Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860

Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860

by Kyle B. Roberts

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At first glance, evangelical and Gotham seem like an odd pair. What does a movement of pious converts and reformers have to do with a city notoriously full of temptation and sin? More than you might think, says Kyle B. Roberts, who argues that religion must be considered alongside immigration, commerce, and real estate scarcity as one of the forces that shaped the New York City we know today.
            In Evangelical Gotham, Roberts explores the role of the urban evangelical community in the development of New York between the American Revolution and the Civil War. As developers prepared to open new neighborhoods uptown, evangelicals stood ready to build meetinghouses. As the city’s financial center emerged and solidified, evangelicals capitalized on the resultant wealth, technology, and resources to expand their missionary and benevolent causes. When they began to feel that the city’s morals had degenerated, evangelicals turned to temperance, Sunday school, prayer meetings, antislavery causes, and urban missions to reform their neighbors. The result of these efforts was Evangelical Gotham—a complicated and contradictory world whose influence spread far beyond the shores of Manhattan.
Winner of the 2015 Dixon Ryan Fox Manuscript Prize from the New York State Historical Association

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226388281
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/07/2016
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Kyle B. Roberts is assistant professor of public history and new media at Loyola University Chicago and director of the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project.

Read an Excerpt

Evangelical Gotham

Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783â"1860

By Kyle B. Roberts

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-38828-1


Crossings and Dwellings

In late spring 1789, the captain of the Lord Middleton, en route to New York from London via Halifax, Nova Scotia, approached one of the ship's passengers with an unusual request: he wanted the young man to preach the following Sunday. What made the request unusual was that the young man was not a minister but an estate agent, traveling to North America to adjust some financial matters among the relatives of his deceased English employer. Equally surprising, the ship already had a young Anglican clergyman on board. What could possibly make an obscure layman a more desirable preacher than an ordained minister of the Church of England? Charles Lahatt, the estate agent in question, certainly wanted to know. "That R — — l shall preach no more on board of my Ship," the captain told Lahatt. "He will gorge, and drink, and go on deck and vomit into the sea, come down and eat again, play cards with fellows untill midnight, get drunk &c." Besides, the captain continued, Lahatt appeared to possess more vital religion and, in his opinion, must be a member of "Lady Huntingdon's Connection," a group of British evangelical itinerants. "You appear to know more than I do," the young man protested, but in vain. The captain insisted, telling him not to deny his calling. The following Sunday, the young man complied.

Lahatt's decision raises important questions about the relationship between religion and mobility at the end of the eighteenth century. Why would he agree to preach, especially when he was under the eye of the Established Church, even if that eye was bloodshot and its beholder intoxicated? The answer can be found in Lahatt's faith. As the ship's captain correctly surmised, Lahatt was an evangelical. His spiritual and terrestrial journeys had begun several years earlier when he traded the German town of his youth for the bustling metropolis of London and a communal Lutheranism modeled on adherence for an individualistic Protestant evangelicalism predicated on active piety. When he rose to preach that fateful day, he prepared to make another spiritual crossing. Conversion had implanted in him the desire to live a life of grateful obedience and service. It also had endowed him with the self-assurance to believe he could be an agent for spreading the gospel when the situation necessitated. The geographical dislocation of his Atlantic crossing, far from the judging eyes of orthodox society, and his destination's radically new way of envisioning religious freedom did not hurt. Lahatt's experience represents an increasingly common occurrence at the end of the eighteenth century that would have profound implications for the development of evangelicalism in the nineteenth century.

Charles Lahatt was just one of many evangelical New Yorkers who experienced a spiritual crossing in the midst of a terrestrial one in the generation following the American Revolution. This period proved one of unprecedented mobility, both voluntary and forced, throughout the Atlantic World. Revolutions in British North America, France, and Haiti at the end of the century and in Spanish America at the beginning of the next, mobilized large numbers of soldiers and created streams of refugees. The Atlantic Slave Trade carried 1.8 million African women, men, and children into chattel slavery in the Caribbean, Brazil, and North America in the last quarter of the century alone. Many turned to religion to help them make sense of their movements through the world. The primacy evangelicalism placed on individualism especially appealed to a generation of women and men set adrift from their families and the close-knit communities of their youth as they navigated a world of revolution, upheaval, and modernity. Evangelicalism resonated — and stood in dialogue — with contemporary intellectual developments in secular society often associated with the Enlightenment. Making the transition from crossing to dwelling helped women and men orient themselves in unfamiliar places, build communities, and inhabit religiously remade selves in new homes and homelands.

In New York City, patriots fled for exile when the British entered the city in the fall of 1776; loyalists beat an equally hasty retreat under the British-ordered evacuation seven years later. A remnant population of around 12,000 in late 1783 nearly tripled to more than 33,000 by 1790, and nearly tripled again to 96,000 on the eve of the country's second war with Great Britain. This rapid growth came not from natural increase but from new arrivals. Whether they came on commercial vessels from Europe, schooners plying the North American coast, or slavers from Africa, members of New York's postrevolutionary generation understood what it meant to actively engage in crossing. Once in the city, evangelical New Yorkers embraced and quickly mastered the postrevolutionary spiritual marketplace. They looked beyond the compact colonial city to the edges of urban settlement when they planted new congregations. In the end, all evangelicals experienced New York differently. Some saw it as a city of deliverance or the Celestial City and settled down; others saw it as Vanity Fair, or worse, and kept moving. Regardless, all contributed to the rise of Evangelical Gotham.


Narratives of travel often functioned simultaneously as narratives of conversion among evangelical New Yorkers in the generation following the American Revolution. The surviving fragment of Charles Lahatt's spiritual autobiography, for example, begins with its protagonist foundering in a gale off the southwestern coast of England, buffeted by waves until Providence directed his broken ship back into Plymouth Sound. To convey to his readers the precariousness of his position, Lahatt invoked a familiar image from Protestant devotional literature: Christian at the beginning of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, a "man clothed with rags" standing with his face from his house, a book in his hand, and a great burden on his back. The storm-tossed Lahatt's burden was the "convictions and uneasy Conscience" that came with the realization of his unregenerate nature that had haunted him "ever since the danger of the Ships foundering." Bunyan — and the Bible before him — might have provided the model, but Lahatt personally located himself in a narrative that was all his own. Over twenty-five closely written pages, Lahatt traveled on a journey of spiritual self-discovery through the Atlantic World.

Most postrevolutionary New Yorkers began life somewhere else. In the midst of their travels, they turned to religion to negotiate an uncertain world. The appeal of evangelicalism lay in how it helped this generation order their interior lives through a more active engagement with their faith. Conversion forced them to trade passive adherence for vital piety. To make sense of their personal experience, they wrote about their lives in autobiographical narratives and spiritual journals. They drew on the interpretive framework and often directly employed the lexicon of imagery and tropes Bunyan provided. They recorded their own journeys from awakening to sin and likened conversion to a dangerous passage through a world of temptation and persecution before ultimately arriving, or at least hoping to arrive, at the gates of the Celestial City, or, as luck would often have it, a wharf in New York harbor.

A range of motivations — commercial, military, political, and social, as well as religious — underlay the journeys of this generation. Commercial opportunities motivated Charles Lahatt. The garrisoning of Isabella Marshall Graham's husband, an army surgeon, at Fort Niagara in the 1760s first brought her to North America; his death in Antigua a few years later set in motion the events that led her to settle in New York. The promise of political freedom attracted others. "When the French Revolution had fairly commenced, and the pulpit and the press were teeming all over Britain with reform," Grant Thorburn joined the radical "Friends of the People" in Dalkeith on the outskirts of Edinburgh, only to find himself later imprisoned. Salvation awaited on the auspiciously named Providence bound for New York. Not a few sought to escape their families. Mary Morgan fled a lapsed Methodist shoemaker father and a mother who, "having imbided the infidel sentiments of Thomas Paine and his contemporaries, used her talents in open opposition to religion." Virginia-born freed slave George White simply sought freedom. "I felt anxious to become more acquainted with Christian people," he recalled, "and hearing that the Africans were treated with less severity and contempt in the northern, than in the southern states, I resolved to evade these scenes of brutal barbarity ... and so set off for the city of New-York."

For this highly mobile generation, religion enabled and constrained terrestrial, corporeal, and cosmic crossings by providing a valuable means of orientation and, as one theorist has put it, of coming "to terms with the ultimate significance of one's place in the world." In the process of finding their place in the world and moving through space, the devout drew on human and suprahuman forces to guide their journeys. More than anything, religion allowed people to respond and adapt to change. Given the confluence of economic, political, social, and religious currents flowing throughout the Atlantic World between the end of the American Revolution and the outbreak of the War of 1812, crossings that ostensibly began with one purpose often took on other meanings. Unsure of their place in the world and no longer able to rely on the security of their place in tight-knit communities, men and women like Charles Lahatt became aware in the midst of these journeys of their need for a faith not of adherence but of active piety.

Evangelicalism provided many denizens of the eighteenth-century Atlantic World with just such a faith. It had been created in the crucible of the North Atlantic and refined through the travels of George Whitefield, the century's most famous Anglican itinerant minister, and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Their published Journals literally embodied a life spent in crossing. Each documents evangelicalism's portability and adaptability: it dispensed with the need for consecrated space for its performance, it provided a variety of textual materials to support the faithful, it required the embrace of only a handful of core principles — conversion and social activism foremost among them — that could be grafted onto a range of Protestant denominations, and it could just as easily be sustained by a gathering of two or two thousand. Evangelicalism's greatest strength lay in the premium it placed on personal discovery of an individuated experience. Anyone, regardless of race, gender, class, or denomination could remake their spiritual selves by renouncing sin and placing their reliance in the Lord, giving evangelicalism a radical, and potentially subversive, edge. This especially appealed to those unmoored by the upheavals of the eighteenth-century Atlantic World. Alienated from the stable, close-knit communities of their youth — in the valley of the Rhine, the highlands of Scotland, the plantations of Virginia — they found a faith sustained primarily through the discovery of their subjective selves and the creation of a personal relationship with God. Not surprisingly, evangelicalism developed parallel to, and in dialogue with, the conditions associated with modernity.

Spiritual autobiographies exemplify this new sense of individualism within evangelicalism. The genre dates back to seventeenth-century English Puritans and Continental Pietists but grew in popularity over the course of the eighteenth century. The focus of the narratives shifted over time from conversion as entry into community toward discovery of the individual. Inspired by Enlightenment practices, reflective writing offered eighteenth-century evangelicals a means of examining their hearts for signs of corruption, strengthening their relationship with God, and making sense of events that stretched the limits of their understanding. It transformed their lives into "texts" that could be "read" during times of trouble or despair for rational proof of God's presence in their lives and existence in the world. In these autobiographies, as one scholar has explained, evangelicals emerge from the "silent throng of lay people with a name, and a voice, and a story."

Process was as important as product for scribbling evangelicals. "One of my most delightful mental exercises has been that of endeavoring to recollect my earliest religious impressions," wrote Sarah Sergeant Miller, "so as to form a series, which should connect my own ideas on this subject in some order, and make them more intelligible to others." Such was easier said than done. Miller struggled with her autobiography and revised it numerous times over a sixteen-year period. "I have written over and over again many parts," she told her husband, a New York Presbyterian minister, "and have not now satisfied myself with it." Charles Lahatt waited until the end of his life to write his account, and even so it bears evidence of reworking. Divie Bethune recited a concise summation of his experiences during periods of crisis and despair over a twenty-five-year-period in his voluminous diaries. Bethune's repetition comes closest to the oral relations of experiences, now lost to us, that evangelicals regularly made.

At the core of all evangelicals' narratives is a journey toward conversion. They imagined conversion not only as a spiritual crossing, from the world of sin to the holiness of heaven through the assurance of salvation, but also as a corporeal one, transforming the body of the believer. Conversion quickened the soul and remade the individual, one New York minister explained, turning him "from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to the living God: he feels, hears, sees, tastes, loves objects, the very reverse with which he was conversant before; and thus he differs from his former self, in his approach before God, and as he is in his temper and conduct before mankind." The central trope of conversion, the renewed heart, was imagined in terms of a physical transformation: as stony and hard until "melted" into fleshy and pliable by the infusing power of the Holy Spirit. Conversion was a gift of God, initiating a new, ideally unmediated, relationship between human and Supreme Being, in which the former professed perfect dependence on the latter in return for the assurance of salvation.

Publications attempted to make concrete the abstract stages of awakening, conversion, and holy living. These are often modeled on the biblical narrative and follow a common pattern that begins with prosperity, descends into suffering and humiliation, only to conclude with redemption and a return to prosperity. Printers and publishers repackaged works by seventeenth-century English nonconformist divines, titles that David Hall refers to as Protestant "steady sellers," and their eighteenth-century heirs for evangelical audiences. One of the most popular, Philip Doddridge's Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1742) guides readers step by step through the conversion process and provided prayers to help seekers along the way. Evangelicals came to depend on Bunyan, Doddridge, and other authors. "I borrowed Pilgrim's Progress, with Scott's notes, and read it with prayer; but I could not get out of the 'Slough of Despond' with Christian," Joanna Graham remembered in frustration before conversion. Personal narratives written by postrevolutionary New Yorkers bear witness to the influence of these publications and illustrate how people interpreted the process found within them.

Like Bunyan's classic, evangelical personal narratives tend to begin in medias res. They commence with their authors' search for the New Birth, when as pilgrims they received forgiveness from the guilt of sin through the imputation of Christ's righteousness and commenced their journeys toward a life of holiness. Since eighteenth-century evangelicals typically experienced conversion in adulthood, everything that came prior, no matter how significant it might seem today, received summary treatment. George White, for example, dispensed in two pages with the first twenty-six years of his life, which included his birth into slavery, meeting his mother at age nineteen for the first time since infancy, and his unexpected manumission. Lahatt provided even less information. The careful reader must reconstruct his previous experience by closely reading for clues in the narrative that follows.

Awakening to the burden of one's sins, but also to the possibility of attaining salvation, initiated the conversion process. Following his shipwreck, Charles Lahatt made his way to London, which must have seemed impersonal and overwhelming. The scare of an interrupted oceanic crossing reminded Lahatt of how ill prepared he was to cross the ultimate horizon. An invitation to hear speak Rowland Hill, a noted evangelical preacher and protégé of Whitefield, kindled his hope for salvation. Like Whitefield, Hill warned his auditors that an inflated sense of one's own morality derived from public religious observance stood as the main impediment to the experience of the New Birth. "The Christian World swarms with these Professors," Whitefield warned, "who think, because they can perform the outward Parts of Religion, God will regard them: But let such People know that this Politeness, this negative Goodness, will never bring their Souls to Heaven." Salvation required the discovery of a private religious experience, evangelicals argued, demonstrated through an active piety, instead of passive adherence.


Excerpted from Evangelical Gotham by Kyle B. Roberts. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Part I 1783–1815
1 Crossings and Dwellings
2 The Widow, the Missionary, and the Prostitute
Part II 1815–1840
3 The New Missionary Field
4 Practicing Faith through Reading and Writing
5 Free Churches and the Limits of Reform
Part III 1840–1860
6 Perfection and the Antebellum Urban Evangelical Woman
7 Moving Uptown
Conclusion Acknowledgments

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