During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant leaders in New York agonized over the fate of traditional religious practice amid the chaotic, multiplying pluralism of a city and nation transforming dramatically. Massive immigration, the anonymity of urban life, and modernity’s rationalism, bureaucratization, and professionalization seemed to many to eviscerate all sense of religious community.
Yet fears of religion’s demise were dramatically overblown, says Jon Butler, in his new book God in Gotham. Far from being the supposed capital of American secularism, New York was a spiritual hothouse. By the 1950s Manhattan was full of the sacred. Catholics, Jews, and Protestants peppered the borough with sanctuaries great and small. Manhattan became a center of religious publishing and broadcasting and was home to august spiritual reformers from Reinhold Niebuhr to Abraham Heschel, Dorothy Day, and Norman Vincent Peale. A host of white nontraditional groups met in midtown hotels, while black worshippers gathered in Harlem’s storefront churches. Though denied the ministry almost everywhere, women shaped the lived religion of congregations, founded missionary societies, and, in organizations such as the Zionist Hadassah, fused spirituality and political activism. And after 1945, when many families left for New Jersey and Long Island’s booming suburbs, they recreated the religious institutions that had shaped their youth. God in Gotham portrays a city where people of faith engaged modernity rather than foundered in it. Far from the world of “disenchantment” that sociologist Max Weber bemoaned, modern Manhattan actually birthed an urban spiritual landscape of unparalleled breadth, suggesting that modernity enabled rather than crippled religion in America well into the 1960s.
Annie Polland, Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society and the co-author of Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 1840-1920, joins for this wide-ranging conversation.