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A Roundtable on Roberts, “Evangelical Gotham”

Monday, March 27, 2017 8:28
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Cities have long haunted this history of American evangelicalism. They are sites evangelicals either fear or feel the need to control. But in Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860 (University of Chicago Press, 2016), Kyle Roberts highlights the ways in which evangelicalism was uniquely suited to urban forms of expression. Roberts, an associate professor history and new media at Loyal University in Chicago, has long been a friend of the blog. He's written at length about his digital project on the development of America's Jesuit university libraries. So for this week, we're turning RiAH over to a roundtable reflecting upon Roberts' new book.

Our first post comes from Catherine O'Donnell, an associate professor of history at Arizona State University. In her post, O'Donnell lays out what's at stake in writing an urban history of evangelicalism. Future posts throughout this week will hone in on other matters. And on Friday, Roberts himself will respond.

by Catherine O'Donnell

Lewis Tappan

 What a marvelous idea it was to explore evangelicals, a big and messy group, in New York City, a literal and bounded space. Drawing on a range of sources across a number of decades,  Kyle Roberts shows us buildings rising, filling with worshippers, and falling into disuse; pamphlets being printed, read, and set aside; and congregations forming and coming apart.  Like time-lapse photography, Gotham offers a view of historical change that feels both intimate and grand.

Roberts starts, as historians love to do, by telling us we’ve got something all wrong. New York City was not a godless place, he explains, nor was evangelicalism a rural phenomenon. Instead, evangelical congregations, benevolent societies, and printing enterprises flourished in New York City and helped to create its physical and cultural landscapes. Roberts may understate the extent to which historians such as Anne M. Boylan have, by exploring women’s benevolent work, already helped us to see evangelicalism in an urban context. Nonetheless, his work is invaluable. Gotham provides  a careful accounting of the growth of evangelicalism in absolute and relative terms, Roberts’ precision offering a welcome reminder of scholars’ need to count as well as read. Yet  – mirabile dictu! — Roberts reads brilliantly, too, both texts and architectural blueprints; he wants not only to demonstrate that evangelicalism flourished in Gotham, but to explain why it did. He attends to instrumental uses of religion – it creates community services – and its intangible ones.  “Unsure of their place in the world and no longer able to rely on the security of their place in tight-knit communities,” he argues, evangelicals needed “a faith not of adherence but of active piety” (18).  Roberts also contends that New Yorkers valued evangelicalism because of “the premium it placed on personal discovery of an individuated experience” (19). His analyses of individual evangelicals such as Elizabeth Palmer movingly demonstrate the way faith spurred anxiety and achievement, creating and unsettling relationships and institutions as it did.

St. Catherine of Siena

 Now for a slightly contrarian moment (another thing historians love to do). Exactly because Roberts writes so ambitiously about the distinctive appeal of evangelicalism to New Yorkers, I found myself  wondering just how distinctive some of what he describes really was. New York’s evangelicals undoubtedly faced uncertainty and found solace in their faith, but human beings have always faced uncertainty, and religions of all varieties – including the communal and the individuated — have helped them withstand it. Moreover, because I study Catholics in early America, I can’t help musing that Catholicism, a religion both Roberts and his subjects contrast starkly to evangelicalism, also flourished in New York. Granted, this was partly due to the mass immigration of Catholics.  But immigrants’ arrival as Catholics did not necessitate their persistence within the faith, and the flowering of schools, community organizations, and publications suggests that more than passive inheritance was at work. The combination of social services and spiritual solace that evangelical women provided in fact seems a cousin to Catholic orders such as the French Filles de la Charité, the community of vowed women who first served the poor in ancien régime Paris.

I don’t mean to behave like a latter day English Puritan, triumphantly pointing out the lurking popery in Protestant practices. Nor do I mean to become a latter day phenomenologist insisting that all human religion is reducible to a single form.  Instead, I’d like to draw attention to what was for me an unexpected gift of Roberts’ work. By attending so carefully to evangelicals in New York City, and by doing so in a way informed by scholars such as Thomas Tweed and Robert Orsi, Roberts places his subjects in unmistakable if implicit conversation with people from other centuries and traditions. When Roberts writes that evangelicals “deployed artifacts across the landscape to ‘anchor the tropes, values, emotions, and beliefs’ of their community, marking their own social location and prescribing expectations for proper use” (27), I think of the richness of Catholic material culture and practice as well as of antebellum evangelicals.  Conversely, when I read of evangelicals’ congregation-founding practices and innovative uses of space, I want to learn whether nonevangelicals, including Catholics, began to do anything similar.

Thanks to Gotham, I’m left persuaded that evangelicalism and New York built each other, and that evangelical New Yorkers pondered questions that kept their rural cousins and transatlantic ancestors awake, too.  Should a faith community try to discern and attack social injustice, or should it look away from the world? When do objects connect humans to the divine, and when do they tether them to earth?  These are questions that are distinctively tied to issues such as racial slavery and rapid urban growth, but not exclusively so.  Thus Roberts’ work exemplifies what can be a useful creative tension in historical writing, the twin desires to explain why a thing happened when it did, and to demonstrate how that same thing possesses an importance that transcends its specifics.  The history of religion is a particularly fertile field for the latter kind of claim; a colleague once caught me looking thoughtful as I perused a Sister of Charity’s memoir and asked jokingly, “Pondering the meaning of life?”  “I think so,” I replied.  Yet when writing about religion, I also feel a need (and I think I’m not alone in this) to link my subject very tightly to American events and people, flirting with exceptionalism in order to avoid having religion seem irrelevant to What Was Really Going On: economic growth and exploitation, territorial expansion, political conflict, and the rest.  Kyle Roberts’ Gotham shows that it is possible to draw our attention to the specific while inspiring us also to ponder the enduring, another generous gift of this terrific book.

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