by Monica L. Mercado
During the first weeks of my lecture course “Women in the City,” I introduce my undergraduate students to the complex geographies of lower Manhattan, or what the historian Kyle Roberts calls Evangelical Gotham. Sitting in a classroom in upstate New York, our windows facing the hills and valleys that made up the nineteenth century’s infamous “Burned-Over District,” we scrutinize early engravings of Five Points and other images of men and women navigating urban space in antebellum America.
|The Five Points|
Building on the foundational work of early women’s historians who located in postrevolutionary New York a new cast of characters reforming the city in their image, Roberts weaves the experiences of white evangelical women throughout this argument. [fn 1] In order to understand the world of Evangelical Gotham, Roberts suggests, we must pay careful attention to leaders such as reformer Isabella Marshall Graham -- whose Ladies’ Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children “transformed how evangelical New Yorkers thought about the women and men outside of their meetinghouses and inspired a rising generation to attempt to convert the city” (52) – and revivalist Phoebe Worrall Palmer, whose ministry embraced not only print and domestic missions, but also a weekly “Tuesday Meeting” for evangelical men and women held not at church, but in her own parlor on Rivington Street.
How might the historian of American religion visualize these spatial and spiritual conquests? In a series of carefully drawn maps of New York churches inserted throughout the text, beginning with 1790 and ending with an expansive 1856 city grid, Roberts marks only formal houses of workshop, and not the experiments with sacred space that are crucial to his narrative, such as Phoebe Palmer’s townhouse or the Ladies’ Society for the Relief of Poor Widows’ meeting rooms. If Evangelical Gotham is to rewrite the antebellum urban spiritual landscape, does the act of mapping obscure the spatial impact of religious women, whose ministries frequently took them outside of the church sanctuary? Evangelical women’s mobility – both real and imagined, in text and image – is nowhere to be seen when we place church addresses on a map. [fn 2]
[fn 1] See, for example (and as Roberts also cites), Carroll Smith Rosenberg, Religion and the Rise of the American City: The New York City Mission Movement, 1812-1870 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971), Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (New York: Knopf, 1986), and Anne M. Boylan, On the Origins of Women’s Activism: New York and Boston, 1797-1840 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
[fn 2] Elsewhere, I have argued that evangelical Protestant missionaries and their voluntary societies found reason to portray Protestant women as special conveyors of the word. In tracts, missionary reports, and memoirs, images of evangelical women’s mobility circulated in print across the Protestant world, illustrating battles over religious literacy and women’s influence in nineteenth-century America.
[fn 3] Margaret Prior’s narratives are a terrific teaching tool in the undergraduate classroom. I often assign a selection of Walks of Usefulness reprinted as “A Moral Reformer Makes Her Rounds” in the women’s history collection Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women, second edition (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), 198-203.