The day before my college graduation, I was baptized in the Charles River. Cambridge felt constant: spires in grey sky, brick, swampy air, latent gravitas and muggy discomfort. I stood on the bank in yoga pants, and wondered who else had gone under, how many had stayed the course.
By the time I arrived at Harvard, the school was secular, yet haunted by faith. I lived in a dorm named for an old minister, drank coffee on Church Street, and sat through a prayer before Convocation. My choir sang passions and requiems. The school’s early motto, Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, was now Veritas. The philosophy building was etched with a quotation: WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM.
Empty churches formed a sacramental landscape. First Baptist. First Parish. Progenitors, all. First Church Cambridge was founded by Reverend Thomas Shepard in 1636, the same year Harvard (a seminary) opened across the street. All were founded by Puritans. Those black-hatted killjoys! They lived in a line of Harvard’s anthem, a verse since discarded and replaced: Be the herald of light and the bearer of love / Till the stock of the Puritans die!
Before they could join a church, Puritans had to give testimony. First, depravity or despair. Then, a climactic moment of conversion, often occasioned by an encounter with Scripture. The story ended with continued devotion. This narrative was faith’s proof, the only evidence required. If elders voted yes, the storyteller was baptized and granted membership. At First Church, Reverend Shepard kept inky records: fifty-one confessions, 1637–1645.
The testimonies contend with salt and ships. Historian Patricia Caldwell writes that “the American version of deliverance is imaginatively meditated…by a real geographical place”—rocky Massachusetts shores. Mr. Andrews, the shipmaster, describes a miracle: his ship was split and all drowned but a few, four of my men, myself naked upon the main topsail in very cold weather…. And glad I was that I lost my ship and so lost my sin.
One of the testimonies is from Katherine, a woman described as “Mrs. Russel’s maid.” She makes the decision to move to America: And thought here the Lord might be found, and doubtful whether I had a call to come because I was to leave my friends.