Looking for “a World of Love”: Jonathan Edwards in the Big City

nyc1728Jonathan 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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] Works of Jonathan Edwards, 795-8.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

6 responses

  1. Really thoughtful post, Jonathan. And I think simply asking the questions means that you’re not “reading late-nineteenth-century experience back into the early eighteenth.” I think that you’re especially right that the “big” in “big city” has to be understood relatively and proportionally.

    In terms of New York, its population in 1750 was about 15,000 but the city proper only extended as far north as Chambers Street. And, by this time, days in the city would have witnessed many people who lived north of the city on its streets conducting their daily business. Thinking proportionally, therefore, it’s not hard to imagine someone arriving from a small farm town of a few hundred people living on scattered farms seeing the city as a very different kind of life. In fact, many of the traits we attribute to modern-day New York and New Yorkers were already perceived by travelers in the mid-eighteenth century, including the hectic and unceasing pace of daily life driven by the city’s dual status as an Atlantic port and a domestic marketplace for the surrounding areas, as well as the pace (and volume) of speech. These things contributed to a perception of New Yorkers as generally being rude. That said, all of these observations (and evaluations) were recorded by John Adams upon his first trip to New York in 1774 and he was not someone unacquainted with city living.

    If it underscores anything, it is that to talk of colonial urban life (or character) is too reductionist an approach because, even at what seem small numbers compared to their nineteenth-century counterparts, the largest cities (i.e., New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston) had already developed characters and urban cultures distinct from one another by mid-century (and, hence, more distinct from the rural towns and villages).

  2. I think your assumption about urban historians’ privileging of industrial cities (at least in the US) is basically correct. Population density was perhaps as much of a factor as raw numbers but I think another factor to consider is the *unfamiliarity* of the urban population, due to mobility (both temporary and permanent), compared to that of a rural village. Self-fashioning means something very different in a place where strangers were intermingling, integrating, coming, and going all the time. Just look at the work of Steve Bullock and David Waldstreicher on con artists and runaways.

  3. Ben and Michael are right on point about the difference of experiencing a colonial urban seaport. We have to add to this, of course, a religious diversity in New York that rivalled Philadelphia. Not many faiths circulating around the Atlantic World couldn’t be found resident in New York in the eighteenth century, whether in formal houses of worship or in informal gatherings. Of course, Edwards had been at Yale for a few years before this, so he already begun to transition from the agricultural hinterland of Northampton into (at at least idealized) urbanized setting. But Edwards is confronted by what he’s largely only read about — vibrant communities of Dutch Reformed, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Jews, Baptists, etc. They are the competition. “A world of love” would have to wait till the afterlife, because his present life trying to hold together an upstart congregation was surely not that lovely.

    Remember also Edwards’ age and hunger for texts. He’s only 19 – this is his first preaching gig — of course he’s excited about everything around him! You’re likely familiar with Vol 26 of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, the Catalogues of Books. It wonderfully documents his hunger for knowledge, one that knew no boundaries. New York City was closer to the London book trade than New Haven (and ten steps closer than Northampton!). He’ll certainly miss that kind of access — and soon turn to building his own library to compensate.

  4. Thank you all. These are great observations. All three of you, I think, are pointing out the importance of describing the city’s particular mercantile character in order to understand its culture.

    Following that logic, I wonder whether it’s really possible to describe a major early American city without trying to capture its characteristic trade relationships. That is, to understand New York, I need to have some idea of who’s sailing on the ships in New York harbor, and who’s in town to trade with them, and how often they sail. (Comparing lists of surnames would be interesting, too.) For someone like Edwards, that might be more important than a study of urban occupations or settlement patterns in general. I’d also want to look carefully at public spaces. There’s abundant literature on British-American taverns, clubs, etc., but it seems to me that the element of (either more or less homogeneous) communal religious affiliation is important to understanding how public space might have operated differently in different towns.

    I guess what I’d really like is to convince myself that I’ve figured out the precise relationship between the urban setting and Edwards’s frustration about his inability to let his devotion “freely flame out.” I’m not sure that’s a fair expectation, though.

    • The combination of density and diversity leads to a religiously competitive landscape, something of a rarity, otherwise, in North America. Even before Hatch’s “democratization of American Christianity,” large towns (unlike small rural communities) gave residents a choice of places to worship–or the choice to refrain from any worship at all. Religious authority and surveillance ran into interference in Newport, NYC, and Philadelphia, which might have led to complaints ironically akin to those of Woodmason (and others) about the backcountry. This would not have been as true of Boston, where the wardens kept you in line on the Sabbath and where Congregationalism is still largely dominant (perhaps the same could be said for the Church of England in Charleston, in its later colonial years).

  5. Pingback: The Andrew Fuller Center » Historiae ecclesiasticae collecta: a weekly roundup of blogs, articles, books, and more


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