Publication Date

December 10, 2015

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

Bendroth_PictureMargaret (Peggy) Bendroth is the executive director at the Congregational Library & Archives. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts, and has been a member, off and on, since 1980.

Alma maters: BA, Cornell University, 1976; MA and PhD, Johns Hopkins University, 1983

Fields of interest: American religious history, especially fundamentalists and modern liberal Protestants; urban religion; women and gender

When did you first develop an interest in history?

I am one of those people who gravitated to history early on, mostly because I liked to read. When I was in grade school books like Johnny Tremain, about a boy in Revolutionary era Boston, captured my imagination and so of course the next step was working my way through the World Book Encyclopedia.

My parents were also children of Dutch immigrants, and I grew up in a well-defined church community of Dutch Calvinists. Our family was never quite “American,” at least it seemed that way growing up, and so American history became for me a way of belonging.

I decided to major in history as an undergraduate because I saw it as a way to study everything I loved: music, art, literature, biography, and philosophy. You could do that in the 1970s, and assume that once you graduated everything would work out somehow.  Even so, finding my way as a historian, especially one who does not enjoy academia all that much, turned out to be a lifelong project.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am interested in the ways that religious communities tell their own stories—how they construct that all-important “usable past,” but even more important, how they place themselves in history, and how they think about time. I think this is key to understanding the nuances of religious difference, especially today, and would argue that the turn-of-the-century spiritual crisis was more about history and process than about science per se.

I’ve devoted the past 10 years or so to studying white liberal Protestants, a group that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries learned to accept the Bible as an historical text and Christianity as the product of historical development. Now I am turning back to fundamentalists and evangelicals (my first scholarly love), who insisted that the Bible was true because it was historically accurate in every detail and that Christian doctrines cannot and should not change. These folks thought about time a lot, in fact, looking for signs of Christ’s second coming and wondering how close they were to the end. It all seems like a really fertile area for study, and a different way of looking at fundamentalists and evangelicals.

What do you value most about the history profession?

I am glad to belong to a profession that encourages clear, accessible writing and attention to narrative. Of course I love footnotes and index cards as much as the next person and I enjoy a good scholarly debate.  But what other academic profession today is so close to the reading public?

And without sermonizing too much, I’m glad that history can be unsettling and challenging. I just re-read Orwell’s 1984, an eloquent argument for the critical importance of memory in a free society. We’ve seen this acted out in the conversation going on now about race: to some people police shootings and church burnings are bad things done by bad people, and that’s all they mean. But of course these events are woven into a much longer story that carries pain across many generations.

Why have you continued to be a member of the AHA?

I work in a specialty area, American religious history, and have belonged to the American Society of Church History for my entire career. It is easy to get comfortable talking just to your friends and peers, using insider language and following insider questions. Moreover, it’s an occupational hazard for scholars in my specialty to attribute too much to religious motivations and not look elsewhere.

That makes it all the more important to stay within the wider community of scholars, to take part in conversations where I am a rank beginner, maybe even learn something new. And of course people in specialties like mine also need to talk clearly and persuasively to the larger profession about the pervasive importance of religion.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?

I love music, especially early music, and playing old instruments. So I have another life as an amateur musician, one that requires a lot of brainpower—reading all kinds of clefs and fingerings, staying on pitch and in time—but also brings a lot of joy.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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Matthew Keough
Matthew Keough

American Historical Association