Sermon Notetaking FAQ

I am just beginning to build this section and am really just guessing what questions might frequently come up. If you have a question that is not included here, drop me a line at I’d be delighted to add your questions here.


Why did the Puritans keep sermon notebooks?

In England the specific phenomenon of Puritan sermon notetaking seems to have developed from university practices: students were expected to recreate from memory sermons and lectures that the heard earlier in the day. The practice spread, as many individuals adapted techniques to enhance their own sermon auditing experience. Puritan emphasis on sermon attendance as the “ordinary means” to salvation made notetaking more than an academic exercise. The recording, reviewing, sharing, preservation, and contemplation of notes was central to Puritan spiritual experience.


Who took sermon notes?

It’s hard to be exact, especially because many notetakers are anonymous, but it’s clear from examples in the archive that many people did keep notes in various ways. University-trained men (and university-bound boys) were perhaps most likely to take extensive notes, but less highly educated auditors did, too. Women also kept sermon notebooks, although there are fewer extant  examples in the archive. Adult male heads-of-household would have particular reason to take notes, as they were encouraged to act as spiritual heads of the families (which would include any servants) as well. Not everyone in seventeenth-century New England took notes, but probably everyone would have been conversant with notes and notetaking in various ways.


Really? They were taking notes right there when the minister was talking?

In some cases, yes. In other cases, no.

University pedagogy emphasized memory, and it is clear that many notes were written at home from memory, even by non-university-educated auditors. Notes that emphasize primarily content details from sermons (the minister, the date, the verse, the doctrine, the uses) would be relatively easy to create from memory at home. Notes that emphasize the sometimes rather complex structure of the sermon (not only the verse, doctrine, and uses, but also reasons, questions, objections, and other branching pieces of argumentation) might also be made at home. In fact, the distinct structure and branching of the sermon was a kind of rhetorical technology specifically meant to aid memory. (And keep in mind that many ministers were preaching ex tempore, relying on their own memory of the planned sermon structure to guide them through semi-improvisational delivery in the pulpit.)

There is also evidence that plenty of auditors recorded in the meetinghouse, as well. Some of the strongest evidence of in situ recording exists in the phrasing of notes. Incomplete and semi-coherent syntax, unnecessary phrases (“last time we saw…”, “but now I proceed…”, etc.), and spacing and punctuation irregularities all suggest notetaking that occurs in real time as the minister is speaking. Shorthand—which allows the writer to record more quickly—is also evidence that notes might be taken in the meetinghouse.

Certainly some notes were worked on both in the meetinghouse and at home, as the evidence of corrections and additions in different ink suggests. It is likely that some notebooks that survive are copies made at home from rough notes taken in situ (a practice that would be consistent with other early modern notetaking methods), although I have not yet found direct evidence for this. Certainly copies of notes were also made for sharing and circulation, and examples survive in the archive.


So notes could really be different from notetaker to notetaker?

Exactly! For the sake of convenience, I’ve suggested three distinct inclinations in notetaking: content auditing, which emphasizes discrete pieces of information; structural auditing, which emphasizes the form of argumentation and the relation between different pieces of that argumentation; and aural auditing, which emphasizing the listening experience itself, often by attempting to record the exact words of the minister. In practice, most sermon notetakers display their own idiosyncratic blend of these inclinations, and even one style of auditing as pursued by multiple notetakers could yield divergent results. Look, for example, at the very different content auditing tendencies of Michael Metcalfe and John Chickering.


These notebooks are hard to read. And the spelling and punctuation is bizarre. And some of these books seem pretty messy. What’s going on?

Handwriting styles continually change. The study of early handwriting is called paleography, and there are some great online resources for anyone who is interested in learning to read these texts. Most of the writing you’ll see in the notebooks on this site are related to “secretary hand,” a more informal mode of writing appropriate for notebooks. Each individual has his or her own tendencies, of course, and many of the notetakers here seem to have adapted very idiosyncratic styles. It’s best to focus on one person’s handwriting at a time. If you can’t make out a letter in one word, try to find the same letter in a word that you can decipher from context. Spending extended time with an individual’s handwriting, especially over the course of multiple sessions, is the best way to decipher difficult handwriting. Keep an eye out for notetakers that mix in abbreviations and symbols (sometimes, but not always, derived from established shorthand systems). Some of these you will be able to figure out from context, but you may not be able to read every word an mark with 100% certainty.

Be very flexible with your sense of spelling and punctuation, too. Spelling is not yet completely regularized in this early period, and many writers—including the highly educated—use variant and phonetic spellings throughout. Similarly, rules for punctuation are pretty fluid, and notetaking in particular provides plenty of opportunity for non-standard usage. In particular, you may find an excess of periods and/or commas, and you may notice that these marks do not always rest gently along the baseline of the sentence.  Especially if recording in the meetinghouse, it seems that some writers paused in mid-sentence, creating points that probably communicate even more about the rhythm of speech as the logic of syntax.

And, yes, writing in the seventeenth-century could be extremely messy work. Just keeping the tip of the pen sharp and the ink flowing evenly was a challenge. Imagine how much more difficult the work of writing might have been for those recording from the pew, especially during inclement New England weather. Overtime, the chemical composition of ink and paper can change, greatly affecting the legibility of manuscripts. Sometimes the page is essentially eating itself. Even the best preserved specimens (and most have not always been so carefully preserved) age and deteriorate, compromising both the text and the material object. That said, it is indeed true that some notebooks seem particularly messy. Personally, I love a messy book. Not only does it make me feel better about my own sloppy handwriting and chaotic organization, it also provides intriguing hints about how people really used notebooks and thought about text in this period.


Where are these notebooks? How could I find some myself?

Auditor sermon notebooks can be hard to locate. They are less likely to survive, for example, than the notebooks kept by prominent ministers and passed down in family papers. When these notebooks do find their way into archival libraries, they can be cataloged according to a range of descriptive keywords. Not surprisingly, Puritan auditor notebooks can be found most commonly in New England archives. But thanks to the serendipitous trajectories of these obscure manuscripts, they might pop up anywhere, and there are undoubtedly many examples still to be found in private collections and family papers.

In the resources section, I have included a bibliography of notebooks as cited in my book, including call numbers for ease of identification. Hopefully the images and transcriptions on this website will allow interested readers to access the texts of Puritan sermon notes and even contemplate their material conditions without traveling to disparate archives, deciphering early modern handwriting, and putting further stress on fragile manuscript originals through repeated handling.