Jonathan Edwards is so strongly identified with Connecticut and Massachusetts that it’s easy to overlook where his pastoral ministry began: near the waterfront of New York City. In 1722, Edwards took a temporary position as the minister to a small Presbyterian congregation in Manhattan. He was about nineteen years old.
Edwards’s months in New York shaped him in at least two ways. First, according to his own account, Edwards developed a stronger desire for personal holiness. In New York, he wished increasingly to be “in everything a complete Christian.” Second, he grew in missionary zeal. Holding long religious conversations with his host family (who were immigrants from England) and observing life in the Atlantic port, he came to a more global awareness of the faith. He put it this way:
If I heard the least hint of anything that happened in any part of the world, that appeared to me, in some respect or other, to have a favorable aspect on the interest of Christ’s kingdom, my soul eagerly catched at it; and it would much animate and refresh me. I used to be earnest to read public news-letters, mainly for that end; to see if I could not find some news favorable to the interest of religion in the world.
I find it tempting to connect these changes in Edwards’s attitude to the urban environment he had entered. In the big city, this young Yankee Calvinist related to the world in a new way.
That interpretation seems especially enticing in light of the spatial and civic dimensions of Edwards’s belief in heaven.
While living in New York, Edwards enjoyed contemplating the afterlife as a place of “perfect holiness, humility and love.” He expressed frustration that, in the present world, “the inward ardor of my soul, seemed to be hindered and pent up, and could not freely flame out as it would.” Heaven, in contrast, would be “a world of love.” He nurtured these thoughts during long hours in the countryside on the shore of the Hudson River, where he would retreat into solitude. But that didn’t mean he resented Manhattan. When he left New York in April 1723, sailing for Connecticut, Edwards gazed sorrowfully backward at the disappearing city, consoling himself with the knowledge that his New York friends would meet him again in heaven.
When I read that account, I want to interpret it according to modern experiences of city life—and according to other historical accounts of rural youth arriving in great cities. I also want to read Edwards into a long literary tradition, alongside other rural-to-urban arrivals like Dick Whittington and Sister Carrie. Edwards’s account looks like a familiar story of uprooting, noise, news, invisible social barriers, and new spiritual horizons. But I think there’s a problem with my impulse. When Jonathan Edwards arrived in New York City in 1722, the population was probably under 10,000.
Why might that be a problem? Well, what got me thinking about this was a review of the sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s Small-Town America. Wuthnow, apparently, defines a small town as including up to 25,000 people. Whether or not that’s a reasonable criterion today, it makes me wonder how valid it is to talk about an early American big city of 10,000 people. How reasonable can it be, in other words, to assume that a city of 10,000 in the 1720s shares key social features with a city of ten million today—but not with a modern small town of 10,000?
In other words, when we talk about a city in early America and a city in modern America, are we discussing the same thing?
It occurs to me that most of what I know about American urban development concerns changes I see as impersonal: land ownership, occupations, transportation networks, agriculture, and infrastructure. Beyond that, I know studies that describe particular kinds of human relationships and social change. But most histories, it seems to me (and I could be wrong about this), somehow take the city itself, as a kind of human experience, for granted. A book like Dell Upton’s Another City, attempting to capture the early American city as an imagined human space (or, much earlier, a book like one of Carl Bridenbaugh’s on colonial cities) seems fairly rare.
If I’m right, some of that may be due to sociologists’ preoccupation with the late-nineteenth-century industrial city. Many histories either seem to take the industrial city for granted as the epitome of city life, or implicitly assume a complete break between the mercantile and the industrial city. They also seem to take labor as the organizing principle of urban life. I’m not sure these assumptions offer much help if I want to understand how arriving in New York in the 1720s might have affected Jonathan Edwards. I’m concerned that I may be reading late-nineteenth-century experience back into the early eighteenth. And I’m especially not sure industrial assumptions offer much help in understanding what New York’s population size meant for Edwards.
One thing is pretty clear: New York’s status as an Atlantic port was crucial to the city’s implications for Jonathan Edwards’s life. He all but said so himself. Beyond that, I do see one other possible direction to look for help. Perhaps total population is beside the point. Perhaps what mattered was population density.
In a 2000 WMQ article, Carole Shammas points out that early American cities could be more crowded than ours. By 1760, she writes, Philadelphia packed 15,000 people into barely more than half a square mile of land. By 1800, New York and Philadelphia each housed the equivalent of 40,000 people per square mile—denser than Brooklyn today. The key reason, Shammas argues, was the difficulty of extending urban infrastructure like water pumps and paved streets to outlying areas. (The conspicuous result was demographic composition much like that of late nineteenth-century industrial cities, with unusually high proportions of free black residents, female heads of household, and young men.) Similarly, Mary Schweitzer has used data about Philadelphia in 1790 to argue that it already had a density and land distribution pattern often identified with later industrial towns. Its neighborhoods were already differentiated by occupation group and arranged around a central district, notwithstanding its small size and “preindustrial” economy.
I suspect that attending to the density of an early American city (even if New York in 1722 was quite different from New York in 1800) is an important part of understanding what it meant as an urban place. And it might—maybe—shed interesting light on what a certain nineteen-year-old Englishman experienced as he launched his ministry on the western shores of the Atlantic. Jonathan Edwards may have been preaching in the big city after all.
 Jonathan Edwards, “Personal Narrative,” in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 16, Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn (New Haven: Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, 1998), 795, 797. See also George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 44-55.
 Works of Jonathan Edwards, 795-8.
 This is a dangerously big generalization to make, and I am not prepared to stand by it. It is, admittedly, impressionistic. But for work on urban infrastructure, planning, and material culture in the nineteenth century, see David M. Henkin, City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) and David M. Scobey, Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002). For studies of the experiences of particular groups of people, see, among many others, Elizabeth Blackmar, Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989); Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986); Gary Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); Leslie M. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Carla L. Petersen, Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). For important recent exceptions to my generalization, see Dell Upton, Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) and Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). I’m sure I’ve missed many others.
 Carole Shammas, “The Space Problem in Early United States Cities,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 57, no. 3 (2000): 505-42; Mary M. Schweitzer, “The Spatial Organization of Federalist Philadelphia, 1790,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 24, no. 1 (1993): 31-57.