"Grant Us Courage: Travels Along the Mainline of American Protestantism," by Randall Balmer (Oxford University Press, 154 pp.; $19.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Sondra Willobee, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church, Farmington, Michigan.

I approached Randall Balmer's new book with mixed feelings: fear and curiosity. As a member of one of the mainline denominations Balmer scrutinizes, I wondered: What did he see? Would he be fair-minded, or did he come with an ax to grind?

Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College, Columbia University, revisited 12 congregations that were designated "great churches" in 1949 by readers of the "Christian Century," a leading magazine of American Protestantism. (The chapters that make up this book were originally published in the "Century" as well.) By his reckoning, only three of the churches are still thriving 50 years later.

Describing himself as a "tenuous evangelical," Balmer studied his own origins in a book and a TV documentary based on it, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America" (1989, 1993). There he wrestled with ambivalent feelings about his fundamentalist upbringing. In the prologue to "Grant Us Courage," Balmer recalls another source of childhood ambivalence: As evangelicals, "we were the outsiders, the religious insurgents engaged in a hopeless struggle against the Protestant mainline, which had the wealth, the influence, and the status that we simultaneously resented and coveted."

I wondered if Balmer would take this occasion to get even. His careful attention to the details of congregational life, however, invites a more complex response than keeping score. There is more going on—in Balmer's slim volume and in mainline ...

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