The Author’s Corner with Margaret Bendroth

Peggy Bendroth is Executive Director for the Congregational Library and President of the American Society of Church History. This interview is based on her new book, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Last Puritans?

PB: If I back up all the way, The Last Puritans is my effort to explain mainline Protestants, not just as a historian but as a participant/observer.  For the last ten years I’ve been at the Congregational Library up on Beacon Hill in Boston.  My office is literally in the stacks of a wonderful collection documenting the history of this denomination, from the original Puritans on up to the 1950s, when most of the Congregationalists joined in the ecumenical merger that created the United Church of Christ.  For much longer, I’ve been married to a Congregational (UCC) minister, which means I’ve had a front row seat to all kinds of churchy things, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I was raised in a conservative, doctrinal tradition (the Christian Reformed Church), and was regularly puzzled by my husband’s parishioners, and the personal piety so many of them took for granted.  It’s fascinating: in one of the most liberal denominations in Christendom, I hear prayers and sermons and testimonies that would not be out of place in an evangelical congregation.  What, I always ask myself, besides the presence of gay people in the pews, is the difference? It’s more than doctrinal or political.  We’re talking about different religious cultures, and I wanted to see if I could identify and explain the liberal side.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Last Puritans?

PB: I argue that mainline Protestants are not just “failed evangelicals,” churches that weakly capitulated to modern culture, but, like evangelicals, made their own selective peace with it.  The story of one denomination, the Congregationalists, shows them wrestling over and over with the meaning and implications of their Puritan past, defining and redefining their obligations to their ancestors, and in the process understanding their modern faith not on a literal reading of Scripture but on the messy complexities of history.
JF: Why do we need to read The Last Puritans?

PB: Here’s one practical reason: since the 1980s, if we use George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture as the benchmark, historians of American religion have been working overtime to understand evangelicals.  It has worked well, really well. The old stereotypes have been demolished and we now have a richly textured picture of evangelicalism in all of its aspects, from fundamentalist to Pentecostal.  

We also have an assumption that there was no spiritual curiosity or zeal anywhere else, and that mainliners in particular were boring and feckless bureaucrats presiding over their own demise.  Very few of us have actually worked through primary sources, however, and we know surprisingly little about what happened in mainline denominations for most of the twentieth century.  That means that we cannot explain, as David Hollinger and others now argue, how mainline liberal values—tolerance and cooperation—have quietly come to define so much of mainstream American culture today. I’m thinking especially of Amazing Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, a picture of American religiosity far different from the usual stereotypes of the culture wars. Mainline denominations may be disappearing, but this is, I think, more of an organizational problem than a failure of their ideals.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PB: Probably in grade school, after I finished reading Johnny Tremain.  And then I majored in history in college because I liked music, art, and literature and figured that would be a way to do it all.  We are talking about a time, of course, when young women weren’t asked the hard questions, like “how will you support yourself.” The assumption was that you wouldn’t need to.  And so the big change for me was seeing history as a career and myself as a historian, and that came somewhat painfully during the ritual paring of the sheep from the goats in graduate school. I had to learn pretty quickly, as a woman in a virtually all-male setting, to take myself and my vocation seriously and have the long view always in mind. At the same time I had to keep a sense of humor about myself and decide what to take to heart and what not.

JF: What is your next project?

PB: Despite what I said in an earlier question, I am going back to write about evangelicals and fundamentalists, and I’m putting together some ideas about their understanding of history, time, and tradition—a kind of part two for Last Puritans.  It’s an interesting problem: in some ways evangelicals care very little about historic traditions. They are oriented to the present and the future. But in other ways they are deeply invested in history, and not just the mythology around George Washington and all that, which John knows so well. History is their standard of proof. It’s vitally important to have a historical Jesus, and as we’ve seen lately, an Adam who actually lived in a place called the Garden of Eden centuries ago. I think this is a key, and largely unexplored way of thinking about evangelicals, and what distinguishes them from more liberal and mainline Protestants.

JF: Thanks, Peggy!