- Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783–1860 by Kyle B. Roberts
New York City, Religion, Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Religious history, Urban history
New York, New York, a city that never sleeps: For ardent antebellum-era Protestants, such insomnia impelled them to tread a more careful path to heaven, while attempting to convince their pagan neighbors of the rightness of that path. In Evangelical Gotham, historian Kyle Roberts reframes New York City as a site of evangelical action, life, and mission in the years between the Revolution and the Civil War.
Roberts foregrounds the work by identifying evangelicalism as a movement fully associated with modernity: Although eighteenth- and nineteenth-century evangelicals had important forebears in Reformation, [End Page 710] Puritan, and pietist movements, they were marked by tendencies toward individualism and self-fashioning. Atomistic experiences, however, inspired voluntary associations that sponsored acts of community activism. New York’s evangelicals were therefore co-creators of the urban world they inhabited, not hidebound opponents of it. Flexible and adaptable, while evangelicals were never a majority of New York’s inhabitants, Roberts argues they were far more active, influential, and successful than prior narratives have conceded.
Roberts deftly moves between individual vignettes and larger syntheses to provide a strong narrative thrust. Many of his early chapters closely evaluate individual texts as examples of larger developments. New Yorkers’ conversion narratives accompany an opening chapter on physical movement. Ezra Stiles Ely’s Journals from the almshouse open a window on early evangelical attempts at social activism. Ward Stafford’s The New Missionary Field illustrated the evangelical impulse to create missions in the city’s expanding northern and eastern reaches. And Michael Floy’s Diary and short tract the Memoir of John Mather serve for Roberts as entries into the larger evangelical publishing empire.
Later chapters are more synthetic, but similarly driven by individual examples. Charles Finney, Lewis Tappan, and David Hale all attempted new mission fields in free church and congregational movements, and show the limits of reform that accompanied evangelical growth in the 1830s. Phoebe Worrall Palmer provided a typically evangelical impulse to challenge social boundaries (in this case strictures against women’s public participation), yet emphasized an individual holiness that encouraged many evangelicals to shun political involvement. A final chapter, examining the congregation of John Street Methodist Church from the late colonial era to the Civil War, uses that site to consider larger processes of urban growth, development, and decay affected evangelicals’ religious experience and mission in the city.
More than discursive, Roberts’s study includes social data that reveal geography, economic relationships, social status, and cultural prestige. Maps and appendices show location and number of evangelical sites. Architectural renderings illustrate spatial relationships and cultural intent. Through all of these put together, Roberts convincingly shows that in their numbers, in their inclusion of marginalized groups, in the money they amassed and distributed, and in the spaces they shaped and occupied, evangelicals mattered in New York.
Roberts’s general narrative is one of success. Evangelicalism spoke [End Page 711] to its adherents because it adopted individual experience toward social meaning: One’s conversion and the spiritual and temporal needs of one’s neighbors were never completely separate, even if that relationship adapted to changing environments. Evangelicals created an architectural vernacular that led to flexible and distinctive church buildings. They often targeted the edges of city growth, allowing them to reach new population centers. And they adapted commercial savvy and technological expertise to create missions, churches, and publishing houses that reached all New Yorkers, and the nation as a whole. Success was sometimes ironic, for it often led to political quietism or economic elitism and social segregation, but religious affections did not simply die in the city, as some secularists prophesied and rural-based religious folk feared.
As a movement, evangelicalism crossed institutional boundaries. Biblical preaching and individual conversion experience mattered most, theology and institutional adherence less so. Considering an amorphous evangelicalism as its subject, Roberts’s...