Take & Read: American religious history

The Last Puritans: Mainline Protes­tants and the Power of the Past, by Mar­garet Bendroth (University of North Carolina Press, 258 pp., $27.95 paperback). This smartly conceived, gracefully written work weaves four under-studied stories into one. The first is a fairly straightforward history of the Congre­gationalists (who later became part of the United Church of Christ), especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. The second forms a study of how religious practice primarily takes place not in denominational headquarters or in doctrinal wrangling by convention delegates but in the daily life of local congregations. The third constitutes a contribution to the relatively sparse academic literature on the growth of mainline denominations. The fourth is an imaginative exploration of how the memory of tradition—of Plymouth Rock, of First Church on the Village Green, and similar icons—has served as a perennial touchstone of self-definition, with both steadying and divisive results.


The Other Catholics: Remaking Amer­ica’s Largest Religion, by Julie Byrne (Columbia University Press, 432 pp., $29.95). Liberal independent Catholics not recognized by the Vatican number something like a million adherents scattered across thousands of meeting sites. They are united by commitments to apostolic succession, seven sacraments, and reverence for saints. But they also display a continually shifting array of unexpected em­phases, often—though not always—including women’s ordination, gay marriage, radical social justice, sacramental inclusiveness, liturgical innovation, and (Byrne quips) concerns about “how much woo-woo was too woo-woo.” Reviewers have called this book brilliant, landmark, vivid, captivating, and (my favorite) rock solid. Drawing on deep research in archives as well as surveys, interviews, and ten years of field research and participant observations, the book is as important for the self-reflexive methods it reveals as for the remarkable story it tells.