Margaret Bendroth: Disorganized Religion

bendroth_last_PBWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Margaret Bendroth, author of The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past. Congregationalists, the oldest group of American Protestants, are the heirs of New England’s first founders. While they were key characters in the story of early American history, from Plymouth Rock and the founding of Harvard and Yale to the Revolutionary War, their luster and numbers have faded. But Margaret Bendroth’s critical history of Congregationalism over the past two centuries reveals how the denomination is essential for understanding mainline Protestantism in the making.

In today’s post, Bendroth traces the transformation of Protestant church denominations throughout U.S. history as they adopted and shed different organizational models. She suggests we may be witnessing a movement toward a new (old) model now. 


Nobody really likes organized religion. It all seems to have so little to do with actual faith—the endless acronyms of denominational programs and taglines, mind-bogglingly complex institutional reorganizations, and the blind impersonality of national synods and assemblies and conferences. It’s the cold wet blanket, the flat gray oatmeal that most people imagine when they say they are “spiritual but not religious.”

Organized religion just seems so unnecessary. Though American religiosity looks as varied and intense as ever, study after study has shown it drifting loose from the institutional structures that have defined the last two centuries of belief and practice. The story among Roman Catholics is the stuff of high drama, with church hierarchy caught in sex scandals and deep layers of financial intrigue. For the Protestant mainline, the opposite is true: if and when the end arrives it will be death by a thousand paper cuts. That much is obvious to anyone who has visited their denomination’s national headquarters and wondered what would happen if John Wesley or Martin Luther—or for that matter Jesus himself—popped out from one of the cubicles. My guess is that the bureaucracy would grind on without a hitch.

Protestant aversion to organized religion is everywhere, even on the sign on the front lawns of churches. Smart congregations are dropping the Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian label and replacing it with soft generic names like Willow Grove or Saddleback. They are becoming nonspecific “communities” and “fellowships” associating themselves with some broad spiritual aspiration, like “resurrection” or “hope” or “reconciliation.”

I can’t say I’d mourn the demise of denominational bureaucracies (and I don’t think Jesus would either), but I would deeply regret the loss of words like Presbyterian or Baptist or Methodist, proper nouns with layers of cultural meaning. Yes, they’ve merged into sameness over the years, and few outsiders, let alone most church members, can distinguish one from the other. Not all that far back, though, many people still knew what made a Congregationalist different from a Lutheran or a Baptist, and the distinctions carried meaning, a conviction that came home to me in writing The Last Puritans. Denominations were not just different ways of organizing church business. As I saw so clearly with my Congregationalists, each one also had its ethos, a distinct personality built up over years of worship services and church meetings, there if you knew how to look for it, in the subtle cues of architecture, the style of the minister’s suit, and even the kinds of food at potluck dinners.

The problems of organized religion have been two hundred years in the making, back to when the religious freedom clause in the Constitution cut churches loose from state support, ending an alliance between church and state first cemented by the Emperor Constantine, in the fading years of the Roman Empire. In the early-nineteenth-century United States, for the first time in western history, churchgoing was fully voluntary.

The old guard shuddered a bit, but most Americans recognized the opportunity for what it was, the chance to build a religious infrastructure from the ground up, one that reflected the hopes and needs of ordinary people. The organizations we now recognize as denominations played a mostly backseat role in all that activity, bringing order where they could. This was where the clergy did business, in regional gatherings where ministers handled disputes too big for local congregations to handle or certifying each other’s theological and moral soundness.

Everything else was outsourced, in an enormous “benevolent empire” of voluntary societies formed to raise money, recruit and support missionaries, train and equip Sunday school teachers, and publish and distribute tracts, Bibles, and hymnbooks by the millions. The sprawling infrastructure was notoriously inefficient but it was effective, enlisting thousands of laypeople—most of them women—in a grassroots effort that over time has made American religiosity so durable and pervasive.

All this changed after the Civil War. The late nineteenth century was the era of big things—big business, big political parties, and big cities—as well as mass immigration and poverty on a scale never imagined just decades before. In the Protestant world this meant streamlining the local work of voluntary societies into national, top-down organizations. Denominations became administrative bodies modeled after business corporations, absorbed in bureaucratic procedures and job descriptions, hiring and firing employees, and learning to disseminate the faith in an efficient, cost-effective manner.

But they kept the first model. In fact, what frustrates people today is the awkward amalgam that resulted, two different kinds of organizations with different ground rules and different purposes, pasted together into one. Twentieth-century denominations became expensive and self-perpetuating bureaucracies, and their various national synods and assemblies and conferences started to look more like stockholders meetings than anything else. My Congregationalists, who had based their entire identity on the independence of local churches, took this especially hard.

Where are we now? It looks like religion is disestablishing again as it did two hundred years ago, at least among the old mainline denominations where budgets and membership statistics are plummeting with no end in sight. And it may well be that American Protestantism is finally getting rid of a bulky institutional structure that harks back to the Gilded Age, and a set of values reflecting modern corporate culture more than the Sermon on the Mount.

Perhaps religion will follow the way paved by farmers markets and craft beer, small and nimble alternatives to Walmart and supermarket chains. Perhaps Protestant denominations will evolve back to their original purpose, protecting the peace, mediating disputes, and regaining the trust they have lost. Historic denominational distinctives that meant little in a corporate structure may well start to matter again. In fact, what looks like organizational failure might not be an inevitable trudge toward godless chaos, the sign of the end, but a quiet desecularization of American church life. Perhaps religion will end up where it has always seemed to thrive best, down at the grassroots, on an authentically human scale.

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. Her book, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past, is now available.