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Historical delight

Long-lost Rowley church records found in a bank vault offer rare details of daily life for early Colonists

Clockwise from top: The documents; Rowley's town clerk Susan Hazen (left) and Donna Irving, First Congregational Church of Rowley historian, at the grave of the records' author, the Rev. Samuel Philips; the church; and historians Kenneth Minkema (left) and James Cooper. Clockwise from top: The documents; Rowley's town clerk Susan Hazen (left) and Donna Irving, First Congregational Church of Rowley historian, at the grave of the records' author, the Rev. Samuel Philips; the church; and historians Kenneth Minkema (left) and James Cooper. (photos by bill polo/globe staff)

W hen the First National Bank of Ipswich closed a branch office in Rowley several months ago, staff members made quite a find in the vault. The stamp on a canvas money bag, dated 1966, indicated that the bag contained $1,000 in dimes. Its actual contents turned out to be worth a pretty penny more.

Inside the bag was a fragile leather-bound book stuffed with hundreds of pages of cramped handwritten notes. To all appearances, the book contained records of the First Congregational Church of Rowley dating to the mid-1600s -- and missing for decades.

On a hot weekday afternoon earlier this month, a small group of church officials milled around a paneled meeting room in the church annex, anxiously awaiting the arrival of two historians. The visitors -- James Cooper, a history professor at Oklahoma State University, and Kenneth Minkema, executive director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale -- were coming to verify the journal's authenticity.

Though now based in Oklahoma, Cooper has been tracing the whereabouts of historic Massachusetts church records for many years. The author of "Tenacious of Their Liberties: The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts," he and Minkema had coedited the combined church records of Colonial Reading (now Wakefield) and Rumney Marsh (now Revere) for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.

Cooper, a wry-humored man who goes by the nickname Jeff, is particularly interested in the ways in which Congregational churches fostered an open dialogue between clergy and lay members. It was a model, he says, that directly influenced the development of American democracy.

"Cantankerous, antiauthoritarian Yankee blood goes back to the beginning," the professor said over the phone a few weeks before his trip to New England. Early church records, he said, were much more than simple documentation of weddings and burials. Given the centrality of the early churches to their communities (the town of Rowley, for instance, was settled as a New World refuge for the congregation of Rowley, England), well-kept records are unmatched windows into everyday Colonial life.

"These Puritans had some sense that future generations would have an interest in what the heck they were doing," Cooper said. "They wrote everything down."

When Cooper and his colleague arrived at the Rowley church, they headed straight for the bathroom. Experts in dealing with rare books, they thoroughly scrubbed their hands. The surgical gloves provided by the church went unused.

In the absence of the Rev. Bob Hagopian, who was on vacation, the visitors were greeted by church moderator Donald Thurston, Rowley's town clerk, Sue Hazen, and David and Donna Irving, the church's clerk and historian, respectively. The professors sat down side by side at the head of the table and gazed at the book, which, oddly, had a typed red-and-white label stuck to its cover -- the unfortunate work of some well-meaning researcher years ago.

"It's a little tacky," sighed David Irving.

Cooper took a deep breath and gingerly turned the cover. Many of the pages were no longer attached to the binding, but the contents were otherwise well-preserved. It took the historians a matter of minutes to determine these were, in fact, the long-lost records.

Minkema noted several identifying factors, including the language of the pastor's prose, the foolscap pages -- later paper would have been made from wood pulp -- and the stainlike "foxing" of their condition. "That combination would be very difficult to fake," he said.

The colleagues were already familiar with some of the content from an old microfilm copy uncovered a few years ago in a church safety-deposit box. Leafing through the volume, they instantly recognized certain passages.

"There he is -- the infamous Philip Nelson," said Minkema, spotting the name of a congregant who was evidently prone to arguments with the Rev. Samuel Phillips. David Irving was amused to report one of his own findings, an account of a young churchgoer who was excommunicated for "dallying behind the barn."

The scholars, accustomed to long, laborious hours of solitary research, were clearly delighted to confirm the book as the genuine article.

"I can't emphasize how amazingly important this is," said Minkema, beaming.

David Irving guessed that the book was misplaced in the late 1960s, when it was borrowed by a graduate student working on a dissertation. Upon its return, he speculated, a church official probably decided that the book would be safer in a bank vault -- and promptly forgot to tell anyone where he'd stored it.

Cooper noted that he'd been "pestering" the First Church since 1990 to find the mislaid records. He's no stranger to futile searches.

"Somebody tried to dry one set of records with a candle," he said. Then there was the time he traveled to another Massachusetts church to see its records, only to find the officials were unable to open their own safe.

The appeal of the Rowley records, the professors said, lies in the fact that scholars have had very little insight into the "second generation" of Colonial settlements.

Samuel Phillips, the First Church's second minister after Ezekiel Rogers, kept meticulously detailed accounts from his ministry, which lasted from his ordination in 1661 until his death in 1696.

No other colony has provided the first-hand documentation that Massachusetts has, said the professors. And the Rowley records may prove to be the finest of their kind in terms of detail. For one thing, Phillips had the wherewithal to recall entire conversations verbatim.

"They did not have tape recorders back then," said Cooper.

This, he said, was the kind of discovery people in his field dream about. Cooper noted that while no comparable church records have been sold, a single page of testimony from the Salem Witch Trials fetched $30,000.

The Rowley book is likely worth more than the church building itself, he quietly suggested to Minkema.

The thrill of confirming the records compares favorably with his first encounter with the sermon notebook of John Cotton, the father of American Congregationalism, Cooper said.

"It's something I've never forgotten," he said. Then he turned to Minkema, the Edwards scholar: "How did you feel when you were holding 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God'?" referring to a well-known sermon delivered by Jonathan Edwards in 1741.

Church officials said the records should remain the property of the church but be placed on permanent loan for scholarship. "We don't want it in the shadows again," said Irving.

First, however, the little brown book was headed straight to the church's safe-deposit box.

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