restricted access Mapping Urban Religion in an Atlantic Port
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Mapping Urban Religion in an Atlantic Port Kyle B. Roberts P+++++++p Upon first glance, the intersection of Ann and Nassau Streets in lower Manhattan , as reproduced in an 1830 issue of the New-York Mirror, looks like a typical early-nineteenth-century city block. In a view that could just as easily be seen in Dublin, Bristol, New Orleans, or a number of other Atlantic seaports, the commercial landscape appears to be advancing over the residential and religious landscape. Multistory brick storefronts overshadow and crowd out older wooden townhouses. A church spire provides the only ostensible religious element in an otherwise secular landscape, and even it looks consigned to the margin. If life imitates art, then Mammon appears to have banished God from the life and spaces of the growing city. Such a read, while understandable given the way scholars have written about the modernizing city, glosses over a far more complex urban landscape. These seemingly secular structures housed people and institutions intimately connected to the spiritual currents of the Atlantic world. The congregation worshipping in the Presbyterian Church at the end of the block maintained personal and denominational ties to congregations around the city, throughout the region, and across the Atlantic. When they prayed for the expansion of Christ’s kingdom , they imagined themselves as part of a circum-Atlantic community with a global reach. The men and women laboring two doors down at the headquarters of the American Bible Society, the three-story structure in the center of the block, had actually achieved that reach. They annually distributed hundreds of thousands of Bibles in various languages over national and international networks . Moral reform associations frequently met next door in Clinton Hall. Inspired by the 1833 British abolition of slavery, the American Anti-Slavery Society planned to gather here the following July to renew its call for abolition in the United States but switched at the last minute to Chatham Street Chapel to avoid detection. The spectacle of blacks and whites sitting side by side fanned embers of racial hatred already stoked by religious justifications for slavery. Before long, mobs ran rampant through the city, assaulting the bodies, homes, and churches Mapping Urban Religion in an Atlantic Port 77 of African Americans. The mob’s violence cast a long shadow over the city’s and nation’s religious, social, and political life. Churches, publishing houses, rental halls, streets, and bodies were just a few of the diverse places in Atlantic ports where urban religion was formed, negotiated, and contested. That New York provided nodes for local, national, and international religious networks and sites of interaction is not, in itself, surprising. For centuries, seaports stood as hubs for a vast array of networks—social, economic, political , and cultural—that crisscrossed the Atlantic. From around the Atlantic basin came much of the city’s population, whether driven by ambition, necessity , bondage, or a desire for adventure. Men and women arrived on the same ships that transported commodities extracted from Atlantic hinterlands—furs in the seventeenth century, sugar in the eighteenth century, wheat and cotton in the nineteenth century—that formed the basis of the city’s economy. Complex circum-Atlantic networks of production, distribution, and consumption reinforced political relationships, although those bonds were susceptible to challenge over time. In daily interactions in taverns, parlors, and meetinghouses, men and women debated topics—such as colonialism, revolution, and emancipation—of pressing concern in all corners of this world. The books they read, the goods they consumed, and the staged and impromptu performances they witnessed and participated in linked them to cultural and intellectual currents far beyond New York’s wharfs. Characterization of the city’s street life as “Babylonian confusion ” in an 1850 guidebook aptly alludes to the pluralism of the city as much as to the interconnectedness of secular and spiritual conceptions within it.1 Given these connections, it is surprising the extent to which scholars have overlooked the place of urban religion in the development and experience of life in Atlantic world seaports. This essay seeks to reconcile this oversight by using Fig. 1. “View of a Section of Ann and Nassau streets—taken from the south corner” from the New York Mirror, and Ladies Literary Gazette 8 (September 4, 1830): 65. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society. 78 Kyle B. Roberts New York as a case study to explore urban religion from two different vantage points between the mid-seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Unique in what it achieved...


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