Q&A with Kyle T. Bulthuis, Author of Four Steeples over the City Streets

BulthuisThe following is an interview with Kyle Bulthuis, an assistant professor of history at Utah State University. Jonathan Wilson’s review of Kyle’s recently-released book, Four Steeples over the City Streets: Religion and Society in New York’s Early Republic Congregations, appeared on the blog yesterday. Kyle agreed to sit down and answer a few follow up questions about the book and his future research plans, which we are happy to post today.

JUNTO: This book began as a dissertation at the University of California, Davis. Can you tell us more about the origins of the project, and how it developed from a dissertation to a book?

BULTHUIS: People outside the academy will sometimes ask me how a lifelong Midwesterner and Westerner writes a history of New York City. The short answer is, accident and failure. I had initially intended to examine the social relationships of western landholding elites in the early Republic. But various time constraints and difficulties in locating sources while living in California caused my initial project to flame out in a quarter-system seminar setting. I had to scramble to throw something together.

I did discover that many landowning elites, no matter where their holdings, lived in New York City. Moreover, many of them were members of a specific Episcopalian parish, Trinity Church. This discovery led to the uncovering of a huge pamphlet war surrounding Trinity in the 1810s, concerning the appointment of an assistant bishop; the explosion of publications occupy a lot of space on the microfilm reels of the early American imprints series that many of us initially examine in seeking out early American publications. I wrote up that story. Unfortunately, my initial telling came across as extremely narrow and parochial, fitting for an Episcopalian seminary paper from the 1930s but lacking much depth. It seemed to be a dead end. The quarter ended, and I needed to figure out what to move toward for my dissertation.

My adviser suggested I consider placing that story in a larger framework, but retain the congregational focus; Trinity as a congregation was a social body, and many of its parishioners were indeed important members of society. If I were to place the members of Trinity alongside other New York City congregations, the theological implications of that pamphlet war might take on additional depth and weight. And, indeed, as I probed I found the early Republic congregations that served as wonderful complements to Trinity: John Street Methodist, Mother Zion African Methodist, and St. Philip’s (African) Episcopal, all historic churches in their respective denominations and containing different yet overlapping social profiles.

That was the dissertation. Our best projects, I think, often emerge from the ruins of numerous dead ends. This particular initial dead end didn’t even get to the archival search stage but did lead to something unique. From dissertation to book was another story. I was on an adjunct/visiting professor treadmill for a while, teaching four or five courses a semester, sometimes at multiple institutions. I couldn’t see the forest or the trees in the final dissertation.

I kept plugging away, though, and was fortunate to have the base of that original project, the Episcopalian pamphlet war, come together as an article published in Church History. I found a willing listener, Debbie Gershenowitz, who was then an editor at NYU Press, and made some tentative expansions and revisions to the work. I paid close attention to the reader comments on my first submitted draft, and considered very closely and seriously everything the readers suggested. I was fortunate that Graham Russell Hodges was one of my readers, as he knew about as much about black New York, and New York social history, as anyone. Hodges was very kind but also extremely thorough in pointing out areas I missed. I thoroughly re-wrote nearly every chapter in the process, and wrote two new chapters. I found the new material expressed a greater confidence and flow than what I thought of as my best initial work. (Those of you who are interested should read the chapters on white women and black men to judge—those were initially one rushed dissertation chapter.)

In the rewriting the chapters achieved a greater layered quality. For example, the dissertation covered class, then race and gender, then political battles in chapters two, three, and four, respectively. In the rewrite these were chapters three through six, and in each, cross-references and dense connections allowed a more complicated, integrated picture to emerge. Also, I finally could express very late in the production of the book that the urban location was not marginal, but rather central, to American religious experience, because cities, particularly New York City, experienced social changes that all Americans faced, albeit more quickly and more intensely than elsewhere. Multiple rewrites and reconsiderations brought the book to where it is.

I realize I’ve talked a lot about process rather than content, largely because as early career scholars a lot about the process can feel wrong. It’s important to keep plugging away, to trust a method even when the results seem uncertain. For more on my argument, I have to refer to Jonathan Wilson’s extensive review on this blog, yesterday, and Christopher Jones’s fine review of the book at the Religion in American History blog earlier this week.

JUNTO: Can you describe the sorts of sources you used? The archival records for three of the four congregations you analyze appear to be quite rich, while you describe those for Mother Zion (the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church) as “scarce,” especially in the later years of the period under study. How did you negotiate that imbalance, and what did you do when the documentary record went silent?

BULTHUIS: You are right about Mother Zion’s records. It’s a problem for a lot of black churches generally. I began my graduate studies considering myself to be a western historian, even while I was writing on New York City. This worked at UC Davis, where my adviser Alan Taylor had written his first two books on the frontiers of Maine and upstate New York, respectively. This approach trained me in how scholars work in early Native American history, which is also full of silences in the record. Historians of American Indians must employ a fine-grained reading between the lines of white sources. Some use upstreaming, the sometimes-controversial process of reading anthropological sources from later eras into an historical past.

I attempted some of these methods. I employed a downstreaming of sorts, using as much demographic material from 1780s and 1790s white Methodist church records concerning their black members as I could, and then making careful assumptions about later decades. I attempted to read context from brief historical anecdotes, to find pieces of evidence in the background of the story. And I worked at some upstreaming, but from oral history rather than anthropology. Because these congregations were historically significant in their respective denominations, oral and collected histories about them revealed later reminiscences of white churchmen about blacks, and by black congregants about their forebears. One of the more interesting historiographical conflicts lay between Christopher Rush, second bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination and an eyewitness to many of the events he narrated, and William J. Walls, later bishop of the denomination and privy to a large cache of received oral tradition about Mother Zion. I could see how one man remembered events in old age and another remembered them as keeper of a denominational heritage, and attempted to read into their differences, carefully, for insights as to what was really at play.

More than all else, the social history sources shed light on the dim record. Social historians may encounter a name on a list, and that’s it. What do you do with that? Well, in simple terms you can try to count names in aggregate, and see what the counting reveals, or sort them, and compare the sorting: percentages of males, common last names, and so on. You can try to find the name in any number of tax or property records, or in vital statistics, or legal or political documents. Mother Zion’s blacks whom I did know did appear in some of those sources. The social sources tended to cut across the religious remembrances a bit, suggesting differences rather than similarities; consequently, I did find myself countering scholars of race who have tended to see unity and solidarity in the early Republic black community.

At this point I should also give a word of gratitude to my partner, Susan Cogan, who is a paleography ninja. Many of my Methodist class lists were hand-written columns of names, badly deteriorated on microform. Susan did a wonderful job deciphering some of the various upstrokes and downstrokes—for her early modern eye, late eighteenth-century handwriting is like typescript.

JUNTO: Four Steeples makes a concerted attempt to bridge the fields of social history and the history of religion. You’ve suggested elsewhere that previous efforts to do so by historians have “tend[ed] to flatten and simplify the other field.” Why do you think that is and how did you avoid doing so?

BULTHUIS: This flattening is normal. Historians write about what interests them, and also about what they see. It’s hard to focus one eye on the foreground and one in the background, but to merge these histories it’s essentially what you have to try to do, intellectually.

When one examines one field at the expense of the other, one might arrive at oversimplified causal relationships. Social historians see religion in terms of social relationships—anything theological becomes expressed in economic or perhaps power relationships, and so, to reduce it crassly, religion equals money, in some way or form. One book that perhaps inspired me more than any other to be a social historian, Paul Johnson’s Shopkeeper’s Millennium, despite a lot of care and nuance, is guilty of this, which I have discovered in nearly two decades of reading and re-reading. By contrast, religious historians often attempt to see the religion through the eyes of the participants and thus resist causal connections or reductions of religion to material factors. In some cases social and cultural factors are little more than local color; what matters is the agency of the religious actors at play, and such agency is the prime mover.

In my study, I took these churches as social bodies. This was explicitly a social history. As these congregants lived and moved in the city, I attempted to observe how their relationships changed—with each other, with different sexes, in race relationships, in their homes and places of work. I attempted to keep religion as a separate category, however, not simply something that was acted upon, but also something that pushed back in its own right. Congregants’ continued affiliation with their respective houses of worship was a conscious act on some level separate from, and not determined by, their other identities. Consequently, and in hindsight, I think some of the causal assertions in my work recede a bit, remain hidden. Rather, the book offers a kaleidoscopic effect that reveals a range of social and religious identities that collide at different points in time.

Not everyone finds this approach successful, and I think that’s also normal, given the focus each scholar has on his or her own field. One early reader of the manuscript complained that I did not do justice to religion, that I had completely reduced his Episcopalians into materialist creatures, and had simply asserted religious characteristics for all these groups rather than demonstrated them. Conversely, a few acquaintances have dismissed what I did as church history, something not all that relevant to most modern scholarship. Another critic did not see a clear causal shift; she wanted to know where the axis of change lay in the study—was it racial or class-based? Where did gender fit in? How causally significant were these four congregations at any level given the size of the city?

In other words, my specific choices to hold social and religious history together within these four bodies provided a range of strengths and weaknesses that nonetheless created something new. In the past historians were prone to employ a victory model to historiography, in which the next work definitively supercedes that which came before. Sometimes that indeed happens, but I think more often than not we are part of a conversation, and historians of the past few generations are more likely to let the seams show, to acknowledge that at some points we go up to what we don’t know and feel around the edges to get glimpses of new material.

JUNTO: What is on tap next? What lessons did you learn from your first book that influences the way you’ve approached your next project?

BULTHUIS: For my next work I am attempting to take a leap to something more geographically expansive. I don’t know if that will work—this book wasn’t quite a microhistory nor an old social history but did have an old-meets-new feel to it when I read it now, and I know that scholars and writers sometimes simply have strengths, or maybe grooves, that they fall into with all their works. But I am curious to see if the splintering of identity that I found upon close consideration of my actors here applies to some of these transnational figures of an earlier age. Gustavus Vassa, Phillis Wheatley, John Marrant, George Liele, and others were similarly bound by social commitments as my black Methodists or my female Episcopalians, for example, but I’d like to trace those connections across the oceans. Some very fine scholars have already done a lot of work on that front, but it’s a conversation I think I can add to, if only because I have come to realize that, if I dig enough, social history methods can almost always offer something new to the picture.

I am a teacher as much as a scholar and am thinking about ways that new textbooks and documents readers might be more effective at reaching our current generation of students. I don’t know if my first book has given me any lessons there but I do want to be able to contribute pedagogically.

Finally, I’d like to thank you for such insightful questions. I greatly appreciate what you as a group are doing with The Junto blog and have become a big fan. Keep up the good work!

One response

  1. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Here’s an interview with Kyle T. Bulthuis on his new book Four Steeple over the City Streets from the Junto. Bulthuis talks in depth about his source material for the book and what are his plans for his future projects. It’s a fantastic interview.


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