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Evangelical Gotham: An Interview with Kyle Roberts

Kyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of History and the Director of the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities at Loyola University, Chicago. He is also the author of the recently published Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860, which was researched, in part, here at NYPL. Kyle graciously took the time to answer some questions about his research at NYPL and his new book.

If I'm not mistaken, the title of your book, Evangelical Gotham, is meant to jar readers. We don't often think of New York City as a hotbed of evangelicalism. Yet you argue that it was in the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Can you give us a sense of how widespread evangelicalism was in antebellum Manhattan? 

I personally love the juxtaposition of “evangelical,” with its connotations of pious converts and rural revival meetings, with the darker, grittier, and certainly more sinful images associated with “Gotham.” (I’m also hoping for a cross-over audience of Batman aficionados!)

Roberts

On the eve of the American Revolution, only a handful of women and men identified as evangelical in New York. Yet by 1835, nearly 60% of the churches in the city belonged to evangelical denominations: Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and a smattering of other faiths. Evangelicals competed remarkably successfully in the spiritual marketplace created when the New York State Constitution of 1777 refused to privilege any single church with state-support. Their emphasis on voluntary choice over kinship ties appealed to the city’s population, many of whom had been born elsewhere. By the Civil War, Roman Catholic and Jewish houses of worship emerged in large enough numbers to challenge their supremacy.

By my calculations, maybe 1 in 10 New Yorkers claimed to have had a conversion (“born again”) experience during this period. That isn’t a huge amount, but converts and their families had an unmistakable influence that far exceeded their numbers.

During the period you study, NYC became one of the commercial capitals of the world. Historians often think of evangelicalism and the marketplace as in tension. You argue something very different. How did NYC evangelicals harness the marketplace for the benefit of their own churches and in support of evangelicalism more generally?

Evangelical New Yorkers were remarkably innovative. Just how far they were willing to put the secular resources of the city to use for sacred ends was one of the great surprises for me in writing this book.

Take storefront churches. They are ubiquitous in American cities today. Did you know evangelical New Yorkers had one as early as the 1760s? They could turn a commercial space into a sacred place because as Protestants they stripped their requirements for worship down to its essentials: a preacher and some people. He might need a podium, his listeners probably wanted some seats to hear him deliver the Word, but that was about it.

In the early nineteenth century, evangelicals pushed all sorts of boundaries: they used the famous grid unveiled in 1814 to plan the location of new churches, they turned theaters and the decks of ships into chapels, and they even threw out the centuries-old model for funding churches and experimented with a “Free Church” model inspired by their business practices.

They harnessed New York’s commercial supremacy to emerge as the center for the publishing of Bibles, newspapers, and tracts (short pamphlets with a simple gospel message given out for free) distributed across the country and around the world. They were early adopters of the newest technologies, centralized their operations in massive purpose-built structures, and created novel funding models. Commercial publishers ended up following their lead and catered to the thriving market they created for religious readers!

Evangelicals certainly feared the distractions that commercial wealth provided, but they weren’t above using it to bankroll their enterprises.

Throughout the book, New Yorkers focus on evangelicalism as primarily an individual conversion experience, and evangelicalism as a communal vehicle for social change. Can you trace the swings in emphasis over time, and explain how the urban experience helped determine the relationship between evangelicalism and reform (abolitionism, poor relief, etc.)?

Evangelicalism can be a tricky thing to get your head around. At this time, it wasn’t a sect or a denomination. It was more like a popular movement. It asked people to incorporate a small set of core principles into the beliefs, practices, and worldviews provided by their Protestant faith. The two most important principles were conversion – the belief you needed to have an experience of spiritual regeneration, to be “born again” – and activism – that you expressed your faith through your efforts towards others.

The emphasis placed on conversion and activism varied over time. The generation following the American Revolution spent much of their time rebuilding congregations torn apart during the war. They were too focused on the spiritual lives of the people in their meetinghouses to look beyond them.

That began to change in the early nineteenth century. Especially after 1815, evangelicals distributed Bibles and tracts; opened institutions with fun names like Seaman’s Bethels, Houses of Refuge, Half-Orphan Asylums, and charity schools; undertook urban missions to sailors and prostitutes; and took temperance pledges (helping turn the tide on America’s love of alcohol). Some even embraced antislavery, but that proved a harder sell in a city so dependent on southern cotton. When the Panic of 1837 struck, New Yorkers who loved market capitalism soon realized that what goes up, must come down. And boy, did it come down.

Over the two decades before the Civil War, evangelicals backed away from activism. They no longer had the financial resources to fund it and they had grown conflicted about what they should be doing. Following the lead of Phoebe Worrall Palmer, the most important woman theologian you’ve likely never heard of, many increasingly focused on their individual relationship with God.

Your book came out in 2016, the 250th anniversary of the founding of John Street Methodist Church, New York’s first Methodist meeting. NYPL is proud to safeguard some its early records, as part of the Methodist Episcopal Church Records. The church’s story seems to epitomize the trajectory of your book. Can you tell us why John Street is such a quintessentially Evangelical Gotham story, and how NYPL collections helped you tell that story?

JSM
John Street Methodist Church, ca. 1768, NYPL Picture Collection

John Street is the evangelical church that shouldn’t have survived. Nineteenth-century evangelicals always looked to the future. Here again they challenge our stereotype of them as backwards-looking and reactionary.

An evangelical congregation demonstrated its health by rebuilding its meetinghouse, preferably every generation. The first John Street went up in 1768, built of ballast stone from ship hulls because the congregation couldn’t afford anything better. By 1818, however, their children were thriving in the city’s economy and rebuilt it as one of the finest churches in the city. (One of their ministers was so embarrassed that he reminded them in the dedicatory sermon that Methodists were plain people and not to get too ahead of themselves.) Within twenty years, however, the neighborhood changed and looked more like does today, commercial. Most of the old congregation moved uptown. If Methodists followed their common practice, they should have sold the building and land and rebuilt uptown. But they didn’t. Instead, for the first time, they called on the historic association of the spot – of the first Methodist meetinghouse in the United States – to build again.

The realization that their past was worth preserving is exemplified in the fantastic Methodist collection at the NYPL. I couldn’t have written the book without the collection. From membership lists to association minutes to original drawings, the collection documents the life and people of so many of New York’s Methodist churches. Often these documents are the only surviving trace: the churches disappeared long ago, subsumed in the march uptown. The collection has something for everyone – genealogists, historians, sociologists – and deserves to be broadly used!

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Storefront Churches and Gentrification

I am working on an article about gentrification and the storefront church for Our Time Press, a community newspaper covering Bedford-Stuyvesant and other Brooklyn communities. Many storefront churches have been forced to relocate or close because they or too many of their members could no longer afford soaring rents. For the record, what defenses can storefront churches mount to counter the destabilizing forces of gentrification? Thank you for your response. Shedding light and hope, Margo emjmac2@gmail.com

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