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Reviewed by:
  • Church and Estate: Religion and Wealth in Industrial-Era Philadelphia by Thomas F. Rzeznik
  • William L. Coleman
Church and Estate: Religion and Wealth in Industrial-Era Philadelphia. By Thomas F. Rzeznik. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013. xiii + 286 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $69.95

It is to Thomas Rzeznik’s credit that he has managed to make riveting reading of a book that is, on one level, a history of fund-raising. Rich in original research and perceptive analysis, Church and Estate is a major contribution to our understanding of the interplay of religious belief and new industrial fortunes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rzeznik makes a forceful case that the religious affiliations of the Philadelphia elite should not be understood as cold class calculations alone, but as means of attaining a broader moral and spiritual fulfillment that the author calls “spiritual capital.” (8)

The book centers on the transformation of Episcopalianism, Presbyterianism, and Quakerism due to the activist “churchmanship” of their wealthiest members, as was especially evident in the aesthetic choices these congregants made for the uses of their beneficence. While direct discussion of Quakerism in this ecumenical context occupies only around a third of the book, the persistence of Philadelphia’s self-mythologizing as the “Quaker City” is held up for scrutiny throughout. Readers of this journal will be especially interested in the nuanced discussion of distinctions between Orthodox and Hicksite giving practices (36-8), a thoughtful section on the loss of members through marriage out of meeting (121-3), and the vignette of Morris Leeds as a prototype of the socially committed industrialist (170-9).

Among the most useful contributions of this book is the rebuttal Chapter Four offers to explanations of the widespread conversion of Quakers to Episcopalianism in these years as a search for social advancement alone. Rzeznik uses new archival sources to show this exodus as a product of widespread theological dissatisfaction among Philadelphia Friends. Along the way come startling insights in support of the argument, including evidence of the ways in which some converts from Quakerism urged a syncretic melding of Episcopalian worship with Quaker values out of sincere faith rather than rejecting dowdy simplicity and embracing the High Church tendency altogether. (136-7)

A rare shortcoming of this clearly written, effectively argued, and beautifully produced book is insufficient attention to the aesthetics of Quakerism. The project hinges on the study of the buildings that are the most visible signs of the complex interaction of lay wealth and religious authority. While Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches come in for sustained analysis, there is an unspoken assumption here that Quaker structures don’t express the taste and ambition of their builders in quite the same way. It may be the case that new meetinghouse construction did not match the grand steeple houses rising for other denominations in the period, but one wishes for some treatment of the lay spaces of a denomination for which the distinction between divine and earthly spaces is not especially useful. This omission is most apparent in the discussion of the Quaker-founded [End Page 53] Provident Life and Trust Company (1-4, 38) without any mention of that firm’s astonishing building by Frank Furness and the doctrinal messages it conveyed as eloquently as any cathedral.

Despite occasional oversights, this is a brilliant and important study that will be a crucial reference for those seeking to understand the changes in Quakerism in the last century in dialogue with the broader religious and economic landscape.

William L. Coleman
University of California, Berkeley
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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1504
Print ISSN
0033-5053
Pages
pp. 53-54
Launched on MUSE
2014-05-18
Open Access
No
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