2019 John Winthrop Student Fellow: Rianna Bucceri, Changing Gravestone Iconography & Theological Sentiment in Early New England

By Kate Melchior, Assistant Director of Education

Every year, the MHS selects one or more high school students for our John Winthrop Student Fellowship. This award encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Students perform historical research and create a project (usually an assignment for class) using materials at the MHS, both in our archives or digitized online. This project can be something assigned in a class, a National History Day project, or something of the student’s invention!  Both student and teacher each receive $350 to support their research. Applications for the 2020 student fellowship are due on 11 February 2020Learn more and apply!

Broadside detail
Upon the Death of the Virtuous and Religious Mrs. Lydia Minot, detail of broadside, [Cambridge, Mass. : Printed by Samuel Green, 1668]
In 2019, Rianna Bucceri and her teacher William Miskinis from Littleton High School were awarded one of our student fellowships to research how trends in gravestone iconography reflected shifts in early New England theology. Rianna spent several months working in the MHS library with the support of our research librarians and produced an essay titled “The Frailty of Man”: An Analysis of Changing Gravestone Iconography and Theological Sentiment in Early New England. Read Rianna’s account of her experience at the MHS:

Every student in our AP U.S history class is required to do a local research project. I had already known I was doing an analysis on gravestone iconography, but working solely with the sources I was getting from my town’s historical society was not cutting it. Luckily, I discovered the Massachusetts Historical Society and the search engine ABIGAIL, and was then able to breathe a sigh of relief. I found sermons from every time period I needed to connect iconographic trends on New England gravestones to the theology of the time. It was through this browsing of the MHS’s website that I discovered I had the opportunity to apply for the John Winthrop fellowship, which I immediately decided that I wanted to do.

When I went in to visit the MHS, I was instantly impressed with the welcoming, intellectual, and professional environment I encountered. Every employee was willing to help. I was honestly shocked that I was able to touch actual letters and sermons that were up to 300 years old. Sitting in the stately reading room, holding handwritten letters, I felt like I had history in my hands. After struggling with the delicate handwriting for a while, I deciphered letters from rural pastors addressed to city priests describing the great religious revivals they had witnessed. Their handwritten words demonstrated a clear turning point in religious sentiment that became the backbone of my paper. These letters show turning points in theological sentiment, which coincided with changes in iconography. I used these to compare the general evolution of New England gravestone iconography with greater theological ideas, such as predestination, and the First and Second Great Awakenings.

Possibly one of the most helpful and interesting sources I found was Ezra Sampson’s sermon on seventeen year old Olive Soule. His metaphors comparing death to nature were really beautiful, and the way he emphasized ‘the frailty of man’ was engrossing. He said, “Grass we know is but of short duration. It grows and flourisheth but a little while, before it fadeth and withereth away…and this holds true of man…” His themes showed an important turning point in religious sentiment that supported my thesis. In fact, I decided to entitle my paper “‘The Frailty of Man” because of the way the phrase resonates throughout my research. Looking back, I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to use the resources available at the Massachusetts Historical Society. If I had not had access to these sources, I would not have been able to create such a complex and nuanced paper.

If you are interested in learning more about the John Winthrop Student Fellowship or any of our other programs, please visit the Center for the Teaching of History website or e-mail us at education@masshist.org.  We look forward to hearing from you!