Transcribing Early American Manuscript Sermons (TEAMS)

Interview with Rachel Cope

Rachel Cope ( is an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.

Q: You are currently doing some research on early American manuscript sermons. What does this project entail?

A: Transcribing Early American Manuscript Sermons, or TEAMS, is a collaborative scholarly effort (which includes scholars from Colorado State University, Lafayette College, the College of William and Mary, and Drew University) to make the vast archival record of early American sermons more accessible through a free, public database. Those involved in the project have been, are, and will be traveling to various archives, where we take photographs of relevant sermon texts we discover in their holdings. After transcribing the primary sources—a laborious process that requires skills in paleography—we check the transcription at least two more times to ensure accuracy. Finally, we code the sermons so they can be made available on our website: (

There is so much archival material available, but it’s not easy to get to that material. We want to change that. We want scholars, teachers, students, pastors—anyone and everyone interested in religion—to have access to these important documents. So, even though this project requires a lot of tedious work, it is also exciting and interesting work that has the potential to change how we understand early American religion.

Q: You mentioned that this could change our understanding of religion in America. How? Why is this project so important?

A: As Yale University historian Harry Stout argued over twenty years ago, notwithstanding the popularity of printed sermons, “Only from the vantage point of unpublished sermons . . . can the full range of colonial preaching be understood.”[1] Even despite the best efforts of several scholars of religion, we still know relatively little about what transpired in colonial and antebellum churches on an average Sunday—especially in churches unaffiliated with the Congregational Way and outside of New England. Indeed, most college students who have taken an early American history class are familiar with a single sermon: Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Because the vivid imagery—centered on hellfire and damnation—that Edwards uses in this text so readily imprints itself on the minds of young readers, many students are left with the false impression that this poignant piece is characteristic of sermons preached in early America. A broad survey of Edwards’s published and unpublished sermons, however, suggests that this particular message was even atypical for him. Edwardian theology more commonly focused on God’s love for his children than it did on his wrath for sinners. Since many of Edwards’s personal papers are now easily accessible online through the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, including more than 1,200 sermons, it has become increasingly possible to complicate the assumptions so readily made by students who have read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by exposing them to a variety of Edwards’s manuscript sermons. The complexity and nuance found in such sources—Stout has suggested that the typical colonist listened to approximately 7,000 hours of sermons over the course of a lifetime—can expand our understanding of American Christianity as well as other aspects of life in early America.

As a young student, I assumed that Edwards (and by extension, early American religion) was a harsh figure; I thought that a fear of hellfire and damnation—a sense of disconnect from God—characterized religious life. As I began to study early American religion, and as I immersed myself in various types of manuscript materials, I discovered that I had been wrong. Religion was real and powerful and meaningful to people, and they believed in and embraced God’s love and mercy. The divine was not distant, but rather a very real part of their daily lives. I love this project because I think it can demonstrate some of the things I learned in the context of an archive. Since everyone doesn’t have the opportunity to travel to an archive, we will bring the archive to them.

Q: What have you learned so far from being involved in this project?

A: Although we are still in the beginning stages of this project, we have already identified and transcribed many interesting sermons and have images of more than one hundred manuscript sermons preached throughout the original thirteen colonies by Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Anglican, and Congregational ministers from collections at Georgetown, Harvard, the Andover Theological Library, and the American Antiquarian Society. We also launched a TEAMS prototype in the spring of 2015, which currently includes transcriptions of more than twenty-five sermons. In this small sampling, we have already made note of interesting themes that seem to challenge past historiographical interpretations. For example, contrary to arguments in prevailing scholarship, including the recent work of Erin Shalev, that the Puritans valued the Old Testament over the New Testament, our data imply that the New Testament may have been used more often than the Old (suggesting that James Byrd’s claims about published sermons are likely to be confirmed by the manuscript record). Tabulating scriptural citations for the twenty-five sermons we have coded and uploaded to the TEAMS site thus far, we have discovered 232 Old Testament citations and 290 New Testament citations. While it is possible that the trend will not hold up—we certainly need more sermons/data before we can be conclusive in our analysis—it appears that there are significant implications for the way we think and talk about early American religion. In addition, Harry Stout has argued that published sermons are different than manuscript sermons. But what if they’re not? Two of our twenty-five sermons are more or less plagiarized, or at least cobbled together from extant print sermons. (It is interesting to note that Benjamin Franklin, in part 3 of his autobiography, talks about the scandal that would emerge if parishioners figured out what was going on.) It also appears that millennialism, which is generally discussed in terms of congregational ministers, was fairly rampant among other sects; we have three apocalyptic sermons by Baptist and Catholic preachers from the time of the Revolution.

In short, even a small sampling of sermons initiates interesting questions, challenges previous assumptions, and encourages us to continue searching for material that can potentially provide answers. As a student of history, I am constantly recognizing how much we don’t know and how much potential there is to learn. A small selection of sermons has taught me so much already. I can’t wait to learn more.

Q: How might this project facilitate further understanding of the Restoration of the gospel?

A: In so many ways! Early nineteenth-century sermons have been overlooked even more than seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sermons. That omission is glaring, since

the number of sermons that were delivered and the number of individuals who listened to sermons increased from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. In order to rectify this historical blind spot (one that certainly complicates a study of the religious context in which Joseph Smith lived) and to give nineteenth-century American preaching a more prominent role in cultural memory, the TEAMS project has begun locating and transcribing nineteenth-century sermons in addition to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sermons it is already publishing. As material from this latter period becomes more accessible, scholars will be more prone to analyze the reception and function of nineteenth-century American sermons, thus increasing our understanding of religious beliefs and practice at that time.

From an LDS perspective, it is clear that such understanding will shed light on the context of the early Church—the very reason I have started to focus my research efforts on sermon manuscripts given between 1800 and 1830. Sermons from this time period will help us better understand the religious experiences and beliefs of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries, as well as provide insight into the development of the budding prophet’s own religious questions. Indeed, this work will reveal the religious environment in which the Restoration of the gospel took shape.

This summer, I have perused archives for manuscript sermons given in upstate New York during the early decades of the nineteenth century. I have discovered countless sources at Cornell University, and a number of manuscript materials at Syracuse University. I am thrilled by what I have found thus far, and excited to discover additional sources. It’s all so fascinating.

Q: What aspects of this project do you most enjoy?

A: I think the first has already been mentioned. I love contextualizing the Restoration. I enjoy engaging in research projects that help me understand the history/origins of my own faith better. Although the connections are often indirect, or implicit, every research project I engage in is ultimately about understanding the Restoration more fully. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to learn about it in so many different ways.

I have also enjoyed the challenging quest to find manuscript sermons given by women. Extant sources are nearly nonexistent, but I have been able to discover a few, and I have some other leads that I am pursuing. Finding the impossible is a very rewarding moment for a historian! I love it.

And, finally, I enjoy the opportunity to mentor student research assistants—it’s one of the best parts of my job. Students involved in this project having been learning about the religious context of the Restoration of the gospel. Through the sermons they read, the research they conduct, and discussions with me, they can come to a greater appreciation for and testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the important work that he did. They will also receive training in archival research, document transcription, and documentary editing practices, and will develop skills relevant in the publishing world, including preparing a text for publication and searching out references.


[1] Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 4.