American Congregations.
Edited by James P. Wind and James W. Lewis
University of Chicago Press
Volume 1: Portraits of Twelve Religious Communities , 736 pages, $34.95
Volume 2: Perspectives in the Study of Congregations , 288 pages, $22.50

These two volumes are the result of a project, housed from 1987-1991 at the University of Chicago, that brought together historians, sociologists, and theologians to understand the role of congregations in American history. The resulting conversation”documented here in twelve congregational histories and eight interpretive essays”will make a major contribution to how debates about American religion will be framed in the years ahead.

Brooks Holifield, in a historical overview in the second volume that should become a classic in American history, shows how the number of congregations and the number of members have grown enormously over our history, while the percentage of active participants in local religious life has probably remained rather constant. With 30 to 40 percent of the adult population regularly involved, congregations are the primary place beyond the family where Americans gain a sense of identity and belonging.

Among their many contributions, editors James Wind and James Lewis provide compact historical accounts of twelve very different congregations that represent the ever-growing diversity of the American religious scene. Fittingly, we start with Center Church in New Haven, a congregation that dates to 1638 and the Puritans, but that struggles to survive as a worshipping community today. Then we head south for a look at the Mt. Hebron (Southern Baptist) congregation established on the Alabama frontier in the early nineteenth century. Its rural evangelical ethos has survived to this day, although it is threatened by the encroaching Birmingham suburbs. In a similar time and place, Jewish settlers on the Ohio River frontier recognized their need for a place to worship and founded K. K. Bene Israel (later Rockdale Temple) in Cincinnati. It grew to be one of the leading congregations in the local community and in the national movement of Reform Judaism. A third early- nineteenth-century congregation, Bethel A.M.E. in Baltimore, reminds us that congregations provided arenas in which otherwise oppressed peoples could express their discontents and organize to overcome them.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, new elements were being added to the American religious scene, among the most dramatic the creation of a kingdom of Latter Day Saints in the Great Salt Lake Basin. One of the first wards to be established as Salt Lake City grew beyond its original borders was the Sugar House Ward, whose story is told here. Never anything other than typical, according to the authors of this account, Sugar House continues today as an extended family for its members and a precinct of the kingdom.

While Mormons were establishing their empire in the west, religion in the east was changing with the influx of European immigrants. St. Boniface Parish was established in 1864 in Chicago as home to new German Catholic arrivals. The Poles were not far behind, although St. Boniface long resisted their influence. But a century later, both Germans and Poles had given way to new Hispanic immigrants at St. Boniface. St. Peter’s in San Francisco was a half century behind St. Boniface in founding, but the transformations were similar. Beginning as an Irish church in an Irish parish enclave, it is today mostly Hispanic. Yet, St. Peter’s is different from St. Boniface. The latter has put most of its energies into religious and cultural preservation and transmission, while St. Peter’s has been an active political and economic organizing center.

If St. Peter’s represents the interests of the workers and immigrants, Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago, also founded at mid-century, has always been home to the owners and the natives. With Cyrus McCormick as one of its dominant early influences, the congregation has always attempted to combine the atmosphere of an elite club with massive programs of philanthropy and community outreach.

The final four congregations in this volume have shorter histories. The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, in Baltimore, was founded in 1906, and has only recently begun to face the problems of Americanized congregants. The Lebanese Muslims arriving in Lac La Biche in western Canada only began to gather for Friday prayers in the middle of this century. They have built a mosque, but their lives are still strongly shaped by the Lebanese villages from which they have come and the Arab and Muslim identities they seek to preserve. Most of the Hindus who worship at the Swaminarayan Temple in Glen Ellyn, north of Chicago, are part of the “new ethnic” immigration of the post-1965 era. Their temple”a former VFW hall”is the center for ritual activity, weekly communal meals, and a cycle of Hindu festival events that keeps them connected to the religious traditions of their native India.

The final congregation in this collection introduces us to immigrants of a different sort”the youthful dropouts of the sixties who eventually found their way into the Jesus movement and the “soft Pentecostalism” of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa. This mega-church, where twenty-five thousand people pass through the “campus” each week, has become the harbinger of evangelical adaptation for the future. Even with three hundred or so affiliated congregations throughout the nation and overseas, Calvary Chapel remains firmly congregational in polity, refusing to organize a denominational structure.

The underlying argument behind the project is difficult to discern. Implicit in the books is the contention that the congregation is the quintessentially American form of religious life and that congregations matter. They matter not only for the individuals in them, but also for the communities (and nation) in which they are located. Both of these contentions may seem commonplace, but they are not. Much of American religious history has been written as if there were no congregations”only movements, awakenings, great men, and theological fights. And when congregations have been noticed, they have been dismissed as irrelevant to public life, important only for whatever comfort they afford individuals, whatever compensatory opportunities they might provide for women, and whatever moral guidance they may provide in child-rearing.

Reading these historical accounts brings us again and again to the conclusion that congregations are far from “private” institutions (a point Martin Marty makes explicit in his essay in volume two). Many of them began as civic institutions, in times and places where religion and polity were not separate. But even in official separation, congregations provide the spaces (physical and otherwise) where public issues are debated, they form the character of those who take responsibility for public leadership, and they take on themselves the tasks of communal caring that must be borne by bodies bigger than the individual or family. They also represent the interests of people who have no other public voice.

On that point, these histories provide a valuable corrective to the larger stories we have told about American history. Religion is not as privatized or society as secular as we might believe if our perspective were only national. In other ways, these cases simply allow us to see the lived reality in the big trends. In paying attention to the particular, we catch glimpses of common patterns. It is not that the theological trends are not there or that women’s work and child-rearing are not prominent among the functions of these congregations. But by looking at particular stories, each of those larger trends is seen differently.

For instance, in a number of cases the social gospel trends of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are seen in expansion of congregational programs to serve the community. The “institutional church” form for congregational life even transcends Protestantism to find expression in a place like Rockdale Temple or the Sugar House ward. In that same era, women’s mission and reform societies of all sorts were thriving, and we see them intersecting with many of these congregations. Similarly, the presence of lay governing boards has been a fact of life for American congregations across traditions. While there may be higher ecclesial authorities limiting local power, priests, rabbis, and pastors of all sorts have to deal with the wishes of the members who form the voluntary corporation that is ultimately the congregation in the American system.

This voluntary, lay-led, congregational system of religion contrasts, of course, with the systems from which most Europeans came. In his essay in the second volume, Jay Dolan notes that American congregations (even Catholic ones) have developed this system out of the ideals of republicanism coupled with the pragmatic realities of inadequate numbers of priests. The result is what Stephen Warner calls in his essay “de facto congregationalism.” He points out that even when the native tradition”as with Muslims and Hindus”does not emphasize a gathering to which members belong, immigrants nevertheless organize congregations when they get to this country. And others, already used to congregations and parishes but located in connectional or hierarchical denominations, nevertheless organize themselves in this country into bodies that each assume they should have some say over their own existence.

As voluntary human communities, congregations are a peculiar mix of sacred and secular. There is never any doubt, in reading the twelve case histories, that religious identity and observance is at the heart of why these congregations exist. People gather together because the congregation helps to connect them with their god. Daily Hindu worship is carried on in the temple as well as at home. Friday prayers for a Muslim congregation involve careful attention to washing and kneeling as well as to the prescribed Arabic prayers. Greek Orthodox icons and Fourth Presbyterian’s stained glass remind worshippers of the larger story in which they are participating.

But equally important is the gathering itself. The congregation gives expression to its members’ sense of their place in the community. They build buildings and hire pastors that befit their assumed station in life-witness the carefully decorated parlors in many church buildings. They wish to speak their language and celebrate the festivals of their own home culture. They prepare the foods they like and arrange to eat them with people to whom they feel loyal.

In the telling of these particular stories, we see the extent to which the life of a congregation is tied to the life of the community in which it is located. When a freeway is built or a new wave of immigrants arrives, congregations cannot carry on unchanged. As one generation passes from the scene and a new one assumes leadership, new challenges of assimilation are confronted. How much of the old language will be used? How will the community be defined?

Likewise, we see in these very particular stories recurring themes that describe the cycles of life in a human community”the mythic struggles of the pioneer days, the inevitable tensions between oldtimers and newcomers, the difficulty clergy encounter in introducing radical change (and yet the indelible stamp clergy seem to leave), the identity crisis of a “leading” congregation that realizes it has been pushed to the periphery, the pain of schism that seems almost always to lead to growth in both resulting congregations, the vital work done by women in tending to congregational life. Combined with Warner’s excellent theoretical exposition, these portraits will give us sociologists plenty of data to enhance our understanding of the human religious gatherings found in congregations.

The fact that these gatherings are both human and religious is a subject reflected on by each of the theologians represented in the second volume. Langdon Gilkey calls for a new balance between the sort of “churchly” posture that allows congregations to be relevant to this world, along with the sort of “sectarian” posture that allows them to be prophetic, to draw on their connections with the holy to transcend the world as it has been given them. Dorothy Bass calls on congregations to recognize that they both bear a long tradition and constantly contribute to its adaptation. The work of religious education is the work of maintaining that dialogue. The dialectic they call for is further illuminated in Robert Franklin’s essay on the peculiar character of the Black Church”utterly rooted in the realities African Americans face, but always offering strategies of action and images of hope for transcending that world.

These theological reflections are an important addition to a conversation about congregations. Just as historians and sociologists formerly told the story of American history as if congregations did not exist, so theologians often spun out their ideas as if no living body of people were attempting to practice the faith. In giving us these case histories and a set of excellent interpretive essays, Wind and Lewis have reminded us that American religion must be understood in its particular, local, gathered, human forms. They remind us that congregations matter.

Nancy T. Ammerman recently joined the faculty of the Center for Social and Religious Research at Hartford Seminary. She is the author of Congregation and Community , forthcoming later this year from Rutgers University Press.

Articles by Nancy T. Ammerman

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