Review- Bendroth, “The Last Puritans”

Margaret Bendroth, “The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestantism and the Power of the Past” (2015) – An oddly fascinating book about a determinedly staid organization, “The Last Puritans” traces how the Congregationalist church managed the transition from being the orthodox state church of Massachusetts to one of the most liberal — critics would argue pallid and shapeless — denominations out there today. The key pivot in the story according to Bendroth was the adoption of the Pilgrim/Puritan past (with a good deal of handwaving the differences between the two away).

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Congregationalists were profoundly unprepared for the competitive marketplace in Protestant denominations. Two centuries as an officially state-supported church will do that. According to Bendroth, most of the Congregationalist churches in New England didn’t even think of themselves in those terms- they were just the church, or the First Church, everyone else had to give themselves a label. This didn’t fly all that well out west, where competition from Methodists, Presbyterians, and assorted evangelicals was fierce.

The Congregationalists came to identify themselves with the Puritans at around the same time the US, along with Europe, was discovering history as a field like we know it today, as the nineteenth century started to wane. This gave them a sense of shared identity that allowed them to have a kind of “brand identity,” while also consolidating the denomination enough to allow for changes (like becoming somewhat more bureaucratic instead of each individual church running its own show). This didn’t catapult the Congregationalist to dominance, but did allow them a niche- a thoughtful, non-sectarian, middle-class, town-based Protestantism.

There’s the past, as in origins, and history, as in processes of change. The Puritans provided both to the Congregationalists at different times. They could stand as an ancestral claim to virtues (back then, believe it or not, they tried to claim the Puritans as symbols of tolerance) and a temporal priority. But they also provided a sense of a project enfolding in time, one that wouldn’t always stay the same. Bendroth traces how the Congregationalists negotiated with the past to adapt such non-Puritan beliefs as the perfectability of society and Protestant ecumenicalism, on the idea that it was their task to carry on the example of being a beacon of ideal Protestant practice, etc. Alas, the Puritans understood themselves to be standing at the end times, not as an origin point to be worshipped filiopietistically or to be adapted and built past. But they weren’t around to speak their piece anymore. That’s what happens to anyone, I suppose, whose project outlived them.

Anyway, a fair amount of this book is taken up with depictions of dry theological dispute but Bendroth does her best to keep it concise. Without sugarcoating the inconsistencies involved, she also stands up some for mainline Protestantism, those once-dominant but now increasingly sclerotic Protestant groupings that didn’t go evangelical/fundamentalist. I remember as a Catholic boy in late-twentieth century Massachusetts knowing about three kinds of Protestant: the holy rollers, the rich WASPs, and whoever was going to those nice white steeple churches near every town green- I never knew who they were supposed to be. Bendroth argues that rather than a decline, the Congregationalists’ story can be understood as a fulfillment- not a complete or an easy one, but as developments self-consistent with four centuries of church history. Along with being a story about a denomination and about the popular uses of history, this is a reminder of the tectonic historical forces that shape even something as seemingly simple and benign as the nice UCC folks who show up at peace rallies. ****’

Review- Bendroth, “The Last Puritans”

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