Kyle Roberts on Evangelical Gotham
Date: January 29th, 2017
Gotham. The Big Apple. The City that Never Sleeps. New York City. We have many images of New York City, but how many of us as thinking of that worldly city having a vibrant evangelical community in the 19th century? Kyle Roberts, an assistant professor of history at Loyola University (Chicago), takes us on a journey back to Manhattan Island from on a journey dating to the end of the Revolutionary War and to the eve of the Civil War to show how evangelical Christianity was shaped by this growing urban metropolis and how evangelicals, in turn, shaped the city. The interview is peppered with vivid characters who illustrate the distinct phases of evangelicalism during this seven decade period. Prof. Roberts defines what he means by evangelical Christianity, a religious movement that emphasized conversion, literalism, atoning for the death of Christ, individualism, and social activism/revivalism. He further lays out the interesting tension between the individualistic impulse of evangelicalism and its episodic concern for social activism. We then start the historical journey in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and up to the War of 1812, meeting a businessman-turned-preacher, Charles Lahatt who was tapped to give a sermon on his voyage across the Atlantic as the Anglican pastor was too drunk to do so. New York, a port city of roughly 20,000 people, was beginning a major population and many individuals from Britain journeyed by boat to this new land. That voyage shaped the evangelical Christianity of this period with a focus on “crossing” (a conversion experience) and “dwelling” (creating a new life). We discover that evangelicals create and embrace the image of a “common church,” often built into storefronts, a tendency that defines much of New York religiosity to this day (see the podcasts by Tony Carnes below). He also emphasizes the role that women played in the expansion of evangelical Christianity as they were often the champions of benevolence societies. The second major period of Kyle’s study moves us from the War of 1812 to the Panic of 1837. New York is experiencing more growth, both demographically and economically. This becomes the “golden age of evangelical benevolence” as evangelicals move deeper into social activism, seeking to change the sinning ways of new arrivals and sailors. It is also a time when religious publishing booms as many pastors and religious groups disseminate spiritual tracts as a proselytism strategy to increasingly literate citizens. This highlights the interesting comfort that evangelicals have with modernity in this period, being willing to adapt to and adopt the new technologies at the time, often pushing them to new economic heights. The Panic of 1837 and long recovery shook the economic landscape of the city and issues a new era of urban evangelical Christianity that sees the limits of reform and social activism. Evangelicals turn inward and emphasize personal sanctification, with leaders such as Phoebe Worral Palmer creating the Ladies’ Home Missionary Society. Prof. Roberts finishes off with some of his thoughts regarding what he learned over the course of his studies, including how evangelicalism, and particularly the urban environment, is more complex than he had thought initially, and how the urban environment intersects in multiple ways with spiritual faith. He also leaves us on an optimistic note for the future noting how Protestants and Catholics found ways to mend their differences over time, which he looks forward to happening with the increased religious pluralism our nation is experiencing. Recorded: December 30, 2016.
Prof. Kyle Roberts’ bio at the Department of History, Loyola University (Chicago).
Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City 1783-1860, by Kyle Roberts.
Crossings and Dwellings: Restored Jesuits, Women Religious, American Experience 1814-2014, edited by Kyle Roberts and Stephen Schloesser.
Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities.
Jesuit Libraries Project.
Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project.
Tony Carnes on a Journey through NYC Religions.
Tony Carnes on Jesus’s Auto Body (and Soul) Shop & Blessed Pizza.
William Reimer on Religion and Violence in Toronto.
Maureen Fitzgerald on Irish Nuns and Welfare.
John Fea on the American Bible Society.
Timothy Neary on Race, Sports, and Catholics.
Jonathan den Hartog on Patriotism and Piety.
Leigh Eric Schmidt on Village Atheists.
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