Evangelical Gotham

Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860

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Kyle B. Roberts
Historical Studies of Urban America
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , November
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Social histories of American religion are sometimes derided as “steeple-counting.” This would be an unfair assessment of Kyle Roberts’s Evangelical Gotham, and not just because evangelical meeting-houses were often steeple-less. Roberts skillfully studies ideas, tracks material changes, and narrates well-contextualized microhistories of individual churches, publishers, and reform societies, featuring characters both familiar and relatively unknown. But there are also great maps, figures, and charts, including in its appendix. The study of American evangelicals between the Revolution and Civil War is a well-established, crowded field, but Roberts makes valuable contributions by focusing on matters of class, space, and place.

Roberts presents Evangelical Gotham as a corrective to two misguided assumptions: that New York City was a “secular” place, and that evangelicals were not urban. He writes, “When urban historians think of the forces that shaped modern New York, immigration, commerce, and real estate scarcity come to mind more immediately than religion. When religion is considered, it is often portrayed as antithetical to modernization. At the same time, when religious historians think of the forces that shaped American religion, the urban context is typically discounted as hostile” (3). The second claim might or might not be fair, depending on which “religious historians” Roberts means (a footnote here cites 20–30-year-old books from Nathan Hatch, Christine Heyrman, and John Wigger), though it certainly is true that “the frontier,” broadly construed, has received perhaps inordinate attention. But the first claim is more illuminative. Evangelical Gotham is part of Chicago’s Historical Studies of Urban America series. Roberts is writing to urban historians who, for no particularly good reason, have ignored religion by assuming it is separate from other aspects of urban life. Roberts demonstrates that the place of New York, with its familiar urban history topics like real estate scarcity, are part of the story of evangelicalism, and evangelicals are part of the history of New York.

Scholars interested in space and place will find much to draw from this book. While the theorization is light, the data are rich and clear. Roberts shows how evangelicals developed and then acted upon their “desire … to take an active role in city building” (41). Adept system-builders, particularly adroit at discerning (or creating) the natural overlay of moral and physical maps, antebellum evangelicals saw great promise in the city’s grid. “More than just a plan for economic development,” Roberts writes, “the grid presented a vision of the city as a system that could be reformed and reorganized into a single, centralized, rational order … For evangelical New Yorkers, it offered a template for expansion and also the scaffolding for an articulation of self that extended deep into the moral world. New Yorkers held great faith that natural and moral orders could be placed in parallel” (89). On Earth as it is in Heaven.

From New York, evangelicals built national and international networks, as their ideas and capital and material goods flowed over the East and Hudson Rivers and ran throughout the country and the world. Not a mere accident of history, this expansion was part of the plan, the imperial imaginary. Roberts writes, “In the pages of the New-York Missionary Magazine, the first of its kind in America, [Cornelius] Davis believed he could organize, connect, and make productive the disparate places and people not only of North America but also of the wider world” (119). This expansion, like the city’s grid, was “more than just a plan for economic development”—but it was also that. On the grid, evangelicals were getting rich. Thus, they move to new neighborhoods, pressed north, and built new churches—or converted existing spaces into churches and meeting-houses—along the way. Roberts maps this clearly and includes some preliminary analysis of the class implications. In some cases, these increasingly wealthy businessmen funneled their money back into evangelical causes and operations, such as reform societies. In others, the operations themselves swelled into big businesses, especially in distributing tracts, bibles, magazines, and other printed materials, as scholars of print and circulation such as David Paul Nord and Sonia Hazard have demonstrated. Some were more profitable than others, but the cultural and material reach was substantial. In this way, Evangelical Gotham makes a subtle but important contribution to the recent upsurge in work on capitalism, business, and evangelicals from scholars such as Bethany Moreton, Darren Grem, Tim Gloege, and Dan Vaca. Roberts’s period is earlier than these scholars’ and so, in interesting ways, Evangelical Gotham helps to set the stage for later developments and significant changes in the relationship between evangelicals and their businesses.

Throughout the book, Roberts tracks movement of not just people and capital but ideas as well. He describes, following Mark Noll and others, a “new, hybridized theological center among American evangelicals” (137). Readers read and believers believed widely, across denominational and theological lines. And yet, the more they read and believed, the more they became alike, finding similar answers and finding those answers commonsense. (We could call this evangelical secularism, depending on whom we choose to cite.) Roberts does not tell us what exactly this “theological center” was, or what it felt like, but a few pages earlier he leaves a good clue: “the massive production and distribution of evangelical print by nondenominational associations constituted the nation’s first mass media. It also manufactured distinct forms of nationalism that coalesced around a certain brand of Protestant Christianity” (128). The word “brand” here is well chosen indeed. He is writing about a product. And very few products, no matter how mass-produced, are for everybody.

As evangelicals built their brand, a crucial debate arose, with origins and implications theological and practical. Should they attend to the masses’ material conditions more than to their spiritual ones? Was charity a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself, or was it chiefly a means to conversion? By the 1840s and 1850s, many groups had begun to emphasize material reform, an arena that, Roberts notes, historians as well as nineteenth-century critics called “secular” (208–09). Roberts offers a few fascinating case studies regarding this reformist-versus-conversionist tension. When the Ladies Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church [LHMS] took over the Old Brewery at Five Points, they converted the space from a tenement, which “housed newly arrived immigrants, African Americans, and the ‘vicious poor,’” to a “purpose-built brick building [that] was five stories high and included a chapel that sat five hundred, two schoolrooms, an apartment for the missionary and his family, and twenty additional apartments for the missionary to dispense to ‘poor and deserving’ families” (205). In this juxtaposition between the vicious and deserving poor, we see a familiar and still-resonant logic, as well as a glimpse into the lived effects of how evangelicals tentatively resolved the tensions between reform and conversion. Roberts does not mention—and perhaps neither does the historical record—what happened to the displaced residents of the Old Brewery. Roberts’s history is a corrective, or at least a counterbalance, to frontier-focused histories of nineteenth-century evangelicals. Nevertheless, his work illustrates the same point that those histories (intentionally or not) make clear: when someone pushes in, someone is pushed out.

“Religion” dotted, colored, shaped, infused the urban landscape, sacralizing it, poured into the gridded city like so much godly batter in a hot, sinful waffle iron. But this is a secularization narrative. Secularization is not about the decline or impending eradication of religion. It names the processes by which some arenas of life are marked “religious” and some are marked “secular.” When antebellum evangelicals and their historians called reform secular, they were also making a pronouncement about religion’s role. Conversion was the business of religion as such. Roberts concludes with a chapter on the John Street Methodist Church, first founded in 1768 and rebuilt periodically over the following decades. As congregants moved uptown and attendance dwindled, some Methodists argued that the church, like the gospel, ought to move with them. Against Methodist tradition and evangelical sensibilities, the church was rebuilt on John Street in 1856. There was something special—“hallowed,” to use Methodist historian J.B. Wakeley’s term (248)—about that place. And so, “New Yorkers built Evangelical Gotham by putting the economic, social, and technological resources of the city to work for them” and (mostly) “dispensed with long-held notions of sacred space” (254–55). In so doing, they figured out how to influence people, build things, make money, reform society—and how to be religious. Evangelical Gotham shows how evangelicals learned their place.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles McCrary is a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
June 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kyle B. Roberts is Assistant Professor of public history and new media at Loyola University Chicago and director of the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project.



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