Book Reviews

Enchanted New York

A tale of religion in Manhattan in the 19th and 20th centuries


For more than a century, the story of religion in the West has been one of disenchantment, as different sects struggled to cope with science, individualism, and a rising tide of secularism. The Yale historian Jon Butler tells that tale in microcosm in God in Gotham, an engaging history of religion in the Big Apple, especially Manhattan, in the roughly 80 years from the Gilded Age to the JFK presidency. It is a story not just of spirituality but of institutions, and it offers valuable lessons in how endangered entities, whether religious or not, can sustain themselves in the face of change.

To many of us, Manhattan is a foul-mouthed, sharp-elbowed temple to Mammon, but the author uses the harsh environment to advantage. In Butler's hands, Gotham's most influential borough is a petri dish brimming with religious organizations coping with change. The author's chosen time period encompasses the onset of mass immigration, mass media, and mass affluence, to say nothing of two world wars, the Great Depression, and the atomic bomb.

Ours is not the first era to see a decline in church affiliation. In the late 19th century, Butler shows, ministers fretted that religion was a lost cause—particularly in booming, polyglot New York, with its proliferating saloons, harsh economic climate, and galloping ecclesiastical diversity. Protestantism seemed particularly threatened; its leading denominations were notoriously schism-prone and hopelessly bourgeois, gaining little purchase among the working classes. By 1880, moreover, 88 percent of city residents were immigrants or had parents who were, and a huge proportion of these new Americans were Catholics or Jews. At an 1888 convocation of Protestant ministers in Manhattan, Butler writes, "most of the conference talks…read like spiritual autopsies."

Who could have foreseen the religious vitality that lay ahead? The flood of newcomers brought new spiritual energy to the city, and religions responded by catering to the influx of ethnicities and languages. The challenges of modernity demanded that religious organizations adopt new, efficient business methods to manage operations. Churches provided shorter and more frequent services to cater to working people, and faith-based organizations such as the Salvation Army and Alcoholics Anonymous emerged to meet important needs outside of church.

Manhattan churches and synagogues began to position themselves more aggressively as educational, recreational, and social service outfits. At a time when government provided little in the way of a social safety net (aside from the selective largesse of Tammany Hall), a decentralized assortment of religious institutions, like the fraternal organizations of the day, were important sources of mutual aid and fellowship.

The more centralized Catholic Church, with its army of capable nuns and its growing flock of needy parishioners, was also well-positioned to serve communities. "The Sisters of Charity opened St. Vincent's, the city's first Catholic hospital, in 1849," Butler writes. "By 1910 New York was home to twenty-three Catholic hospitals." Nuns "transformed the Catholic presence in the city" through a robust network of parochial schools as well as facilities for the destitute and the orphaned. Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker organization showed that Catholic anarchists could provide for the poor as well.

American Protestantism was inspired to service by the Social Gospel movement, which was born during the 11 years of the late 19th century that Walter Rauschenbusch spent ministering to the poor in the Manhattan slums. He and others laid out a vision of Christianity that went beyond personal redemption to encompass labor reforms, charity, and justice—an agenda that would itself become sacred in certain circles. The Protestants had no nuns, but women played important roles in staffing Sunday schools, sustaining congregations, and organizing societies to aid the poor. Their inrush to the pastorate would come later.

Manhattan was also where churches got the most out of radio. "Between the mid-1920s and late 1930s," Butler tells us, "as many as half of New York's radio stations offered Yiddish language broadcasts, many of them religious." But syndicated broadcasting was naturally dominated by Christians, most of them Manhattan-based: "When the American Academy of Political and Social Science digested 'Radio and Religion' in its 1935 Annals, eight of the ten 'distinguished' clergy it identified as deeply involved in religious radio broadcasting were Manhattan ministers, their messages carried on the dominant radio networks." Norman Vincent Peale's Art of Living broadcasts were "a twenty-year preface to his 1952 Power of Positive Thinking, which sold millions of copies and made his brand of 'practical Christianity' a touchstone across Protestant America."

Butler makes a good case that "between the 1920s and the 1960s Manhattan stimulated an outpouring of individual and institutional religious creativity unsurpassed in any other twentieth-century American locale." In a chapter called "God's Urban Hothouse," he weaves together Peale's antics, the founding of Reconstructionist Judaism (here too God's presence grows fainter), the genius of Reinhold Niebuhr, the activism of the Adam Clayton Powells (father and son), and what was evidently the world's first bat mitzvah. The city's newspapers attested to the importance of religion by printing notices of upcoming sermons and even writing about some of them. Butler doesn't mention it, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spent the 1930–31 academic year at Union Theological Seminary, wrote that "the Monday morning New York Times offers an extremely valuable complement to any study of contemporary preaching."

Wrapping up in the Kennedy years lets Butler finish on a more hopeful note than might otherwise have been possible, for Camelot came just before the end of what Garry Wills called the "feverish religiosity" that followed World War II. Wills has noted that in the 15 years following the Second World War, clergymen were the most respected leaders in America, under God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and "In God We Trust" became the national motto. Ten days after his inauguration in 1953, Dwight Eisenhower became the first (and thus far only) president baptized in office.

Butler's focus on Manhattan lets him pass on covering the Jehovah's Witnesses and Chabad. (Brooklyn, once known as the borough of churches, has also been the borough of synagogues and The Watchtower.) It's more surprising that the ultra-conservative Cardinal Francis Spellman, who was practically synonymous with American Catholicism as the city's archbishop from 1939 to 1967, gets only a single mention, as does Malcolm X.

The clergyman Harry Emerson Fosdick doesn't go unnoticed, but readers might have enjoyed learning more about this cheerful pacifist and civil libertarian. In the 1920s, while discomfiting congregants as a pastor at Manhattan's First Presbyterian Church, the Baptist Fosdick was accused of heresy, by William Jennings Bryan among others, over his public rejection of biblical literalism. In an ecclesiastical inquiry, Fosdick was defended by no less than future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, at the time a young lawyer and parishioner, who argued that a Baptist clergyman couldn't very well be a Presbyterian heretic. (Butler notes that Protestant trials were common in the New York area back then; the Times reported on more than 20 from the 1890s to the 1920s.) Fosdick won on the merits but resigned rather than follow the church's demand that he convert, which would subject him to fundamentalist dogma. He was rescued by the patronage of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who built the mighty interdenominational Riverside Church expressly for him.

Martin Luther King Jr., like most Protestant clerics of the time, borrowed liberally from Fosdick's sermons. "You are the greatest preacher and foremost prophet of the century," King would later tell him, laying it on just a bit thick. "You are a Christian saint."

Maybe not. But he was something that nowadays seems rarer: an optimist. And the sermon that triggered Fosdick's doctrinal troubles—"Shall the Fundamentalists Win?"—is more relevant today than when he delivered it in 1922. "There are many opinions in the field of modern controversy concerning which I am not sure whether they are right or wrong," Fosdick told his parishioners. "But there is one thing I am sure of: Courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken; love never is."

God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan, by Jon Butler, Belknap Press, 308 pages, $29.95