Monday, September 21, 2015

Funeral Sermons: A Useful Genealogical Resource

An often-overlooked resource for genealogists and historians, funeral sermons can provide interesting details about the lives of our ancestors. The State Library’s holdings include a number of funeral sermons and orations, the majority of which are from the 18th and early 19th centuries. During that time in history, funeral sermons were often printed and distributed to family members and other mourners as keepsakes.

Although these publications tend to be brief, they often include details that might have been omitted from an obituary, such as the personality and temperament of the deceased, family details, and information about the funeral service itself. For example, the following sermon for Mary Skinner of Colchester, CT, printed in 1746, includes eight pages of personal details about her temperament, such as, “As she had a Genius and Turn for Government beyond what is common for Persons of her Years, so she was regular and strict in ruling those under her Care.”

Another common trait of funeral sermons is the use of a mourning border, which is a heavy black border typically found on the cover or title page of a sermon and often printed on stationery used in periods of mourning. These borders are sometimes embellished with drawings, such as the skull and crossbones found in this 1765 sermon for the rector of Christ Church in Boston, the Rev. Timothy Cutler:

One of the most interesting funeral sermons in the State Library’s collection was printed in Boston in 1717. This sermon, which includes a preface by Increase Mather, was preached by his son Cotton Mather at the funeral for Wait Still Winthrop, one of the magistrates for the Salem witch trials and grandson of John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The sermon includes interesting details about Winthrop’s life, such as, “This Gentleman, having furnished himself with Medical Skill, became also a Master of Medicines, which he freely gave away as well as his Counsils, unto a Great Multitude of People, who from all parts flock’d unto him.”

Whether they are used to research important historical figures or distant relatives, funeral sermons are a resource that can provide a glimpse into the personal lives of our ancestors. To find these and other sermons, search our online catalog for the phrase “funeral sermons,” or visit us at the State Library’s Special Collections Department, Room 55 in the Massachusetts State House.

Laura Schaub
Cataloging Librarian