The Boundary between Past and Present

This post is the third in a series on John McGreevy's Parish Boundaries, written on the occasion of the book's twentieth anniversary. Today's post comes from Chris Cantwell, an assistant professor of public history and religious studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. See all of the posts from this series here.

By Chris Cantwell

There’s an old joke about Southern Baptists my grandfather used to tell—a joke that in all likelihood could be told about any religious faith. “How many Southern Baptists does it take to change a lightbulb?” he would ask. And the answer, for those of you who don’t know, is six. One to call for the formation of a Light Bulb Modernization Committee; another to second the motion; three more to make a quorum; and one church member to stand up and yell “HOW DARE YOU CHANGE THAT LIGHTBULB! MY GREAT-GRANDDADDY INSTALLED THAT LIGHTBULB IN 1902 AND ALL THIS CHANGE IS A SIGN OF HOW FAR WE’VE FALLEN FROM THE FAITH!”

Cleveland's Italian Catholics Celebrate Columbus Day, 1938.
I was reminded of my grandfather’s sense of humor while re-reading Parish Boundaries for it speaks to what I have come to appreciate the most about McGreevy’s magnificent book. When I first encountered the text as a new graduate student in 2003, I initially read it as an exploration of the impact race and the urban landscape had upon the formation of religious communities. The “Great Migration” of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north, McGreevy argues, rent American Catholicism in two as clergy and laity alike split over the church’s response to their new neighbors. While some church members saw the tenets of Catholic social teaching as a mandate to join black Southerners in their search for justice, others saw the arrival of African Americans as a threat to the stability of parish rolls or property values.

Over the last decade, however, I have also come to appreciate the subtle—and perhaps not even fully intentional role—McGreevy ascribes to the Catholic historical imagination in shaping these fault lines. For as I read it, the Church’s divided response to the growing presence of African Americans in the decades after World War II was in part forged by particular understandings of parish life in the era before World War I. Catholic interracialists, for instance, often framed their support for ecclesiastical integration as a logical extension of the corporate unity of European parish life. The Catholic Church’s historic mandate to provide for all peoples within a parish meant that local priests should minister to parishioners regardless of race. Segregationists, by contrast, tended to emphasize the more parochial strands of local church history that reinforced ethnic identities in justifying the exclusion of black Catholics from “their” churches, schools, or hospitals. To make local churches a theatre in the struggle for civil rights was, to them, not only introduced new political causes into the life f the church but also gave it a new historical trajectory. As one Boston layperson that McGreevy quotes bitterly put it, why were nuns who “wore eighteenth century garb and followed nineteenth century rules suddenly vault[ing] themselves into the twentieth century” on matters of racial politics (144).

Sunday School Historical Pageant.
Recent research in the study of religion has born out McGreevy’s early insight into the importance of collective memory in the fashioning of religious community. A growing body of literature that is part of what I like to call “the commemorative turn” has uncovered how urban religious communities were not only established upon supposedly timeless theological ideals, but also around particular constructions of the more recent past. Laurie Maffly-Kipp's Setting Down the Sacred Past (2010) and Judith Weisenfeld’s eagerly anticipated A New World A-Coming (2017), for example, have shown how emancipation and urbanization became an opportunity for black southerners to recast the religious dimensions of African American history. Drawing upon the resources of urban America’s diverse religious marketplace, movements like the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, and Ethiopian Hebrew groups explicitly rejected the religious and racial categories embedded within Christianity in order to craft new historical narratives that cast African America not as “Negroes” but as God’s chosen people. (Indeed, one wonders to what degree this moment of religio-historiographical creativity facilitated the conversion of some black Protestants to Catholicism. For while African Americans regularly appear in McGreevy’s work as religious consumers, they are less often religious creators who fashion their own identity in new urban contexts.) Similarly, and more relatedly, Joe Seitz’s 2011 ethnography on parish closings in Boston notes how contest over urban church closures was often a contest over whose history counts as the Church’s in the distribution of ecclesiastical resources.

My own work on urban Protestants in the first decades of the twentieth century also bears out McGreevy’s attention to the important role memory plays in the shaping of religious communities. While historians often present the conflict between fundamentalists and modernists as a political or theological divide, I find that the division between these camps also arose from divergent collective memories about the small towns from which many urban Protestants originated. Social Gospelers, for instances, often cast their support for politically progressive social reforms as an industrial manifestation of the economic mutuality that supposedly governed the preindustrial, agricultural communities where many of them were raised. Fundamentalist, by contrast, tended to portray the towns and villages from which they came as sites of unmatched religious uniformity, where even the village atheist acceded to the moral authority of the church, which, in turn, informed their crusades against affronts to public morals like the saloon or bawdry entertainments. This appeal of the past to urban Protestants not only illuminates why so many fundamentalists first took up the moniker of “the old time religion” in describing their relatively new movement, but also helps explain why nostalgia continues to be such a potent political idiom within the evangelical community--ever always "Making America Great Again."

I'm not sure to what degree McGreevy intended Parish Boundaries to be a study of memory, but the recent spate of scholarship on religious understandings of the past suggests that McGreevy was prescient in his attention to his subjects' historical imaginations. Indeed, this ability to anticipate and contribute to future conversations is perhaps Parish Boundaries most admirable quality. Because like McGreevy more than twenty years ago, a growing number of historians are also now coming to understand that in order to write about how city dwellers engaged with their present, we must also take stock of how they understood the past.


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