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The Spiritual Dynamo of the 20th Century?

God in Gotham
The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan

By Jon Butler
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 308 pages, $19.95

God in Gotham tells the story of how religion flourished in Manhattan in the age of modernization, from the 1880s to the 1960s. After a golden age of suburbanization and prosperity, we now experience a long, slow numerical decline. Today there are 1.5 million Episcopalians in the United States. There are more Girl Scouts — 2.4 million — than there are Episcopalians.

Theological education is in disarray: Some of our venerable seminaries have closed, merged, or moved online, and we struggle with what to teach, whom to teach, where, and how. We ask our clergy to be entrepreneurs, community organizers, online content producers, and technical experts.

Jon Butler’s God in Gotham asks a single question: “How did religion confront modernity in what, by 1925, was the world’s largest city?” Gilded-Age Manhattan became a center of religious dynamism in response to fears that traditional faith practice might not survive amid chaotic and frightening change as immigration, industrialization, and urban anonymity tore at the fabric of religious community.

By sticking closely to a study of classic European-derived mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism that dominated Manhattan religion from the 1880s to the 1960s, God in Gotham portrays a city where people of faith eagerly engaged modernity, where immigrants were welcomed, not shunned. Butler argues that modern Manhattan actually gave rise to a new urban religious landscape of unparalleled breadth and popularity, rather than a crippled, old-fashioned religion of exclusion.

Butler further argues that Manhattan’s post-1880 religious development had a strong effect on the post-World War II pattern of suburban religion. Urban emigrants to the suburbs instigated a religious revival that extended from the late 1940s to the 1970s. Without the widespread influence of the Manhattan model, suburban religion would likely have failed.

How does Butler make the case that Manhattan became a spiritual dynamo in the 20th century? His principal argument is the centrality of institutions in the religious experience of Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews. Twentieth-century Manhattan became a center for the application of modern business methods to Protestant parishes, designed like secular corporations around boards, systematic financial practices, and formal stewardship campaigns. Fundraising supported Roman Catholic charities, which in turn supported popular institutions — hospitals, orphanages, schools, and colleges.

New York Jews directed funding to popular causes, philanthropy, and women’s issues. Harlem’s massive mainstream parishes and its storefront congregations testified to the triumphs of modern urban religion as something new, focused on social justice and civil rights. Tools of modernity were integrated into all of these institutions to advance their goals — advertising, psychology, and new building materials and construction techniques that could accommodate increasing numbers of worshipers and modernize existing sacred spaces.

The fifth chapter, “God’s Urban Hothouse,” is a wonderful review of the intellectual power of religion in Manhattan during this period. Manhattan stimulated an outpouring of individual and institutional theological and spiritual creativity unsurpassed in any other 20th-century American locale. Thinkers were attracted by Manhattan’s formidable seminaries and universities. No single “Manhattan Theology” emerged, but most leaned liberal.

Butler offers exquisite portraits of Manhattan intellectuals who shaped the future of religion. Reinhold Niebuhr of Union Theological Seminary was famous as preacher and teacher, but above all for his 1932 classic Moral Man and Immoral Society, with its renewed emphasis on original sin, which furthered the Neo-Orthodox Movement in Protestantism. Paul Tillich, also of Union, with his fusion of psychology and Christian theology, found an enormous audience in Protestant America. Jacques Maritain, the best-known Catholic intellectual of the period, produced the classic Christianity and Democracy.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement. Norman Vincent Peale, senior pastor of Marble Collegiate Church, was best known for his 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking. In politics, he was persuasive as an opponent of electing a Roman Catholic as U.S. president, but not enough to prevent John F. Kennedy’s victory. The 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, came under his influence as a parishioner while a young man. (Peale presided at the wedding of Trump and his first wife, Ivana.)

I close with one caveat. Butler omits the strong influence of the Episcopal Church in Manhattan. He ignores the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a great example of significant Manhattan religion and a perfect architectural symbol of his theme. Begun in 1892, it is the world’s sixth-largest church, and its architect, Ralph Adams Cram, was highly influential in adapting the Gothic style to modern churches, not only in Manhattan but throughout the United States.

Finally, Episcopal intellectuals are excluded. There is no mention of H. Boone Porter, professor of liturgics at General Theological Seminary, a key scholar involved in the revision of the Book of Common Prayer (1979), an important agent of religious modernization. Porter was a major force in the renewal of the Episcopal Church from 1997 to 1990 as editor of The Living Church. His absence, like that of St. John the Divine, is a significant omission from this otherwise splendid study.

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