When Cities and Churches First Met in America: America’s First Urban Crisis (2)

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

Immigration, Slums, and Labor Unrest Produce Political, Moral, and Religious Anxiety – One very irritating feature for Protestants was the remarkable expansion of the Roman Catholic Church in the city. Not only did the Catholic Church succeed in shepherding the waves of the new urban migrants from Ireland and southern Europe, it also moved out effectively among the uncommitted masses, showing sympathy with their plight.

By identifying with the laboring class and its struggles for a better life, the Roman Catholic Church established itself as the religion of the American city, and this was a development which many Protestants deeply feared. The immigrant, Catholic, urban masses were viewed with open suspicion, as though they were the advance agents of the Papacy and a threat to America’s security. Gradually it came to be felt that if something was not done to curb the trend and eradicate the “putrefying sores” of the city, the future of the nation might be imperilled. Urban mission work therefore, if there was to be any at all, had to save America from Catholicism as much as slum dwellers from their sins (May, Protestant Churches and Industrial America, pp. 112–116).

Social and political as well as religious apprehensions were aroused by the new urban situation. The poverty, ignorance, and unsanitary habits of many of the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were shocking to old line Americans.

It might be debated whether the immigrants were herded into the slums and forced to live under those conditions, or whether they themselves created the slums by their own life style. But the slums became their homes and they constituted a severe social hazard to American cities. If they were to adequately meet the needs and quell the fears, urban missions would have to approach the city poor with more than one single solution as the panacea for all the problems.

Political and moral tensions – Something of the political and moral tensions that were mounting between Protestants and Catholics is described by Hudson as follows:

While mutual animosities fostered mutual esstrangement, Protestant uneasiness had its basic rootage in apprehensions concerning the changes that a continuing massive Roman Catholic immigration might introduce into American society. The existing social order, which embodied in so many ways the ideals and moralities of evangelical Protestantism, seemed to many thoughtful people to be in danger of being completely subverted. The most obvious, if perhaps the most superficial, threat was the challenge to two of the most conspicuous folk moralities of American Protestantism -Sabbath observance and temperance. The “Continental Sunday” of the immigrant groups both scandalized and spread consternation in the Protestant camp. And Protestants, long schooled in the evils of strong drink, noted with dismay that these new Americans were bringing “Their grog shops like the frogs of Egypt upon us.” (Hudson, op. cit., p. 243.)

The older Protestants resented the very presence of the urban masses, the religion they represented, and the social conditions which they seemed to create. Moreover, political power in the cities was shifting from the native horn to the foreign born, many of whom were obviously unschooled in American political idealism. Public relief funds, scanty as they were, demanded increasing tax money to help the poor. And in the center of it all, the agonizing plight of the urban slum dwellers brought pangs of conscience to many hearts. As one New York almshouse commissioner exclaimed sadly:

Many of them had far better been cast into the deep sea, than linger in the pangs of hunger, sickness, and pain, to draw their last agonizing breath in the streets of New York. (The Catholic Church in a Changing America, pp. 29–30, cited by Hudson, op. cit., p. 239.)

Protestantism’s embarrassing silence – The seeming irrelevance of orthodox Protestantism to the economic questions of the period was another source of irritation and estrangement. Here the Roman Catholic Church showed itself much more identified with the laboring man and his interests than the Protestant churches proved to be. When Wickman says of England that the moralistic mood of the churches not only created a deep division between the working classes and the churches but also led the churches to overtly attack the laboring man’s culture and objectives, the same could be applied to America in this period. (E. R. Wickham, Church and People, p. 198.)

During the 1880’s, industrial conflict grew and strikes broke out as the number of wage earners nearly doubled during the decade but their economic position improved hardly at all.

As compared with the employers who controlled the new industry, the workers actually retrogressed. Machinery and corporate organization utilizing immigrant labor made American capitalists, in the words of a New York merchant, as independent of American workingmen “as the imported slaves made Roman patricians independent of Roman laborers.” By combining in pools and trusts, the masters of capital succeeded not only in suppressing cutthroat competition but also in imposing exorbitantly high prices upon the consuming public and slashing wagecuts upon their employees. (Abell, op. cit., p. 58.)

American Protestantism on the whole had very little to say. The sight of “huge capital alongside huge misery, of over-production on the one side and starvation on the other” found orthodox Protestants embarrassingly silent. (Wickham, op. cit., p. 201.) As America shifted ominously toward division between prosperous native-born employers and impoverished immigrant employees, Protestant Churches found themselves on the side of the former and tragically alienated from the latter. The percentage of wageearners attending Protestant Churches slipped rapidly, and the image which was created put Protestantism on the side of the poor’s oppressors.

“Churchianity” rejected – American Protestantism was charged with many things during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, most stinging of which was its failure to practice true New Testament religion. Most working men rejected “churchianity,” says Abell, which they considered to be another word for a pious fraud and pretense. But they professed belief in Christianity.

Characteristic of this attitude was the New York rally of workmen in the early eighties which in the same breath hissed the churches and cheered the mention of Christ’s name. A committee of the Congregational Churches in Massachusetts found that, in most cases, the wage earner voiced allegiance to the Great Galilean along with hatred of the church which in his opinion had betrayed Him. If the churches “would be faithful to Jesus,” he said, “no alienation would exist.” (Abell, op. cit., pp. 64–65.)

Taken as a whole, this made the role of Protestant Churches exceedingly difficult. Even those whose members individually were not involved in labor-management disputes were lumped together in a class which was considered “defiled.” The urban mission of Protestantism from the very beginning had inherent obstacles to overcome which were as much social and ethnic as religious.

The scope of these articles forbids us to enter in more detail into the writings of men like Washington Gladden and the growing insistence that Protestantism had moral obligation in the area of labor and capital. That would require more space than we can give it here. Let it suffice to say that orthodox Protestantism’s perennial embarrassment in the city has been caused to a great extent by its failure to identify with the needs and aspirations of the laboring classes. Exceptions can be cited and much improvement has been made, but the general pattern is undeniable. And this has made every stage of its urban outreach a largely up-hill fight.

Fear and Faith Produce a New Urban Protestantism – As American Protestantism began to mobilize at the end of the Civil War for its first attempts at urban outreach three forces were at work.

First there were the needs of the urban masses and the broad, humanitarian desire to relieve their suffering. This issued in governmental and other nonreligious relief agencies aimed at relieving the suffering of the poor.

Second, there was no small amount of fear among middle-class Americans that this urban situation was getting out of hand. Catholics were getting too numerous. They “got off the ship on Monday and voted on Tuesday.” Catholic immigrant politicians, identifying as they did so well with the needs and hopes of the urban workers, were taking over city governments. As one writer put it, “The function of the Irishman is to administer the affairs of the American city” (c. Vann Woodward, ‘“The Urban Society,” in The National Experience, p. 471). As time went by labor unrest and union movements were growing stronger and they threatened the entire economic system of the nation.

Third, there was throughout the country a genuine Christian concern to reach these people for Christ’s sake. This was the all-important motive which compelled Christian workers to identify with the poor, live among them, and lift their burdens in a way which humanitarianism alone could never accomplish.

A brief word should be added concerning the element of fear for the political consequences of urban slums, because it took a peculiar twist. At first the fear which existed that the urban masses might threaten American democracy served as a motivation for inquiry as to how to relieve the masses’ distress. Later on, however, suspicion based on fear for political stability was directed against those who were doing most to help the poor. They were charged with being socialists, communists, and anarchists. It was analogous to the kind of thinking which occurred a century later when the threat of Communism was used on the one hand to promote foreign missions and on the other hand was hurled in a denunciatory way against any kind of mission work which dared go beyond saving souls. Fear had it both ways.

Bad as things seemed for Protestantism in the cities, there were those nonetheless who at the close of the Civil War joined together in proposing some solutions. Associations of various kinds were formed, the most fruitful of which was the American Christian Commission, inspired by James Erwin Yeatman of St. Louis (1818–1901). The findings and contribution which this Commission made will be taken up in the next article. These efforts deserve special attention for they marked the turning point in the attitude and approach of American Protestantism to the urban crisis. Yeatman saw that before anything of major importance could be done, a thorough study had to be made as to the actual conditions in American cities, this information had to be conveyed to American Christians, arousing them to think through the issues and stimulating them to action, and specific programs of action had to be devised to solve the problems which industrialization created. Only a composite strategy such as this could alter the negative stance of Protestantism over against the challenge of the city.