In 1909, Geraldine Taylor of Medina, Ohio, told her fellow church members about a time when a leading businessman came to worship one Sunday morning and found his pew occupied by three ladies. The businessman opened the pew door, rapped his cane on the floor several times, and expected the women to depart. They remained. He shut the door, reversed course, and walked out, his children trailing behind him the entire time. When he reached the entryway, he turned around and proclaimed, “It is very well for people to keep their places.” One of the women in the man’s pew was none other than his own mother, and the businessman dutifully returned to Medina’s Congregational Church the next Sunday.

In The Last Puritans, Margaret Bendroth, executive director of the Congregationalist Library, recounts the history of American Congregationalism from the early 19th century through the 1957 merger that created the United Church of Christ. Observing the outpouring of attention that evangelicals have received from historians and pundits over the past several decades, Bendroth intends to rescue liberal Protes­tants from both scholarly ano­nymity and the disdain that almost inevitably accompanies numerical de­cline. “Mainline Protestants,” she writes, “are not simply failed evangelicals, traditionless and compromised, but people with a particular historical burden.”

Bendroth carefully reconstructs the varied and often contentious ways that many generations of Congregationalists wrestled with their Pilgrim ancestors’ theological and ecclesiological inheritance. Like Geraldine Taylor, many of them spent decades coming to churches tightly bound into the fabric of their communities. Some resisted new theological ideas, denominational initiatives, and ecumenical projects, while others embraced them. But for a long while, theological conservatives and their liberal counterparts coexisted rather peacefully. Many individuals simply continued coming back the next Sunday amid sometimes disorienting change.