The Power of the Past at the Congregational Library & Archives

Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, MA is my final stop on this leg of my NERFC journey. The founders of Illinois College: John Ellis, Julian Sturtevant, Edward Beecher, Asa Turner, and others, were Congregational ministers and I am here asking the question: as they and other Congregational missionaries went West to establish churches and educational institutions, did they all promote female education or was that unique to Jacksonville? Answering this question will be more difficult than I anticipated, but there are plenty of clues.

wp-1458758990524.jpgYesterday, the library hosted an event for Margaret Bendroth, the Executive Director of the Congregational Library & Archives, to discuss her new book: The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015). She opened her talk by explaining how Congregational churches are governed at the local levels, making them more a product of geography than a set of governing policies within the denomination. Without a centralized, hierarchical leadership, Congregational ministers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries turned to history, or more specifically, their ties to the Pilgrims and Puritans, as cohesive force. This could be contentious as ministers debated how to move forward while honoring the past.

At the Boston Council of 1865, for example, 500 Congregationalists gathered to draft a statement of faith and adopt a standard polity for the church. But how much should they draw from the documents of earlier Puritans? The founds of Illinois College (who were at the meeting) thought it best not to glorify the past, but rather draw wisely from its lessons to address contemporary concerns. According to Bendroth, Asa Turner “warned that harping on ‘what our forefathers believed two hundred years ago… will not satisfy the people of the West.’ Outside of New England, the churches ‘want to know what living men now believe, what living men now preach and teach.'” Similarly, Sturtevant “warned against a ‘servile imitation of the fathers,’ insisting that the true pilgrim legacy was a spirit of adventure and openness to the new. In this way, the ancients would bring Congregationalism – and American Protestantism more generally – into the future” (52).

Following her talk, I chatted with Dr. Bendroth a bit about the American Athena project. After finding that we share a common admiration for Julian Sturtevant’s forthright demeanor, she explained that discerning the roles of women in the church can be tricky because each locality handled gendered issues differently. Congregational history, it seems, is best done at the grass roots.

The past few days, I’ve come to understand the broader view of Congregational attitudes toward female education by reading pamphlet after pamphlet on the topic. Ministers gave lectures at various women’s schools in the antebellum period, and they published tracts on women’s roles in the church. Between 1810 and 1860, all of the male-authored pamphlets had similar themes:

  • Christianity liberated women through education and divinely prescribed gender roles. Some ministers even dared to suggest that Christian men and women were “equal” in value, even if their roles differed.
  • Women in non-Christian nations were subject to “barbarism” and “slavery” (interestingly, none mentioned the fact that many women in the United States were, in fact, lawfully enslaved).
  • Women were destined for marriage and motherhood, but these roles required careful preparation to ensure they imparted religious, moral, and learned values to their children.
  • Women could raise a lot of money for the church. A lot.
  • None of the pamphlets suggested that women take on masculine roles. In fact, several made a point to remind the largely female audiences that they would never argue in court, make laws, take up medicine, etc.

So generally speaking, during the antebellum period Congregationalists viewed women as essential members of the church, but not as equals in preaching the Gospel or having any kind of public voice. How can we explain this approach? Dr. Bendroth pointed out that by the early nineteenth century, especially in the West, Congregationalists faced stiff competition with Methodists, Baptists, and other denominations for members (and funds). This was complicated by the fact that without a central governing body, Congregationalists relied upon loyal members in a local community to establish and maintain churches. Women were an essential part of that work and male ministers had to recognize that fact or face losing them (and their talents) to another denomination.

One pamphlet in particular brought Dr. Bendroth’s talk full circle back to my research. Rev. Theron Baldwin was a member of the Yale Band that founded Illinois College in 1829 and in 1837, he became the first principal of the Monticello Female Academy in Godfrey, Illinois. In 1855, he delivered an address recounting the founding of the school and his initial hesitancy to take on the task. In June 1834, he describes traveling to New York City to meet with Rev. A. Peters, the Secretary of the American Home Missionary Society; Rev. Edward Beecher, then president of Illinois College; Rev. Gideon Blackburn; John Tillson, Esq. of Illinois, and Benjamin Godfrey, the founder of the Seminary. It was there, he claimed, they devised a novel plan to establish the female seminary for the same reasons outlined in all the other pamphlets – training women for God’s work, etc. This shows us that important leaders in the church were thinking about women’s education and taking seriously the rhetoric laid out in the pamphlets.

Baldwin then evoked a sense of historical significance for his audience – just as Dr. Bendroth had described in her talk. It was not enough to simply educate women. Baldwin made his audience believe that they were pioneers in much larger, more significant movement. In 1837, he undertook a tour of Eastern schools, meeting with leaders including Catherine Beecher, Zilphia Grant, and Mary Lyon, in order to design the most innovative curriculum. But Monticello was different, he asserted, because it was in the middle of nowhere, free “from the bustle and temptations common to large towns.” Furthermore, he claimed: “No trammels were imposed by existing institutions in the same general region and which had fixed the standard of female education” (12)

Utilizing the rhetoric so often employed by white settlers at the time, Baldwin claimed that Monticello was the first female seminary of its kind “west of the Alleghenies… literally in the wilderness.” Construction of the school took place, even as skeptical locals and politicians predicted “that ‘within ten years it would become the founder’s barn'” (10). Baldwin continued in his address to emphasize fears that the backward, heathen, rural population would be outwardly hostile. “Their bitterest foes may dwell at their very doors,” he said, “and stand ready to lead on the ranks of opposition on every supposed favorable occasion. And this is especially true if the institutions hold steady to high and noble Christian ends” (11).

Let’s pause here. Let’s pause.

Theron Baldwin knew better. He lived in Jacksonville where the JFA was established in 1830, and even then they knew they were not the first. In 1833, his feisty wife Caroline Wilder Baldwin, became the secretary of the Ladies’ Association for the Education of Females, an organization dedicated to raising scholarship funds for women’s education across the state. In her 1834 report for the LAEF, Caroline Baldwin wrote that the “world is on the eve of some important revolution,” with the increasing interest female education as “the most encouraging sign of the times” (7). In short, Theron Baldwin was hardly a lone voice in a howling wilderness.

Yet his words and his recounting of the founding of the Monticello Female Seminary held power for an audience who needed to believe that, like the Pilgrims and Puritans, they had laid the foundations, even in the face of persecution, of a lasting movement to challenge and advance civilization. He didn’t mention Jacksonville or any of the other female seminaries in Illinois when recounting his tour because he needed the audience to believe that they, at Monticello, were the direct descendants of the great Eastern institutions. He adapted history to create cohesion among his students and alumnae, trustees and donors.

Had I not heard Dr.Bendroth’s talk yesterday, I would have found Baldwin’s address absolutely baffling, especially given his and his wife’s commitment to female education well before they took the helm at Monticello. Now, I’m wondering if Baldwin was simply evoking the larger Congregational strategy of adapting history for the sake of creating community. The very kind archivists at the Congregational Library and Archives were very apologetic for disrupting my research time to make way for Dr.Bendroth’s talk, but I told them that I was there to learn. And learn I did.

The staff at the Congregational Library & Archives have been incredible this week and have made for an excellent research experience. I thank them and will leave you with a few images of the amazing reading room where I was lucky enough to work. After this its back to Jacksonville for some R&R and a return to the Shared Shelf project.

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