Religion, Art, and Money

Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression

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Peter W. Williams
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , May
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The 1960s comedian Lenny Bruce once joked that there was only one “the Church.” When people said, “the Church” they always meant the Roman Catholic Church. Bruce had apparently never met any Episcopalians, who at the time and without any sense of irony were also accustomed to calling their church “the Church.” Half a century later this sense of establishment, informal or otherwise, sounds foreign to American ears, but from at least the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression, the (Protestant) Episcopal Church in the United States of America made an extraordinarily successful attempt to be an established church for a nation with no state church, a bridge between evangelical Protestants and Catholics, as well as envisioning a kind of preindustrial organic society set of social relations in which all sorts of people were cared for under the aegis of a church. The Episcopal Church was always a minority denomination, even of Protestantism in America, but it built itself so grandly and cared so capaciously for the society around it that it achieved an influence well beyond its mere numerical membership.

The history of the rise of the Episcopal Church from just over 200,000 communicants at the end of the Civil War to 1,250,000 at the eve of the Great Depression, the building of great churches and ambitious programs is the story American religious historian Peter W. Williams writes in Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Williams, a prolific author and editor, is also perhaps most familiar to attendees of the annual conferences of the American Academy of Religion as the originator of the walking tours to historic churches and sacred sites. With Professor Williams, the great architectural enthusiast, one not only gets the story of a building, but also of the people who paid for it, the clergy who hated the pulpit, the ones who replaced the communion table with an altar, and those who scrapped the whole original orientation because it did not face East—all imparted with droll wit. This book is another such delight-filled tour through time and space of what influential Episcopalians—eminent Victorians of a sort—did with their theology, built environments, and social programs to realize a different kind of church and culture than had been theretofore experienced in America.

Williams begins his narrative with a lucid explanation of Anglican and Episcopalian theology in the nineteenth century. Perhaps never have the Oxford Tractarians been treated so efficiently, or their Low Church opponents, or the Broad Church movement that proved so successful in America. Williams explains that 19th century Episcopalians, alone among the Protestants, found their way quickly to a religio-social theory that resisted the prevailing laissez-faire economics and social Darwinism in favor of an ethic of responsibility. Finally in terms of culture, the Episcopalians found their way successively to preferred new forms of architectural forms in Gothic and Richardson Romanesque churches; prep schools; institutional churches serving a broad array of neighborhood needs; and quasi-public art organizations that remapped America’s culture and influenced other faith groups and philanthropies far beyond their own ranks.

The majority of the text is divided into two main parts: “Churches” and “Gospels.” In “Churches,” Williams explores exemplary leaders, buildings, and movements, such as Philips Brooks and Boston’s Trinity Church, the Gothic Revival associated with Richard Upjohn and later with Ralph Adams Cram, and the Arts and Crafts movement associated with John Ruskin and William Morris. He also devotes a chapter to the great American cathedrals, of which the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the Washington National Cathedral, and San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral stand out, both as buildings and for their cultural significance beyond the Episcopal Church itself. In “Gospels,” Williams turns to perhaps an even more significant set of experiments and legacies from the years 1865 to 1929. The first is how Episcopalians, a conservative group combining both wealthy and middling sorts of people economically, chose for religious reasons to embrace a social Christianity, not unlike the social gospel, that challenged them to use their wealth and influence for labor and electoral reforms, uplift of the poor, and the rights of immigrants. Williams also writes of how Episcopalians became associated with private secondary education as a kind of gospel of masculine muscular Christianity, and how particular wealthy Episcopalians—William Cooper Procter, J. P. Morgan, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and George Booth among them—sought to leave legacies of beauty behind. Education, art, and philanthropy were never the same after these gospels were proclaimed.

Williams explains that the idea that more fortunate people were connected to the poor came directly from an English interest in medieval organic societies before the Industrial Revolution. This responsibility did not just extend to care for the poor, but to making cities beautiful, and elevating their culture with the “gifts” of culture in museums, symphonies, colleges, prep schools, and even organ recitals in the church open to non-members. In the end, the economic depression of the 1930s, followed by World War II and suburbanization, spelled the end of much of this kind of Episcopal largesse. Williams argues persuasively that in the end the church’s aspirations for an informal national “established church” status lost out to a more prophetic engaged stance of critique of that same standing. With an establishment in decline throughout the latter 20th century, holding onto the social Christianity legacy and allowing it to inform its witness and even who could become its priests and bishops, Williams thinks, the Episcopal Church chose the better portion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James Hudnut-Beumler is hte Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
March 13, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter W. Williams, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion and American Studies at Miami University, is the author or coeditor of several books, including Encyclopedia of Religion in America.


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