Lost Landscapes of American Religious History

Chris Cantwell

The Institutional Church and Social Settlement?
All history is public history insofar as the past leaves so many visible traces upon the landscape. But this is especially true of American religious history. Who can tell the history of rural New England, for example, without considering the meetinghouses that sat so prominently on the town square; or the urban history of American Catholicism without envisioning the church steeples that fought with smokestacks for prominence on a city skyline; or the rise of conservative evangelicalism without showing the megachurches that occupy the strip malls of suburbia. The architectural history of American religion often reveals a great deal about religion's enduring presence.

But the built environment of American religion is also a history of occlusion and erasure.

I've been thinking a lot about the ways in which religion is both embedded and obscured in today's built environment of late. Currently I'm in the final stages of curating a digital exhibit on Chicago's religious history for the Newberry Library that aims to put religious history in place. Literally. Titled Faith in the City: Chicago's Religious Diversity in the Era of the World's Fair, the exhibit will situate hundreds of digitized primary sources alongside a collection of commissioned essays on a map of Chicago in order to provide the public with an understanding of the remarkable diversity of the city's religious past. (Think of Google Maps with church histories--and many of the authors are contributors to this fine blog!)  In doing so, we hope to take advantage of an interface with which many people are familiar in order to introduce critical notions about the role of space in religious history. The map, for example, allows us to visually display the overlap between ethnic parishes and ethnic neighborhoods, or the religious boundaries of Chicago's black belt. But in georeferencing these hundreds of sources onto a contemporary map I've learned a great deal as well.

By far the biggest lesson is the way in which digital projects about the past can reveal unexpected insights into the workings of power in the present. I initially thought georeferencing the sources would be quick and easy. Turn of the century of Chicagoans were obsessed about place and the material we selected all had detailed information about the addresses and intersections where everything happened. But translating this material from the 1890s into 2014 geocoordinates proved far more difficult than I imagined.

Blackwell Memorial AME Zion
On one level the process revealed the role of sheer coincidence in the preservation of religion's built environment. For example, famed Unitarian Jenkin Lloyd Jones' All Souls Church is no more. But the gorgeous stone edifice the congregation built remains because Blackwell Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church bought the building sometime in the twentieth century. Similarly, the Shiloh Healing House that resided in faith healer John Alexander Dowie's utopian community of Zion, Illinois remains, but only because it is now the headquarters of the Zion Chamber of Commerce. (A particularly delicious irony, since Dowie thought God's powers of healing would populate the town, whereas the Chamber of Commerce now sees the town's business climate as the salvation for urban decline.)

Holy Family c. 1920
Holy Family c. 2000
But even more pervasive, and more revealing, is the ways in which today's built environment reveals the enduring privilege of race and class upon the built environment. This is most easily seen by the fact that most of the sites of Chicago's religious history that still exist are those that remain in the hands of their founders. Holy Family Church, for example, has remained at the intersection of Roosevelt and May Streets for nearly a hundred and fifty years. The congregation has survived several fires and a neighborhood that has turned  over repeatedly because it has had the resources to sustain itself. Many storefront churches and evangelical rescue missions, however, are gone.

Yet the ways in which power and privilege manifest themselves in the urban landscape go even deeper than the presence or absence of buildings. It also occurs in the seemingly innocuous act of assigning geocoordinates. Data is supposed to be the great leveler. We're all ones and zeroes to the computer. But the level of precision one can get in assigning coordinates is deeply inflected by race, class, and gender. For example, Chicago Sinai Congregation's 1890 temple no longer exists. But the fact that the neighborhood it was located in remains relatively stable means that translating its 1893 address into 2014 coordinates is relatively easy--even if that space is now luxury condos. But to try and locate the coordinates of most of the city's black churches has been one of the saddest research tasks I've undertaken. The intersections, streets, and alleyways that once pulsated with the rhythms of black Chicago are in many instances gone. And not just the buildings. Streets have been removed, intersections torn up, and alleys completely abandoned. Assigning these sites geocoordinates has involved a lot of estimated guesses, and in many instances I've been forced to simply place a church in the middle of the street because the data does not suggest which corner it was on. It's like witnessing the traumas of the twentieth century in longitude and latitude.

In 1896 a young A.M.E. minister by the name of Reverdy Ransom took a pastorate on Chicago's south side. By 1900 he had opened the Institutional Church and Social Settlement at 3852 Dearborn St., one of the first institutional churches to minister to African Americans in the country. Ransom would go on to become bishop of the AME church and a leader of the Social Gospel. Like Sinai Congregation, the building that once housed the settlement is now gone. But unlike Sinai, I cannot say with certainty where exactly on Dearborn the church once stood. How many other landscape of American religious history are now gone? And what kind of projects can we envision that can either save or recreate them?


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