Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: Kyle T. Bulthuis, Four Steeples over the City Street: Religion and Society in New York's Early Republic Congregations

Christopher Jones

her 2013 presidential address to the American Society of Church
History, Laurie Maffly-Kipp urged society members to consider anew the
organization's roots in church history. The historiographical
trend to look beyond churches in our search of religion in the near and
distant past, she cautioned, ran the risk of obscuring the historical
reality of those we study. Far from a desire to return to the
predominantly Protestant providentialist narratives of yesteryear,
Maffly-Kipp's was a call instead to explore how and why churches
mattered, and what role they played in the lives of their adherents.
Among other things, she warned, "a failure to acknowledge the power of
religious institutions may lead to incomplete historical understandings
of the behavior of others, past and present, for whom religious agency
was, or is, more integrally tied to the life of organized churches."[1]

I was reminded of Maffly-Kipp's address as I recently read Kyle Bulthuis's Four Steeples over the City Streets: Religion and Society in New York's Early Republic Congregations (New
York University Press, 2014). Bulthuis's book, though not written in
response to Maffly-Kipp's 2013 address, nevertheless speaks to many of
the points she made.[2] Four Steeples is, quite self-consciously, a church history (or church histories),
taking as its subject four Protestant congregations—Trinity Episcopal,
John Street Methodist, St. Philip's (Black) Episcopal, and Mother Zion
(African) Methodist—located just blocks apart in the heart of lower
Manhattan, tracing their histories from the late eighteenth century
through the first half of the nineteenth. As the author explains in the
introduction, "this study draws together several genres of historical
inquiry," including social history, religious history, and lived
religion. "Church history," he continues, "provides a base and a foil
for the work" (5). Four Steeples follows the model of traditional
church histories by closely tracing their stories over a period of
time; it departs from them in challenging their assumptions and
complementing their focus on clergy and theology by granting equal
attention to the laity and considering race, class, and gender as lens
through which to understand congregational life and the relationship
between the churches and the society in which they developed. In doing
so, Bulthuis provides one model of what Maffly-Kipp called for when she
argued that "religious institutions ... provide a critical vantage on
other sorts of loyalties and affiliations, as well as offering pleasures
of their own."[3] "Congregants," explains Bulthuis, "paired
their religious lives with identities borne of their living and working
spaces." And even as those religious identities impacted the way they
related to various other aspects of society, they gradually took a
backseat to racial and economic concern. As a result, "the churches grew
less relevant to the community as a whole" (12).

Each of the four congregations under analysis shared a
common heritage in New York City's colonial Anglican past, and each
congregation's subsequent history includes multiple instances of
intersections between the four, even as each forged and followed a
unique path in navigating the social, political, and economic
disruptions that marked the city's early national years, and it grew to
become the largest urban area in North America and the financial capital
of the United States. The first two chapters cover well-worn ground,
providing short, readable overviews of New York City's colonial-era
religious history and the challenges to it presented by the outbreak of
revolution, and serve a prelude to the more substantive and original
contributions made by Bulthuis: the deeply-researched and fine-tuned
analyses of the intersections of institutional religion with a number of
social, economic, and cultural precedents, events, and changes.
Subsequent chapters proceed chronologically, but each tackles a general
thematic category: the socioeconomic composition of each congregation in
its early years; the place of women and their role in shaping the
trajectory of church life; the intersections of gender and race,
particularly in the black congregations; the dynamics of dissent,
schism, and ecclesiastical separation; the impact of city growth on each
congregation's development; and the domestication of church life in the
face of abolition, immigration, and nativist politics. A conclusion
takes the narrative through the revivals of the 1850s and reflects on
the importance of place, space, and mobility for churches in an urban

Bulthuis is a dogged researcher, and his books rests on close readings
of the extensive archival collections of early Episcopal and Methodist
church records, cross-referenced with city directories, real estate
records, and membership lists of various political and reform-minded
movements, to tease out the socio-economic statistical data and
compositionof each congregation. He intersperses such scrutiny with
short vignettes and biographies of various Episcopal and Methodist men
and women who exemplify the patterns his statistical analysis suggests.
The lives of Elizabeth Ann Seton and Catherine Livingston Garrettson,
for example, are compared and contrasted to highlight the "social and
gendered dynamics" of "theological conflicts" in their respective
denominations; those of Peter Williams, Sr., a former slave and early
leader of the Mother Zion (African) Methodist congregation, and his son
and namesake, Peter Williams, Jr., an Episcopal minister of St. Philip's
African Episcopal Church, point to different strains of the
middle-class aspirations of black religious leaders in each denomination
and the resulting internal tensions they caused. Both father and son
saw in the ministry an opportunity assert their masculinity and to
challenge the racial and gendered dynamics of church life, in which free
black men were grouped together in church life (and church records)
with not only enslaved black men, but the enslaved black women who
dominated the ranks of the black classes and congregations in New York
City. But each took a different path; the elder Williams a devout
Methodist who favored biracial worship, ran up against the opposition of
other black Methodist ministers, who increasingly favored not only
separate worship spaces but separate institutional identities from their
white coreligionists. His son, by contrast, left the Methodist fold and
joined the Episcopal Church, seeing in it a better opportunity to
promote "moral improvement for blacks" and "to support immediate
abolition" for slaves (141-42). Where contemporary church records are
scarce—as they so often are in documenting the religious lives of early
black church leaders and laity—Bulthuis reads later reminiscences and
oral traditions of denominational beginnings against his careful
examination of surviving church and city records and the social and
economic contexts in which they occurred.

In doing do, he occasionally challenges accepted interpretations of
African American church history, suggesting, for instance, that the
growth of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York City
during the 1830s and 1840s was marked as much by "division as [by]
unity," and that the church retreated from the public stage, in contrast
to both their AME counterparts in Philadelphia and their Episcopal and
Presbyterian brethren in New York (180, 239, n23). More broadly, Four Steeples challenges
traditional narratives of religious growth and declension in the early
Republic. In doing so, Bulthuis is, of course, not alone. But when he
argues that that "early Methodism was close-knit, but aristocratic as
much as democratic," his argument rests not on assertions of the
authority invested in and wielded by MEC Bishop Francis Asbury and his
hierarchy of presiding elders and preachers, but rather on analysis of
the local dynamics of congregation life, in which the sons and daughters
of prominent Methodist families married one another, reinforcing the
very social distinctions Methodism supposedly set out to demolish (188).

As I worked my way through the book, I occasionally found myself
wondering about the larger denominational contexts in which the changing
makeup of each congregation occurred, wishing for more explicit nods to
larger denominational developments, including debates over slavery,
ministerial rights, and lay representation. Upon completing the book,
though, I wonder if this was part of a more intentional effort to move
beyond narratives that privilege the role of Methodism's itinerant
ministers and their mobility or emphasize the transnational context of
the Protestant Episcopal Church's beginnings. In reconstructing the
religious lives of individuals at a congregational level, then, Bulthuis
demonstrates not only the ways that alternate and accompanying
identities intersected with religious concerns, but also the extent to
which local affairs dominated the experiences of individuals and shaped
the institutions to which they belonged.


[1] Laurie Maffly-Kipp, "The Burdens of Church History," Church History 82:2 (June 2013): 361.

[2] The book is an revised version of Bulthuis's dissertation
("Four Steeples over the City Streets: Trinity Episcopal, St. Philip's
Episcopal, John Street Methodist, and African Methodist Episcopal Zion
Churches in New York City, 1760-1840"), completed at the University of
California, Davis in 2006, under the tutelage of Alan Taylor.

[3] Maffly-Kipp, "The Burdens of Church History," 363.

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