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Historic Quaker Treasures Added To Unprecedented Digital Archival Effort

September 1, 2020

18th century manumissions and 17th century burial records are among tens of thousands of early Quaker documents recently added to a major digitization project spearheaded by Christ Church Preservation Trust. Contributed by Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges, these records will be available to free online access for the first time.  

The “Digitizing Philadelphia’s Historic Congregational Records” project began two years ago, when the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) awarded a Hidden Collections grant to Christ Church Preservation Trust. The $385,000 award — funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation — allowed the Trust to digitize the records of eleven of Philadelphia’s historic congregations, including the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Gloria Dei, Christ Church, Mikveh Israel, the First, Second and Third Presbyterian Churches, St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s Episcopal Churches, St. George’s Methodist Church and the First Baptist Church.  

Since the spring of 2018, more than 60,000 records have been scanned at The Athenaeum of Philadelphia’s Regional Digital Imaging Center. Scholars will be able to access these documents through the American Theological Library Association’s religion and theology digital collections portal and OPenn, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries Open Data Portal. Ranging from the late 17th century through 1870, these digital archives contain undiscovered portals into the relationship between religion and politics in colonial America. 

“Unlike other major genealogical sites,” says Carol Smith, Archivist at Christ Church Preservation Trust, “this project makes research information free and easily accessible to an international audience.” 

Before now, Philadelphia Quaker records in the collections of Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges were only available online through a commercial site. 

“We were excited to be able to bring these records out from behind the paywall and make them more widely available,” says Pat O’Donnell, recently retired Archivist at Friends Historical Library. “This was really important to us.” 

 The Quaker records — approximately 30,000 already completed scans — consist of minutes of Quaker monthly and quarterly business meetings as well as documentation of births, deaths, marriages, burials, removals (transfers), and manumissions in the City of Philadelphia before about 1800. Historical highlights include manumission records — such as a 1776 entry for Dinah, a formerly enslaved woman who saved Germantown’s Stenton from destruction by the British army. Documents also detail Quaker involvement in the American Revolution itself revealing both the “sufferings” of Friends due to their commitment to a peace testimony as well as their dealings with those members who were involved in the Conflict. 

“These collections are part of the bedrock of the beginnings of Pennsylvania,” says Mary A. Crauderueff, Curator of Quaker Collections at Haverford College Libraries.  Their inclusion in this digital portal makes them “accessible in a larger context alongside those of other historic congregations.”  

Members of the public can participate in this effort to preserve and promote local history by transcribing these records, now available on one unified website at www.philadelphiacongregations.org. Already accessible by researchers and genealogists, the collection will be of greater use once records are transcribed and searchable. More than a dozen transcribers have worked steadily through the pandemic on this effort. 

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, in partnership with the Digitizing Philadelphia’s Historic Congregational Records project team, is hosting a transcription workshop this fall. Volunteers can attend one or all four days of the free seminar — via Zoom — on September 14, 16, 21 or 23 at 10 a.m. Workshop leaders will review the project, share some of its archival finds, and teach basic transcription. 

Please contact Carol Smith, Christ Church Archivist, with further questions at csmith@christchurchphila.org