Stuff Your Stockings with Church and Estate!

The following is a guest post from Thomas F. Rzeznik, Associate Professor of History at Seton Hall University.  Rzeznik is the author of Church and Estate: Religion and Wealth in Industrial-Era Philadelphia (Penn State University Press, 2013).  I hope to write more about this book in a future post, but for now I thought I'd highlight its chief strengths.  In Church and Estate, Rzeznik  tells the story of the rise and fall of an industrial-financial elite in Philadelphia between 1870-1920.  More importantly, Rzeznik excavates the lived religion, or "everyday negotiations" (5), of the WASP-ish well-to-do through extensive archival research.  Calling out previous works on this era that privilege secularization theory, including Jackson Lears's No Place of Grace (1994), Rzeznik rather finds that "religious belief structured social relations" (5).  The end result is a stellar narrative centered on the role of religion, or "spiritual capital" (8), in modern class formation.  Given Rzeznik's elegant prose, this book would be an ideal addition to US religious and general survey courses as well as classes on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.  After the break, Rzeznik introduces his subjects and situates his work amidst important recent scholarship.   

Thomas F. Rzeznik
There has been a bit of buzz on this blog recently about the resurgence of scholarly interest in the study of mainline Protestantism.  New books by David Hollinger, Jill Gill, Elesha Coffman, Matthew Hedstrom, and others have shed new light on the topic, calling particular attention to the continued intellectual sway that liberal theology had within American religious life even as new religious movements and impulses gained strength.  In short, the demise of the mainline Protestantism—both historically and historiographically—seems to have been greatly exaggerated. 

For full disclosure, I should say that my interest in the Protestant mainline came somewhat indirectly, through my curiosity about the other Main Line, the string of fashionable suburbs outside Philadelphia that developed along the main east-west line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  Wanting to know more about the lives of the industrial-era elite and the influence they had on American religious life, it seemed like a good place to explore. 

Although I’ve never come across conclusive evidence that the Main Line gave its name to mainline Protestantism as some accounts have suggested, I think it’s helpful for us to think more about the relationship between the mainline and the “Main Line.” A number of folks have traced the theological debates that took place over market morality or the clash between God and Mammon, but few have explored the social dynamics that were also at play. I felt more attention needed to be given to the ways in which financial influence shaped the character and development of religious life as it took its modern form, as well as to the ways in which religious beliefs and moral sensibilities informed the actions of those in positions of power.

Philadelphia had no shortage of religiously dedicated elites.  Department store magnate John Wanamaker supported a number of evangelical causes and founded a Presbyterian congregation that boasted one of the largest Sunday schools in the country.  Katharine Drexel used her inherited millions to support a network of Catholic missions to blacks and Indians.  Joseph Wharton’s guidelines for the business school he financed at the University of Pennsylvania bear the mark of his Quaker beliefs.  They gave generously, yet expected a degree of deference in return.

George B. Roberts offers another good example of the interplay of Main Line sensibilities and mainline religiosity.  A descendent of one the original Quaker families to settle in colonial Pennsylvania, Roberts ultimately found his spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.  Supportive of his new faith, the railroad executive donated land from his estate for a new parish in the developing suburban district.  He personally oversaw the plan and architectural detail of the church, selecting an English Gothic design reflective of his class tastes and high church sympathies.  And just as his actions helped shape the religious character of his community, his spiritual leadership reaffirmed his social status and class authority.  

I certainly don’t wish to assert that mainline Protestantism was a creation of the well-to-do, but I think it important to recognize how association with the social and financial elite helped propel the churches we now associate with the mainline to positions of prominence.  Religious leaders cultivated relationships with men and women of means, seeking their financial patronage to support the development of churches, schools, colleges, hospitals, rest homes, publishing houses, and other institutional infrastructure that defined and made visible the new denominational order.  Those in positions of power also lent their churches an establishmentarian ethos, the belief that they best embodied the nation and its core values.  This elitist strain—more prevalent in some denominations than others—would help unify the mainline, but also limit its wider appeal.  In the wake of the economic turmoil of the 1930s, mainline Protestantism still claimed a central place in American religious life, but one refashioned along more middlebrow and middle class lines. 

I hope that my work sparks more discussion not only about the emergence and influence of mainline Protestantism, but also about the class influences and financial forces at work within American religious life, whether for good or for ill, both in the past and at present.


Elesha said…
Welcome, Thomas, and thanks for your post! I am curious why you "don’t wish to assert that mainline Protestantism was a creation of the well-to-do"--because it would seem mean-spirited or dismissive to do so, or because you think that description is inaccurate? If the latter, which non-wealthy folks contributed to the creation of the mainline, and in what ways?
Congratulations on the book's release, Tom! Looking forward to reading it one of these (post-dissertation) days...
Tom Rzeznik said…

Elesha: Thanks for the questions. I'm reluctant to credit the "1%" for creating the Protestant mainline for a couple reasons. First, even if they provided funding to support interdenominational organizations and initiatives, I don't see them as the visionaries. Also, I see the industrial era elite much more supportive of denominational ventures. They were loyal to their particular churches more than to a broad-based liberal Protestantism. Denominational structures gave them a path and clear apparatus for wielding influence. That, and the Episcopalians still dreamed of creating a national church under their own auspices -- they wanted a St. John the Divine, not a Riverside Church. I think the mood shifts in the middle decades of the century, but that's beyond the chronological scope of my study.

Popular Posts