In March of this year, the newly rebranded BYU Studies Quarterly published an article I wrote entitled “Mormonism in the Methodist Marketplace: James Covel and the Historical Background of Doctrine and Covenants 39?40.” The article, which began as a short and poorly-written blog post here at JI a few years earlier, represented the culmination of a year in the archives pouring through manuscript sources and rolls and rolls of microfilmed newspapers and church records from three different Methodist churches (assisted by the indefatigable staff at the United Methodist Archives and History Center in Madison, New Jersey), piecing together the life and preaching career of a man I initially knew next to nothing about. It also represented the culmination—or so I thought at the time—of my research on connections between Methodism and early Mormonism. I’d moved on to what I imagined at the time as an entirely unrelated project: my dissertation, which examines the growth and development of Methodism in North America and the Caribbean from 1760 to 1815.
A month later, I traveled to Ottawa, Ontario to dive into the sources available on Methodism in 18th- and early 19th-century Québec, Ontario, and Nova Scotia at the Library and Archives of Canada. After a mostly frustrating first day at the archives, I happened upon a roll of microfilm the next morning containing, among other documents, a copy of a handwritten “Circuit Steward’s Book for the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Dunham,” a small community in what was then known as Lower Canada (today Québec). Containing a list of baptized members, death records, marriages, and minutes various church meetings for 76 years (!). I read the first few pages, quickly realized I’d hit the jackpot, and immediately began scanning every page to my thumb drive. About 40 or 50 pages in, I decided to play what J. Stapley aptly referred to as the “researcher’s lottery,” stopping on a random page and hoping for an especially relevant or provocative excerpt. Because I knew almost everything I found in this document was potentially relevant to my research, I figured I was sure to find something worthwhile. But what I saw caused my jaw to drop.
Staring back at me on the screen was the name “James Covel.” Actually, “Doc James Covel,” an obvious reference, I reasoned, to the Reverend Doctor James Covel, as he was often referred to in Methodist records. I couldn’t believe my luck. There, on this random page of a random roll of microfilm was a record of the very man whose life I’d spent much of the previous year reconstructing. The date—July 18, 1818—confused me, as did the location, as what I’d previously found placed Covel in Poughkeepsie, New York, located and somewhat less-than-active in preaching anymore. What was he doing 265 miles north of there, across a national border? And why was he collecting a small sum of remuneration for his preaching? My mind began to swirl and I decided to note the location of the event and return to it another day when I had more time and could consult the other sources in my possession.
As it turns out, James Covel wasn’t in Lower Canada in 1818. And least not that James Covel. When I finally returned to that passage upon my return to Virginia and was able to zoom in on the page I did not read “Doc James Covel” but rather “Dea James Covel.” The reference was to Covel’s son, who had followed his father into the Methodist ministry and after completing a satisfactory period of probation was ordained a deacon in 1818 and assigned to the Dunham circuit in the New York Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. I was, suffice it to say, a bit disappointed. I was looking forward to trying to figure out the new piece of the historical puzzle I initially imagined this source presented. Upon further reflection, though, I’m glad it was James, Jr. and not his father. His presence as an American preacher of the MEC in a region technically under the jurisdiction of the British Wesleyan Methodist Church actual speaks directly to issues I seek to make sense of in my dissertation. Beyond that, though, there are important lessons to be learned (or reminded of), I think. Namely:
1. The importance of always re-reading any transcription you make of archival sources, especially when they’re handwritten. Double- and, if necessary, triple-check any words or passages you’re not entirely sure of. Have others take a look, as well, and look for internal clues as you attempt to decipher those words and phrases. (In this case, it wasn’t particularly difficult. It seems rather obvious now that it says “Dea” and not “Doc.” But the fact that Henry Stead was referred to by his ministerial title—“Elder Stead”—instead of by his given name is an example of such an internal clue that helped me confirm that this was “Dea[con] James Covel” and not “Doc[tor] James Covel.”) Knowing how to read manuscript sources is as important as knowing where to find them or reading what they say.
2. More introspectively, this random and rather insignificant connection between my research projects has helped me make sense (in my mind, anyway) of why I’m interested in the individuals and communities I’m currently studying. It’s also triggered some ideas for future research projects. The latter point, in my experience, is one of the biggest payoffs of immersing yourself in the archives.