During the last several weeks, I have been able to read historian Margaret Bendroth’s The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past. Bendroth is the director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston. I have heard her speak at events sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History. She is a careful historian and an eloquent speaker. The Last Puritans is a history of Congregational Churches in the U. S. A. during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I wanted to read it because Laura Ingalls Wilder attended Congregational Churches in Walnut Grove, Minnesota and De Smet, South Dakota. Her parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls, were also lifelong members of Congregational Churches.
I am a member and a Ruling Elder in a small Presbyterian denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). The OPC is a confessional church, holding to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as doctrinal statements that accurately explain what the Bible says on most questions of faith and life. I also see myself as an Evangelical, sharing characteristics with many other contemporary Christians who believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word, that Jesus Christ is God come to earth to die for the sins of His people, and that Christians’ responsibility in the world is to preach the gospel and lead a life in accordance with God’s word. As a result, I admit that it is difficult for me to understand the approach of most liberal, mainline Protestant churches, including the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A., the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ (UCC). Since 1957, the UCC is one of the successor denominations to the Congregational Church associations described in Bendroth’s book; the UCC is the subject of its last chapter. It seems to me that these churches downplay Biblical doctrines and historic confessions in order to pursue progressive social causes. I see them as rejecting the historic Christian faith. This means that it can be difficult for me to appreciate the decisions made by the leaders and members of those churches in the past, and it can be hard for me to understand the Christianity experienced by people in those churches today. Bendroth’s book is a help in this area.
The Last Puritans describes the leaders and members of American Congregational Churches during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as being extremely interested in their history. Congregationalists trace their roots to the Pilgrims and Puritans who migrated to New England during the early 1600s. However, the way that they remembered their Pilgrim ancestors changed over time. By the 1800s, they mainly remembered the independent, liberty-loving side of the Pilgrims, and their establishment of churches where local autonomy was fiercely defended. Nineteenth Century Congregationalists also told stories about the Pilgrims and Puritans that emphasized their toleration of other Christians. The result was that for many, their vision of their history led to downplaying of doctrinal distinctives, including the Calvinism that animated their Pilgrim and Puritan forebears. At the turn of the twentieth century, Congregationalists also began to historicize their ancestors, viewing them not as kindred spirits but as strikingly different. Twentieth century churchgoers emphasized the spirit of their forebears while rejecting many of their beliefs. This led them to support union with other churches and an embrace of the Social Gospel and Progressivism.
Bendroth concludes that while Congregationalists came to doubt many stories in the Bible were factually true, they decided to remain in the church anyway. “Protestant Liberalism is… about people who learned to live with ambiguities, who chose to believe without demanding certainties.” (194) She gives examples from both church leaders and ordinary church members who exemplify this willingness to let go of the factual nature of the Bible but remain in the church. This would not be the choice that I would make, but I think that I understand a little better why they made it.
Does this understanding of the history of Congregationalism contribute to a better understanding of Laura Ingalls Wilder? Perhaps. Perhaps Wilder’s upbringing in Congregational Churches shaped her understanding of what church should be. Assuming that a Methodist Church in the border south was more Evangelical than a Congregational Church in the upper Midwest, perhaps that is why she never joined the Methodist Church in Mansfield, Missouri, even though she attended there for over sixty years. There also may be some connections between Congregationalists’ memory of the Pilgrims’ love of liberty and Wilder’s devotion to liberty, as well as that of her father and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. I’m going to continue to ruminate on this as I start writing soon.
Thanks for reading.
(Quote is from The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015].)