Margaret Bendroth is executive director of the American Congregational Association and director of the Congregational Library in Boston. The excerpt below comes from her new book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering.
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One chilly winter Sunday I walked up the steps of a small New England church, and into a set of questions I have been thinking about ever since.
Part of my job as director of the Congregational Library, an old Boston institution in the heart of Beacon Hill, is visiting local churches. In fact, a lot of my responsibilities are ceremonial: I give talks at anniversary services or sermons for “history Sunday,” and I have been guest of honor at more church suppers than I can recall, from Maine to Washington State. My task is to remind people that they are part of a much larger story, one that began with the New England Puritans and still continues today. And somehow, despite all the watery coffee and starchy church food, that part of my job never gets old.
These trips are always an adventure, especially for someone with a historian’s training and, I admit, instinct for prying. But this one was unusual from the start. Even by New England standards this particular church had a long past, with deep Puritan roots and a few famous pastors. In fact, one of them was already very familiar to me: he looks down from an oil portrait mounted high on the wall of our turn-of-the-century reading room — not very happily, I should add.
After a while I learned not to take this personally, and as a gesture of good will I came with a few anecdotes about him to share with the congregation. And so, as a group of us stood together in the narthex, I launched into a story about how the famous reverend would arrive at church on Sundays, stepping down from a large carriage, all dressed in black. He was a small man and made up for his deficiency in size with an intimidating presence. As the story goes, the congregation would part like the waters of the Red Sea as he marched down the aisle and up into his pulpit holding a very large black tricorne hat against his chest.
“Why, there it is right there!” one of the group broke in. I turned around and saw that very same hat, now much the worse for wear, sitting in a small Plexiglas box right below a large window. It was slowly baking to death in the sunlight.
Fortunately, my hosts interpreted my gasp of dismay as one of awe. One of them even offered to let me take it back to the Library, though I declined politely. Unless someone was interested in eighteenth-century millinery, the hat had relatively little to offer any of our researchers. I also added a few suggestions about better places for the display than under a window.
On my way home, I could not stop wondering what that poor old tricorne hat was doing in the entry hall of a Protestant church. I have visited enough Roman Catholic churches to be familiar with reliquaries, made to hold the sacred memorabilia of saints and church fathers, and I had been to plenty of museums that displayed everything imaginable from the colonial era, from clay pipes and pottery shards to underwear and old shoes. But something different seemed to be going on here, and the question would not go away: what did those Yankee Protestants see when they passed by that Plexiglas case every Sunday?
Probably to most of them it was just an odd curio, a silent reminder of a mercifully bygone past, when ministers aimed to intimidate their flocks rather than sip coffee with them in the fellowship hall. Others might have seen the tricorne hat as a kind of a totem, almost like a magic amulet offering protection against outside forces. A few would have seen it as a testimony to the perseverance of the old saints through difficult times.
I knew beyond a doubt, however, that the Plexiglas reliquary would have irritated the hat’s original owner no end. Like many Congregational ministers of his day, he was fiercely opposed to anything that smacked of ritual, including the keeping of relics. The old eighteenth-century meetinghouse he presided over would have been as stark and plain as the theology he thundered from his pulpit. And nothing would have horrified him more than to see his hat living on in a plastic case — long after his ardent Calvinism had fallen by the cultural wayside.
So why keep it? And for that matter, why hold onto anything old and no longer useful?
Certainly that tricorne hat survived because it was, in some way, wonderful. There is something awe-inspiring about an object that is indescribably and incredibly old. A three-hundred-year-old devotional book in my Rare Book Room is, on the one hand, just ancient paper and ink in an old binding in need of careful preservation. But it is also an object of mystery. Perhaps a minister pored over it by candlelight or a father read it aloud to his family, sitting around the fire after a long day of work in the fields. It might have belonged to someone who died in war or who was lost at sea. Sometimes the owners wrote their names across the title page, in careful and uneven script, and sometimes they underlined or commented on the text. But these clues only raise more questions about what moved those readers in the first place — not just to underline the text, but to buy the book itself.
We are not just talking about books, of course. That much becomes obvious with any trip through a church archive, where oddities stare down from every shelf. The Methodist library at Drew University, for example, is the memory receptacle for one of the most plainspoken and simple forms of American Protestantism, yet it boasts a collection of relics that would do the Vatican proud: a scrap of fabric from one of John Wesley’s clothes, a piece of velvet upholstery fabric from a chair he owned, and a wooden peg from a Methodist church where his fellow evangelist Francis Asbury once hung his coat. The collection even includes an oddly-shaped black object, said to be the tip of the thumb of eighteenth-century evangelist George Whitefield. My Congregationalists were a bit more prosaic in their collecting habits, but we certainly have our share of rocks (in our case from Plymouth), furniture sat upon by semi-famous people, and unidentified pieces of fabric and coins. I am certainly not immune to the lure of old things: the flotsam and jetsam in my office includes a two-hundred-year-old brick from the Park Street Church, a souvenir calendar featuring famous Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher, and many piles of old tracts, Sunday school buttons, and commemorative coins.
I suspect that in some mysterious and compelling way those old objects point us to the unseen. Even more, they form an emotional bridge to the now-invisible people who made them long ago. A brick from a demolished church building has the power to evoke feelings of sadness, joy, and regret. Even one of the old chairs in my library has the metaphorical power to raise the dead, at least in the memory and imagination, as I wonder about its original owner, Jonathan Edwards Jr., and what his world was like. We could say that in some sense they are holy — things that are special and set apart from ordinary use.
In this sense remembering is an act with spiritual meaning, pushing us against the unknown. True, it has all kinds of practical value, especially when we need to find the way home or come up with the name of the person standing in front of us. But there is another dimension. Thinking back through time can be like reaching into dark, murky water with no idea of what your hands will come across: a lovely shell or something with spines and venom. Remembering, like all matters spiritual, requires imagination, trust, and courage.
Click to order Margaret Bendroth’s The Spiritual Practice of Remembering.