Liberal Protestants and the American City after World War II

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Mark Wild
Historical Studies of Urban America
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , March
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Histories of post-World War II religion in America tend to circle around a short list of subjects and stories: the emergence of evangelicalism as a cultural and political hegemon in white American life, the acceleration of religious pluralization in America through the increased presence of non-Christian traditions, or the evolution of non-sectarian civil religion. 

In his thorough and comprehensive study, Renewal: Liberal Protestants and the American City after World War II, Mark Wild turns his attention to another group – liberal mainline Protestants – and crafts a narrative of growth and decline that presents them as an essential part of the record of American religion during this period rather than a footnote in these more popular accounts.

An important part of the success of Wild’s work comes from its emphasis on the urban environments that were a central concern for many mainline Protestants after the war.  Renewal movements across denominations like the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Disciples of Christ recognized American cities as places where ecclesial innovation was both most possible and most necessary.  As many white congregations moved to the suburbs, renewal ministries arose in places such as San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City with the express purpose of addressing problems like poverty and race relations. 

Wild effectively presents many of these churches as reflections of the specific metropolitan areas they were designed to serve.  As an example, Parishfield, an Episcopal Church in the Detroit area, established a program in the early 1950s that facilitated church members meeting with autoworkers throughout the city’s “industrial complex” so that they could better understand the institutional dynamics shaping the social, economic, and spiritual world around them.  The author balances a delineation of institutional histories of places like Parishfield with a presentation of the shared vision of renewalist ministries across the country.  Though local distinctions were vitally important, groups like Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, the Presbyterian Institute of Industrial Relations in Detroit, and the Community Renewal Society in Chicago all shared a common understanding of the Church as the heart of civic transformation.  For these liberal Protestants, Christianity provided the moral and structural means through which the problems of modern society, most concentrated in America’s urban landscapes, could be best addressed.

The roots of the renewal movement, Wild posits, can be found pre-war in the efforts of Protestants involved in the social gospel movement and neo-orthodoxy.  Both groups, in their own way, harbored a deep interest in the development of urban spaces, and sought to reshape them to reflect their theologies.  The horrors of World War II and the Holocaust left many of these Protestants uncoupled from commitments to either movement but with their interest in cities still intact.  Mainline Protestant churches across the country harnessed this sympathy and sought to refashion it through the development of a variety of projects geared towards urban engagement.  Many of these ventures flourished in the late 1940s and 1950s, particularly as their goals increasingly aligned with existing liberal positions on matters of race and class.  As a result, Wild contends that mainline Protestants seized the visible mantle of moral authority in American culture on these issues.

The success of the renewal movement was short-lived, however.  By the mid-1960s, many ministries had begun to lose steam as they suffered from internal conflicts, struggles within denominational hierarchies, and a broad sense of new-program fatigue.  The economic conditions of American cities at this time played a role, too, in the decline of the renewal movement.  As the post-war economic boom wore off in the 1960s and 1970s, the material decline of America’s urban spaces was linked in American culture to a kind of moral and spiritual decline.  This correlation depressed renewal efforts and played a role in the declension of church membership and ministry participation.

Though Wild’s telling of the rise and fall of the renewal movement is compelling, there are instances in the text where his argument could have been strengthened.  Most significant is his presentation of the scope of renewalism.  Wild describes in Renewal a trans-denominational, theologically heterodox movement that resisted centralized authority.  While he does an admirable job of depicting the character of this movement, it is difficult to get a clear sense of its breadth or margins.  It is not immediately evident, for example, how deeply renewalist sentiment really penetrated the denominational hierarchies of groups like the Episcopalians or the American Baptists, nor is it obvious that the renewalists in these churches understood themselves to be involved in a theo-social project with as clearly-defined a common cause as Wild depicts it as being.  Another way to get at this criticism is through identity – Wild needed to better outline the articulation of renewalism as either a component of or addition to existing denominational identities for those participating in urban ministries across the United States at this time.

Despite this criticism, Wild’s work should be of great interest to scholars concerned with urban history, post-war American culture, or 20th century Protestantism.  Renewal is richly detailed and well-documented, and it provides a useful reminder of the place liberal Protestants filled in the landscape of American religion during the second half of the 20th century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam Sweatman is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Wild is Professor of History at California State University, Los Angeles.


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