Nostalgia time for the Religion Guy, with observations from an American town

This Memo, more personal than others posted by the Religion Guy, scans a nostalgia-drenched week that demonstrated several American trends.

First, hundreds of alums marked the end of the Time and Life Building as the Time Inc. magazines move to lower Manhattan, due to cost-cutting that afflicts all print media. 

Then there was a visit to hometown Endicott, New York, for the 100th anniversary of Union-Endicott High School. This American village of 13,392 typifies the hollowing out of U.S. industry, and religious phenomena seen elsewhere. 

Background: The Endicott Johnson Corporation, now defunct, was once the nation’s biggest or one of its biggest shoe manufacturers. E.J. fended off union organizers with medical services and other remarkable “square deal” benefits given line workers, many of them Americanizing immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe. International Business Machines, all but vanished locally, originated in Endicott and had major operations there through much of the 20th Century.

Endicott was incorporated in 1906 and later absorbed the older town of Union. The reigning Johnson family gave the land for First Methodist Church to build in 1902, the Religion Guy’s own First Baptist Church in 1905, and the original Catholic parish, St. Ambrose, in 1908. The Johnsons also donated the Baptists’ pipe organ, still in use, and provided many other community services.

The Guy’s boyhood village was roughly half Catholic and half Protestant, with a high invisible wall between. The ecumenism fostered soon afterward by the Second Vatican Council was virtually non-existent. Folks on each side were wary, suspecting those others might not be “real” Christians. Eyebrows would arch when a Catholic and a Protestant teen would “go steady.” A Protestant rarely or never entered a Catholic church, and vice versa.

Endicott’s Catholic high school opened while the Guy was in public high school but later suffered losses in enrollment and finance and had to merge with an academy in Binghamton. Our graduating class’s salutatorian who became a Catholic nun eventually left her order, like many others (though continuing as a diocesan official). Endicott’s lone Jewish synagogue, founded when the Guy was in grade school, disbanded in 1988.

Locals say “mainline” churches that once dominated area Protestantism are mostly declining. The news involves 109-year-old First Presbyterian Church, where IBM founder Thomas J. Watson worshipped. OnAugust 23 it left the Presbyterian Church (USA) for the evangelical “ECO” schism, launched after the PC(USA)’s  go-ahead for partnered gay clergy. The congregation seeks to “reclaim our orthodox Reformed theological and confessional heritage.” Our class valedictorian has switched from First to the town’s remaining PC(USA) congregation.

As elsewhere, the Baptist situation has been complicated. First Baptist was both “evangelical” and “mainline” in what’s now called American Baptist Churches (ABC). The Guy’s high school class there was taught by his uncle George Mitchell, one of the anonymous geniuses who created IBM’s first computer (or super-calculator), the 1944 Mark I, then the 1948 Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator, and many more. With this brilliant, happy, and humble man, the Bible was no dusty old artifact but a living Book.

A second ABC church in Endicott is no more.  A third, younger congregation, Cornerstone Community Church, has ABC ties but is also Southern Baptist.  It worships in the former Main Street building of the Endicott Daily Bulletin, alas  among hundreds of defunct U.S. newspapers.  Vietnamese Baptists also worship there.

Another First Baptist Church, in neighboring Johnson City, was and is a notable  fundamentalistic citadel of separatism and literal Creationism. It provided facilities for Baptist Bible College, which taught the pre-tribulation Rapture and later moved into Pennsylvania. (Johnson City’s older Practical Bible Training School, now Davis College, also believes in the pre-trib Rapture.) Just west of Endicott, the young, separatist Heritage Baptist Church operates its own theological seminary that advocates “King James Only.”  

Despite Endicott's economic challenges, the Guy was greatly impressed with the staff, academics, and facilities at U-E High. Campus signs of the times: Newly strict security includes  interior locks on classroom doors so  teachers can bar intruders. Also, years ago public schools never interfered with worship; now the prize-winning U-E Band often attends marching competitions on Sundays.

That would have deeply offended the devout sabbatarian who was the band’s legendary founder and leader for 31 years. He was the Religion Guy’s father.

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