Legacy of the Protestant Mainline Reconsidered -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

As Martin Marty packs up his bags to go to the "beach," he offers us ideas for reading.  It's not typical beach fare, but it will be of interest to those of us interested in the present and future of the church in which many of us serve . . .  The readings focus on the whole question of Protestant liberalism and the decline of the mainline.  Why, the question is asked, should we be surprised by the decline.  History shows that empires rise and fall, or at least decline.  Those groups regnant today will likely find their own day of decline.  And some empires even regain their footing!  Take a read -- it will be the last opportunity to read Martin Marty until September.


Legacy of the Protestant Mainline Reconsidered
by Martin E. Marty
Monday | July 29 2013
NOTE: Sightings will be on hiatus during the month of August and will return September 2, 2013.
During Sightings’ annual “August Hiatus,” I (figuratively) load up my beach bag with books and other reading materials. I provide some suggestions at the end of this column should you be doing the same. My recommendations are tied to last week’sSightings (July 22, 2013) in response to readers who are interested in more talk about the Protestant “Mainline” and “Decline.” For readers who want to come up to speed on the main issues, I recommend having a look at Jennifer Schuessler's July 24, 2013, New York Times article: “A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered.” I also covered one aspect of these issues in a recent Christian Centuryblog-post, which inspired last week’s Sightings.

The topic is well framed in books by David Hollinger and Elesha Coffman (see this column’s Reference section). Hollinger, whose writings are collected in After Cloven Tongues of Fire, has impressed me for years because of the assignment he gave himself and keeps addressing. “Cloven Tongues of Fire,” he reminds us, refers to the biblical story (Acts 2:1-11) of such tongues, and such fire, on the heads of the disciples of Jesus who gathered on Pentecost. In this story, seventeen languages are spoken and understood. They represent: a) diversity, and b) fire, as in “being fired up.” Hollinger uses this “myth” to describe the universalizing and motivating power of earlier American Protestantism. But he has been writing mainly about the issue he signaled with the first word of his collected writings' title: After. . . 

The work of many historians, sociologists, theologians, and religious leaders since World War II has been devoted to analyzing what happened “after” the height of the Protestant establishment, later known as “the Mainline.” All thoughtful historians who reach further back than a few years write about the decline of some dimension of human life that once had been established or mainline.

It puzzles historians to see any particular version of the mainline-then-decline pattern treated as a novelty. I used to ask students, when this subject came up: name an empire, an establishment, a mainline, that lasted. Zero. Egypt, Babylon, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, the European established churches, etc. etc. Their legacies include times of revival, renewal, reinvigoration, and often instances of decline. So what’s new?

What about the United States? Nine of thirteen colonies had “established churches” and a “mainline” religion at the birth of the nation. These did not disappear without a trace, though their statistics show shrinking (some want to exempt currently prospering versions of Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, but their historians and other scholars know better). What happened to New England Puritanism, the Awakenings, the Social Gospel, regnant Fundamentalism, the Revival of Popular Civic Religion in the Eisenhower era? Schuessler's New York Times article points to a remarkable legacy!

Let Hollinger spell out the details of this legacy. In effect he says to mainline mopers: “What are you griping about? You won!” He describes enduring achievements—invented, inspired, or significantly promoted by the Protestant establishment or Mainline—including much of the ethos of the United Nations, racial justice, and social programs that “saved” America after the 1930s and have some impact still. They were all opposed, and many still are, but they came to exist or thrive, thanks in no small measure to the “declined” movements that we observe adapting today.

Historian Hollinger is not a bit interested in writing promotional literature for American religious groups, but he is concerned about telling a more full story than we often get. He does not spend much energy on what the surviving bearers should do, or can do, without strong institutions and programs. But this work is for others to tackle, if they are not lost in moping or whining. Dealing with After is everyone's agenda.


Schuessler, Jennifer. “A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered.” The New York Times, July 23, 2013.

Marty, Martin. “Rough treatment.” The Christian Century (blog), July 17, 2013.

Coffman, Elesha. The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Buchanan, John. “Editor’s Desk.” The Christian Century, July 22, 2013. (Note: this article is only available to subscribers. To read Rev. Buchanan’s full editorial, please beg, borrow, or subscribe!).

Hollinger, David. After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Hartman, Andrew. “Hollinger on the Protestant Dialectic.” S-USIH: Society for U.S. Intellectual History, Aug. 2, 2011.

Dochuk, Darren. “Searching out the Sacred in U.S. Political History.” American Historical Association, May, 2011.

Schmidt, Leigh, and Sally Promey, eds. American Religious Liberalism. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012.

Hedstrom, Matthew. “A History of the Unaffiliated: How the ‘Spiritual Not Religious’ Gospel Has Spread.” Religion Dispatches, Oct. 24, 2012.

Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  


Email DivSightings@gmail.com


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