The Last Puritans

Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past

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Margaret Bendroth
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    The University of North Carolina Press
    , October
     2015.
     258 pages.
     $27.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781469624006.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

While many of early America’s Christians implemented forms of Congregationalist organization and worship, their history is ambiguous and incomplete. This is a hole Margaret Bendroth tries to fill in her latest monograph, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past. Bendroth, the executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, is most interested in the “anonymity problem” looming over American Congregationalism and how historical clarification can help us understand the modern, tenuous place of other once-dominant mainline Protestant denominations now characterized as “declining” and tepid (1). Her desire is, instead of reifying this narrative, we consider a “relatively uncharted” history of mainliners less presumptuous of failure and more focused on how these Protestants—long shelved in favor of evangelical narratives—have harnessed their denominational histories, reflected on their pasts, and “renegotiate[d] old obligations to their spiritual ancestors” (3).

Bendroth’s study of mainline historical culture deals primarily with New England Congregationalists of the 19th and 20thcenturies, paying special attention to how this region’s churches grappled with their puritan past. Her analysis of the nineteenth-century, before the formation of the United Church of Christ in 1957, is the richest part of her work. In postbellum America, she notes, Protestant options sprung from various mission ventures and publishing organizations, further complicating the place of Congregationalists in the country’s Christian landscape (14-15). Nineteenth-century Congregationalists constantly referenced and appreciated their historical faith-culture, venerating famous New England puritans and others in various church anniversary celebrations, parties, and commemorations of local pulpit and pastor portraits (20-23). As they jockeyed with other denominations, these pieces of regional church history divided Congregationalists. Some termed Trinitarians embraced New England’s Calvinist lineage while their opponent Unitarians critiqued theological concepts like the trinity and original sin. Importantly, both groups utilized their “Pilgrim fathers” and both had a rightful claim to that past (34-35). One important event which exemplified this was the Boston Council of 1865—a Congregationalist meeting where the denomination’s postbellum identity formed in the midst of the Civil War and territorial expansion. Where some cited the “good old Puritan faith” to ennoble a historically-rooted, strict biblicism, others harnessed the puritan narrative to emphasize congregational inclusiveness, showing that Congregationalists (Trinitarian or Unitarian) found their pilgrim past malleable, applicable, and relevant (52, 58).

By the turn of the twentieth-century, things changed. As Bendroth puts it, “the old Puritan churches, the heirs of Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, and Lyman Beecher, had become one of the most liberal denominations in the country” (85). Once valorous, “puritanism” came to be a black-eye, a “synonym for intolerance and religious bigotry” that, if it was to have any remaining moral guidance for the present, had to be reconceptualized (103, 107). As notable ministers like Horace Bushnell helped establish among nineteenth-century Congregationalists an appreciation of liberalism and a “gentler divinity” critical of archaic Calvinism, reading the puritan past became less reliant on literalism (115). Increasingly accessed more for its romantic mythology, New England’s puritans were seized for their abstract value. Their transatlantic migration to the “wilderness” spoke to contemporary westward expansion and American adventurousness while pilgrim garb became an on-stage accessory for entertainment, symbolizing New England’s cultural heritage. Puritans, Bendroth argues, “were becoming figures of a vivid, modern, twentieth-century imagination” (107).

The Last Puritansis an important work for understanding New England’s filiopietism and manipulation of its regional, religious history, but some specificity could have aided Bendroth’s observations. Why did some churches venerate Jonathan Edwards while others simply highlight the importance of the “Pilgrim fathers,” hardly mentioning a specific figure? Which seventeenth- and eighteenth-century divines earned their place in the remembrances of their nineteenth- and twentieth-century inheritors, and why? Bendroth excellently describes how modern Congregationalists interpreted their puritan forebears, but it is not always clear which sources informed their characterizations. Regardless, this monograph is an important contribution to the field. Students and scholars of American religious history will appreciate Bendroth’s approach to non-evangelical mainliners, especially her avoidance of declension narratives. Instead, she pursues the important task of analyzing historical memory among America’s other Protestants, giving us the tools to think the communal process that has undergirded one’s identification as a Congregationalist, Presbyterian, or Episcopalian.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tucker Adkins is a graduate student in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Margaret Bendroth is executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston. She is author of Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present, among other books.

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