The revivals that marked the Second Great Awakening are generally associated with rural Kentucky and smaller market cities, such as Rochester, New York, that were settled by New Englanders. In Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783–1860, Kyle B. Roberts sets out to correct those perceptions, focusing his attentions on the stories of evangelical Christians in Manhattan, the great metropolis of the United States in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. New York’s religious scene between the American Revolution and the start of the Civil War is traditionally thought of as dominated at first by the Protestant churches established in colonial times, an era marked by general religious freedom and pluralism (with the prohibitions on Catholicism an important exception). After the Revolution and across the first half of the nineteenth century, these older churches were supplanted, the story goes, by an ever-increasing immigration of Europeans, many of whom were Catholic and Jewish. Roberts, however, finds a rich history of Protestant Christians determined to spread the gospel and bring people to Christ in a city seemingly consumed with materialism and New York’s central place in a burgeoning American economy. Undaunted by all of this, Christian citizens of the new republic who were less interested in denominational ties and traditional church structures went forth to convert denizens pouring into Manhattan from the surrounding countryside, smaller towns and cities, as well as those from Europe. Catholic and Jewish New Yorkers proved to be impervious to the evangelicals’ preaching, but many others did convert and filled the pews of the new churches. Roberts notes, however, that even the best histories of New York give this expression of Christianity short shrift, including even Michael L. Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows’ magisterial Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (1999). Roberts opens his story in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution. New York in 1777 had officially disestablished the Anglican Church and granted religious freedom to all comers, and an unfettered competition for souls was on (7–8). The Christians who sought to make Gotham evangelical include both men and women, from well-known figures such as Charles Grandison Finney to more obscure characters such as Phoebe Worrall Palmer. The growth of evangelicalism in Gotham was indeed impressive; the number of souls converted, churches (often called meetinghouses in this parlance) erected, and tracts published attest that. The efforts of evangelicals to bring the Word of God to the people were buoyed by New York’s vibrant print culture and industry. Roberts clearly is in sympathy with his subjects, admiring their sincere faith and perseverance in their mission. Presenting his evangelicals in chronological fashion, Roberts links their history with that of New York in this era of great change. Roberts is most effective in describing in fine detail how evangelicals determinedly became part of the warp and woof of New York’s society and culture, meeting sailors, workers, prostitutes, and the city’s striving business people where they lived and worked. They preached to sailors on their ships in New York’s harbors, and built their meeting houses in alleys and less desirable locations, generally caring little for their physical and material surroundings as their goal remained above all turning hearts and souls to Christ. Evangelical Gotham is bolstered by research in rich archival and printed sources (although the book does lack a formal bibliography), a dense and quantitative appendix, and a series of maps showing New York’s evolving religious landscape in terms of both chronology and geography. Roberts boldly places evangelical Christianity, and by extension religion itself, as a central factor in New York’s historical development. He is by and large successful in tracking how changes in New York’s economy, society, and culture shaped the history of evangelism, and how evangelicals in turn contributed to New York’s distinct and evolving character. He might have developed more fully the role of evangelicals in the making of the politics of New York City; he does acknowledge Ezra Stiles Ely’s famous declaration in 1827 that the United States needed a “Christian Party in politics” (76). One would like to know more, however, about the impact of evangelicals on the politics of the antebellum era, and the battles between Democrats, Whigs, and others. Roberts also details the surprisingly ambivalent attitude of many evangelicals in New York City toward the social reforms that are often associated with evangelism in this era, including temperance, sabbatarianism, and, most significantly, abolitionism. Some evangelicals, including brothers Lewis and Arthur Tappan, saw such reform as essential to their work. As early as 1834, when abolitionism was emerging as a powerful force in American life, anti-abolition rioters targeted evangelical churches (159) in the worst riots in New York City until the anti-draft outbreaks of the Civil War. After this, other New York evangelicals, including Finney, became wary of mixing political causes—however just they may have found them—with their message of eternal salvation. Indeed, when the Civil War began, New York was widely considered to be a place with a weak abolitionist movement and, from the Unionist perspective, a dangerous sympathy for the Confederacy. That speaks to the limitations of evangelical success in New York City, and Roberts admits that the 15 percent of all adults in Gotham who identified as evangelical and were affiliated with a church by the mid-nineteenth century “might not sound like much” (255–256). But a tradition had nonetheless been established, one that laid the foundation for, among things, the remarkable attendance at Billy Graham’s revivals at Madison Square Garden in 1957. And Kyle Roberts himself has succeeded admirably in adding another layer of complexity to our understanding of the most dynamic city in the United States between the Revolution and the Civil War. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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