Congregational Time Capsules

Elesha Coffman

A mismatch pervades much scholarship in American religious history. Whereas most Americans experience their religious tradition primarily at the level of the individual congregation, most of us who write about religious traditions derive our evidence from other sources: books and periodicals, denominational records, histories of institutions, biographies of leaders, and so forth. The scholarly focus makes sense--microhistory is time-consuming, congregations seldom have robust archives, and the story of one congregation might have limited explanatory power at a larger scale. (There are, of course, exceptions to this observation, such as Stephen R. Warner's New Wine in Old Wineskins.) Still, ever since a fellow grad student asked me, regarding my dissertation, "But how did this play out in individual churches?" I've wondered how to connect historical arguments to that granular level of evidence and experience.

Preparation for a recent lecture led me down a rabbit trail that might prove useful for other researchers, particularly those who work on mainline Protestantism. In 1950, The Christian Century published an article series on "Twelve Great Churches," as selected by a survey of its readers. The magazine sent reporters to visit these churches and write lengthy stories about them, which are now available in digital form to anyone with academic library access. In the early 1990s, Randall Balmer revisited these churches for the Century, and his articles became the 1996 book Grant Us Courage: Travels Along the Mainline of American Protestantism (the lesser-known follow-up to Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America).

I was unable to visit any of the churches, which stretch from West Hartford, CT, to Hollywood, CA, while steering well clear of Texas, but almost all of them had websites detailed enough to yield information on staffing, ministries, worship, structural relationship to a denomination, and a bit of congregational history. At several, I could get audio, video, and/or a transcript of recent sermons. This approach is certainly no replacement for ethnography, and I hope that the mainline and the Christian Century are around long enough for someone to do a full update in 2030. Nonetheless, my "armchair ethnography," informed by the earlier articles, grounded what I wanted to say about mainline preaching more than research only into published sermons or homiletical texts would have. A researcher, or students in a class, could presumably do the same thing with many of the places Balmer featured in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.

What other decades-old ethnographies or antiquated "best of" lists might be ripe for digital exploration?