goodness this sounds wonderfully complex and awesome. I’d love to talk through details and methods!

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