God in Gotham

When the historic Trinity Church was built in the heart of Wall Street in 1846, it was the tallest structure in New York City. (p.86) But in the 1890s, when the church became engulfed by skyscrapers housing some of the biggest financial institutions of the day,(p.86) many saw it as symbolic of the overshadowing of religion by the advancing modern world. Manhattan “has long exemplified secular worldliness for Americans and visitors alike.”(p.3) As early as the late nineteenth century, religious leaders worried that modernity, especially as expressed most vigorously in a place like Manhattan, would all but bring religion entirely to an end.

       In God in Gotham, Jon Butler, Emeritus Professor of American Studies, History, and Religious Studies at Yale University and Research Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, seeks to answer the question: “How did religion confront the challenge of modernity in the most prominent borough of what, by 1925, was the world’s largest city?” (p.9) As a pastor at Exilic Church (PCA) in Manhattan, I have a special interest in understanding how modernity has shaped Manhattan’s religious landscape today and in gleaning what wisdom we can from the recent past.

       Butler does not, as one might have hoped for given the premise of the book, discuss how theologies conversed with modernity and were shaped by it. But through the lens of religion’s formal developments between 1870 and 1960, he shows that far from suffocating under modernity’s grasp, religion thrived in modern Manhattan with its influence then spreading outward to the mushrooming suburbs of post-war America.(p.209ff)

The Threat of Modernity

       As Butler describes the late 19th century despairing cries about the impending demise of religion, many sound remarkably familiar, as if they could have been uttered just yesterday. In an 1887 conference of 1,200 American Protestants in Washington DC, Simon J. McPherson delivered a talk entitled “The City as a Peril.” He decried the modern city, saying it “stimulates and intensifies all the natural dispositions and tendencies of man.” (p.39) One year later, when Protestant ministers convened in Manhattan, the New York Times headline read: “To Combat City Evils: A Conference of Evangelical Churches Trying to Find the Means and Methods Whereby All Bad Influences Shall Be Kept Down.”(p.40)

       Speakers bemoaned the multiplication of saloons in Manhattan, “from 264 for every Protestant Congregation in 1880 to 463 for every Protestant Congregation by 1888.” (p.14) Others spoke alarmingly about what they perceived to be godless immigrants—"German, Italian, ‘colored,’ and Bohemian.”(p.15) A 1902 report on New York’s urban conditions likewise lamented the moral depravity of cities compared to rural towns. “In a great city one has no neighbors. No man knows the doings of even his close friends...Thus, with his own moral sensibilities blunted, the young man is left free to follow his own inclinations.”(p.22) Nostalgic Protestants longed for a religious homogeneity they supposed existed before modernity (although in reality New York had exhibited religious diversity since the 1630s).(p.25) In Manhattan, religious leaders of all faiths faced the challenge of lax practice and religious pluralism.(p.27)

       Like religious leaders at the end of the nineteenth century, many today see the threat of a growing secularity. Christianity is on the decline in the United States,[1] and in Manhattan, things can look especially bleak. Some estimate that as few as five percent of “center-city New Yorkers” attend a “gospel-preaching church.”[2] The cries of the 1880s reverberate throughout the halls of Facebook today. We bemoan the loss of traditional morals, the decline in church attendance, immigrants who don’t share our faith, and especially the secular elite in places like Manhattan. We long for the supposed golden era of 1950s suburban America.

       Despite all the challenges and theorizing about the collapse of religion, religion continued to thrive in 20th century Manhattan. Butler writes, “New Yorkers responded to the looming crises facing urban faith in intriguing, unexpected, and vibrant ways...Their religious and cultural answers emerged more in a jumble than according to a plan. But from that jumble evolved the new and modernized face of organized religion in Gotham.”(p.31)

Organizing God

       Writing in the early 20th century, German sociologist Max Weber believed that modernity’s rationalistic institutional structures would suffocate the wonder and mystery of religion.(p.33f) Similarly, William James argued that institutions were a distraction to the individual’s personal experience of the divine.(p.33f) But instead of the demise of religious institutions that Weber and James predicted, 20th century Manhattanites continued to find value in living within the traditional structure of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish denominations.

       In fact, to confront the challenges of density, anonymity, and mobility, religious leaders of all faiths adapted modern business models, emphasizing management and efficiency. This was exemplified in the efforts of Catholic nuns to care for the sick. They mastered modern techniques of medical administration, opened 23 new Catholic hospitals in New York between 1849 and 1910, and made professional nursing training the twentieth-century norm for nuns assisting physicians.(p.54f)

       There is a lesson here that we need not disdain traditional institutional structures, but we can do much good when we learn from and adapt some modern organizational ideas. My church, for example, is able to serve its members and our city more effectively and efficiently by using modern workplace tools like Slack and Google Docs. Likewise, my leadership has been greatly improved by reading business books from Jim Collins, Daniel H. Pink, and others.

“...we can do much good when we learn from and adapt some modern organizational ideas.”

Sacralizing the Urban Landscape

       In the sphere of architecture, Manhattan’s religious institutions also adapted and thrived. A short walk from where I live in Midtown Manhattan, Butler calls St. Patrick’s Cathedral the epitome of Manhattan’s “physical, visual, and aural sacralization after 1880.”(p.80) When it was dedicated in 1879, it was “by far the grandest place of worship that New York had to offer, and was for some time the largest sanctuary in the nation.”(p.80)

       Alongside such grand structures, otherwise ordinary spaces were used for religious purposes. Brownstones in Harlem were renovated for use in worship. Bars, bakeries, and fruit stands became synagogues. Catholic schools were designed to resemble public schools. And hotels in Midtown became places of worship. My church follows in this tradition today. Without the means to purchase or build in Manhattan’s high-priced market, I work from home in my studio apartment, and the church rents a ballroom on Sundays in a hotel across from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station.  

Modernizing God in Jim Crow Manhattan

       Butler dedicates a chapter to the story of Black religious life in Manhattan. While parts of the story mirrored that of the rest of Manhattan, much was shaped by the effects of discrimination. New York state did not end slavery until 1827, and despite Manhattan’s reputed sophistication, “job and housing discrimination followed Manhattan’s blacks wherever they turned.”(p.149)

       Even when Black communities were forced out of their historic neighborhoods in lower Manhattan and moved north to Harlem, theaters were segregated, housing associations explicitly prohibited sales to Blacks, and job listings were for whites only.(p.123) Sadly white Christians too “resisted the growing black presence in Harlem” and maintained segregated congregations.(p.123) In the face of these challenges, clergy became some of the most powerful figures in the city’s Black communities.(p.119) They developed a vibrant religious life in Harlem and “were at the forefront of protests against racism.”(p.124)

       Living on Sixth Avenue, dozens of protests against racial inequality marched past my apartment this summer, sometimes three or four large groups a day. Regrettably, Manhattan has made far too little progress towards racial equality since 1960. Those unfamiliar would do well to learn more about the plight of the Black community in Manhattan as we lament and work for change.

God’s Urban Hot-house

       Lastly, Butler shows that alongside Manhattan’s secular elite, a new religious intellectualism flourished. Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, both faculty at Union Theological Seminary, were two of the most famous Protestant intellectuals in Manhattan. However, it was Norman Vincent Peale whose influence in the wider public during the 1950s was second only to Martin Luther King.(p.193) Peale was the minister at Marble Collegiate, the oldest Protestant church in New York City,(p.194) and his 1953 book The Power of Positive Thinking spent three years on the Times bestseller list.(p.124) His book remains in print to this day, and his belief that Christians could expect success in life and business continues to find expression in the likes of Joel Osteen, Paula White, and others.(p.199)

       In 1898, Abraham Kuyper spoke of the importance of a robust Calvinism to confront the “vast energy of an all-embracing life system” in modernism.[3] As today we face challenges old and new, we would do well to heed his call. May God bring us men and women able to provide an intelligent and compelling vision for mankind in the 21st century.


Butler’s Contribution

       God in Gotham is an important contribution to the history of religion in modern Manhattan. Through his extensive historical research, Butler successfully demonstrates that religion in Manhattan not only endured the challenges of modernity, but adapted and thrived. For those interested in religion’s formal developments, God in Gotham will not disappoint. However, those interested in a theological conversation about the motivation underlying those formal developments would do best to look elsewhere.

       God in Gotham is a reminder that God’s faithfulness endures to all generations (Psalm 119:90). Just as religion continued to flourish in 20th century Manhattan, so it does today. Even in the midst of a pandemic, my church welcomed 51 new members in June, and in October we baptized another six adults and two infants. Jesus will build his church, and neither modernism, postmodernism, nor even the gates of hell will prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

Jon Butler, God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan

[1] “American’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, accessed October 15, 2020, https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/.

[2] Redeemer Presbyterian Church, accessed October 15, 2020, https://rise.redeemer.com/the-vision/.

[3] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 3.

David is a pastor at Exilic Church in New York City. He has a M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary (2019) and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He and his wife Meifung live in Midtown Manhattan.

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