In the interview below, historian Kyle Bulthuis discusses his forthcoming book, Four Steeples over the City Streets: Religion and Society in New York’s Early Republic Congregations (NYU Press, October 2014).
What led you to write the book?
Kyle Bulthuis: In graduate school I found myself drawn to two historical fields—religious and social history—that often do not mix. When they interact, each tends to flatten and simplify the other field. In this book I wanted to do justice to both methods. In New York City, individuals such as John Jay, James Harper, Sojourner Truth, and Peter Williams were not just prominent citizens but also churchgoers. I strove to tell their story as religious as well as social individuals, people located in a time and place that included religious and secular commitments.
In two sentences, what is the argument of your book?
These four New York City congregations—Trinity Episcopal Church, John Street Methodist Chapel, Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, and St. Philip’s (African) Episcopal Church—were all historically significant in their respective denominations (and socially significant landmarks in New York City), and each were profoundly shaped by the social changes of the early Republic. The language of Christian unity that congregants voiced proved to be an ideal that was impossible to maintain in an environment where wealth and poverty, race and gender, and physical and material development tended to divide religious bodies more than unite them.
Why do we need to read Four Steeples over the City Streets?
In major American cities, churches are often prominent landmarks that tourists treat as museums of the past. American politics and culture tend to identify cities as places of primarily secular, not religious, commitments. These assumptions have carried weight in the scholarly community. American religious histories often focus on denominations, or large movements, rather than individual buildings or congregations. Further, scholars of American religion have traditionally focused on the western frontier, the place of big camp meeting revivals, rather than urban centers. My examination of city congregations therefore reveals a different scale in a different place than is typical. I found that these central New York City congregations experienced religious change earlier and more intensely than elsewhere: rather than being a place where religion was peripheral, New York City was a place where religious change was cutting-edge, for good as well as for ill. Democratization, revivalism, feminization, racial segregation, reform: these developments all contributed to the urban religious experience.
[Note: An expanded version of this post originally appeared on The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog.]