The religious history blogosphere is abuzz about an article in the New York Times this past week, reporting on a new string of books about liberal Protestantism — the proverbial "dead white guys", or as I call them, the men with three last names (figure it out).
It looks like we have come full circle. Five decades ago a course in American religion was basically the story of the major northern white Protestant denominations, beginning with the Puritans and winding up with the National Council of Churches. In the 1960s, however, the focus began to shift, and by the 1980s the syllabus had been completely rearranged to include Native Americans, Mormons, Catholics, women, African Americans, fundamentalists, New Age, and on goes the list. The emphasis was on diversity and conflict, bringing to light people whose stories had been suppressed by the old power structure. The dead white men had had their chance, was the underlying message; it was now their turn to take the back seat.
But we're not entirely back where we started. The new interest in mainline religion, which I share, begins with a different set of assumptions than before. Lots has happened in the "old line" churches since the 1950s, of course, and most of it not all that good; many people and a good deal of money have moved on, apparently never to return. But there is a larger and more important story that we often overlook: in the long run, mainline Protestantism "won" American culture. The values they have long espoused — tolerance, fairness, international cooperation, "democratic" families — originated in twentieth-century Congregational, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches and took deep root in American culture.
My particular vantage point here in the stacks of the Congregational Library makes me feel intrigued, gratified, and frustrated by the Times article. All around me are books, correspondence, reports, periodicals, and pamphlets written by those nineteenth and twentieth century mainline or liberal Protestants, just sitting here waiting. I sometimes mourn as I walk through our archives, past boxes upon boxes of denominational records and personal papers, all virtually untapped by some enterprising scholar. From my own forays into these records I know they are full of unknown and important stories, and would welcome the opportunity to introduce the new generation of religious history scholars to what lies within the walls of 14 Beacon Street.