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Rev. Dr. Harold Worthley, 87, former director of Congregational Library

Dr. Worthley was director of the Congregational Library in Boston.
Dr. Worthley was director of the Congregational Library in Boston.

The Rev. Dr. Harold Field Worthley was a man of words, so much so that he won his wife’s heart with an essay about “Moby-Dick.”

He was studying at Harvard Divinity School when he met Barbara Bent, a Radcliffe College student who was struggling through writing an essay about Herman Melville’s novel.

He gave her violets, he lent her his bottle opener for their bottles of Coke, and he sent her an essay he wrote about “Moby-Dick” to explain the points she was missing.

“Behind the words, he understood the motivation for writing, which I had never gotten into,” she said. “He showed me the reason for people expressing themselves in words.”

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Dr. Worthley, who was director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston for more than a quarter century and created a comprehensive inventory of Massachusetts church records, died Oct. 21 in Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton from complications of bladder cancer. He was 87 and divided his time between his homes in Norton and Cape Porpoise, Maine.

As a minister, he was passionate about the sermons he wrote, often sharing pieces of his life with the congregations to whom he preached. In a 1970 sermon, written to his daughters, he lovingly gave them advice about growing older and finding who they wanted to become.

“Out of loving you, I am freed from my fears for myself,” he wrote in a sermon he delivered at Wheaton College on March 15, 1970. “I am free to teach you, by my living, the little that I know, rather than the much that might please our neighbors! I am free to give you the very little that I have, rather than borrow to endow you with the things you do not need.”

Dr. Worthley’s inventory of church records was an iconic addition for historians and Congregationalist leaders across the state. The 716-page manual, published in 1970, documents the records of Congregational churches that gathered between 1620 and 1805.

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In the inventory, he included ministers and lay officers who served during that time, and he catalogued all existing records from those churches, including the current location of those historic documents.

James Cooper was doing graduate work at the University of Connecticut when he first contacted Dr. Worthley about the inventory of church records. Dr. Worthley’s patience and tenacity about his research in that work made all the difference, Cooper said.

“How he was able to do all this, I don’t know,” said Cooper, who remains in awe that Dr. Worthley documented all that he did.

Dr. Worthley “was amazingly thorough,” Cooper added. “I told him, ‘If you gave me $10 million and 10 years, I don’t think I could do what you did.’ ”

Cooper, who now works with the Congregational Library and Archives, is directing a project to digitize the records Dr. Worthley reviewed for his inventory and make them available to historians around the world.

“Hal in many ways was the grandfather of the project,” Cooper said. “There’s no way that we could embark on this project to try to secure and digitize these records without knowing where they are.”

Dr. Worthley, who was known as Hal by friends and family, was born in Brewer, Maine, to the Rev. Herbert Morrison Worthley and Aline Field Worthley Garsoe. He had one younger brother, Bruce, who died as a teenager.

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His family moved to South Berwick, Maine, when he was young, and he attended schools there until high school, when his family moved to Dover, N.H.

After graduating, Dr. Worthley went to Boston University, from which he graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He then went to Harvard Divinity School, from which he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sacred theology. In 1970, he graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a doctorate in theology.

“He was voracious as far as reading things,” his daughter Susan Field of Cape Porpoise, Maine, said. “He always had a few different books going and liked to find out more about things.”

Dr. Worthley became an ordained Congregational minister in 1954 and served parishes in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. He also taught religion at Wheaton College from 1963 to 1977, and was the college chaplain.

In 1977, he joined the Congregational Library and Archives as director and retired 26 years later. During his time as director, he was also the executive director and archivist of the Congregational Christian Historical Society, and he worked as editor for the Bulletin of the Congregational Library and the Historical Intelligencer.

He also continued to be a visiting minister, leading services for family milestones. “He loved people, and he wanted to help,” Field said. “He wanted to contribute something of beauty and meaning to their special ceremonies.”

Dr. Worthley and Barbara Bent married in 1955 and later adopted three children. Field said their decision to adopt made them exceptionally thankful for family time spent together.

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She said that at times her father was apologetic for spending evenings in his office, rather than at home, but that work ethic and “commitment to justice” inspired her.

When Dr. Worthley was home, “he was totally home,” his wife said, and he focused entirely on the children — reading to them or planning the next family camping vacation, which the Worthleys usually took each summer.

Even when the children grew older and grandchildren were born, Dr. Worthley was always a family man, Barbara said. “How his face would light up when his grandchildren came in the room,” she said. “He was really sick toward the end, but when one of those children came in the room, they would light him up.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Worthley leaves two other children, Laura of New Braunfels, Texas, and David of Norton; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in Trinitarian Congregational Church in Norton. A private burial will be held at Timothy Plain Cemetery in Norton.

Though Dr. Worthley left extensive research to historians and Congregational ministers, his family said his legacy can largely be seen in the way he treated and inspired others.

Dr. Worthley was “always treating people with kindness, not making assumptions about what their situation is,” said Susan, who added that “he didn’t preach at us. He just taught it by example.”

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Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com.