Found in the Archives: James Covel in Canada, circa 1818?

By October 22, 2012

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.

Does $7.77 qualify under 1 Timothy 3:3?

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.

Article filed under Biography Christian History From the Archives JIers in Print Miscellaneous


  1. Fantastic. Thanks for this, Christopher. This is also a good reminder for those who haven’t read your tremendous article yet to go do so now!

    Comment by Ben P — October 22, 2012 @ 9:27 am

  2. Haha — I’ve done something similar many, many times. Thanks for the reminder of the importance of reading and researching carefully. This does raise the question, though, what did Covel’s son think of his conversion?

    Comment by Amanda HK — October 22, 2012 @ 10:36 am

  3. Thanks, Ben.

    Well, Covel, Sr. didn’t end up converting to Mormonism, Amanda. Covel, Jr. is an interesting individual, though, and your question points to some of the questions I hope to find answers to down the road. Covel, Jr. remained an episcopal Methodist and gained some notoriety for his 1843 publication, A Concise Dictionary of the Holy Bible. His father, shortly after the period when this entry was recorded, moved to NYC and joined the schismatic Methodist Society of New York, and then the Associated Methodist Churches and finally, the Methodist Protestant Church. All of the groups were highly critical of the MEC, and I’d love to know what the elder Covel’s uniting with them did to his relationship with his sons who remained active in the MEC.

    Comment by Christopher — October 22, 2012 @ 11:01 am

  4. Excellent lessons, Christopher, that can’t be repeated often enough. Thanks.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 22, 2012 @ 11:25 am

  5. Ah, yes — I remember now. From your paper at MHA, Covel was one of the men you mentioned who considered conversion but ultimately didn’t. I should add carefully think about what you should know before commenting on blog posts to list of things to do as a scholar. Sigh.

    Comment by Amanda HK — October 22, 2012 @ 11:34 am

  6. Thanks, Chris. I love the feeling of unlocking a mystery in a document, even when it turns out differently than expected/hoped. You’re right that the process itself raises new questions.

    Comment by David G. — October 22, 2012 @ 11:58 am

  7. So much to enjoy in this post, Christopher. I especially appreciate the coming together of disparate strings and the reminders at the end. Very important.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 22, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

  8. Thanks for your contribution to this series Chris. It doesn’t take much experience in archival research to have gone down a path that was mistaken. But we seem to immediately jump there because of the anticipation of those FINDS that are so exciting. The challenge for a historian is to check and double check his or her FINDS in case they are misfires. Thanks for the reminder.

    Comment by Robin — October 22, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

  9. Christopher, nice post and great reminder. Your Covel piece is fine stuff.

    Comment by WVS — October 23, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

  10. Thanks, everyone, and great comments.

    Comment by Christopher — October 23, 2012 @ 8:44 pm


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