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Congregational Time Capsules

Elesha Coffman

A mismatch pervades much scholarship in American religious history. Whereas most Americans experience their religious tradition primarily at the level of the individual congregation, most of us who write about religious traditions derive our evidence from other sources: books and periodicals, denominational records, histories of institutions, biographies of leaders, and so forth. The scholarly focus makes sense--microhistory is time-consuming, congregations seldom have robust archives, and the story of one congregation might have limited explanatory power at a larger scale. (There are, of course, exceptions to this observation, such as Stephen R. Warner's New Wine in Old Wineskins.) Still, ever since a fellow grad student asked me, regarding my dissertation, "But how did this play out in individual churches?" I've wondered how to connect historical arguments to that granular level of evidence and experience.

Preparation for a recent lecture led me down…

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