Digitizing Philadelphia’s Historic Congregations: A CLIR- Funded Project

After William Penn settled Philadelphia in 1681 as a place for religious freedom, the city became an the epicenter for political thought and action through the colonial era.  As delegates to the Continental Congress and Constitutional Conventions debated and worshiped in Philadelphia, America became shaped through matters of church and state.

A new archival project spearheaded by Christ Church Preservation Trust will provide new portals into the relationship between religion and politics in the 18th and early 19th centuries, perhaps offering more insight into colonial America than any other published body of work.

In January 2018, the Trust received a Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives grant* in the amount of $385,205 from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). These funds will allow for the digitization of over 41,000 records from Philadelphia’s oldest congregations, connecting 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.

Entitled “Digitizing the Records of Philadelphia’s Historic Congregations: Providing Documentation for the Political, Social and Cultural Developments in Philadelphia,” the documents range in date from 1708-1870.

A new archival project spearheaded by Christ Church Preservation Trust will provide new portals into the relationship between religion and politics in the 18th and early 19th centuries, perhaps offering more insight into colonial America than any other published body of work.

Much of the congregational information has remained "hidden," inaccessible due to technological and funding limitations, but these important records function as transcripts of a time before census takers and city directories. Church membership lists and burial, marriage and baptismal records provide information on individuals living in the nation's first capital. Pew registers provide a wealth of information about status within the community and social ranking within churches. Minutes and correspondence highlight the diversity of religious thought and religious toleration and illustrate how freely individuals moved between historic congregations.

These records illuminate scholarship topics including Philadelphia's activities during the Civil War, the role of the church in enslaved and free African communities from the mid-1700's through the Civil War, and the rise of new religious denominations, such as the Episcopal Church and the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.

“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.

Carly Sewell is the newly hired Metadata Archivist at Christ Church.

After undergoing scanning at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia’s Regional Digital Imaging Center (see image below), the records will be available through the American Theological Library Association's religion and theology digital collections portal and OPenn, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries Open Data Portal.

*This CLIR Digitizing Hidden Collections program grant is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


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Events & Updates

Project Update: On May 2, 2018, the Athenaeum hosted an open house for consortium members and their guests. Attendees learned more about the project, the historical records to be digitized, and the scanning equipment.

Exploring Different Uses of Historic Congregational Records

Project Update: A seminar held at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia on April 3, 2019 featured talks by Jim Duffin, Dr. Ann Norton Greene, Jubilee Marshall, and Jean Wolfe on the different uses of historic congregational records and unveiled our new website: www.philadelphiacongregations.org.

History After Hours: Death and Taxes 

A Museum of The American Revolution Event

At the Museum of The American Revolution’s History After Hours event, Death and Taxes, on April 16th, representatives of the "Digitizing Philadelphia's Historic Congregations project" demonstrated the new online website, which brings together newly scanned records from a number of Philadelphia’s historic congregations.

Not surprisingly burial records were amongst the ones displayed! Visitors could get an overview of the project as well as viewing specific records.

AASLH 2019 Session:Working Collaboratively Digitizing the Records of Philadelphia's Historic Congregations

AASLH 2019 Presentation: Working Collaboratively – Digitizing the Records of Philadelphia’s Historic Congregations Exciting news! On August 29th from 1:45 – 3 pm, representatives working on the CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) Project – Christ Church Archivist Carol Smith, Walter Rice of R & R Computer Solutions, and Nancy Taylor of Presbyterian Historical Society – to Digitize the Records of Philadelphia’s Historic Congregations, will be presenting their work at the American Association for State and Local History 2019 Conference.The project consists of six congregations and three archival repositories who have made an effort to digitize the records of eleven of Philadelphia’s historic congregations and make their records available digitally. All of these items are available on Philadelphia Congregations Website!This session will explore how working collaboratively and sharing resources makes great initiatives possible. For more information about the session and conference, click AASLH.

150th Anniversary of Death of Rev. Benjamin Dorr

Sunday, September 15, 2019 2:00 pm at Christ Church Philadelphia 2nd & Market Street

Christ Church, Philadelphia is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Benjamin Dorr, the Church's rector from 1839-1868. Dorr had the difficult job of holding together a split congregation during the trying years of the Civil War, compounded by his worry over the fate of his son, Captain William Dorr who served in the Army of the Potomac. Bill Quigley wrote a moving history of these two individuals: Pure Heart: The Faith of a Father and Son in the War for a More Perfect Union published by Kent State University Press in 2016. Professor Quigley will speak about his research and the roles these two men played in their own time and the lens through which we can view their actions today.

"Better Angels in America's Civil War"

The Civil War echoes ever more ominously in the partisan politics and culture wars of our time. Mocked by monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders, American ideals are enshrined, instead, in older, truer monuments to American heroes Benjamin Dorr and his son, Captain William White Dorr. As acknowledged by The Journal of Southern History, theirs is "a story rightfully restored to history about character, integrity, faith, forgiveness, atonement, and the passions of the human heart in a world turned upside down." Theirs is also a story of firmness in doing right, as God give us to see the right, in a time of perilous national division. Never more, in the 150 years since the Reverend Dorr's death, have Americans needed to hearken to his story as we do now.

This lecture is jointly sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania’s History Committee and Christ Church, Philadelphia.

Professor Quigley talking about Rev. Benjamin Dorr and his contributions to Christ Church.

Photograph of the audience attending the 150th Anniversary of Benjamin Dorr's death at Christ Church.

Digitizing the Records of Philadelphia's Historic Congregations Presentation

On Wednesday October 23rd, 7 pm at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church off of Christian St. & Columbus Boulevard Carol W. Smith will provide an overview of an exciting project which brings together the records of 11 of Philadelphia's oldest congregations including Gloria Dei in one unified website. She will discuss the background of the project, what is still to come and how best to use this website for all types of research from genealogical to social history.

This free event will take place in the church sanctuary, followed by a reception in Riverside Hall. For a modest donation, enjoy gourmet cheesecake by a local pastry chef, paired with moscato wine, coffee or tea.