Mapping Boston's Religions (1800-1880)

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An interactive map of Boston's religious congregations in the nineteenth century, created by the students of HIST 144A at Brandeis University: Steven Colon, Caro Langenbucher, Imogen Rosenbluth, Zi Jing Teoh.


Historical Introduction

Boston was the second oldest town founded by the English Puritans in 1630. Speaking aboard the Arbella carrying the settlers to the new colony, John Winthrop envisioned a "city upon a hill" where people worship and live according to the Bible. Despite Boston's Puritan roots, religious diversity grew in the coming years. By the late 17th century, Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers could be found in the city.  Successive waves of settlement and immigration transformed the religious landscape of Boston. By the late 19th century, Boston was already predominantly Catholic, due in large part to the Irish immigration since the 1850s. The arrest of "three Protestant clergymen for preaching on the Common" in 1885, ostensibly for having infringed on a Boston ordinance prohibiting open preaching on the Common, dismayed Boston's evangelical Protestants. The arrest exacerbated their unease over Boston's transition to Catholic dominance. When we contrast the arrest with the evangelical revivalist George Whitefield's preaching in front of fifteen thousand people in 1740, we may appreciate the magnitude of transformation in the religious sphere in tandem with demographic and political changes over more than a century.

Despite the many works on the history of Boston and religion in America, our project is to the best of our knowledge the first in which to incorporate dynamic mapping as a tool for the study of these changes and the presentation of the religious diversity in nineteenth-century Boston. Mapping can show the locus of communities (collections of individuals) which might otherwise go missing from other maps or studies. Our maps shows how religion developed in the city over time.  The individual records for each congregation also show how congregations constructed religious spaces within the city. Condensing the vast, written records of congregations over the 19th century onto a mapped representation illuminate the bigger patterns in the development of religion in the city. For example, the links among the wealth, ethnicity and denominations of churches in a neighborhood may be studied with greater ease while evidence of inter-neighborhood influences, if spatially tracked on a map, would be more readily apparent and convincing than its conventional, linear, written presentation.



Our first step toward visualizing the practice of religion in Boston was to mark the location of various congregations spanning nineteenth-century Boston on the maps published in the corresponding period. Digital copies of these historical maps were obtained from the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. The development of Geographical Information System (GIS) technology has lent unprecedented ease to the comparison and integration of different geographical datasets. Using GIS-based software such as QGIS in addition to Google Maps, spatially equivalent points on the aforementioned maps can be superposed onto one another in spite of great changes in the physical landscape that might have happened in reality or on the maps. The end result was the mapping of various congregations across different time periods on one map.

In our exhibit, you will find entries for many congregations. The changing locations of these congregations are mapped. To see them mapped, click on the link for the Neatline exhibit. There you can mouse over the congregations and read about them in the pop-up window. We used the "Item Relation" feature on Omeka to link congregation records with their locations. For example, the Park Street Church at Park Street and Tremont Street is listed as "part of" the Park Street Church congregation. At the bottom of the Omeka records for both the congregations and the congregation locations we mapped is a description of the item relation ("This item is part of ____") and a link to the record(s) it is associated with.

Omeka allows people with administrator access to create and edit "items" (in this case, records of congregations and congregation locations) and their corresponding metadata (data about data). Omeka allows users to create their own criteria for collecting metadata, so the class began this project by collectively determining what information we wanted to keep track of for each item. We first decided to distinguish between congregations and congregation locations. A congregation is defined as a group of people that belong to a specific subset of a religious denomination within Boston proper and a congregation location as the geographic coordinates of a house of worship a congregation inhabited at any time between 1800 and 1880. For congregations, we decided to create fields for the names of the congregation (which often changed over time), the date it was founded and the date it dissolved/disbanded, a short history of the congregation, the religious leaders that lead the congregation through the years, the ethnicity/race of the majority of congregants, the class member(s) who developed the record, and the sources from which we found the information. For the congregation location, we decided to create fields for the range of dates between which a given congregation inhabited that location and the address of the location. In many cases, the specific address was not provided in any of the sources, so we used given streets and intersections to approximate where the building may have stood. In the event that the street on which the building once stood was renamed or gone, we used georeferenced maps from a period in which it was still standing in order to approximate its location. Some congregation location items included properly cited sketches, engravings, and/or photographs of the place of worship in question.We mapped the congregation locations on Neatline, a mapping plugin for Omeka. Neatline allows users to place georectified maps in layers over each other and choose which ones are visible at a given time, as well as plot the geographic coordinates (whether exact or approximate) of congregation locations. We used the SIMILE Timeline plugin within Neatline to make the congregation locations visible only during the period in which it existed. (Churches that continue to the present are labeled as ending in 2014 for technical reasons.) In some cases, a single location served several different congregations, in which case we plotted a different point for every congregation that it served.


Geographic and Chronological Boundaries

The project has both geographic and chronological limits. The timeframe of our project is between 1800 and 1880, although we made some exceptions for Boston synagogues, many of which were founded slightly after 1880. The majority of Protestant churches were founded between 1800 and 1850. We mostly mapped congregations from already compiled lists, in particular a list of all churches in Boston before 1840 from the Boston Genealogy section of, and from a 1850 map by George W. Boynton containing a nearly complete listing of churches in Boston for that date. We also sought out other lists of churches in city directories and other sources to fill in the details for other denominations. We decided to focus our work on Boston proper. As a result, many of the Catholic churches and synagogues concentrated in the surrounding neighborhoods (e.g. Charlestown, Roxbury) are not shown.  There are a few congregations mapped in those surrounding cities, but those cities have not been comprehensively mapped.

We hope that this project is a useful resource for the study of religion in Boston.