Monday, March 28, 2011

The Significance of Roy F. Bergengren


In the thumbnail-sketch histories of the credit union movement that can be found in introductory texts and on the websites of many institutions, there are a few individuals who are consistently framed as the movement's "founding fathers." The origins of the movement, according to these narratives, are traced back to the innovative co-operative banks founded by Raiffeisen in 19th century Germany, whose successful system inspired Alphonse Desjardin to establish North America's first credit union in 1900 in Levis, Quebec. A few years later, Desjardin's caisse populaires attracted the interest of the wealthy Boston philanthropist Edward Filene, who bankrolled the initial explosive growth of the movement in the United States until his death in 1937.

It is in the context of Filene's campaign to spread credit unions throughout the USA that Roy F. Bergengren enters the scene. Hired by Filene to direct the Credit Union National Extension Bureau in the early 1920s, Bergengren remained the credit union movement's leading figure until 1945, and remained a passionate advocate for their cause until his death a decade later. In the conventional histories mentioned above, Bergengren's contribution to the movement is portrayed as primarily that of a lobbyist and logistician; by shepherding credit union enabling legislation through state legislatures and the U.S. Congress and by organizing the Credit Union National Association, he laid the groundwork for the independent and self-sustaining credit union movement of the present day. As the third edition of Introduction to Credit Unions puts it, "with the establishment of CUNA, a historic period was drawing to a close ... Bergengren, though still influential, no longer constituted the main driving force of credit unionism in the United States."(22) With the infrastructure for modern credit unionism in place, he exits the historical stage as the narrative focus turns elsewhere.

Indeed, Bergengren's intensive and passionate campaign to, as he put it, "get the laws," and organize CUNA is of profound historical importance to the credit union movement. However, as I have dug progressively deeper into the history of credit unionism, it has also become apparent that he made another contribution that is of equal or greater importance. In his thirty-plus years as one of North America's leading advocates for co-operative banking, Bergengren criss-crossed the continent, making the acquaintance of countless people from all walks of life in the course of helping to organize thousands of credit unions. A sharp, articulate observer, the experiences and relationships that emerged from this path profoundly informed his understanding of the movement whose standard he bore. Those perspectives found their expression both in the pages of the movement's newsletter, "The Credit Union Bridge," in addition to the more than half a dozen books he wrote over the course of his career.

Thus, in addition to being a skilled lobbyist and organizer, Roy F. Bergengren might appropriately be recognized as the most important philosopher of the American credit union movement. An eminently practical and modest man, Bergengren would likely have discounted such a label but, nonetheless, his body of work comprises perhaps the single greatest contribution to the development of the "credit union idea" in the twentieth century. Furthermore, since credit unions are values-driven organizations, the nature of those contributions is not simply a question for academic historians to debate in the rarefied atmospheres of the ivory tower. Rather, what Bergengren had to say more than sixty years ago might have profound and interesting implications for contemporary credit unionism, and, as such, his ideas deserve to be unearthed and debated by those of us whose current movement is so profoundly indebted to his life's work.

To begin this important process, I plan to read every book that Bergengren wrote, and, as time permits, will post reviews of them on Credit Union History. As they are completed, I will provide links to them from this article, or you can find them on the main site.

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