Kyle T. Bulthuis, Four Steeples over the City Streets: Religion and Society in New York’s Early Republic Congregations. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
In many respects, Four Steeples over the City Streets is a story about different ways of being Anglican in New York City. It’s also a story about how external social changes influenced and threatened a vision of social order without destroying it. And it’s a story about how different kinds of New Yorkers in the early republic–black and white and male and female–experienced their community in religious terms.
In this well-crafted study, Kyle Bulthuis describes four congregations in New York City between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. All four belonged, in some sense, to the tradition of the Church of England, and all survive in some form today. It is probably fair to say that as religious and social institutions, they were all disproportionately influential. They were Trinity Church, the city’s preeminent Anglican or Episcopalian church; the John Street Church, the city’s first Methodist congregation; “Mother” Zion, the first church of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination; and St. Philip’s Church, the first black Episcopal parish in New York.
Using congregational records, denominational histories, and analysis of incidents in the lives of particular leaders, Bulthuis tells a rich story about the intertwined development of these four institutions. Overall, he draws from their experiences a narrative about the destabilization of a colonial-era elite vision for an organic and hierarchical Christian society in urban America.
Over several decades, in Bulthuis’s telling, the economic development of the city, coupled with related conflicts over leadership, slavery, and gender roles, challenged the formerly established Anglican church’s claim to be a microcosm of secular order in New York. This process started late—it was not an immediate result of the Revolution—and took different courses in different congregations. By the 1830s, however, the social aspirations of these four churches had resulted in the general “privatization” of their faith. Religious devotion and authority had come to be located primarily in families rather than in the extended church family.
Bulthuis’s narrative begins in colonial New York City, which had an Anglican establishment claiming legal and social pride of place in a pluralistic religious landscape. Trinity Church had presided over this establishment since the seventeenth century. The city’s Methodists, who built the John Street Church in 1768, were also officially part of the Anglican community until 1784, accommodating (with the encouragement of some Trinity Church members) local Christians who preferred emotional, low-church forms of worship. Because this arrangement reflected a vision of unity within diversity, maintained by respect for hierarchical authority, these Anglicans and Methodists, after the 1750s, were more willing than most other New York churches to accept enslaved and free black congregants–though not as equals.
The American Revolution ended the Church of England’s key legal privileges in New York, but it did not destroy its social vision. At Trinity Church, Bulthuis argues, the Revolution transferred ecclesiastical power to wealthy Whigs without challenging most colonial Anglican assumptions about the importance of property and elite leadership. The memory of black Loyalism during the Revolution did, however, seemingly induce New York’s white Methodists and Episcopalians (as they were now) to marginalize their black coreligionists. During the 1780s and 1790s, white Methodists increasingly placed black congregants in clearly defined separate classes, while denying their requests for independent worship. Meanwhile, Trinity Church encouraged free blacks to attend St. Paul’s Chapel six blocks away, where they were given pews in the gallery.
During the 1790s, according to Bulthuis’s analysis of surviving congregational records, the city’s Episcopalian and Methodist communities were also beginning to divide along economic lines. Trinity Church remained notoriously wealthy—John Jay and Robert Livingston paid only the second highest going rate for their pews—but the John Street Church, too, was experiencing relative gentrification. Most active Methodists in 1796 still came from the class of laborers and artisans, but the poorer among them seem to have gravitated to three new uptown chapels, whereas John Street downtown attracted more of the city’s Methodist merchants and shopkeepers. Economic development was beginning to produce spatial reorganization within the church.
Meanwhile, in the 1780s, free black New Yorkers organized an African Society, which Bulthuis argues was an Episcopalian organization in all but name, and which later, under the auspices of Trinity, gave birth to St. Philip’s Church. In 1796, likewise, a group of black Methodists led by James Varick and William Hamilton established what became Mother Zion, the first congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Both initiatives, in Bulthuis’s reading of available records, were outgrowths of the old Anglican vision for diverse unity rather than simple bids for independence from white control.
During the early nineteenth century, meanwhile, Trinity and John Street offered some opportunities for elite white women to take new public roles. In both congregations, women were disproportionately active communicants. However, women’s participation in leadership was predicated on an emerging view of religious faith as something private and pietistic. For some elite women, like Trinity’s then-Episcopalian congregant Elizabeth Ann Seton (later a Catholic saint), leadership went hand-in-hand with the growing High Church movement’s emphasis on purity of form. Women’s leadership did not require the church’s withdrawal from public affairs, but it did involve redefining the church’s public role.
For elite black men in New York, on the other hand, claiming civic leadership (or what Bulthuis calls leadership in the public sphere) meant limiting the religious leadership role of black women. Although women dominated Mother Zion and St. Philip’s numerically, white racism made it imperative for black men to project strength and patriarchal authority within their churches. As they asserted themselves in public as leaders, they also built organizations outside the Methodist and Episcopalian church system, like the African Society for Mutual Relief (established as a mostly Methodist enterprise in 1808), which distanced black community life from the white establishment.
During the rest of the antebellum period, these early fissures in the bedrock of the Anglican vision widened due to new external stresses. Between the 1810s and 1830s, three of these churches endured noisy battles over clerical and lay leadership. Only St. Philip’s Church, which was controlled by elite black uplifters determined to keep peace with the white Episcopal authorities, escaped—for a time, and at the price of accepting white control and relative political quiescence. But St. Philip’s could not escape the effects of white racism as debates over abolition intensified. It was the elite black congregation of St. Philip’s, not the more outspoken but less refined congregation of Mother Zion, that a white mob targeted in the summer of 1834.
During the 1840s and 1850s, still obeying the white authorities of the Episcopal Church, St. Philip’s lost much of its importance to the black community of New York, while Mother Zion, though large and independent, turned inward, away from politics. Meanwhile, Trinity Church, though as rich as ever, lost importance to New York’s increasingly suburban white professional class. The members of John Street Methodist were drawn into social reform and revival movements that kept them active in public affairs, but which attested their exposure to economic crisis more than their investment in the church as a social model.
Nevertheless, Bulthuis suggests, in an epilogue on “city churches in a romantic age,” these four churches never completely lost sight of the old Anglican dream of unity. Instead, by the middle of the nineteenth century, they had adjusted to the reality that unity could be achieved only piecemeal, through association with ecumenical or denominational movements that voluntarily associated them with other churches, rather than by claiming to represent the social order of the city within themselves. “Each congregation,” he concludes, “represented a slice of the city, not the full sweep of the city streets” (200).
Bulthuis bases his account on impressive research in manuscript collections related to the membership of these congregations, but also on very effective use of published nineteenth-century church histories, newspapers, and especially city directories. These allow him to place the “four steeples” of these churches in a full urban landscape.
Drawing on these sources, Bulthuis has written an institutional history that provides a useful parallel and comparison for familiar accounts of the “transition from republicanism to liberalism” in the early republic. This book is also crucial reading for anyone interested in middle-class black community life in New York City during the early nineteenth century. As a source of critical insight into the institutional contexts of black activism, Four Steeples should be read alongside work like Carla Peterson’s Black Gotham, Patrick Rael’s Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North, and Leslie Harris’s In the Shadow of Slavery. Most of all, perhaps, Four Steeples is meaningful as an account of how various citizens in the early republic attempted to fashion communities for themselves in the midst of change.