Puritans, Neo-Puritans, and the Ongoing Legacies of Mainline Protestantism – By Mark Hulsether

Mark Hulsether on Margaret Bendroth’s The Last Puritans

Margaret Bendroth, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past, University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 246pp., $27.95
Margaret Bendroth, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past, University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 246pp., $27.95
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For the past few decades, a top contender for the least cool topic in the scholarly universe has been just the topic that Margaret Bendroth chose for her latest book: institutional histories of liberal Protestant denominations. Recently this has begun to change, as we have seen a mini-boom of interest in Protestant liberals, precipitated by scholars like David Hollinger and Leigh Schmidt. Such work has two main foci. First, it calls attention to such liberals’ cultural weight during earlier decades (overstressed in the scholarly literature before the 1970s, then underrepresented for a generation). Second, it stresses how the cultural legacies of liberal Protestantism remain salient, if watered down and semi-invisible, as blended into common sense secular liberalism after the 1970s. In this context, space has opened for a book on the Protestant groups that since 1957 have been organized as the United Church of Christ (UCC) — for which I will use the shorthand “UCC&PG” (the UCC and precursor groups.) Importantly this includes the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay amid others who joined them over the years, especially from German Reformed traditions but also including Barack Obama.

Does Bendroth deliver enough interest and insight to keep this space from freezing back over? I think she does.

Admittedly some aspects of Bendroth’s presentation threaten to confirm the reputation of denominational historians as disconnected from the freshest streams of scholarship. It takes a certain kind of specialist geekiness to care deeply about mid-1800s conflicts over Presbyterian versus Congregationalist polity (for all you non-geeks, this leads back to questions about the autonomy of local churches and the mixed blessings of cooperative projects), or whether theologian Leonard Bacon alienated Midwestern pastors in 1865 with tedious lectures on how they were backsliding from the 1658 Cambridge Platform, or what percentage of votes was needed to ratify the 1957 merger that formed the UCC as we know it today — a denomination that has often been left for dead since 1970. (For hardcore geeks, this latter conflict wound up in court since the merging groups had incommensurate organizational structures; moreover this was just one among other mergers too complex to enumerate here, often with fresh schisms resulting from new mergers.)

For her organizing thread, Bendroth tracks changes in the ways that people from the UCC&PG remember Puritan forebears and appeal to them for authority. She assembles evidence of the sort found in places like the Congregational Library and Archives, where she works as Executive Director. At times she lingers on relative trivialities like the amount of profit earned from a coin minted for the “Pilgrim Jubilee” (the 250th anniversary of the landing at Plymouth Rock) or menu items at commemorative events with Pilgrim themes. She disproportionately stresses institutional change since 1800: the rise and fall of cooperation with Presbyterians, increased national coordination after 1850, and disputations since the 1930s about two matters that are distinguishable but deeply entwined in practice: religious-political commitments of denominational leaders and efforts to create emerging UCC structures. Along the way she tracks the fortunes of societies for church historians and conflicts over theological education, notably battles to defend Calvinist orthodoxy at Andover Seminary.

Andover is currently in the news because this venerable school — endowed in 1807 as a counterweight to liberalization at Harvard and combined since 1930 with a Baptist seminary to form Andover Newton Theological School — is scaling back its operations sharply and merging with Harvard’s longtime competitor, Yale Divinity School. For theological geeks this is an interesting aftershock from 1880’s heresy trials that accused Andover professors of wavering in their Calvinism. This conflict led toward a 1908 merger of Andover and Harvard — but the merger was overturned in the courts based on the terms of Andover’s endowment, after which most of Andover’s faculty resigned rather than sign a required creed.

What Bendroth presupposes in the way of background contexts that make such stories potentially evocative — for example, what the best Calvinist writers articulated about the mysteries of life or the concrete dimensions of social movements in which UCC&PG activists played their part — sometimes seems underplayed if not unfolding on parallel tracks in different books. Perhaps more worrisome, despite Bendroth’s efforts to be even-handed, her data set stacks her deck toward the perspectives of Yankees and/or relative traditionalists toward contested issues in the UCC — especially when compared to the views of ethnic German-Americans who are absent during large stretches of the book, as well as people from the Yankee parts of this tradition who were especially eager to revise inherited traditions. All of this might fuel a suspicion that Bendroth’s ideal readers should be insiders to Congregationalist traditions, already invested in its politics of memory.

Nevertheless, despite some dry stretches, I wish to underline how this study is fresh and rewarding — including for outsiders looking in, especially if they stay alert to the background issues. For starters, we are talking about networks that produced universities including Harvard, Yale, the University of California at Berkeley, Oberlin, Howard, and Fisk. This tradition was a matrix for cultural figures such as Jonathan Edwards, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Sheldon (the author of In His Steps, which popularized the “What Would Jesus Do?” discourse), Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, and in later years Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. In this sense, everyone who interacts with US dominant culture might be considered a sort of insider, however reluctantly or unconsciously.

Over the centuries enough people split off from the specific institutions that formed today’s UCC — toward Unitarianism, Baptist revivalism, secularism, and various others — that it now commands a very small slice of demographic pie. Generations of low birthrates compared to competitors like Catholics, Mormons, and Pentecostals have made a large cumulative impact. Nevertheless the UCC&PG have had a strong presence in establishment circles, and their efforts at ecumenical cooperation propelled their leaders into the heart of organizations like the National and World Councils of Churches. These same ecumenical priorities generated mergers not solely with German congregations in the Evangelical and Reformed traditions (the main groups that united with the descendants of British Puritans to form the UCC, providing extra fascination for theological geeks since many of these Germans were Lutheran) but also parts of the home-grown Restorationist movement and scattered African-American congregations, most famously Chicago’s Trinity UCC that for a time attracted both Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama.

In this light, Bendroth’s evidence is fascinating even for readers inclined to take a sour approach to the UCC&PG — that is, those predisposed to place it within conventional narratives about secularization and/or the decline of mainline Protestants, as if our task were a post-mortem or sharing memories during a deathwatch. Even hoary disputations about creeds and polity — whether to waffle on allegiance to a “system of truths which is commonly known among us as Calvinism,” or how to create networks of autonomous congregations for cooperation on publications, standards for clergy, and social action — are illuminating if we consider what was at stake. This included things like the balance of power at Yale or Howard, the fate of Calvinist approaches to moral formation, and the cultural weight of religious reform (symbolized by Oberlin College) that fed anti-slavery agitation and other major social movements. Nineteenth-century “Oberlinism” became a bridge toward the social gospel during the Progressive Era, 1960s social Christianity, and liberation theologies in recent years — with leaders from today’s UCC and its precursors often in the vanguard.

One of Bendroth’s most interesting contributions is documenting a long-running tradition of conservative ministers and lay elites organizing to cripple social initiatives advanced by their left-liberal compatriots. Scholars often date the upsurge of conservative mobilization to a 1960s backlash against the civil rights and peace movements, continuing through the 1980s heyday of neoconservative advocacy groups like the Institute for Religion and Democracy. Recently, scholars like Kevin Kruse and Jonathan Herzog have emphasized how these conservative efforts date back to the 1950s. Bendroth extends this exposition by showing how Congregationalist variants of a wider conservative mobilization coalesced in the early 1930s after a new Council for Social Action sharply attacked capitalism and “the moral ideals which justify it,” and even called for socializing forms of private ownership that “interfere with the social good.” Pushback from UCC conservatives including the prominent California pastor James Fifield and Minnesota Congressman Walter Judd became thoroughly entangled with, although conceptually distinguishable from, standoffishness toward bureaucratic centralization and theological innovations during the mid-1950s mergers that created the UCC.

Related debates echoed through subsequent battles about the UCC’s participation in the civil rights movement, its pioneering work on environmental racism, its early openness to LGBTQ ordination, and its attempts to make the language in the 1995 New Century Hymnal less sexist without unduly sacrificing poetry and tradition. Somewhat as the UCC&PG’s decentralized structure had earlier helped to keep its internal conflicts from becoming explosive during the fundamentalist/modernist conflict — at least compared to kindred denominations like the Presbyterians — so too in later years the UCC’s structure and tradition allowed greater than average scope for left-liberal initiatives to thrive at least in some local congregations.

My own long-stated contention is that the above-mentioned “deathwatch” approach to studies of the UCC and kindred mainline groups presents them in an unnecessarily harsh light. I agree in part with Hollinger’s observations that liberal religious work has often dissolved into a more diffuse secular liberalism. Moreover, approaching from this direction, it becomes possible to notice a lot of people drifting leftward religiously after 1970: an underappreciated liberal drift among young evangelicals, as well as considerable “Protestant secular” influences amid the heralded growth of “nones” (that is, people who answer “none” when asked about their religious affiliations). By extension the challenge of making an accurate count of liberal Protestants approaches the difficulty of drawing clear lines between “religious” and “secular” Jews. In both cases we can swing the numbers significantly depending on the definitions in play.

This challenge is compounded for the UCC because its name is easily confused with the highly conservative Churches of Christ. Putting an exclamation point on the problem, one widely trumpeted poll reported — perhaps because of confusions with the Churches of Christ? — that the UCC had tripled in size between 1990 and 2001, only to pull back 50% from 2001 to 2008. The same poll lumped the UCC’s close cousins, the Unitarian Universalists, into a category separate from Christianity — with the practical result that the success of Unitarians became part of its narrative about the failure of liberal Protestants.

In such contexts where one can spin numbers in surprisingly flexible ways — and more importantly because the UCC&PG have long been a minority with a shrinking demographic footprint, including during decades in which everyone treats them as part of the cultural establishment — there are mixed blessings in assuming that liberal Protestants primarily dissolved after 1970, as opposed to moving forward in symbiosis with secular liberals.

Nevertheless everyone agrees that groups like the UCC face major challenges, and two are especially damaging. First is their difficulty in holding onto people who see them as stodgy and wishy-washy, part of a bankrupt Christianity that is supposedly hard-wired as conservative. Second is the long-running attack on their leaders from conservatives inside and outside its tradition, based on its leaders supposedly being too radical. Bendroth notes how scholars who diagnose such problems “tend to agree on a fundamental need for cultural backbone.” But is the prescription for this problem to be more forthrightly radical or less so? On facing pages Bendroth writes both that the UCC became “no longer just a liberal, ecumenically minded group … [as opposed to] a leading voice for radical social causes” and also that “their values were so closely aligned with American culture — and vice-versa of course — that church membership seemed in many respects almost unnecessary.” It is not entirely clear whether both these things can be true at the same time.

The upshot is that common wisdom about the decline of groups like the UCC draws on equal parts of misleading spin alongside undoubted problems. In some large degree this represents a triumph of conservative talking points in these precincts of the culture wars and/or the war between the 99% and the 1%.

For her part, Bendroth seems neither highly worried about the UCC’s future nor strongly opinionated about the paths it should take — other than urging those who carry forward the tradition to be reasonably knowledgeable about and rooted in their past. At times she seems bullish about how the UCC&PG’s stress on local autonomy (baked into the very name “Congregationalist”) and foundational warrant to be standoffish toward inherited religious traditions (baked into the word “Reformation”) allowed the UCC&PG to adapt to emergent challenges in helpful ways. This allowed them to become a paradigmatic site for what Nancy Ammerman calls “Golden Rule Christianity” — a vaguely liberal and inclusive approach well suited to the pluralistic religious landscape mapped by Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace. Such a “Golden Rule” approach is the UCC’s center of gravity, although some of its congregations shade off both toward the right and especially the left. Bendroth glosses this as “an awareness of the past [that] can fuel a progressive impulse” and enable people to stay rooted while “keep[ing] current with the times.”

At other times Bendroth signals more pessimism and/or veiled criticism. She writes that in the 1930s “sentimental pride over the Pilgrim and Puritan legacy ended and history became a tool of angry people locked in a sectarian dispute.” She seems hostile toward the New Century Hymnal and her main text ends with a quotation that she seems to endorse, judging that the UCC is in “grave danger” because of “unrooted ahistorical idiosyncrasy” which isolates it from its own past as well as better-rooted parts of Christianity. Symptomatically, however, this passage immediately segues into a conclusion that calls on the UCC to turn back toward a happier situation that its historical memory once enabled, and with which it has not lost contact: “a usable past…as compelling and complex as the people who once lived it.”

It is both a strength and weakness of this book that it reads as a relatively decentered summary of data on how the UCC&PG have deployed their politics of memory, without any strong axe to grind. This could be a weakness in that she does not have just one pointed argument, and thus might try certain readers’ patience during the more meandering stretches. Mainly it is a strength in that she offers evidence that is even-handed and valuable for people on all sides of contested issues. For better or worse, her tolerant stance toward ambiguity is a good fit for prevailing discourses in the liberal Protestant world. However we assess whether, from case to case, conservatives in UCC&PG traditions have advanced stronger arguments appealing to historical memory compared to their adversaries — whether stronger in their sense of what constitutes essential continuity with the past or in their judgments about the general proposition that it is better to bend with the times than to break — it is clear that the legacies and ongoing life of this tradition are weighty enough to make Bendroth’s findings interesting and important, no matter how geeky it may seem to approach them through an institutional case study of this kind.