Chapter 3: Religion and Family in Middletown, USA

By Howard M. Bahr and Bruce A. Chadwick

Howard M. Bahr and Bruce A. Chadwick, “Religion and Family in Middletown, USA,”in The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 51–65.

Chapter 3: Religion and Family in Middletown, USA

Howard M. Bahr and Bruce A. Chadwick


Howard M. Bahr was a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University when this was published. His research interest in a distinguished social science career has centered on the Middletown Studies. He received his PhD from the University of Texas.

Bruce A. Chadwick was a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University when this was published. He received his PhD from Washington University, St. Louis.



This paper considers the relationship between religion and family life in Middletown (Muncie, Indiana). Specifically, we discuss the association between religiosity and several types of family behavior. The analysis is grounded in a comparison of indicators of family life and religious practices in Middletown in 1925 and 1977–1978.

Since 1976 we have participated in the Middletown III Project, an interdisciplinary research program whose primary objective has been to compare Middletown in the late 1970s with the Middletown of the 1920s. This research has produced some notable, though not astounding, findings about the importance of families and religious life. For one thing it appears that, although Middletown families have changed in some ways, they remain central to the life of Middletown people and are perhaps more remarkable in their similarities to families of fifty years ago than in their differences. (Caplow et al., 1982.)

Another major conclusion is that religion in Middletown is at least as strong as it ever was, and local observers affirm its promise and positive future rather than lament its decline, as did Middletown ministers in the 1920s and 1930s. Middletown people—judging from their statements about what they believe, how much money they donate to churches, and how often they attend church meetings—take their religion at least as seriously as did their grandfathers. In terms of the percentage of income they contribute to churches, they are more religious than their forebearers of the 1920s. (Caplow et al., 1983.)

Religiosity, Family Solidarity, and the Myths of Decline

These generalizations about the stability, continuity, and vitality of family and religious life in Middletown have not been greeted with wild enthusiasm by many students of family and religious behavior. For example, one critic suggests that we have accentuated the positive and neglected the negative:

But has the challenge to one myth created another, such as the generalized image of an “ever harmonious, successful family life?” The authors pronounce the Middletown family to be in “exceptionally good condition” and note along the way that even the “demanding role of working mother is performed with every appearance of ease and comfort by the majority of Middletown’s married women.” One wonders where all the stress has gone. (Elder, 1982:856.)

As in any study there were things in Middletown that we might have studied but did not, and there are data in hand that remain to be fully analyzed. Nevertheless, the sheer bulk and consistency of the evidence—different kinds of data from different samples of Middletown, combined with data from elsewhere revealing similar patterns—is compelling. Middletown is not America, and we may quibble about what is meant by family strength or religiosity; however, the myths that American families are mere shadows of their former selves, and that organized religion in America is an anachronistic hulk shambling into oblivion, are demonstrably false.

The Myth of the Declining Family

To affirm that American families are at least as strong as they were sixty years ago flies in the face of a conventional wisdom supported by evidence of high—and apparently rising—rates of divorce, family violence, single parenthood, and voluntary childlessness. In the 1980s American families clearly are not what they might be. Even so, they are better than they used to be.

To appreciate the comparison of a miserable past with a flawed, but fairly comfortable present, one needs a long-range perspective, including a firm hold on the realities of the past. John Mack Faragher’s (1979) Women and Men on the Overland Trail and Otto Bettmann’s (1974) The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible are among the works by other researchers that corroborate the findings of the Middletown III Project. Bettmann, who has created the most widely known photograph archive in the nation, writes in his introduction (1974: xii) to The Good Old Days:

My post at “the picture window of history” has given me a more optimistic if less fashionable vista. I have concluded that we have to revise the idealized picture of the past and turn the spotlight on its grimmer aspects. This more realistic approach will show us Gay Nineties man (man in the street, not in the boardroom), as one to be pitied rather than envied Compared with him we are lucky—even if dire premonitions darken our days and we find much to bemoan in our society Even if we cast but a cursory glance at the not so good old days and bring them into alignment with our own, we will find much to be grateful for. We are going forward, if but slowly.

Surely there is no more depressing portrait of normal, everyday family life in twentieth-century America than Robert and Helen Lynd’s description of blue-collar families in Middletown (1929) and Middletown in Transition (1937). In these accounts most of Middletown’s citizens are pictured in stark poverty, trapped in perpetual insecurity and hopelessness. The Lynds show the families of the 1920s practicing a strict separation of the sexes even in social activities, affirming the subordination of women, and committed to an economic system that allowed—even encouraged—ten-year-old children to work full-time in the factories. The Middletown of the 1920s, by contrast with the Middletown we came to know both statistically and personally in the late 1970s, was a bleak and brutish place. Concern for the maladies of the modern family need not blind us to the less visible—but no less pernicious—liabilities, limitations and aberrations of the American family in the first decades of this century. Contemporary families have their strains and their tragedies, but that does not mean that the families of the 1920s were any less likely to stifle, thwart, or maim their members. Nor should concern over the faults and failures of modern families blind us to their strengths and successes.

The Secularization Myth

A major finding of the Middletown III Project is that the city has not experienced a decline in religiosity over the past fifty years. To some, that finding is a surprise that flies in the face of what almost everyone “knows” about secularization in Western society. Secularization is supposed to be an irreversible process accompanying modernization. It is generally treated as continuous, starting from an unspecified point in the past—somewhere between the Renaissance and 1900—and proceeding inexorably into the future, affecting Middletown no less predictably than Manchester or Moscow.

According to Peter Berger, secularization is a fact of life in Western societies:

By secularization we mean the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols As there is a secularization of society and culture, so is there a secularization of consciousness. Put simply, this means that the modern West has produced an increasing number of individuals who look upon the world and their own lives without the benefit of religious interpretations. (Berger, 1967: 107–8.)

Berger said that the impact of secularization varies from group to group—having more effect on men than on women, on the middle-aged than on the young or the old, in the city than in the country, on industrial workers than on shopkeepers, and on Protestants than on Catholics. In Europe, according to Berger, only marginal individuals and populations have resisted secularization, while in America the churches have survived “only by becoming highly secularized themselves.”

In another work Berger told of the “demise of the supernatural,” as reflected in the “available evidence”:

Whatever the situation may have been in the past, today the supernatural as a meaningful reality is absent or remote from the horizons of everyday life of large numbers, very probably of the majority, of people in modern societies, who seem to manage to get along without it quite well. This means that those to whom the supernatural is still, or again, a meaningful reality find themselves in the status of a minority. (Berger, 1969: 6, 7.)

Bryan Wilson (1982: 53–54) also has concluded that secularization is an accomplished fact:

In western countries, the process of secularization is well documented. Men’s diminished concern with the supernatural, and its reduced significance for the organization of contemporary society, illustrates the growing irrelevance to modern life both of conceptions of a transcendent order and concern with ultimate values.

It was this kind of overgeneralization from “available evidence” that first sensitized us to the possibility that secularization might be as much myth as march of historical process. There is abundant evidence, from surveys and secondary analysis of records, that the supernatural is present as a meaningful reality to most of the residents of Middletown and to most people in the United States (for example, see Greeley, 1972).

Church attendance in Middletown increased dramatically between 1924 and 1978. In 1924 slightly over 20 percent of Middletown’s citizens attended church regularly, at least once a week. By 1978 the number of regular attendee had increased to over 50 percent. The number of church buildings increased correspondingly: in 1924 there were twelve churches for every 10,000 residents; in 1978 there were nineteen. Tithing, giving one-tenth of the family income to the church, was virtually unknown in the 1920s. The Lynds discovered only one full tithepayer among the 100 families whose budgets they recorded. In 1978 nearly one-third of the church members in our samples said that they tithed.

Church weddings (that is, weddings at which a minister or priest officiates) are more frequent today, having increased from 63 percent of all weddings in 1924 to 79 percent in 1978. Finally, the religious beliefs that prevail in Middletown today have not changed appreciably in the past two generations. The terms and phrases that people used to describe their inner religious experiences in 1978 were so similar to the language of their grandparents that we cannot tell them apart. (Caplow et al., 1981,1983.)

We do not say there have been no changes in organized religion during the past half century. Much of All Faithful People (Caplow et al., 1983), the second book-length report of the Middletown III Project, tells of changes in religious beliefs, churchgoing, and piety in Middletown and in the United States. Liturgies, attitudes, and doctrines have changed. There are some new things in Middletown’s religion; however, we did not find much trace of the massive modernizing trend supposedly moving us all irresistibly from an age of mysticism and faith into a millennium of pragmatism and technological rationality. What has happened instead is a persistence and renewal of religion in a changing society.

We are not the first students of religion to label secularization a myth. Andrew Greeley did so more than a decade ago. His Unsecular Man (1972) showed that the available statistical data did not reveal a decline of religion in the United States and that, considered in absolute terms, the levels of religious belief and participation in the country were extraordinarily high.

Other contemporary observers have pointed to signs of renewed religious vigor (Riche, 1982; Gallup, 1981). The 1981 annual report in America by the Gallup organization identified seven “key dimensions in people’s religious lives” and concluded with a strong statement on “the remarkable stability of religion in America.” Also, figures on book sales compiled in the U.S. Census of Manufacturers show that Americans buy more Bibles and testaments than they did in the past. In 1939, 7.2 million Bibles and testaments (.06 per capita) were purchased in the United States, the corresponding figure for 1977 was 19.4 million volumes (.09 books per capita). (Bahr, 1982: 63.)

It has been suggested to us that much of the organized religion of the 1970s and 1980s is a “secularized” Christianity, a weak shadow of the “old-time religion” of previous generations. The ministers are able to fill their churches, the argument goes, because they demand little of their people. There are indications that much current religious activity is superficial, but so was much religious activity in former times. To their main conclusion that religion is on the upswing, Gallup and his associates added some “worrisome findings” about the depth or salience of American religiosity:

The more one probes into the religious and spiritual lives of Americans, through surveys, the more concerned one becomes about what may lie beneath the often impressive outward signs of religion in America today Many Americans believe but apparently without strong convictions. They want the fruits of faith, but seem to dodge the responsibilities and obligations. Most Americans say they are Christians, but often without visible connection to a congregation of religious fellowship. (Gallup, 1981: 4.)

We lack the empirical data to show conclusively how the religiosity of today’s churchgoers compares with that of their parents and grandparents, or whether today’s church members are more hypocritical than their predecessors. However, a review of the available indicators suggests that religion is at least as demanding today as it was in the 1920s.

Perhaps there have been changes in the definitions of piety, in the range of behavior deemed “religious” or “moral,” and in the demands religious organizations make on their members. More important, however, we believe that it misses the point to argue that modern religion is a watered-down version of an earlier, perhaps more fervent religion. Whatever is going on now in the churches of Middletown and the United States, what the clergy teach and the people do constitute the organized religion of today. To paraphrase W. I. Thomas, that which is perceived as religion is religious in its consequences. Judging from many indicators—from attendance at religious services to percentage of income contributed, from frequency of prayers to self-monitored religious fervor, from hours of Bible reading to hours of exposure to religious television programming—contemporary religion involves in active participation a wider segment of the population, in Middletown and America generally, than did the organized religion of the 1920s and 1930s. By such indicators, the religions of the 1970s and 1980s “work” for more of the people than did the organized religions of yesteryear.

The findings that Americans remain religious and that their family ties are surprisingly strong may be related. The clergy continue to emphasize that religion is essential to the maintenance of strong families. In Middletown, one of the few communities where systematic data are available for half a century or more, it appears that today’s people are as religious and as firmly integrated in families as their grandfathers and grandmothers. Might the apparent vitality of religion in Middletown be related to the continuity of family ties there, and perhaps in American society generally? We cannot infer a causal relationship from our cross-sectional survey data, but some correlational evidence may be informative. First, we examine some work of other researchers on the religious faith/family connection.

Research on Religion and Family

The doctrines of Christianity and Judaism explicitly link marriage, family life, and religiosity. Among Christian denominations the Catholic church anchors one extreme with its insistence on indissoluble marriage and anti-birth-control teachings. At the other extreme are “liberal” Protestant denominations that do not prohibit premarital sex, encourage contraception, and support abortion and no-fault divorce. Despite the diversity in the extent to which churches attempt to control (or interfere in) sexual intimacy and reproductive behavior, even the most permissive denominations foster marital stability and family harmony.

That religiosity and a healthy family life go hand in hand is an article of faith among religious conservatives. Hadden and Swann’s (1981) warning about the growing power of “prime time preachers” shows how people in the “moral majority” link religion and family as cause and consequence:

TV religion . . . has developed and refined a set of battle cries, an agenda for the 1980s to conquer the sins of society and restore to America the strength it needs to fight the Anti-Christ. . . .

The first of these battle cries is against the threatened destruction of the family by the forces of ungodliness. TV preachers seem to have a heightened sense of the utility of “glad words” and “bad words.” Family is a glad word, and to be pro-family is to be in favor of everything that is good and decent and commendable. According to the more political stream of TV religion, the family is under attack by the forces of secular humanism, ungodliness, homosexuality, and the Equal Rights Amendment.

To most fundamentalists, the traditional concept of the male-dominated nuclear family is sacrosanct. The family is, of course, the basic unit of society—An equal rights amendment for women is anathema to the fundamentalists. (Hadden and Swann, 1981: 97–98.)

 There is evidence that religious affiliation and activity have a modest positive impact on marriage and family life (Burgess and Cottrell, 1939; Burchinal, 1957; Gurin et al., I960; Carey, 1967; Kunz and Albrecht, 1977; Hunt and King, 1978; Glenn and Weaver, 1978; Albrecht, 1979; and Shrum, 1980). Williams (1983: 3–14) concluded that the relatively small body of empirical research linking religiosity and marital satisfaction pointed to a positive linear relationship between them. To be precise, of seventeen studies published between 1938 and 1980, thirteen reported a direct, positive relationship between religiosity and marital satisfaction. Williams’s (1983: 40–53) contribution to this literature was a comparison of the explanatory power of several antecedents of marital satisfaction including current religiosity, socioeconomic status, and certain attributes of the marriage. She found that for both men and women a composite measure of religiosity proved to be a stronger predictor of marital satisfaction than any of the other independent variables. Accordingly, we anticipated that the religious people in Middletown would be more likely than the nonreligious to manifest profamily patterns and to report happy marriages. Specifically, we compared the marital status, stability, happiness, and fertility of Catholics, Protestants, and the unchurched.

Research Methods

The data derive from several surveys, both mail questionnaire and interview, of residents of Middletown in 1977 and 1980. Data collection procedures are described in detail elsewhere (Caplow et al., 1982). The analysis reported here involved combining respondents from several surveys in order to obtain a sizable sample of married respondents with no religious preference.


Religiosity and Marital Status. Perhaps the most basic question about religiosity and family is whether there are denominational differences in marital status. The relevant results are presented in Table 1. The modest differences between Catholics and Protestants are not significant. The major association between religion and marital status appears in the differences between persons who report a church preference and those with no preference. The latter are overrepresented among the single/never married, the remarried, and the divorced/separated, and are correspondingly underrepresented in the married (first marriage) category.

Indicators of Religiosity

    Religious Preference     Church Attendance  
Marital status

Catholics (n = 130)

Protestants (n = 760) None (n = 154) At Least Monthly   Less Often
 Single/never married 16% 10% 18% 10%   14%
First marriage  68 68  59  77    60 
Divorced or separated 12    12 
Total  99% 99%  99%  101%    100%

Table 1. Religiosity  and Marital Status: Middletown, 1977-1978

There are many ways to define and measure religiosity. Here we have opted for the simplest measure of participation, namely, church attendance. The relationship between church attendance and marital stability among Catholics and Protestants is shown in Table 1. Seventy percent of persons attending church services at least monthly were still in their first marriages, compared with 60 percent of those attending less often. In Middletown at least, having a religious preference and attending church are related to the disposition to marry and to stay married; or perhaps being divorced and/or separated is associated with low church attendance. The cross-sectional data do not allow us to clearly identify cause and effect. Justifiable rationales can be given for both interpretations. Religiosity does give greater value to marriage and family values, thereby reducing divorce. Likewise, those who divorce may find it less rewarding to attend church, thereby scoring lower on this measure of religiosity.

Religiosity and Marital Satisfaction. Do denominational identification and church attendance make a difference in reported marital happiness? We measured marital satisfaction with the item, “How do you feel about your relationship with your wife/husband?” (Response options were “very satisfied,” “satisfied,” “neutral,” “dissatisfied,” and “very dissatisfied.”) Previous use of this and similar items on perceived happiness of one’s marriage had revealed a consistent response bias: usually between two-thirds and three-fourths of married people say they are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their marriages. Even taking this bias into account, we expected to find that people who belonged to and attended church would be more likely than others to say that their marriages were happy.

Judging from the results (Table 2) in Middletown, religious affiliation is positively associated with marital satisfaction. The differences between respondents with a church identification and those with no preference are statistically significant but not large; the nonreligious are more apt to say that they are “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied.” Apparently religious affiliation per se, and not type of religion, is the characterisitc related to marital satisfaction. The minor differences between Catholics and Protestants are insignificant.

Church attendance also is positively associated with reported marital satisfaction. Attendance is significantly correlated to marital happiness, especially at the upper extreme of “very satisfied.” As can be seen in the last two columns of Table 2, 60 percent of the more frequent attenders perceive their marriages as “very satisfactory,” compared with 43 percent of the others. This finding is not limited to the item reported in Table 2. On other indicators of marital happiness and willingness to marry the same person again, the distribution of responses is comparable to those shown in Table 2. In Middletown at least, churchgoing and marital satisfaction seem to go together.

Indicators of Religiosity

    Religious Preference     Church Attendance  
Marital Status Catholics (n=88) Protestants (n=540) None (n=70) At Least Monthy (n=319)   Less Often (n=320)
Very Satisfied 56% 60% 50% 60%   43%
Satisfied 34 36 34 31   44
Neutral 6 3 9 8   11
Dissatisfied or very dissatisfied 3 2 7 2   3
Total 99% 101% 100% 101%   101%

Table 2. Religiosity and Marital Satisfaction among the Currently Married: Middletown, 1977–1978

Religiosity and Fertility. Do the profamily values of Middletown’s churches carry over into fertility? Catholic teachings on birth control and abortion have been seen as leading to higher fertility rates. However, considerable research of the past few decades has shown Catholic and Protestant differences to be steadily decreasing. D’Antonio and Cavanaugh (1983: 153) conclude that, with respect to birth control and family size in the United States, “differences between Protestants and Catholics have all but disappeared.”

Our respondents are classified by religiosity and number of children in Table 3. Catholics and Protestants do not differ much in family size, but parents of either persuasion have more children than people who claim no religious preference. The mean number of children for Catholics is 2.0, compared with 1.9 for Protestants and 1.4 for no-preference respondents. Thirty-six percent of the married Catholics have 3 or more children, but so do 34 percent of the Protestants. The sharp differences are between the Catholics or Protestants and the no-preference respondents. Fewer than one-fifth of the latter have three or more children, and they are only half as likely as the religiously affiliated to have four or more children.

The relationship between church attendance and family size also is shown in Table 3. As anticipated, regular churchgoers have larger families than those who attend infrequently or never. Married respondents who say they attend church at least once a month have an average of 2.2 children, compared with 1.6 children among those who attend less often. The finding applies to Catholics and Protestants alike: in both populations the regular churchgoers have more children. There is a slight association between age and church attendance, with religious attenders being slightly older; but this modest age difference is not sufficient to account for the fertility differentials.

Indicators of Religiosity


    Religious Preference     Church Attendance  
Number of Children Catholics (n=107) Protestants (n=621) None (n=117) At Least Monthly (n=397)   Less Often (n=472)
0 41% 31% 43% 27%   38%
1 4 15 15 10   16
2 19 21 23 22   19
3 14 17 10 18   14
4 or more 22 17 9 22   13
Total 100% 101% 100% 99%   100%

Table 3. Religiosity and Fertility among Married Adults: Middletown, 1977–1978

The Lynds said that in 1935, Middletown’s churches were only partially filled and that most regular attenders were women and old people. Our survey data and our personal observations during two years of residence in Middletown indicated that, if that were ever so, it is so no longer. In the late 1970s Middletown’s churches—Catholic and Protestant—catered to youth and young families, as well as to the middle-aged and older citizens. Programs for children, for teenagers, and for young adults were prominent in most of the churches, and young children were much in evidence in most worship services. From our perspective the profamily values of Middletown churches include the having and rearing of children; and the rearing of children includes a variety of church-related activities.


The research literature suggests a positive relationship between religiosity and familism. Previous reports of the Middletown III Project noted the surprising vitality of Middletown’s churches and the continued strength of Middletown’s families. In this paper we have argued that there is a relationship between family solidarity—family “health” if you will—and church affiliation and activity. We have shown that the more religious residents of Middletown were more likely to be married, to remain married, to be highly satisfied with their marriages, and to have more children.

A comparison of the Middletown data with the NORC public use surveys for 1977–1978 suggests that the relationship between religion and family life in Middletown also applies to the rest of the country. In the United States as a whole, churchgoers are more likely to be married, less likely to be divorced or single, more likely to manifest high levels of marital satisfaction, and less likely to have very small families.

The small differences between Middletown Catholics and Protestants are noteworthy. Traditionally there have been sizable differentials between American Catholics and Protestants in educational attainment, occupational status, and income, all favoring Protestants. Catholics usually have been found to divorce less frequently and to have higher fertility. In Middletown, as we have seen, the differences between Catholics and Protestants in marital status, perceived marital satisfaction, and family size are insignificant. Andrew Greeley (1977: 212) wrote that “Catholic ethnics are still different in the fundamental matter of family structure and they are likely to continue to be different.” There may be some Catholic ethnic groups in America that reflect traditional Catholic-Protestant differences, but such is not the case with Middletown Catholics. For the few indicators of family life considered above, the Catholic- Protestant differences are minuscule or nonexistent. Thus, our Middletown research agrees with other recent research which underscores Catholic- Protestant similarity. The great divide in marital status, marital satisfaction, and family size is not between Catholics and Protestants but between those who identify with a church or denomination and those who do not.

Not only do religion and family life in Middletown seem as vigorous as they were fifty years ago, but it appears that the vitality of these two institutions is related. The limited statistical data we have presented are congruent with qualitative material from in-depth interviews and participant observation in Middletown. People often reaffirmed their religious faith and devotion to their families in the same conversation, many times explicitly linking the two. Although the relationship between family life and religiosity remains a relatively unstudied topic in the social sciences in general and in the more specific areas of family and religion (D’Antonio et al., 1982), the message from Middletown is clear. There is more than pious platitude in the cliche, “the family that prays together, stays together”; and for many, the relationship may run the other way, with the staying preceding the praying. There is little doubt, however, that the institutions are intertwined. The nature and intensity of the connections between these two basic institutions remain to be charted by social scientists.


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