When Cities and Churches First Met in America: America’s First Urban Crisis (1)

Rev. Roger S. Greenway herewith presents the first in a series of articles on “When Cities and Churches First Met in America,” Rev. Greenway, missionary to Ceylon from 1958 to 1963 and missionary to Mexico since 1963, is presently on leave of absence for study at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

The purpose of this article and those which follow is to examine some of the ways in which American Protestantism reacted to the first urban crisis which this country experienced. The end which we have in mind is to discover in the period from the Civil War to the close of the nineteenth century something of value for today’s urban missions.

The city in America has proven to be an area in which both churches and individ1lal Christians have had to rethink their traditional values and practices, especially as these relate to social issues. The so-called “Social Gospel,” after all, was predominantly an urban phenomenon, particularly in its early years. Only rarely and slowly did the Social Gospel penetrate rural areas where the problems and conditions to which it was reacting were neither experienced nor understood. It was in the city that American Protestantism was put to the severest test and it was in the city that social conditions demanded a new understanding of the Gospel’s application to life as a whole.

Mumford has said that historical study can be of assistance in laying the foundation for a qualitative improvement in urban life. (L. Mumford, The City in History, p. 3.) From the standpoint of faith we believe that Christian churches hold the key to any genuine solution to urban problems; and history, if it is to be profitable for our understanding of urban missions, must be read and interpreted from a Biblical standpoint.

As we look, therefore, at American Protestantism in the urban centers during the thirty-five year period from 1865–1900 we are aware of the fact that while our study is on the one hand historical it is at the same time theological and missionary. We are concerned about the city, its people and its needs. The practical goal which we have in mind is that through this study we shall see today’s urban mission in a clearer light.

A three-sided approach – Throughout these articles, a three-sided approach will be made to the nineteenth-century encounter of churches and cities in America. We wish to state this at the offset so that it will be perfectly clear what we are doing.

1. From the sociological side these articles will attempt to show some of the effects which urbanization made upon American Protestantism and also the changes which Protestantism brought about in American cities.

Urbanization, asserts H. Paul Douglass, has brought about in the Church “the greatest inner revolution it has ever known.” (Niebuhr and Williams, The Ministry in Historical Perspectives, p. 262.) If this is so, the changes which the urban environment brought upon the Churches are of vital importance to our understanding of religion in America. It was in the period between the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century that America changed from an “agrarian to an industrial economy, from a rural to an urban-centered population, from an anti-colonial to an imperialistic nation, from a relatively homogeneous to a poly-genetic people, and from a system of relative laissez-faire to the first states of governmental social control.” (McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism, p. 168).

These environmental changes caused marked alterations in the outward appearance and inward thought processes of American Protestantism and made it assume a role in society which it had not played before.

2. From the theological side these articles will deal with the various ways in which Protestant institutions attempted to relate to the urban environment. Protestantism in this period was challenged by the question of how the Gospel alight to be preached and applied to people caught in the pangs of industrialization. Reactions were varied, some of them daring and creative, others largely negative and even unchristian.

Two areas of interest which properly belong to the theological side of the matter will have to be bypassed, namely, the development of the so-called Social Gospel school of theology which was well underway by the end of the century, and the impact which the great pulpiteers of the era were making through their preaching. Both of these areas deserve separate treatment. The great city evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, will be dealt with more briefly than he deserves because our focus of attention is on the more institutional approach rather than on preaching. This chosen course is in no way meant to disparage what preachers like Beecher, Brooks, and Moody contributed. Perhaps these three preachers alone “made far greater impact on the cities of the late nineteenth century than any other three ministers of that period.” (Niebuhr and Williams, op. cit., p. 262.) But the extent of their influence is much more difficult to measure, and in the present study they will be left out.

3. From the historical side we will be searching for the causes which lay behind modern Protestantism’s urban despair. Its roots lay in the nineteenth century, and for this reason we expect that our study will be a relevant undertaking. In the last third of the twentieth century, Protestant Christianity again confronts a generally hostile urban America. Again the subject of “urban mission” is one of the most talked-about topics in the Church. And just as a century ago, Protestantism in the cities is on foreign soil and its endeavors at missionary outreach are as frustrating as before.

If it is true, as so obviously appears to be the case, that American Protestantism does not expand well in the cities, and its missionary efforts are generally frustrated, then in the opinion of this writer, the church historians must take at least some of the blame for this. Says E. R. Wickham, a leader in urban missions in Britain:

The writing of Church history -and there is a lot of it—should have provided us with expert information on the effect of industrialization on the life of the churches, revealing in the course of it the nature of the ever-growing mission problem. Unfortunately, “Church history,” with few great exceptions, is invariably about the Church abstracted from society, about ecclesiastical institutions, personalities or movements, in which the world in which they are set seems quite incidental. It is itself a disturbing symptom of the preoccupation of the Church with her own life and work, suggesting at best that society is but the raw material of her work, and revealing at worst a casual indifference to the wider life of the world in which the Kingdom of God is to be established and which she exists to serve. Either view was fatal in a period in which the profoundest revolutions of history have taken place, and in which a wholly new world has been in making. (Church and People, p. 12.)

It is this “abstracting” of the Church from society which must be assiduously avoided if historical studies are to have any relevance to missionary strategy. The scales will fall from our eyes only to the extent in which both the religious and sociological data of history are examined together and the entire situation, as accurately as we can know it, is analyzed and interpreted under the guidance of the Word and the Spirit.

Industrialization and Immigration Produce a New Urban Scene – For several decades following the Civil War the United States underwent a radical change from a rural and agricultural society to a highly urbanized and industrialized nation. The result of this change was a crisis in religion, the effects of which are still with us. The magnitude of urban growth is indicated by Olmstead when he says:

In 1870 little more than one-fifth of the country’s population lived in urban areas; by 1890 the percentage had risen to one-third and by 1900 it had reached the 40 percent mark. There were 547 communities in the latter year with a population of more than 8000 as opposed to 141 in 1860. This drive toward the city continued apace until 1910, when it was somewhat offset by a trend to the suburbs. By this time, however, the age of the metropolis had dawned, in which the cities reached out and irresistibly drew the surrounding communities into the vortex of urban life. (History of Religion in the United States, p. 475.)

Numbers alone were not the whole problem, however, for with the growth of cities came a rash of social problems with which American Protestantism was as yet unprepared to cope. It seemed to many pious observers that there was nothing good about the city. It was the “hot-house of every cancerous growth—of new evils like industrial war and class hatred and of the older evils of pauperism and crime, of intemperance and vice.” (Abell, The Urban Impact, p. 3.) Some even questioned whether the tumultuous city could ever provide a satisfactory environment in which Protestantism might grow. Squalid slums and cold gray pavements seemed inherently hostile to a pastoral religion like Christianity. Referring to Protestantism’s long-standing indifference to and failure in urban culture, Truman B. Douglass says:

The underlying cause, I believe, is an anti-urban bias which has become almost a point of dogma in American Protestantism. Many leading Protestants genuinely feel that a permanent and deadly hostility exists between urban man and those who are loyal to the Christian faith and ethic; that village ways of life are somehow more acceptable to God than city ways. (“The Church Faces the Changing City,” in Cities and Churches, p. 88.)

This anti-urban bias which Douglass finds so universal among modern American Protestants grew its roots during the period under discussion. And it must be said that this bias was every bit as much the result of as the cause of Protestantism’s early frustration in the city. It is complex in its nature and compounded of a number of different elements, both religious, cultural and racial.

Expanding industry drew immigrants to the city from far and near. Immigration from Europe was very heavy after the Civil War and a great share of it settled in the cities. Some of the immigrants came from northern Europe and were Protestants. But increasingly, Roman Catholics dominated the picture, coming from southern Europe and Ireland, and this become a major source of anti-urban bias in the minds of the old stock American Protestants.

Job opportunities in the urban centers drew thousands also from the American countryside and migration to the city thrust these country-born Americans into an environment as different and often as hostile as that in which the foreign-horn found themselves. Urban immigrants from either direction shared a common plight. The factory system drew them to the city and generally kept them there, but in many instances it did not allow them to rise socially and economically. This situation comprised the vortex at the center of which the urban religious crisis developed.

Slum Society and Mass Suffering Produce a Protestant Dilemma – The city, for millions. was a bitter place. As immigrants arrived in increasing numbers, vast slums arose in which immorality abounded, religious ties were largely forgotten, and human life was reduced to its lowest level.

The visitor to a typical East Coast city in 1890, New York for example, would have walked through traffic-congested, litter-strewn streets lined by bleak narrow structures in which “cliff-dwellers” carried on their lonely existence in a fellowship of unconcern. He might have inspected the grimy tenements, breeding grounds for disease and crime, or he might have looked into the steaming sweatshops where refugees from eastern Europe labored long and dangerous hours for a mere pittance. (Olmstead, History of Religion, p. 476.)

The tramps who walked the streets in daylight and the “fallen girls” who walked at night were in countless instances the victims of a social and industrial system which had yet to be humanized. These were the days before labor had become organized and before legislation had guaranteed the laboring man some rights and protection. Women and children still worked long hours in the sweat shops for wages which barely could keep them alive. and humane standards for tenement housing were as yet unknown.

“The poor,” said Theodore Parker, “are ignorant and wretched and vicious not from choice but from necessity.” (Cited by Abell, op. cit., p. 4.) The majority of Protestants, however, were not ready to agree with that. The slowness with which most of Protestantism responded to the needs of the new city-poor stemmed to a great extent from the traditional Protestant attitude which blamed the poor for their own condition. Rural-trained clergymen and middle-class laymen regarded poverty as simply the consequences of sloth, and Christian ethics was little more than charity.

Protestants of mid-century America were as yet unprepared to think of evil in terms of social forces which worked against the poor, enslaved them, and stamped out of them all vestiges of decency, morality, and religion. These were insights which the city was to teach Protestant Christians during the decades following the Civil War.

Both attitudes and structures would have to be changed before Protestantism could escape from its urban dilemma. New attitudes were the most urgently needed, for the truth was that middle-class Protestants did not understand or sympathize with the condition of the poor.

Early humanitarians and reformers did not understand the poor—the “depraved classes” as they called them. The conscience of the middle class was eventually stirred to indignation and action by the misery and degradation of the city. But first the middle class had to discover what poverty was. Attributing their plight to moral shortcomings, they sent agents of the Charity Organizations Society to discover which of the poor were “deserving.” But it was the young social workers, patiently investigating and visiting the sweatshops and tenement firetraps, who began to establish contact between the middle class and the working class. (C. Vance Woodward, “The Urban Society,” in The National Experience, p. 472.)

It took people like Jane Addams with her settlement-house idea in Chicago, the Salvation Army “slummers,” and a host of Christian workers who were willing to go into the depressed areas, to share the burdens of the poor and then report back to the churches what it was all about.

Not only did Protestant attitudes preclude any immediate and wide-scale response to the needs of the new city poor, the structure of city churches strongly militated against it as well.

During the years of revolutionary economic and social change, a striking transformation was taking place in the churches. Membership in the large Protestant bodies was becoming almost exclusively the property of administrators, professional men, businessmen, white-collar workers, and farmers. While at one time denominations such as the Methodists, Baptists and Disciples prided themselves on their ministry to the poor, they could now note with satisfaction that they were becoming churches with status, with soaring budgets made possible by millionaire communicants. (Olmstead, op. cit., p. 478.)

According to the census report of 1890, church property in the United States was valued at 670 million dollars, but the poor did not need the report to know this. The stately city churches told the story, with their stained-glass windows, mighty pipe organs and wealthy communicants. In the eyes of the poor it appeared that Protestantism had made its peace with their oppressors. The very men whose wealth depended on their labor, and who paid so little for it, were the active leaders in the denominations. A church might even own slum tenements, as Trinity Church did in New York, thereby earning for itself all the hostility which the poor normally feel towards those who collect rent.

The city church of the nineteenth century was a far cry from the “meetinghouse” of an earlier America. Instead of being a center of community life and interest, the urban church was more like a solitary cathedral, estranged and alienated from the environment in which it stood. The sermons which it preached were largely tailored to the needs and interests of its middle and upper-class members. (Bos, “The Social Gospel: Preaching Reform, 1875–1915,” in Preaching in American History, ed. by DeWitte, Holland, p. 226 f.) Benevolence was the answer to the poor at the Church’s door. Its entire program was geared to a level which did not involve the masses.

Abandoning an old neighborhood and moving to a more congenial location was happening already at the time of the Civil War. As the working class crowded into the industrial quarters of the old parochial churches, many of them moved to the “great avenues up town.”