Beacon Street Diary
Archives: March 2018
All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have questions for the staff, please send an email or leave a voicemail, and we will get back to you when we return to the office next week.
We hope you have a lovely Easter weekend.
image of Springtime (ca. 1860) by Charles Jacque, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
When I was ten, my personal hero was Patrick Henry. He was the Revolutionary War figure who demanded "liberty or death" — in retrospect, not a surprising choice for a bookish, secretly rebellious pre-adolescent. But by the time I reached college, I had switched to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the outspoken leader of the woman suffrage movement. I had discovered "women's history".
I shouldn't have had to choose one over the other, but that's the way history had been done for a long time. The stories revolved around wars and politics, and so in spite of an occasional Molly Pitcher or a Queen Elizabeth, the average textbook was pretty male-dominated. When changes came, they were incremental. In the new textbooks famous women appeared in text boxes, set off to one side, and probably not on the final exam.
Women's historians called this the "add women and stir" approach, a way of writing history not unlike adding chocolate chips to cookie dough. The cookies would certainly be edible without the chocolate chips and the chips don't turn the cookie into a ham roast. But the chocolate chips — and the women — are extra. They don't really alter the final product.
How much we miss! Lately one group of women has fascinated me, at least partly because I've found so much material about them in the Congregational Library. These women lived in the mid-twentieth century, after the suffrage amendment but well before the National Organization for Women and The Feminine Mystique. They lived out their faith in organizations like United Church Women, but also as deeply loyal Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists. These were women who enjoyed taking leadership, lobbying presidents and generals and atomic scientists — but who hated being called feminists.
In fact, they always preferred to go by their husbands' names. They were "Mrs. Harper Sibley", "Mrs. Samuel Cavert", "Mrs. Theodore Wedel", and "Mrs. Douglas Horton". Their husbands were prominent, accomplished men, but thee wives were incredibly competent on their own. Cynthia Wedel had a Ph.D. in psychology and was the first female president of the National Council of Churches. Mildred McAfee Horton was the president of Wellesley College and in World War II commander of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, the women's division of the Naval Reserve).
To me, these stories are every bit as much "hidden history" as are the church records we collect and digitize on our website. It's not hard, for example, to find Douglas Horton, the main architect of the merger that created the United Church of Christ, in our collection — but where is the intrepid Mildred Horton?
These are some of the stories we'll consider next week at the library, as we observe Women's History Month. You are all cordially invited to attend or watch live-streamed a talk I'll be giving on "Liberal Women in Conservative Times" at 4:00pm on Tuesday, April 3rd. Please RSVP on Eventbrite.
Since a snow emergency is still in effect for the city of Boston, our reading room will remain closed on Wednesday, March 14th.
All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have a question that requires staff attention, please send us an email or leave a voicemail, and we'll respond when we return to the office.
All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have a question you'd like to ask the staff, send an us email or leave a voicemail, and we'll get back to you when we return to the office on Wednesday, March 14th.
We hope all of our local friends are safe and warm.
photograph "Bokeh Snow tree branches in Massachusetts blizzard" by D Sharon Pruitt, via Wikimedia Commons
All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have a question you'd like to ask the staff, send us an email or leave a voicemail, and we'll get back to you when we return to the office.
Please check this blog or our Facebook page for updates regarding Friday's hours.
Stay warm and stay safe!
I haven’t made it a practice to comment on current events in our blog—we’re a library after all and have enough work to do seeing to the past without also taking on the present and the future.
But the recent death of Billy Graham has seemed an exception—and so you are welcome to keep reading, or if the subject is not your cup of tea, to move along and keep browsing our website.
Two years ago I was asked to write an “afterward” to a book of essays on Graham. (Billy Graham: American Pilgrim, was published by Oxford University Press in 2017 and edited by Andrew Finstuen Anne Blue Wills, and Grant Wacker.) My job was to try and answer the “what next” question: will there be another evangelist in Billy’s mold, and if so, who?
I worried a lot about that article. No historian wants to get caught prognosticating, after all, but even worse, I had read plenty of surveys that showed large numbers of people simply did not know who Billy Graham was. For many younger Americans he was a distant memory (or in some cases, a rock impresario).
Nevertheless, I dutifully ticked through all of the “next Billy Graham” candidates—family members, evangelical bigwigs like Rick Warren and Max Lucado, prosperity preachers like T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen. One thing seemed reasonably certain at the time, that if another Graham-like figure was to come on the scene, he (or she) would come from the “next Christendom,” where the majority of Christians now live, in Asia, Africa, or Latin America.
At the time, I had no idea of the biggest problem facing my prognosticatings. In 2016 many people were already declaring the demise of evangelicalism—in fact, many evangelicals themselves were admitting that they had lost the culture wars and would need to adjust to being, as one of them put it, the “away team rather than the home team.” But that was all before the election of 2016 and the dramatic role evangelicals would play in the election of Donald Trump.
Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I would write the article if I were given the assignment now. Two years ago I was skeptical of any radical changes in the offing—paradigms, I wrote, shift far less often than we think they do. Since then, we’ve become less sanguine. Many of my fellow historians of American religion have issued sharply critical denunciations of evangelicalism, some declaring its final demise, others wondering whether the category even made sense in the first place. Without a doubt the evangelicalism that Graham represented, the white, middle-class nexus of Wheaton College, Christianity Today, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is no longer with us. “Evangelicalism” today looks more and more like an unknowable hodgepodge of religious and political agendas, alarmingly responsive to social media and stubbornly resistant to criticism.
At the very least, if I were writing the article now, I’d add a caveat: this is not a time for crowning successors. Billy Graham came on the stage in the midst of an evangelical revival that arose in the shadow of the Cold War, an era in which hope overrode fear. Conservative evangelicals, many of whom had become convinced that the end of the world was near, chose a brighter future, an America that might after all become truly Christian. Most of us today would see that optimism as narrow and naïve, and might also rightly wonder about Graham’s message. Despite the flurry of post-mortems in the press and on social media, we are only beginning to understand his complex impact on American society.
I might also risk some more open editorializing. These are dauntingly different times from the era that crowned Billy Graham an evangelical leader. Now we can measure, as never before perhaps, the hopes and expectations that all of us, evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike, have quietly relinquished, how fear has become such a normal state of mind. I think that the “next Billy Graham,” if such a person does come along, will know this. His or her message may well be every bit as simple and “biblical” as Graham’s, but in a different way. It will, like the Bible itself, make the most sense to people living in hard times, facing an uncertain future.