The Council on Library and Information Resources has awarded a “Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives” grant in the amount of $385,205 to a project that will digitize over 41,000 records from the archives of Philadelphia’s oldest congregations and aggregate them in a database accessible to the public. Ranging in date from 1708-1870, the documents provide more clues to the relationship between religion and politics in the colonial era than any other published body of work.
Since the days of William Penn’s religious experiment, Philadelphia has encouraged the cooperation of different faith groups, a tradition honored by this initiative. Entitled “Digitizing the Records of Philadelphia’s Historic Congregations: Providing Documentation for the Political, Social and Cultural Developments in Philadelphia,” the project connects records from the archives of Christ Church, St. George’s Methodist Church, Gloria Dei, Mikveh Israel, African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Episcopal Dioceses Archives, Presbyterian Historical Society, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, and American Baptist Historical Society. Spearheaded by Christ Church Preservation Trust, this proposal was one of only 14 selected from 125 applications.
“This is a wonderful gift for scholars interested in Philadelphia history, family historians, students and educators, as it will make available for the first time in a unified place the often overlooked records of Philadelphia’s early and diverse congregations,” says Carol Smith, Christ Church archivist.
Due to technological and funding limitations, much of the congregational information has remained “hidden,” inaccessible to the public. The records for digitization include baptisms, marriages and burials, meeting minutes and correspondence — documents that act as transcripts of a time before “official” record keeping. The papers, some of which have been held in remote archives, provide further details on topics such as the role of the church in free and enslaved African communities from the mid 1700’s through the Civil War, the rise of new religious denominations, and the diversity of religious thought in the colonial metropolis of Philadelphia.
“Digitizing the Records of Philadelphia’s Historic Congregations” builds upon a Christ Church pilot project launched in 2014 by incorporating technology that allows the tagging of different data within one document, an act that enhances the searchability of records. Unlike other major genealogical sites, this project will make research information free and easily accessible to an international audience. After undergoing scanning at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia’s Regional Digital Imaging Center, the data will be discoverable through the ATLA Digital Library, the American Theological Library Association’s religion and theology digital collections portal and OPenn, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries Open Data Portal.