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Researching the Religions of Boston’s past and present

As students join the Zoom meeting, “Salem’s Secret” by Peter Gundry plays through Professor Von Ehrenkrook’s speakers and establishes the mood of the class. Dark, sullen orchestral music sets the tone for a class period in RELSTY 110: Religions of Boston examines the archival records that document the Salem Witch Trials of 1691-1692. This hands-on active learning humanities course and others like it are funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation.

“How do we research the past?”, Professor Jason Von Ehrenkrook asks, as an introduction to the research activity for the day. Students are introduced to the process of studying history, which is explained using a pyramid of analysis. Historians start at the foundation with data and sources, move up to interpretation, and finish with a synthesis of the information. 

Professor Von Ehrenkrook focuses on the first step of analysis by giving his students a court record from one of the earliest cases:the testimony of Mary Warren against Bridget Bishop. In a world without COVID, students would have spent time in the Massachusetts Archives looking at the actual physical documents, but instead they have the chance to see how historians digitize those documents for public, online access. The digital archives used for this assignment were made available by the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. 

Students split up into groups of three for 15 minutes and are given the task of transcribing as much of the court record as they are able to. They are asked to work through the language collaboratively and give an explanation of what they thought was said. In their groups, multiple students laughed at the seeming impossibilities of discerning the document, joking that if anyone said they transcribed the whole thing, they were lying.

When the whole class came back together, the students expressed how difficult the task was, not only because of the handwriting, spelling, and abbreviations used, but also because they weren’t familiar with the broader context of the legal document. With this brief task, students learned about the challenges of working with primary source documents both for archivists and historians. Professor Von Ehrenkrook used this activity as an introduction to their future study on the witch trials and the complicated relationship between the Puritans and the religions of the indigenous people in the region.

As a course on religions in Boston, students will learn about contemporary religious practices within the city, but Professor Von Ehrenkrook believes that students must first address the complex history of how religion has shaped Boston up to the present. This activity is important because it not only teaches students about an important episode in New England religious history, but also exposes students to historical methods and practices.  More broadly, Professor Von Ehkenroot noted that it’s necessary to be able to discern the difference between sources that can be backed up by data from ones that can’t, and he gave examples from current news media that do not cite facts or outside sources. It’s important for students to practice historical analysis on primary sources in order to recognize unsubstantiated analysis when they come across it in their everyday lives.

As they move chronologically through the history of the Boston region and its religions, students will complete eight “thought journals,” an assignment that aims to help students develop their writing and analytical skills in relation to their current topic of study. They will also make a “visit” to the JFK library to observe letters from U.S. citizens to the president regarding controversy over his Catholicism. As a final project for the course, students will conduct their own research on two local religions different from their own upbringing or current affiliation in order to document the observable phenomena of that religion, especially as a part of Boston’s urban climate.

Professor Von Ehrenkrook noted that at the heart of the class is a topical and contemporary focus, and one that is integral to a comprehensive humanities education. “To explore the humanities and exclude religion would be to leave out a central part of the human experience,” he said.

As it says in the course syllabus, religion is essential to the identity of many people in the Boston area, and examining diverse texts, traditions, and practices provides insight into how those things work to unite and divide communities. Even more so, it provides insight into how Boston’s religions foster both cooperation and conflict, and how communities might be able to overcome differences as they seek a greater good.