Our first post comes from Catherine O'Donnell, an associate professor of history at Arizona State University. In her post, O'Donnell lays out what's at stake in writing an urban history of evangelicalism. Future posts throughout this week will hone in on other matters. And on Friday, Roberts himself will respond.
by Catherine O'Donnell
Roberts starts, as historians love to do, by telling us we’ve got something all wrong. New York City was not a godless place, he explains, nor was evangelicalism a rural phenomenon. Instead, evangelical congregations, benevolent societies, and printing enterprises flourished in New York City and helped to create its physical and cultural landscapes. Roberts may understate the extent to which historians such as Anne M. Boylan have, by exploring women’s benevolent work, already helped us to see evangelicalism in an urban context. Nonetheless, his work is invaluable. Gotham provides a careful accounting of the growth of evangelicalism in absolute and relative terms, Roberts’ precision offering a welcome reminder of scholars’ need to count as well as read. Yet -- mirabile dictu! -- Roberts reads brilliantly, too, both texts and architectural blueprints; he wants not only to demonstrate that evangelicalism flourished in Gotham, but to explain why it did. He attends to instrumental uses of religion – it creates community services – and its intangible ones. “Unsure of their place in the world and no longer able to rely on the security of their place in tight-knit communities,” he argues, evangelicals needed “a faith not of adherence but of active piety” (18). Roberts also contends that New Yorkers valued evangelicalism because of “the premium it placed on personal discovery of an individuated experience” (19). His analyses of individual evangelicals such as Elizabeth Palmer movingly demonstrate the way faith spurred anxiety and achievement, creating and unsettling relationships and institutions as it did.