Enchanted New York
Reason magazine|April 2021
A tale of religion in Manhattan in the 19th and 20th centuries
By Daniel Akst

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.

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