‘The Spiritual Practice of Remembering,’ with Margaret Bendroth [MIPodcast #112]
Margaret Bendroth has spent a good deal of her life trying to remember the past, and trying to help others remember, too. To Bendroth, memory is more than sentimental and history is more than a list of dates and names. Bendroth says remembering is a religious and spiritual practice. In this episode, she joins us to discuss her short but stunning book, The Spiritual Practice of Remembering.
Margaret Bendroth is executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts, and a historian of American religion. Her books include The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past, and Growing Up Protestant: Parents, Children and Mainline Churches.
Watch Dr. Bendroth’s Maxwell Institute Guest Lecture here.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
You’ve heard the saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” You might already believe history matters. But how much time have you spent really thinking about why it matters?
Margaret Bendroth has spent a good deal of her life trying to remember—and trying to help others remember the past. She is director of the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts, and a historian of American religion. In this episode, we’re talking about her short but stunning book, The Spiritual Practice of Remembering. If you like what you’re hearing, or if you have a question or comment about the Maxwell Institute Podcast, you can reach me at email@example.com. Thanks for listening.
BLAIR HODGES: Margaret Bendroth, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
MARGARET BENDROTH: Thank you.
HODGES: I’m told that your friends call you Peggy. May I do the same?
BENDROTH: I have always been called Peggy!
HODGES: Okay. Great. We’re talking today about a book that you wrote called The Spiritual Practice of Remembering. To give people a sense of your background, you’re director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston. I image as the director you’re prepared to give a little tour guide’s pitch for that institution. Let’s hear it.
BENDROTH: [laughs] Absolutely. Thank you. Someone said it’s a “shameless plug.” So but the Congregational Library and Archives was founded in 1853 and for Congregationalists it is kind of their memory bank; it’s their repository. So, for Congregationalists that’s four centuries or more of records that we maintain. And of course, these are not just New England. It’s all over the country, actually all over the world. Because Congregational—we have a lot of missionary records and so forth. So, it’s a really interesting, eclectic, odd, collection.
HODGES: What would you say the strangest thing in the collection is? Do you have any, just, bizarre–
BENDROTH: [laughter] Let’s see, we’ve found a machete back in stacks.
HODGES: Did it just fall out of a manila folder? That’s what I’m picturing. Like, in an archive—
BENDROTH: No, it was a little more threatening than that. The library was over time—and especially when I got there—it had kind of become a pastor’s library. And people apparently donated their personal libraries when they retired. So, we had a lot of information about real estate in Florida, information that you wouldn’t expect in a denominational archive. And all kinds of really odd—
I think one of my favorite—and some of this is a little bit of hearsay, but we had something about missionaries to Turkey that was catalogued under Thanksgiving! And my other favorite is that we had a book called I, Yahweh. It was a novel written—it was like God’s autobiography. But it was actually in the biography section. I guess under “Y.”
So you know, it’s a really quirky interesting place. But we have one of the few Indian Bibles translated in 1689 in Algonquin. So, you know, some really wonderful, amazing things that I keep discovering all the time.
HODGES: And in your book, The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, one of the things you say at the beginning is, “My task is to remind people that they’re part of a much larger story.” It sounds like you’re kind of a professional reminder.
BENDROTH: I try to be. I try to be, because I think it’s very easy particularly for people in churches who have so much daily business to take care of—so many pressing concerns, so many things going on in the world—to forget that they had ancestors. And that they owe everything to those ancestors.
And many of the churches we deal with are older than most American institutions—three hundred, almost four hundred years old, some of these. So, they have a lot of ancestors. But you just get caught up in, “What’s the sermon topic?” And “What did Mrs. McGillacuddy do?” And you forget that you’re part of the story. And part of a much larger story of Congregationalists and of Americans.
HODGES: And as part of telling that story, you actually travel around to these churches in New England. At one of these, you were telling the story of a famous reverend from so long ago. This stern, intimidating man dressed all in black, and you describe him walking down the aisle holding a large tri-corn hat, and then somebody in the group says, “Oh hey, there it is!” And the very hat was sitting over there!
BENDROTH: Yeah, I mean people may not remember the story, but they keep the darndest things. And at this particular church, that frightening reverend in question, his portrait is in the reading room in the library. So I see it every day. And he’s not the kind to suffer fools gladly. He was very well-known. We have a lot of his books in the library, too. And he was a little guy. And these people had somehow kept the tri-corn hat and put it in a plexiglass box, and it was sitting there right underneath the window. So, it was, as I said in the book, “baking to death.” And it was lovely! It was kind of cool that they had it, but what particular meaning or purpose did that have? They asked me if I wanted to take it back to the library. I’m like, “We’re not a history of haberdashery. We don’t need hats!”
HODGES: I was hoping you’d drop the word “haberdashery” when this question was coming. But you start your book out with that anecdote. What did that symbolize in terms of how your book begins?
BENDROTH: It was just, to me, a lot of what I began to realize as I was working at the library thinking about this, encountering people, is that we’re of two minds about the past. It’s kind of a cliché that Americans are amnesiacs—we’re all about “new and improved.” We forget the past. We’re always moving on to the next. We’re kind of a history-less culture. Especially compared to a lot of the world, especially Europe, I suppose we are.
But on the other hand, you see these people keeping this hat. They got a box to put the hat in. They look at it every day. So, there’s something that—It’s almost kind of, in many cases you can say people are obsessed with the past. That we have the history channel; we have theme parks; we have re-enactors; we have people who just want to know everything about the past.
And on the one hand, we don’t value it. On the other hand, we’re just terrified of losing it. So, to me that means we’re just confused. We don’t know what to do with it. So, we keep things, because somehow they might have a meaning that will become clear to us.
HODGES: You ask, “Why hold on to anything?” As I was reading this book, I was thinking about this Netflix series with Marie Condo. Have you heard about this?
BENDROTH: [laughs] Well, my daughter has watched it.
HODGES: Yeah, yeah. Kondo is basically asking people to declutter their lives. So, just get rid of things that “don’t spark joy.” And so, how do you react to that? Just get rid of stuff! Because you talk about tension exists between wanting to hold on to stuff but also maybe disregarding stuff.
BENDROTH: Me personally, I would live in a cardboard box very happily. I don’t like a lot of stuff, but the rest of my family does, so there I am. But I also work in a historical repository and I’m horrified, and as a historian, I’ve worked with collections that people rescued from the trash.
So, a lot of things that might be considered “useless trash” today, to a future generation of researchers or scholars or human beings would be pricelessly important and informative. You never quite know. I have piles of journals that I’ve kept since I was in high school. Part of me thinks, “Oh, well maybe a future generation will put these in an archive or–” And then I’m like, “Oh horrors! I need to burn them.” [laughs]
HODGES: Don’t read the stuff!
BENDROTH: Yes, absolutely.
HODGES: There’s an informational aspect to old artifacts. They can tell us stuff about the past. But you also talk about a spiritual dimension to these things. A sort of awe, a mystery. Talk about that.
BEDROTH: Yeah. We take confirmation classes. Youth groups, they come visit the library and sometimes if they’re attentive I’ve taken them up to our rare book room and I have pulled out a book and showed it to them. Like, we have a copy of a Geneva Bible—this is what the pilgrims read in the late 1500s, these were published in England. In this particular Geneva Bible, there’s an inscription on it—handwriting—that says this was owned by a sailor who fought with Admiral Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar or it was one of these other battles. This Bible went through that!
And with a lot of these other rare books, you think of the countless hands that have held them. People who found meaning in these pages. Lives were changed, or they became angry or enlightened.
These books are just objects, and like most sacred objects, they look like just an object. But there’s a world of meaning, especially with something that’s very old. And every once in a while, I’ll take a high school student group up there—and some of these are just kind of staring around or waiting for me to stop talking—but every once in a while, there is a kid that just, you can see their sense of awe. Which is—
HODGES: The object becomes a time machine.
BENDROTH: It’s like, this is in some ways a holy object. And it’s a time machine.
HODGES: And what makes it holy? Why that word? That’s what I’m really curious about. Like, is the holiness the human connection and the sense of—Because it makes you feel small but also connected at the same time?
BENDROTH: Yeah, that’s what holy things do, don’t they? I mean, they connect you to something larger than yourself. And they connect you to other people. As I thought about it, in a way, you just have a sense of this multitude of people over time standing around this book. I mean, I have a vivid imagination sometimes, and it’s not like the book has any power to heal the sick or something. But it gives you a sense of the invisible beyond us that we can’t see, that is affecting us.
HODGES: And that invisible beyond us, we don’t live often—I don’t live often—with that, right, in mind. I’m in the present moment—I try to be—or, I’m looking toward the future.
Your first chapter in the book is called “Stranded in the Present.” It invites people to wake up to a memory problem. On the one hand, you say people can be very dismissive about the past, like it’s old news. But on the other hand, we’re also in a culture that’s obsessed with memory keeping. There are museums for wars and art and science, and there are also museums for Tupperware and baseball cards. So you say we seem eager to forget and move on to the next thing, but also kind of terrified of losing the past or at least nostalgically drawn to it. What do you make of those extremes that we wrestle with?
BENDROTH: I mean, to me, that means paralysis. It’s like the people who are hoarders you see on these television shows. They’re obsessively keeping stuff in the event that something might be important. They just don’t know. And so, in some ways, it discourages people from really wanting to engage with the past as adults.
I see a lot of churches, especially in New England, where this is the way they did it and they’ve always done it. They’re old Yankees and it’s not going to change— we could never change the communion silver or the order or worship or the picture in the bulletin because—and you think, “because why?” You think your ancestors would be angry at you?
I mean, there is this sense that we’ll offend them if we put our archives in a library instead of keeping them in the church basement. And I think, you’re living in this abstract fear of what they might think about you, when I think they’d be overjoyed if you put their records in an archive so they could be saved.
HODGES: And part of the anxiety, you suggest in this chapter, is because we think of ourselves as modern. And I think the irony is that modernity—I hadn’t really thought much about that concept. But reading this book points out that this is an idea that goes back to fifth century Rome, right? They became modern. What did that mean to them back then?
BENDROTH: It’s the idea that there is a such a thing as a clean slate, that you can start new, that you can, in some ways, free yourself from what is old. And that’s really the essence of the world that we live in—especially we as Americans think, we literally believe that we started human history over with this country. And you never really do.
HODGES: And you see the rise of individualism in the United States. Self-expression today carries a weight that it didn’t before. But you also say in some ways, we’re kind of less free than we were in the past.
BENDROTH: Yes. And so, I see modernity as two ways. That in some ways, it’s all about self-expression. That I am free of tradition and I can decide what I want to do with my life. But yet we live in a world that is governed by huge institutions, huge structures, advertising, all kinds of rules that our ancestors could not have even begun to fathom. And my favorite metaphor for this is the amusement park. And my apologies to anyone out there who loves Disneyland.
HODGES: I do, I do! I do love Disneyland. This part was a struggle for me to read this, but please, go on. [laughs]
BENDROTH: I know, my editor wanted me to take it out!
There was a wonderful book I used to assign to students. It was called Amusing the Million, and it showed pictures of people at Coney Island in the late nineteenth century. And you would go to Coney Island to the beach and you would frolic and you would play. And every day you would do something different and everybody there was enjoying the beach in a different way.
And then they built the amusement park at Coney Island. Well, everybody experiences a roller coaster the exact same way. You’re going at the same speed, you’re having the same experience, the same thrill, and it can be repeated over and over and over. It’s maybe a lot more fun in some ways than just frolicking on a beach. It’s pretty exciting. But it’s predetermined for you. And so, you’re not as free as you think you really are.
HODGES: Another thing you mention in this chapter is that we’ve become stranded in the present tense because of the way we even think about time, and that our thought about time has changed—you draw a distinction between secular and liturgical times.
BENDROTH: Yes. And this is what really interested me. Just doing a little bit of exploring as I was working on this project and another project about how we conceive of time. And even the metaphors we use. We certainly think of time as a commodity—you can use it up; you can waste it; you can save it. Just like money.
But we also have this idea that time a line and it started at one point and you’re always moving forward, or probably modern people would say upward, on the line. And so, anything that happened before us is “back there” or behind us. I mean, it’s really interesting when you realize how much these kind of mental pictures and mental images of time determine the way we act and think about people in the past. And somehow, it was darker then or you know, they weren’t as close to the light as we were. They didn’t know as much. That we have ascended the ladder and we know more.
The idea of liturgical time—it’s kind of a complex idea. But historians will point out that this is how, particularly in the Middle Ages, before “modernity” set in, you see these Renaissance or Medieval paintings of the nativity. And there is a guy or a woman in fifteenth or sixteenth century dress, just standing there kind of casually observing the manger. What in the world?
HODGES: Yeah, they didn’t wear that back then? [laughs]
BENDROTH: We have a strong sense of anachronism. That these two things cannot be with each other. But when you think of say, the Christian sacrament of holy communion or the Jewish Seder or any kind of liturgical cycle, you’re doing the same thing over and over and over and over. You are reenacting and when you are in that moment, you are kind of in the same moment as everyone else who has ever enacted that ritual.
HODGES: Time kind of collapses in that moment?
BENDROTH: Time collapses, yeah.
HODGES: And it gives you a different outlook on life, right? It slows things down. Because time, especially right now, seems to just be moving, moving, moving. And we’ve got the next appointment, and we’ve got our calendar that we’re following and all of this. But these liturgical cycles seem to pause time.
BENDROTH: They should. One of my favorite writers, the mystic Evelyn Underhill calls it the “leisure of eternity.” I love that phrase. We are creatures of eternity. And so that’s outside of time. So, there’s a part of us that maybe, in this mortal coil, touch that a little bit.
HODGES: Okay, so when we’re thinking about the past, there’s a thinker and writer—John Hodgman—who’s talked about nostalgia as possibly being a toxic impulse. He thinks of nostalgia as a false representation of the past. And that people can use thinking about history in a way that takes us out of the present or judges the present. What do you think of nostalgia as possibly being toxic that way? How would you respond to that?
BENDROTH: Yeah, I mean, I’m a little bit torn about that.
HODGES: It’s different from memory. Nostalgia is different from memory.
BENDROTH: It can be very sentimentalized and, “Oh, I want to dress like a civil war re-enactor and enter that world.” I think the root for the word for nostalgia is “homesickness.”
BENDROTH: And so, I wouldn’t disparage that. We have every right to feel homesick for certain aspects of the past. And to me, people in my tradition, in the Congregational church, Lord help them—they love to dress up like pilgrims. I don’t think Lutherans dress up like Martin Luther!
HODGES: Ah, see, Latter-day Saints do this, dressing up like, pioneers. So, we don’t go as far back in time as Congregationalists, but we do the same sort of re-enactments.
BENDROTH: Well, there you go. And you know, everybody wants the hats with the buckles, and they dress up for certain Sundays.
HODGES: [laughs] Did hats really have buckles? Or is that something elementary school teachers came up with? Were there cornucopias that had fruit in them? I don’t know.
BENDROTH: [laughter] Yeah, but you know, there’s a part of you that just says, “Well, okay maybe the hat didn’t have buckles.” It can trivialize these people as if they’re cartoon characters that we can become.
HODGES: Perhaps it’s this, that nostalgia can miss the nuance of the past, which is probably what John Hodgman would say is—when we use the past as a tool to kind of do whatever we want today.
BENDROTH: Yes. I’m more offended when people use the past for advertising. Like—
HODGES: Abraham Lincoln selling Lincolns.
BENDROTH: President’s Day weekend is always a hardship for me because they’re hocking cars, you know what I mean? It’s like, what culture does that do its ancestors? It’s ridiculous! [laughter] But me and Disneyworld and President’s Day—
HODGES: We’re talking today with Peggy Bendroth. She’s executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, Massachusetts.
Peggy, in your chapter “Past Imperfect” you introduce us to some long-forgotten novels written around the turn of the twentieth century where the protagonist is usually a religious leader who loses faith as they look back on history. Learning about history causes a faith crisis for them. Not in the sense that they look back and see misbehavior or see things that challenge what they believe, but that simply seeing any change over time caused a problem for them. Why do you think these popular novels show history as an enemy to religious faith?
BENDROTH: I find it really startling because the whole turn of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century was a time when people used the term “spiritual crisis” when people were having—you know, maybe the Bible was not true or all this kind of challenge to religion at this time. I was really surprised to be re-reading these books and realizing it wasn’t theology or whether Jesus was real or actually had lived. It was just understanding the vastness of the past and how different it was.
One of my favorite books is called The Damnation of Theron Ware. He is a Methodist minister. He decides that he needs to earn a little pocket change—he’s going to write a book about Abraham. And he’s going to sell it in the Methodist Book Concern. And his wife will be happy. He begins to do some research and—very unsettling—and then he kind of falls in with these sophisticates who unsettle him even more.
But what really bothered him, and it’s kind of hard to grasp this, it’s that he realized that Abraham was a Chaldean. And I think by that, he previously had this sense that Abraham was kind of like his jolly old uncle or his grandfather or somebody, that if he ever met Abraham he’d says, “Oh, hi Theron.”
BENDROTH: They’re best friends.
HODGES: He could show up at church with him and put his arm around him.
BENDROTH: “We totally understand each other, and our worlds overlap, and we all believe and think the same.” Chaldean is a kind of foreign, scary, unknown, threatening world that this biblical figure came from. And it all, kind of, is crashing down for him because of that.
HODGES: The past became too foreign for this character and for other characters like him. And you say becoming more aware of this history, people see humans shaping the world and they see religious development, and rather than seeing that as an ongoing negotiation between humans and God they see that as erasing God from the picture entirely.
BENDROTH: Exactly, yes. And this is, you know we call it “historicism,” that everything we see in the world today, every bit of change or technology, it was all a process of history. It all happened over time. There was nothing miraculous about it. It was just one change upon another upon another upon another that human beings instituted that created the world.
In a lot of ways, yeah, I mean, things don’t appear by magic. But I think it’s a deeply secular way of understanding where we are now. As you say, there’s no magic or mystery or higher meaning to anything.
HODGES: The strangeness is also how you point out that secularism didn’t just exist on the part of people who didn’t believe in God and were doing biblical history to discredit the Bible or believing that it discredited the Bible. But also apologists who came forth to defend the Bible—they were arguing on the same secular grounds.
BENDROTH: Yes, I think that people really, especially a hundred years ago or more, even still, struggle to—I mean, the Bible is a book of stories about people in the past. And that means that they lived in worlds that we will never completely understand. And that you can’t simply appropriate them for your own life lessons. That there’s something about them you have to let—
I’m not explaining this very well. But you know, we do have to realize that the Bible is, to my mind, a product of history. It was written by people who lived in a particular time and space and saw the world in that particular time and space, and I need to respect that. It doesn’t mean that I distrust it. I think, in some ways, it’s all the more meaningful, because it still has meaning and value hundreds and thousands of years later.
HODGES: So, as a historian yourself, did you ever have to wrestle with something like Theron Ware did? Where you encountered things that were corrosive to your faith?
BENDROTH: Oh, absolutely. One of the reasons why I probably wrote this book because I think that—especially studying religious history as I chose to do—but history in general, it can be very frightening and demoralizing.
I remember teaching a class in church history. I taught in this small urban seminary in Boston and my students were not from academic backgrounds—they were working pastors and many from poor neighborhoods. You know, I was just kind of going through the whole early history of the church, blah, blah, blah, as I had learned it. And a student came up after class crying—crying!—because of all the hardship and death and destruction and wrongness and terrible things that people had done to each other. And you really have to come to terms with the fact that wrong was done.
There are no perfect institutions. And people that you admire—I mean, many of us have to deal with this all the time—people that you admire and who lived good lives were still compromised, and that just terrible, unimaginable things happened, and they get excused. I still wrestle with that and I think we all should. It makes me more humble than ever about any pronouncements I make or any surety I have about my own righteousness.
HODGES: There’s a moment in this chapter where you stack two experiences next to each other. There’s Easter in Seville, Spain and then the death of a friend. And you put these stories in the context of witnesses. I wanted you to unpack that or explain it a little bit.
BENDROTH: I was in Seville for holy week—Santa Semana. And in Seville in holy week, it is about as odd for a Dutch Calvinist like myself as anything can possibly be. But they have regular parades through the streets. They do this in many Latino countries, with Jesus and different episodes of the passion week. And people are crying, they’re throwing flowers, there’s loud music and it’s very odd.
But I remember standing very early on Easter morning in Seville, waiting for the procession to begin with all kinds of people that I would never identify with. And people—to me as an American, they look like jaded Europeans—smoking and laughing. You don’t do this when in any kind of a religious setting. And then when the procession came, there was this hushed respect. They knew that something really awe-inspiring and special was happening and they regarded that. It’s this experience of waiting for Jesus with all these people that was a mystery to me.
The other experience was that a friend of mine died very tragically and I ended up in the emergency room at the time and I met people from other parts of her life. Other friends who had known—I had known her as a fellow scholar, but friends who had rock climbed with her and traveled with her. I mean, she was just this amazing person. And I knew her, as I kind of saw Jesus in a new way in Spain, that I could not have imagined just on my own.
All of the sudden, I knew her better after she died than I had known her in life, because I was made aware there is a bigger story to this. That there is more to this. That I did not have the corner on all the information and all of the knowledge.
HODGES: I liked how you tied that into the idea of history, because as people look at the history of different religions—or even their own religion—they will come to see people worshiping or viewing Jesus, for example, in different ways over time. And rather than being unsettled by that, you kind of compared it to your friend who died, saying that you met all these other people that saw her in all these different ways and that could actually enrich your knowledge of her.
BENDROTH: It was more true than ever. It was more true than ever. I certainly didn’t need to see Jesus. I had never thought of Jesus leading and nailed to the cross and all this other kind of very deeply Catholic piety that I found oddly moving, but would never have occurred to me to think about Jesus that way. But now, I have a sense of the sufferings of Christ that my nice, clean, Dutch Calvinist church kind of glossed over.
HODGES: So, we can find inspiration from the past. It’s not just dealing with the difficulties and the unexpected things that trouble faith, but also the past can be very inspirational and insightful and engaging and beautiful. With all of that in mind, how do we prevent our faith or our view of history from becoming just muddy everything-ism. Can we judge the past?
BENDROTH: There is a sense, especially when you start studying history—And I remember my first major research project in graduate school was on slavery in the Bible. So, I was reading pro-slavery arguments that we’re using in the Bible.
HODGES: Like, the mark of Cain or the…?
BENDROTH: Oh, you name it. I mean, it was all a revelation to me.
HODGES: –Slaves should obey their masters.
BENDROTH: It was like, “Oh my goodness!” You really can find these things.
BENDROTH: And so—
HODGES: And you hadn’t really encountered that until then?
BENDROTH: No! And you wanna say, “Well, all around them they saw slaves and they grew up in a slave culture so they would have not questioned this.” But then you think, “Really?”
HODGES: They’re still human.
BENDROTH: Maybe they should have!
HODGES: Yeah, why didn’t they?
BENDROTH: You wanna say, “Well, it’s a different time, a different culture, they had different standards. Who are we to judge?” But yet, on the other hand, absolutely. We have moral clarity about slavery that they did not have. And we’ve seen the full cost of it hundreds of years later. I’m sure our own descendants are going to have moral clarity about things that we do not see right now. We should just get ready for that.
HODGES: You talked about your husband who’s a congregational pastor coming to you and asking for historical examples for his Sunday sermons. Like, he’s looking to inspire people and to make these devotional points. And so, you say, “Oh yeah, there’s this story.” But then you say that you would stack it so full of qualifications that he would be like, “Oh, okay wait—”
BENDROTH: “Go away—” Yeah! [laughter]
HODGES: So, what about the spiritual significance of the past? How do we do that without leaving out—because I’m not criticizing the qualifications, right? I think those matter. But also, at the same time, I’m also sympathetic to your husband who is saying, “I’m just trying to inspire somebody.”
BENDROTH: Yeah, I mean, I think you think of the past the way that you do the present. I mean, I don’t think there’s a person alive that would be one hundred percent inspirational. I mean, we’re all kind of a mixed bag. And the past is a mixed bag. But we have to come to the past like grown-ups. Where you can find inspiration, you can find inspiration. You fully recognize that it’s as morally complex back then as the times are now.
And so, Congregationalists are all gearing up for the 400th anniversary of the pilgrims arriving next year . As I tell people, it’s Christmas and New Years and Halloween and the Fourth of July all rolled up into one! Four hundred years of this tradition. Well, I think everyone knows that not everyone is cheering that event. If you’re Native American, it’s a day of mourning, Thanksgiving is. And so, what do we say at the Congregational Library about this historical event?
Many people love the pilgrims. They’re Mayflower decedents, it’s fabulous. I don’t want to take away from that either. I’m not there to shake a finger at people. But what we say is that we’re historically responsible. And that we want to make sure people know the story—all of the story—and then say, “How does that inform me? How does that caution me? How does that teach me? How does that make my world larger?”
I just think of history as kind of an armchair travel, cause people who travel and live in foreign countries, they’re different. They’re transformed. They’re de-centered. They realize, “My way is not the only right way.” For those of us who don’t travel extensively, try history. Because you’re really trying to understand a world with a different point of view—sometimes very different, sometimes just slightly different. And it really can help you identify things about your own ways of thinking, the judgments that you make, that you would’ve taken for granted otherwise.
HODGES: This reminds me of a moment in the Book of Mormon where, it’s this record of history, and it’s directed to future readers—preaching, really. It’s preaching. There comes this moment where one of the prophetic writers in the book stops and says, “As you’re reading this, you’re going to see problems. You’re going to see us really make mistakes. And rather than condemning us for that, be thankful to God for being able to see our mistakes. Be wiser than we were.” So, they occupy this double space of preaching to the future, but also almost asking for forgiveness and saying, “Be better than what we were.”
BENDROTH: Well, we should all adopt that.
HODGES: I think plenty of people can remember, Peggy, a history class in high school or junior high that wasn’t very inspiring. Maybe they had a teacher that was just listing chronology and you had to memorize dates and stuff. But you say that’s probably not why a lot of people today aren’t interested in history. Instead, one of the things you suggest is that it’s hard to be engaged with history because history brings a sense of moral obligation. What did you have in mind by that?
BENDROTH: I actually looked up the word “remember,” I used a concordance to see how many times in the Bible the word “remember” is used. I did a little bit of fiddling around and figuring out. So when the Bible uses the word “remember.” When Christ says, “Remember and believe.” Or whatever. We remember Christ. It’s not just as you said, nostalgia—“Oh, so great,” you know, “if I could only live in the first century.” That’s not what it means.
Memory or remembering in the Bible, you know, you think of all the instances in the Hebrew scriptures—it’s putting yourself in solidarity with all the others that you cannot see. That it’s not just a neck-up exercise. It’s re-upping your commitment. Every time you remember and believe, you’re saying, “Yes, and this is how I’m going to live.” The way the word is used in the Bible—there’s no difference between remembering in your brain and your moral commitments, as you said. It’s an act of solidarity.
HODGES: You also talk about how America as a country embraces its history. We want to think about the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, the New Deal. We have all these stories. But at the same time, you say America has a sort of history-lessness. That’s going to sound surprising to some people. I think that’s probably connected to that moral obligation idea.
We just recently celebrated Columbus Day. Some people call it “Indigenous People’s day.” So, there’s this battle going on. People want to recognize history, but what part of it do you want to look at?
BENDROTH: Yes, oh of course. And you know, I live in Boston and so you stumble over history. You walk on it, literally walk on it every day. And you come up against some pretty horrible, ugly things, including slavery. And Peter Faneuil, who donated the money for Faneuil Hall, the Greek tourist destination, it was an old market in the eighteenth century—Well, lo and behold, he owned slaves. So, do we take his name off of Faneuil Hall to punish him or not allow him to have that? I mean, these are the conversations that we’re having over and over and over.
HODGES: Right. Not to put a slave-holders name in front of the people.
BENDROTH: Yeah. And so you get the sense that, yeah you don’t want to be uplifting someone who got rich by the enforced labor of others. By no means. But erasing that, is that really going to solve the problem?
HODGES: I mean this is connected to like, the war monuments that were created long after the Civil War. And you look at why they were created—
BENDROTH: —for nefarious purposes.
HODGES: Yeah, yeah. And so, there are competing ideas about, “Should we just get rid of them altogether? Should we put them in a museum? Should we build monuments alongside them and give contextualization?” There are different options in different—
BENDROTH: And I’m so glad that we’re having that conversation. It’s high time.
HODGES: I hope it continues. So, you compare a group of people you call “traditionalists” to “anti-traditionalists.” And traditionalists, you say, believe the past has set up all the rules. It’s our job to follow them. We have tradition. Our elders were wise. We will follow in their footsteps.
Anti-traditionalists are the opposite of that. They want to throw off the shackles of “arbitrary obligation—”is the wonderful quote you use—they want to experiment. They want to come up with something new.
Where do you find yourself on that sliding scale? Because I get the sense that you wouldn’t fall on either side of that.
BENDROTH: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny because I think in a lot of ways, because I’m a historian, I would side with the traditionalists and say old things have value, and they’re there for a reason, and we need to respect them.
But you know, to be very honest, I’m an American and I deeply resent someone making judgments about what I should do or be or say or look like without my say-so. But at least I recognize that those two competing values are always going at work in my life.
HODGES: And you talked about slavery in the Bible for example. I mean, people made traditionalist arguments for that and that’s something you don’t like.
HODGES: As a sort of traditionalist with a twist, how do you wrap your head around that?
BENDROTH: Well, I mean going back to that project, what I learned—I said, “If you take—Abraham had slaves, blah blah blah.” If you look at the Bible as this kind of document that was just cast in stone and there’s just no changing meaning, if the words are just literally there and you just take it or leave it, okay then I guess you can justify slavery.
But the abolitionists of course had their own arguments from the Bible. And they were profoundly moving to me. They said, “Well yes, maybe there was slavery, but there was a new era that was inaugurated in Christ and the idea that even Paul could say ‘there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave nor free.’” That there is this sense that maybe that is not right.
And it was these abolitionists who were living in the nineteenth century and you know, let’s just say it, they had been steeped in the ideals of the Declaration of the Independence and the Constitution, the “Age of Reason” that everybody—this kind of emerging idea of human rights, which is not a Biblical—it’s a modern idea—But with that lens of understanding human rights, they were able to say, “Well, I can see the scripture in a fresh way and the power of how it liberates people.” So they were using a modern idea and they were bringing that to bring new light out of the ancient word.
And so, we do not have to just empty our heads of the times that we live in. Sometimes, the times we live in give us new insights that the older generations do not have.
HODGES: Your book, The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, is asking us to engage in an ongoing conversation with the dead. Your next chapter talks more about that, “The Communion of Saints.” You talked about how the things that we do with death, how we bury people, how we think of burial, how we think of death, changed during the Protestant Reformation. And people’s relationship with the dead changed during that time in significant ways that effects how we engage with the past. How so?
BENDROTH: I mean, you know, Martin Luther was campaigning against indulgences and the idea that you could pray for the dead and buy these indulgences and it would get them years out of purgatory. And we all say, “What a wrongheaded idea.” But the underlying idea is that the living still owe something to the dead and that there is this eternal connection. These people are not dead and gone. They’re still in your life and you can help, or they can help you.
And John Calvin wanted to be buried and wanted no one to be told of where his grave was because he just didn’t want people to think about death or ceremony or ritual, anything like that. And—
HODGES: No pilgrimages to his grave—
BENDROTH: Yeah, or not even mourning. You know the Puritans were very matter of fact—
HODGES: That would show lack of faith?
BENDROTH: Exactly. So, it doesn’t help people to just say, essentially, “Get over it.” Which is kind of almost what the Protestants were saying. It’s what your faith means to you, living now in your personal one-on-one relationship with Jesus, not using some intermediary or other ritual. Yes, that’s very, very important.
But I just had this sense that this is the loss that we—We use the phrase “dead and gone.” And the only way we speak of the dead is on Halloween or ghost hunting or something. That’s just such an impoverished way of thinking about our ancestors.
HODGES: It’s funny to hear a Protestant like yourself talk about this. You almost seem to have a Catholic longing for the communion of saints.
BENDROTH: Oh, I know! [laughter]
HODGES: The Communion of Saints is in the Apostles’ Creed.
BENDROTH: It is absolutely, yeah. You know, I think I use the illustration in the book—I got fascinated with nineteenth-century church anniversary documents. They started doing this in the nineteenth century—having big elaborate church anniversaries, especially in New England. They would have these celebratory sermons. And this one little Presbyterian church in upstate New York and I was reading the sermon—it was a little pokey place, you could tell. And the pastor was going on about the thousands of people in this congregation and you almost hear the people like, “What?”
HODGES: “There’s a few dozen of us here, but okay…”
BENDROTH: And then he said, “That’s how many have passed through these doors. And just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they’re not church members. That they don’t in some ways still matter to this congregation.” And I think a church has that kind of mystical sense of awe—the link between the living and the dead that the secular world does not need to have.
HODGES: That’s Peggy Bendroth. She’s executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts and a historian of American religion. We’re talking about her book, The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, but she’s written a number of books, including The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past, and Growing up Protestant: Parents, Children, and Mainline Churches. But again, today we’re talking about The Spiritual Practice of Remembering.
Peggy, your final chapter ties all the threads from the previous chapters together, inviting readers to think of remembering as a spiritual practice. So, let’s first define that. What is a spiritual practice?
BENDROTH: It’s difficult to define. But to me, a spiritual practice is something that takes the ordinary—an ordinary act that is part of your everyday day or everyday practice—and imbues it with larger eternal meaning.
So, a spiritual practice, it’s not just like reading the Bible or praying in the morning. It’s things like, how I wake up. Do I just roll out of bed? Or is my first thought, “I welcome this day that God has given me.” When I eat a meal, am I just ingesting calories or am I thinking of the people who made this food or brought it to me or the earth that created it?
You always keep these—they can just be regular habits or things that you include in your daily life that keep reminding you of the larger world that you inhabit.
HODGES: Okay, so that’s “spiritual practice” broadly written. How does memory figure as one?
BENDROTH: Well, I think memory has to be a spiritual practice because we don’t do it normally. We don’t have a good cultural vocabulary for remembering that we easily live—we live in the present. You know, we’re human beings. Of course, we live in the present.
So, when I’m walking to work or I’m driving my car, I try to think about who laid out the sidewalk or who nailed that board there. They’re dead, they’re gone. But they were living and breathing, and you know, what was happening in their day? I just try to enlarge my imagination so that I’m not just so narrowly focused. Of course, I live in New England where you’re literally bumping into these kinds of things all the time—
HODGES: Well, in your book you talk about how you look out your window, literally out your window, and see the grave of Paul Revere and this, you know—
BENDROTH: Yes, so I have very quiet neighbors! And of course, it’s all there. But in some ways, people are visiting these graves every day and I don’t think they’re—They’re just kind of clicking it off their bucket list. I don’t think they’re really engaging with all the years between Paul Revere and us and the world that he lived in and how different it was. They just saw—“I saw Paul Revere’s grave!”
HODGES: There’s a different cemetery down on the other end of Boston Commons that I walked to. I should explain. I was recently in Boston and I went to this—after reading your book—I went to this cemetery and walked around. But then I went down the other end of Boston Commons and there was another cemetery there, but it was all fenced off and you couldn’t go through there.
BENDROTH: Yeah, yeah. That’s where William Billings, I think, is buried. Yeah, yeah.
HODGES: What’s the difference between those two places? It’s interesting to me that they keep one of them locked in.
BENDROTH: Yeah, I mean there’s actually—I think the answer to that is that every time they widened a street in Boston, they had to move dead bodies.
HODGES: Oh, yeah?
BENDROTH: And so, a lot of the cemeteries, they’re so old that there are probably not a lot of bones down there anyway, because they’ve all been moved, and I believe that one little one at the edge of the Common there was not moved. And it was marked off so that it wouldn’t be moved. But yeah, it’s amazing that those cemeteries still exist within a busy downtown.
HODGES: Yes. And you also say in the book that memory is a religious urge. You actually place it at the heart of religious life through the ages. Not just for Christianity, but for Judaism and some other traditions as well.
BENDROTH: Yes, Abraham Joshua Heschel says Christianity and Judaism particularly are “religions of remembrance.” That we are story tellers. It’s not so much just memory—it’s that we tell stories. We tell history. We don’t just throw abstract theological truths at each other, it’s always within a narrative of “this happened, and this happened.” And that’s why this is important, because it was part of this story and then it led to another story.
And so, we are actually doing it. We are actually being people of history when we tell these stories. When we create narratives. But we don’t recognize it as such. And I’m just calling to people to say, this is really the essence of the historic faith: that it is in time. And that Christ came in time. And became a creature of time. That’s a marvelous idea. A marvelous thing to remind yourself of.
HODGES: Your book makes a strong case that remembering can be a deeply spiritual practice. Are there any cautions that you would give in thinking of it as a religious practice?
BENDROTH: Yes, I mean I guess if my husband is a minister, when I give sermons in churches or talk about memory, I say you can feel the pastors just going, “Oh no. Not that!” Because church people, I think, can have incredibly long memories about a slight or a mistake or you know, “The pastor’s wife walked right by me and didn’t say, ‘hello’—” I mean, I’m a minister’s wife, and I know how these things work. Or, that people think that it has to be a certain way or it’s wrong.
And you know, when a lot of churches think that is the essence of faith—holding onto certain practices or ways of doing things or a particular portrait or an old building—they can become idols. And they can certainly be means, they can be reminders, they can, any of these, can be holy objects. But they’re not an end in themselves, because they’re not permanent.
HODGES: As I mentioned before, Peggy, this book is heavily theological, The Spiritual Practice of Remembering. But you’ve also published other books in the academy. And the norms in the academy for those books is a little bit different. Can you talk about the difference between writing in this register, which is more devotional—it’s still grounded in rigorous scholarship, but your other books like The Last Puritans, for example, isn’t an exercise in devotion in the same way.
BENDROTH: Yes, yes. And it’s a very different—And so this book actually came, I was working on The Last Puritans, and The Last Puritans is a lot about how abstract theories of memory and history and time and religious communities, and how these ideas of time change over time, and just different ways people “deploy the past,” as we say. And it was getting kind of complicated, and even though you’re a scholar, you’re thinking, “No one’s ever going to read this! It’s so complex and it’s so abstract!”
And so for my own sake, as well as for people that knew me and church communities that my library deals with, I decided to stop work on that other book and see if I could restate those very abstract, technical, theoretical ideas in clear, plain, simple, language in a short book that would be practical and useful.
And it’s hard! It was a much—in many ways—a much harder intellectual exercise to do this and to come up with good examples and keep the writing accessible and to present theories about time or memory that were in three-syllable words at most. Not because people are stupid, but because you can boil a pretty arcane theoretical point to, “It means this.” And that’s why it’s important.
HODGES: Sometimes we hide behind the bigger words.
BENDROTH: A lot of scholars, I think, kind of do that. And so you just keep saying the same things over and over. And I sometimes think, “None of us really know what that means.” [laughter] So, this is a way of keeping myself honest. And I totally recommend the exercise. And obviously for a totally different audience.
It was frightening for me—working without a lot of footnotes is like being on a trapeze without a safety net! Being in any way personal, I certainly—it’s a risk.
HODGES: Yeah, you don’t see that happening in The Last Puritans.
BENDROTH: Scholars don’t—well, you know, it shouldn’t be there. In some ways, the book, there’s a little bit of memoir in it about my own life and about my own experiences. And you know, there’s a part of my brain when I was doing it saying, “Don’t tell them that! It’s going to be on paper forever!” But then you think, “well this is in some ways an act of generosity,” just to let people into your life even when it’s not easy.
HODGES: Would you tie that impulse to your faith? Is your religion informing your need to—it’s almost like a testifying moment.
BENDROTH: Yeah. Maybe that—I hadn’t thought about it in that way. But I mean, I’ve tried to do this as an act of generosity. And you know, no footnotes, kind of homely silly stories sometimes that other people might sneer at—
HODGES: –taking potshots at Disneyland—[laughter]
BENDROTH: Yeah, I know. I have not gotten any hate mail except—you’re the first person who’s really called me on that!
But you know, it was not something I would ordinarily want to do. But I think scholars get to a certain point where you really want to say your truth to more people.
HODGES: And I’d just like to say, having read the book, it’s a powerful book. I was very moved by it. I was very interested by it. It was a great read, but it was also just so challenging in the best ways. Making me rethink things and think about the spiritual practice of remembering. I thought it was really well done.
BENDROTH: Thank you very much.
HODGES: Yes, you bet. We’re glad to have had you join us here at Brigham Young University. Before we go, I want to mention to people that you gave a lecture to the BYU history department yesterday and the Maxwell Institute co-sponsored, so we recorded it. By the time this episode comes out, it will already be up on our YouTube channel. But if people haven’t checked it out already, I want you to give folks a sneak peek. What’s the teaser? What do you want people to get from that lecture?
BENDROTH: Yes, so the title of it was, “New Life From Old Stories: Faith and Scholarship in Anxious Times.” And it was asking about people of faith who are scholars—and especially historians—what makes them different? And there are a lot of different ways we can talk about what makes us different in terms of how we think about the past. But for me, more and more as I kind of move on in life, it’s about how I actually write and how I interact with my colleagues.
A lot of this was a plea for—we need to be clear, we need to be good writers, we need to have fun with what we’re doing, we need to be generous with our colleagues. And that’s a witness in this day of obfuscation and competition and, you know, a lot of cruelty out there. So that’s a bit about what I tried to say.
HODGES: I enjoyed it. I hope people will check that out if they haven’t already. That will be up on the Maxwell Institute’s YouTube channel.
That’s Margaret Bendroth. She’s executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts and a historian of American religion. Her book is called The Spiritual Practice of Remembering. It’s a short book, I highly recommend checking it out.
Peggy, thanks so much for joining us!
BENDROTH: Thank you.
HODGES: Check out Margaret Bendroth’s guest lecture on the Maxwell Institute’s YouTube channel right now. It was excellent. And now we turn to our review of the month from Apple Podcasts, this one comes from—I kid you not, the name is “Poopants.” It says: “The best LDS podcast. I am excited about gospel study for the first time. The thoughtful insights and careful scholarship make me thirst for more.”
I have a feeling that “Poopants” has that name attached to their Apple ID and perhaps they have a kid or something who reviewed a video game with it or something else.
Anyway, here’s another comment. This one is from YouTube, from John Chase. It says: “Thank you for providing the podcasts as they offer an excellent way to obtain insights into the brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon. I am very thankful there is a Maxwell Institute!”
Thank you John Chase! I look forward to seeing the next reviews pop up in Apple Podcasts or YouTube or on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram where I hope you’re all already following the Maxwell Institute. You can find us there. We’ll talk to you next time on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)