by Christine Croxall
|Old St. Peter's Catholic Church|
The final chapter of Evangelical Gotham is, in my mind, the key to the entire project. The question it considers is not so much why did the stakeholders of a dwindling Methodist congregation come to fisticuffs in the street in 1856? but instead, what does the church's history tell us about evangelicalism's role in the expansion of New York City? Roberts traces how the members of John Street Methodist Episcopal Church rebuilt their meetinghouse in lower Manhattan, not once, but twice in the early 1800s, and then opted—after their public tussle—to stay rooted there rather than moving uptown with their Presbyterian and Baptist neighbors. In Roberts's telling, the John Street church is an exception that illumines a broader trend. By mapping congregations' proliferation and dispersal and contextualizing New York's church growth in relation to the city's economic and demographic expansion, Roberts offers a generative interpretation of religious developments in early New York.
One of the engines Roberts identifies for the burgeoning of urban evangelicalism in the early 1800s is revivalism—not a woodsy romp toward Zion (though camp meetings in rustic Long Island and up the Hudson at Sing Sing did energize some of the faithful), but instead a citified version featuring superstar preachers in local pulpits. Roberts argues these revivals propelled not only conversion and adherence but also urban reform and benevolence efforts. His analysis prompted me to wonder how we can determine causality in church membership. Did revivalism generate lasting religious commitments? Or was individual religious adherence based more on what a person did (or did not do) before and after the revival: going to prayer meetings, attending worship, reading devotional texts, collecting clothing for the indigent, being baptized? What kinds of experiences and practices most often fostered religiosity, and how might we measure and track these factors?
The interplay of actions and faithfulness connects to a refrain I noticed among New Yorkers who chose not to adhere to evangelicalism: a chorus of what the evangelicals would call works righteousness. The dying Deist who rationalized that he drank only moderately and honored the Sabbath by smoking with his neighbors instead of peacocking at church (74), the black man who believed his past sins wouldn't matter if he behaved better in the future (95), and the sick mariner who was "unconcerned about his soul" and had "always lived a moral life and needs nothing more" (106) frustrated their proselytizers by insisting that their behavior more than their beliefs were what mattered.
Catholics, of course, were the ones evangelical missionaries, preachers, and authors typically accused of prioritizing works over faith. Roberts describes the Catholic community in 1810 New York as "small, poor, and marginal, with only one parish" (74). (By 1855 they constituted eighteen percent of the total adult population, more than twice that of the evangelicals [Table A.4, 270-271].) This claim caught my attention. Yes, many of the Catholics were poor, particularly the Irish immigrants who constituted a majority of the parish of St. Peter's in 1810. But was the community so small or marginal? The priest of the parish estimated fourteen thousand Catholics in New York in 1808. A social historian mining the sacramental records from 1785-1815 has recovered a dynamic and engaged Catholic community comprised of Irish, French, German and African American residents. As a scholar who studies how Catholics and Protestants in the early republic used the presence of religious competitors—that is, each other—to spur adherence among their own flocks, I am curious how viewing Catholicism as a true contender for the hearts and souls of early New Yorkers might shift Roberts's narrative of the first batch of evangelicals, the post-revolutionary generation.