Credit Union Movement

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* Book: J. Carroll Moody and Gilbert C. Fite. The Credit Union Movement: Origins and Development, 1850 to 1980, 1984


Matt Cropp:

"Written in 1984 by J. Carroll Moody and Gilbert C. Fite (both academic historians), The Credit Union Movement: Origins and Development, 1850 to 1980 remains one of the most essential texts for anyone interested in credit union history. Drawing on a rich assortment of primary sources, the authors exactingly trace the lineage of North America's co-operative banking movement from the experiments of Schulze-Delitzsch and Raiffeisen in mid-19th century Germany through to the challenges of deregulation and inflation at the close of the 1970s.

Given that their pioneering book was the first of its kind, Moody and Fite openly acknowledge its limitations in their Preface. It is not intended to be "an economic history of the role of credit unions in consumer finance. ... Moreover, this study is not about individual credit unions, their founding or operation, or the thousands of volunteers and dedicated leaders who worked to make the movement succeed at the grass roots. Nor does it deal in any detail with credit union chapters and state leagues, except as these facets of credit unionism illustrate the failures and successes of the larger movement." Rather, their modest goal for the book is "to trace and analyze the history of credit unionism as a national social movement."1

In this latter task, they succeed quite powerfully. By weaving together detailed readings of both the published work and private correspondence of a number of influential credit union leaders, The Credit Union Movement presents a fascinating account of the internal dynamics of the Credit Union National Extension Bureau and its successor, CUNA. Where the simplified credit union histories present smooth, almost deterministic narratives of growth, Moody and Fite expose the details of the messy processes and conflicts that formed the structures of the modern movement.

A particularly interesting example of this can be seen in their discussion of Roy Bergengren's departure from the position of CUNA's managing director in 1945. Far from simply "retiring" (as the third edition of Introduction to Credit Unions frames it), Moody and Fite show how Bergengren was, in fact, pushed out of his position at the conclusion of a complex political fight that involved multiple issues and reflected an ideological split in the movement. On the one hand, the authors note the concerns of the more business-oriented board members about what they perceived to be Bergengren's financial mismanagement of the organization. Conversely, their judicious reading of Bergengren's correspondence also suggests that his opponents might have been partially motivated to unseat him as a result of his advocacy for the integration of credit unions into the larger co-operative movement. By bringing their readers into dialogue with the complex details of this episode (and many others throughout the book), Moody and Fite's work succeeds in adding much valuable nuance to the too often over-simplified credit union story.

On the other hand, the book's total value is limited by its authors' conscious decision to neglect the "volunteers and dedicated leaders who worked to make the movement succeed at the grass roots." Though many scholars in recent years have, following the work of E.P. Thompson, called for "history from below" as a general principle, such an approach is especially important when studying the credit union movement. Given the organizations' democratic "one-member one-vote" governance structure and their massive reliance on volunteer labor in the early decades, any full understanding of the movement must include a sense of what motivated the members who made the whole thing work.

However, textual records of the deeds of history's "great men" tend to be more voluminous and easier to locate than evidence of the lived experiences of ordinary credit union volunteers, and content of The Credit Union Movement seems to have been heavily determined by that fact. While choosing the path of least resistance in this way is certainly understandable, it is also frustrating in the hindsight of almost three decades later. When Moody and Fite were undertaking their research, thousands of credit union pioneers from the Great Depression era were still alive, and, had the lens been turned their direction through such methods as oral history interviews, The Credit Union Movement might have made an incredibly valuable contribution to our understanding of the social nature of the credit union movement. As it stands, those voices are now forever silent, and the task of recovering the full lived meaning of early credit unionism remains unfulfilled.

In spite of this unfortunate blind spot, The Credit Union Movement is still essential reading for anyone interested in credit union history. Its comprehensive coverage of the development of the institutional movement and the roles of leading figures is extremely well crafted, and the narrative it conveys forms the fundamental skeleton upon which much subsequent historical work is based. Given its weaknesses, alone it provides an incomplete picture of the movement's history, but any historical perspective that does not include its vital insights and contributions would be woefully inadequate." (