All Faithful People: Change and Continuity in Middletown’s Religion
I grew up in a small industrial city in Indiana not far from Muncie—the town made famous by Robert and Helen Lynd in their books on Middletown. Twenty years ago, a number of tiny evangelical churches there burst out of their non-descript buildings and moved into large and impressive new quarters surrounded by parking lots, where fleets of buses were lined up waiting to bring the faithful to services. When a point of doctrine or personality split one of the large new congregations, the departing parishioners rented an abandoned dry-goods store and held services there until they went on to a new church as grand and apparently well attended as the one they had left, which showed no signs of diminution. Meanwhile, in the established churches, the congregations seemed to grow older and smaller. One might assume from the unscientific evidence of my infrequent visits home that religion was flourishing but that there had been a marked shift in denominational loyalties.
Although All Faithful People seems to uphold these assumptions, at least in part, its authors would presumably be wary of my thumbnail history because, they say, “superficial observations…are notoriously inaccurate.” This caveat appears in a chapter in which the authors write that the people in Middletown have “serious interest” in religion, basing their claim on the growing registration in religion courses in local colleges. They do not ask whether or not those courses have intellectual substance: if they are mostly “gut” courses the large enrollments might suggest something else altogether.
In Middletown Families (1982), the earlier volume growing out of the recent studies of the town, the authors respond to what the Lynds in Middletown in Transition call “our impression” about the generation gap by primly toying with the word: “if we may be permitted to state an impression only partly buttressed by statistical data.” If I may be permitted an impression of my own, for sociologists of all sorts the degree of superficiality of an observation depends on how useful it is to bolster whatever point is being made. I approached both the old and the new studies of Middletown with a wariness, not simply of the way data was gathered and interpreted, but of the ideas and attitudes they often reflected as much in their turns of phrase as in their argument.
In 1976 a group of sociologists and other social scientists under the direction of Theodore Caplow went to Muncie to repeat the research that the Lynds did in the 1920s and 1930s. The project was financed primarily by the National Science Foundation with supplemental support from Brigham Young University, the base for Caplow’s two chief associates, Howard M. Bahr and Bruce A. Chadwick. From the material gathered between 1976 and 1981, more than twenty papers have so far appeared, as well as Middletown Families and the present volume. Unlike the Lynds’ books, Middletown (1929) and Middletown in Transition (1937), which attempt to portray a whole community, these are specialized studies with a …