Evangelical Gotham Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860
by Kyle B. Roberts
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Cloth: 978-0-226-38814-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-38828-1
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226388281.001.0001


At first glance, evangelical and Gotham seem like an odd pair. What does a movement of pious converts and reformers have to do with a city notoriously full of temptation and sin? More than you might think, says Kyle B. Roberts, who argues that religion must be considered alongside immigration, commerce, and real estate scarcity as one of the forces that shaped the New York City we know today.
            In Evangelical Gotham, Roberts explores the role of the urban evangelical community in the development of New York between the American Revolution and the Civil War. As developers prepared to open new neighborhoods uptown, evangelicals stood ready to build meetinghouses. As the city’s financial center emerged and solidified, evangelicals capitalized on the resultant wealth, technology, and resources to expand their missionary and benevolent causes. When they began to feel that the city’s morals had degenerated, evangelicals turned to temperance, Sunday school, prayer meetings, antislavery causes, and urban missions to reform their neighbors. The result of these efforts was Evangelical Gotham—a complicated and contradictory world whose influence spread far beyond the shores of Manhattan.
Winner of the 2015 Dixon Ryan Fox Manuscript Prize from the New York State Historical Association


Kyle B. Roberts is assistant professor of public history and new media at Loyola University Chicago and director of the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project.


“Until recently historians have viewed the landscape of religion chiefly from the perspective of social history, treating the realm of faith as a subjective response to uncertainty and change and spiritual movements as instruments for imposing order. Sometimes the secular approach goes farther and sees in revivals and awakenings the ambitions of elites to impose social control over the subordinate classes. Roberts will have none of this. In Evangelical Gotham, religion operates as a domain of meaning in its own right, anchoring individual lives, building institutions, and inspiring aid to the needy in body and spirit. Roberts shows that evangelicals embraced the city and appropriated its characteristic institutions to religious ends. In a stratified society, rent by divisions of class, race, and ethnicity, these dedicated souls were inclusive and expansive, seeking to bring every possible soul within their embrace. Such a faith proved a social force of immense importance and in charting its impact Roberts provides us with a powerful lens through which to view the world of the early republic.”
— Robert Gross, University of Connecticut

“With deep and wide-ranging research, Roberts has provided a path-breaking interpretation of religious dynamics in the development of New York City as the nation’s leading urban center. The book is simply jammed with insights—especially on the city’s expanding but also conflicted evangelical churches (Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist), but also on race, religious and ethnic minorities, missionary initiatives, market-place instincts, gender, revival, philanthropic voluntarism, and more. Evangelical Gotham is a splendid book.”

— Mark A. Noll, author of America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln

“Roberts’s deeply researched and much anticipated book calls attention away from the frontier to show how influential Manhattan was as a center for evangelical religion in the early American republic. With extensive evidence of the presence of evangelical organizations in the expansion of New York City, Roberts corrects the mistaken impression that religion played only a minor role in the development of that vibrant commercial center. This book will find its place among ‘must reads’ for a long time to come.”
— Amanda Porterfield, author of Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation

Evangelical Gotham’s evocative portrait of born-again Protestantism in early nineteenth-century New York City offers a startling new history of religious fervor in a city too quickly tagged with secularism and a vivid account of America’s first evangelical nerve center. Vividly written and ingeniously researched, Evangelical Gotham recasts much of what we thought we knew about American urbanism, religion, and the dynamics of American evangelical germination.”
— Jon Butler, Yale University

“Roberts surveys this remarkable evangelical surge and the struggle to realize its spiritual goals in a secular world. Seven chapters are grouped into three chronological parts and feature critical themes: evangelical immigration to New York; evangelicalism’s growing vision to serve the needs of women, children, workers, and sailors; an emerging evangelical publishing industry; challenging expressions of evangelical democracy; gendered debate over women’s roles in churches and the possibilities of moral perfection; and the struggle to maintain existing congregations as denominations moved northward with the city’s burgeoning population. A story of triumph and tragedy, Gotham’s evangelical enterprise failed to convert many, struggled with societal issues like slavery and internal issues concerning ministerial authority and ecclesiology, and fought the immigrant faiths of Jews and Catholics. It negotiated complex change by weaving old faith into modern urban cloth. Recommended.”
— Choice

“The book tells readers much about religious life in early New York, as well as the way the churches and the city grew together. Its use of a wide variety of sources demonstrates that the author has creatively found many paths into understanding his topic. Further, his challenge to readers today focuses on the dynamic of the inner life and the outer practice, the ties between individual transformation and social responsibility. The book also reminds readers to look for evangelicalism in cities and even in Manhattan itself, as contemporary congregations like Redeemer Presbyterian Church and Times Square Church can attest to the continued presence of evangelicalism near the heart of Gotham.”
— Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“Roberts skillfully studies ideas, tracks material changes, and narrates well-contextualized microhistories of individual churches, publishers, and reform societies, featuring characters both familiar and relatively unknown. But there are also great maps, figures, and charts, including in its appendix. The study of American evangelicals between the Revolution and Civil War is a well-established, crowded field, but Roberts makes valuable contributions by focusing on matters of class, space, and place.”
— Reading Religion

"In this exquisite gem of a book on the rise of Protestantism in New York City, Kyle Roberts explains the contests between competing versions of Christian responses to American society during the early republic and well into the nineteenth century. This book provides readers with the foundational view on Christian efforts of all stripes in the period before the creation of the immigrant Catholic Church in the same city to conquer the landscape for Christ and His Church."
— Catholic Library World

"Evangelical Gotham persuasively demonstrates that American evangelicals shaped the development of New York City, even as New York City shaped the development of American evangelicalism. . .Roberts convinces that without Gotham, evangelicalism in America would not have developed into the powerhouse it became over the course of the nineteenth century."
— Common-place: The Journal of Early American Life

— 2018 Herbert H. Lehman Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in New York History


- Kyle B. Roberts
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226388281.003.0001
[New York City, urban evangelicalism, evangelicals, urban development, religion, American Revolution, Civil War]
This introductory chapter discusses the importance of religion in the development of New York City between the American Revolution and the Civil War. New York's evangelical population was never large, but it had an unmistakable influence on urban life and development As developers prepared to open new neighborhoods uptown, evangelicals stood ready to build meetinghouses. As the city emerged as a commercial center, evangelicals capitalized on the resultant wealth, technology, and resources to expand their missionary, tract, and benevolent causes. And when evangelicals felt the city's morals had degenerated, they turned to temperance, Sunday schools, antislavery, and other initiatives to reform its residents, who, in turn, responded variously with indifference, occasional violence, and conversion. The result of their efforts was Evangelical Gotham, a complicated and contradictory world whose influence spread far beyond the shores of Manhattan. (pages 1 - 12)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part I. 1783-1815

- Kyle B. Roberts
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226388281.003.0002
[New York City, urban evangelicalism, evangelicals, American Revolution, New Yorkers, refugees]
This chapter focuses on the evangelical New Yorkers who experienced a spiritual crossing in the midst of a terrestrial one in the generation following the American Revolution. This period proved one of unprecedented mobility, both voluntary and forced, throughout the Atlantic World. Revolutions in British North America, France, and Haiti at the end of the century and in Spanish America at the beginning of the next, mobilized large numbers of soldiers and created streams of refugees. To help them make sense of their movements, many turned to religion. The primacy evangelicalism placed on individualism especially appealed to a generation of women and men set adrift from their families and the close-knit communities of their youth as they navigated a world of revolution, upheaval, and modernity. Evangelicalism resonated with contemporary intellectual developments in secular society often associated with the Enlightenment. Making the transition from crossing to dwelling helped women and men orient themselves in unfamiliar places, build communities, and inhabit religiously remade selves in new homes and homelands. (pages 15 - 50)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Kyle B. Roberts
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226388281.003.0003
[American Revolution, evangelical activism, Isabella Marshall Graham, Ezra Stiles Ely, New York City, urban evangelicalism, evangelicals]
This chapter discusses the emergence of evangelical activism in the generation following the American Revolution. New Yorkers depended on state-sponsored institutions, private associations, and denominational support to care for the destitute immediately after the war. Isabella Marshall Graham, a widow with young daughters, knew firsthand the privations facing the city's most vulnerable. She founded the Ladies' Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, the city's first evangelical benevolent association, to provide temporal and spiritual support to keep these women in their homes. Ezra Stiles Ely recorded scores of encounters with almshouse residents and hospital patients. Through his published Journals, Ely provided a window into popular urban religiosity. His Journals also represent a deliberate effort to transform the responses of his evangelical readers to the city around them. The uncontested star of Ely's account was a young prostitute named Caroline. Together, Graham, Ely, and Caroline 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 following the War of 1812. (pages 51 - 78)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part II. 1815-1840

- Kyle B. Roberts
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226388281.003.0004
[spirituality, spiritual health, voluntary associations, Ward Stafford, missionaries, New York City, urban evangelicalism, evangelicals, neighborhood churches]
This chapter discusses the emergence of a “New Missionary Field” in New York City following the War of 1812. Freed from the threat of European encroachment on the continent and flush from wartime profiteering, the city and its spiritual marketplace rebounded quickly, if unevenly. Evangelical denominations emerged as the most active producers in the marketplace, but their emplacement strategies led them to ignore whole swaths of the city. To rectify this situation, Ward Stafford devised an ambitious blueprint for a “New Missionary Field.” Evangelical laity traditionally on the margins of church decision-making—women and young men—formed voluntary associations in which they pooled their financial resources and organizational talents to sponsor missionaries to implement Stafford's plan. Along the edge of urban settlement, they focused on gathering people into missions that became the basis of neighborhood churches. On the waterfront, they engaged sailors and their families on the decks of ships and in boardinghouse parlors. Not content to be passive recipients of missionary attention, local residents took an active role in shaping missionary activities to suit their own needs. (pages 81 - 112)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Kyle B. Roberts
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226388281.003.0005
[evangelical print culture, print media, New York City, antebellum evangelicalism, evangelicals, American Revolution, religious publications]
This chapter discusses evangelical print culture. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, coalescing an audience around print was the ambition, and the challenge, for evangelicals. Before the American Revolution, itinerant ministers published sermons, journals, and devotional guides to foster and sustain textual communities after they left town. In the postrevolutionary city, local ministers tried to create a conversation that transcended denominational difference to spread the gospel and to counter threats posed by temptations to sin and other religious traditions. Following the War of 1812, new printing technologies, modes of distribution, and organizational structures revolutionized evangelical print culture. Bibles, tracts, and periodicals poured forth from nondenominational, denominational, and commercial presses and traveled over roads, down canals, and across oceans in search of readers. (pages 113 - 144)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Kyle B. Roberts
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226388281.003.0006
[Charles Grandison Finney, Lewis Tappan, David Hale, New York City, urban evangelicalism, evangelicals, evangelical reform]
This chapter focuses on the work of evangelicals Charles Grandison Finney, Lewis Tappan, and David Hale. Through his liberating message and personal example, Finney appealed to middle-class evangelical businessmen like Lewis Tappan and David Hale, a successful newspaper editor. Finney's linkage of reform with new understandings of individualism provided the city's laity with a justification for their benevolent efforts, which had begun with the sponsorship of local urban missions and expanded into making New York a national center for a broad range of reforms. Finney, Tappan, and Hale were born in New England, converted to evangelicalism in adulthood, and held worldviews shaped by their participation in the expanding market culture. This extensive experience informed (and funded) their efforts. Finney, in turn, relied on their financial, administrative, and organizational talents to ensure himself a venue. Together they would spread evangelicalism by reforming it. In the process, they learned the limits of what their fellow evangelicals and the larger city would accept. (pages 145 - 178)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part III. 1840-1860

- Kyle B. Roberts
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226388281.003.0007
[Phoebe Worrall Palmer, evangelical women, New York City, urban evangelicalism, evangelicals]
This chapter focuses on Phoebe Worrall Palmer, one of one of Evangelical Gotham's most influential theologians, writers, and revivalists in the mid-nineteenth century. Palmer was studiously plain in all aspects of appearance and life. She was quiet and reserved; proffered a rational and biblical theology of perfection; advocated reform as an instrument for the betterment of the self; and crafted a ministry in response to the conventions, currents, and institutions of antebellum urban evangelicalism. Although Palmer has been largely forgotten today, her theology of perfection, intimately shaped by her experience of antebellum New York, shifted urban evangelicals' focus from their communities back to their individual spiritual selves. Her ideas changed the tide of evangelicalism in the tumultuous years between the recovery from the Panic of 1837 and the onset of the Civil War. (pages 181 - 218)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Kyle B. Roberts
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226388281.003.0008
[John Street Methodist Episcopal Church, New York City, urban evangelicalism, evangelicals]
This chapter examines how developments reshaping New York in the 1840s and 1850s affected evangelical congregations. Evangelical competition in a dynamic and expansive spiritual marketplace, aggressive church-building strategies, and an embrace of a new rhetoric of domesticity contributed to the growth of the city and the experience of life within it. In turn, the city provided the financial, social, and organizational resources that allowed evangelical congregations to thrive and expand their reach locally, nationally, and globally. The chapter focuses on the John Street Methodist Episcopal Church, which provides a useful lens for exploring the ways in which evangelicalism's efforts to transform the city allowed the city ultimately to transform evangelicalism. It revisits John Street at different points in its nearly ninety-year history on the same lot in lower Manhattan. (pages 219 - 250)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Kyle B. Roberts
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226388281.003.0009
[New York City, urban evangelicalism, evangelicals, urban developments, individual conversion, social activism]
This chapter considers the achievements of evangelicals in New York City at midcentury. It argues that Evangelical New Yorkers did nothing less than make the city between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Their systematic strategy of aggressively building in newly opening neighborhoods put them on the forward edge of urban development. Asylums, bethels, book concerns, missions, and orphanages supported by lay voluntary associations and denominations expanded that presence. However, their massive emotional, financial, and spiritual investment in the city came at a cost. The principles at the core of evangelical belief and practice—individual conversion and community-focused social activism—exist in continual tension. They provided the rationale for aggressive interventions in the city, hope to the hopeless, friends for the friendless, and homes for the homeless, but just as easily supplied an excuse for withdrawal, into meetinghouses, parlors, and even their own spiritual selves at moments when their presence was most needed. (pages 251 - 256)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online