When Cities and Churches First Met in America: Churches Restructure for Urban Mission (3)

Rev. Roger S. Greenway herewith presents the third 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.

James A. Yeatman was a statesman, industrialist, and philanthropist. To the soldiers of the Civil War he was affectionately known as “old Sanitary” for his work at the head of the Western Sanitary Commission and his frequent camp visits out of concern for the men’s welfare. After the war, his widely read Circular of Inquiry, in which he carefully analyzed the urban situation, sparked a series of events which were to have important consequences for urban Protestantism. Like many of his contemporaries Yeatman both loved and feared the city. In St. Louis, he was considered the “first citizen” of the city; but at the same time he regarded the cities as traps where rural folks and others might be seized upon by the Catholic Church. He bemoaned the comparative ineffectiveness of Protestant Churches as compared to urban Catholicism, and he warned that Catholic growth in the cities might seriously threaten the nation. Yeatman summarized the problem for Protestants as,

want of knowledge of their moral condition, lack of organization of the wealth, piety and labor which exist there; need of experimental knowledge of the best agencies and how to perfect organizations already formed; and want of trained, tried, permanent laborers in the various spheres of city labor. (American Christian Commission, Document No. I (New York, 1871 ), pp. 9-11. Cited by Abell, The Urban Impact, p. II.)

The same genius for organization which had made Yeatman a leader in the business world and the civic life of St. Louis now bore fruit for urban missions. More than one hundred influential ministers and laymen from various denominations caught his vision and organized themselves for action. Their goal was to rejuvenize American churches after the New Testament pattern in which every church was a mission and every believer a missionary.

An Outline of Urban Mission

As an outgrowth of the United States Commission which operated on behalf of Union forces during the Civil War, the American Christian Commission was organized in Cleveland in September, 1865. Its first assignment was to collect information on city mission work in America and make a report.

Their report the following year, based on personal investigation in thirty-five representative cities, assembled data relative to the growing need for humanitarian church work in cities, the American philanthropic situation viewed as a whole, the activities of the churches as missionary congregations and, finally, the question of using women as missionaries. Though not exhaustive, this report presented the first truly significant picture of Protestant prospects in urban America. Ibid, pp. 12, 19–20. Emphasis mine.

After the report was distributed the responsibility for urban involvement lay openly before the Protestant churches of America. No one could plead ignorance any longer. It was clear that the problems were not restricted to a few eastern seaboard cities: they stretched across America. The urban blight was everywhere and only a community of the most brazen religious indifference could remain uninvolved any longer.

Having made the investigation and published the report, the Commission went on to stir American churches to meet the challenge of urban religious needs. A department of foreign correspondence was formed to learn from urban experiments in Great Britain and the Continent. Thousands of Protestant Christians subscribed to the Commission’s monthly newspaper, The Christian at Work, which was founded in 1868 to further the cause of urban mission. Of even greater impact were the Christian Conventions which the Commission sponsored at the local, state, and national levels for the purpose of reaching the rank and file church members with their message. Themes presented at these conventions were the need for “visitations of the poor, the use of existing churches for humanitarian purposes, the formation of Christian associations, lay preaching, open-air preaching, the rescue of social outcasts, and the promotion of Christian union.” (Abell, op. cit. pp. 14–15.) The movement did not go unopposed: at times it was severely misunderstood and misrepresented. But its effect in directing the thinking of Protestant Christians toward the cities and their needs was incalculable. Throughout the sixties and seventies it raised its voice on behalf of America’s most neglected mission field, its own urban centers.

The Commission itself did not undertake the implementation of the urban program which it outlined. It turned this task over to the churches and the agencies which were raised up specifically for that purpose. The great value of the Commission’s work lay in its realistic assessment of the city’s need. Comparing the suggestions made by the Commission with those made by others, Abell says that the program outlined by. . .

. . . the American Christian Commission was of far greater significance, displaying the seriousness of the urban crisis in terms of immediate religious problems and suggesting social-service methods. Its plan and philosophy of action were so comprehensive that all kindred subsequent movements could be but elaborations or specializations. (Abell, Ibid., p. 26.)

The findings of the Commission and its promotional work throughout the nation helped turn the tide in favor of a religious and social program geared to the city’s needs.

The “Institutional” Church

Due to large-scale shifts in population during the second half of the nineteenth century, hundreds of Protestant congregations found themselves located in the areas of the city where poverty and suffering prevailed and the people of the neighborhood were not members of any church. As a result of this situation there developed what is known , as the institutional church, a church-centered combination of spiritual and social ministry to the urban poor.

The outstanding early pioneer in this type of ministry was the Reverend William A. Muhlenberg of the Episcopal Church. Already in 1845 he had founded in New York the Church of the Holy Communion where free pews were available to the poor and a variety of social services were offered as well. Another of Muhlenberg’s innovations was the establishment of an order of deaconesses, the first in the English-speaking Protestant world, which we will discuss at greater length at the close of this article.

The idea of the existing church as a social as well as a religious center spread among a number of large urban churches. Some of them, such as St. Mark~s Episcopal in the Frankford suburb of Philadelphia, directed their efforts especially to immigrants. Led by William Welsh, a layman, St. Mark’s found that despite its location in an industrial section, it did not have in its membership a single male wage-earner.

But systematic lay effort, first with wives of immigrants and then with their husbands, broke down the cold formality of the regular parishioners and won the confidence of non-churchgoers. Four committees, dealing with the young and old of both sexes, persuaded two hundred workingmen to join the Bible classes and nearly seven hundred families, mainly of the laboring group to worship in the church. ( Abell, op. cit., p. 31.)

St. Mark’s studiously avoided any semblance of the degrading alms-giving which was so characteristic of most Protestant attempts at urban relief. Theirs was a mission of personal involvement and a kind of church-centered evangelism which proved to be of mutual benefit both to the regular parishioners and to the newcomers. Help was offered on an intimate, man-to-man basis, designed to protect and restore the recipient’s dignity.

The most dramatic and resourceful of the early leaders in church-centered social outreach was the Reverend Thomas K. Beecher, pastor of an independent Congregational Church in Almira, New York, from 1850 to 1900. He induced his congregation to erect a costly structure not for their own engrandizement but for a ministry to the neighboring poor. Among the facilities which the new building offered were free baths for the “unclean of the congregation.” Mark Twain, Beecher’s brother-in-law wrote about this project saying that we “are going to have at least one sensible but very, very curious church in America.” (Ibid., p. 28.)

The wide variety of services offered by the institutional church was illustrated in Philadelphia, where Russell Conwell’s Baptist Temple provided during the 1880’s gymnasiums, sewing classes, manual-training courses, reading rooms, day nurseries, and social clubs. The program was staffed by hundreds of paid and unpaid workers. Similarly, the Methodist’s Metropolitan Temple in New York held during the 1890’s fifty services each week, with an athletic association, choral societies, a reading room, a sewing school, and an employment bureau. Churches vied with one another as to what they could offer. The relative balance between spiritual impact and social service was difficult to gauge, however, and as the century drew to a close the religious emphasis nc longer predominated. The overall program in most of such churches weighed heavily on the side of charity and reform.

Cooperative Programs and Denominational Home Missions

As the institutional church concept grew, many city churches realized that they needed help in carrying it out and looked to other churches of their own denomination for cooperation and for assistance. This was true among Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Baptists. Among the Congregationalists, for example, a National Council Church Fund was formed in 1887 which began by raising one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the construction of urban church buildings. Cooperative efforts among the Presbyterians followed the lines set by the Congregationalists and the individual churches appealed to their presbyteries and to the denomination as a whole to help them establish and expand urban work. “By appealing to the membership for increased interest and by granting money from the Board of Home Missions to the presbyteries, the Presbyterian Church as a whole promoted the city missionary movement.” (Ibid. , p. 178, citing General Assembly, Minutes, 1887, pp. 71–72.)

Surprising as it may seem, the Baptists proved to be more effective than most others as far as cooperative efforts in the city were concerned. The institutional church appealed strongly to the Baptists. They saw that most downtown churches which persisted in using conventional methods were dying and they turned eagerly to the institutional church approach.

“A man,” wrote Johnston Myers, pastor of a Cincinnati institutional church, “may preach the pure Gospel in such a way as to lose even his deacons.” Before long Baptist city churches throughout the East were offering relief supplies, kindergarten and day nursery services, industrial education and assistance, and a wide variety of social services to the community. Various Baptist churches in the same city would cooperate in organizing multi-pronged attacks on city needs, evangelistic, educational, and material relief. This generally to the form of assistance on the part of older and wealthier churches extended to struggling Baptist missions and congregations in the more industrialized parts of the city.

One very important change which took place among the Baptists and others was the broadening of the fields covered by denominational Home Missions Boards to include the immigrant populations in the cities. Work on the Western frontier continued as before, but as the crises mounted in the cities both Baptist and Congregational Home Missionary Societies began programs in urban areas where foreign-language churches could more effectively reach the immigrants. Another move in the direction of denominational participation in city work was that made by the Episcopalians in New York, where toward the close of the century much of the work which had been started by individual Episcopalian laymen apart from the denomination passed into the hands of the bishops. In this movement toward denominational involvement no denomination surpassed the Methodists, whose City Evangelization Union was a nation-wide coordinating agency for Methodist mission work in the cities.

By 1900, denominational and cooperative city mission work had pretty well reached its zenith. Christians working both within and outside of denominational structures had joined hands in one way or another to establish and expand the Protestant religion in the cities. Using largely institutional methods Protestants were attempting to apply social Christianity to the needy urban area, the principles of which had been laid down several decades earlier by the American Christian Commission. Only partial success could be claimed, however, for relatively few of the urban immigrants joined Protestant churches. (Ibid., p. 193.) The material and cultural benefits were taken with due appreciation, but the recipients did not move on to church membership. Somehow the Gospel’s message in its entirety never got through and the Protestant Church as an institution did not appeal. The social services which Protestants rendered were probably a crucial factor in preventing a social revolution in America at the close of the century, but apart from that, many of the religious intentions which motivated the work, namely to bring people into fellowship with Christ and membership in His visible Body, were never fulfilled, and Protestantism remained spiritually and organizationally weak in the cities.

Broad as the programs of the institutional churches were, they could not meet all the needs nor monopolize all the energies which the awakened social awareness of American Protestantism set in motion. Countless auxiliary welfare agencies sprang up in the latter part of the nineteenth century which were related directly or indirectly to the organized churches. Women and young people were especially involved in these programs, and numerous brotherhoods, sisterhoods and young peoples’ societies arose to channel their services.

The Deaconess Movement

When Muhlenberg introduced the first order of deaconesses he took many American Protestants by stunned surprise. The denominations were not ready for this innovation, and it was not until near the end of the century that deaconesses came to be widely used. Hudson remarks that perhaps their use of quaint hats and distinctive dress militated against their popularity. “Protestant nuns” they were called in some places and they bore the brunt of many jokes. Conservative American Protestants were not yet ready to follow the Europeans with their trained women workers. (Hudson, Religion in America, p. 297.)

The purpose of the deaconess movement was to harness the previollsly untapped female resources of the Protestant Church and put them to work among the urban poor. House-to-house visiting, work among women and children, and medical services, could all be done very efficiently by women. Training schools were set up in some cities for the special training of women in such work. Abell says that nearly a hundred and fifty well-equipped deaconess institutions were established between 1885 and 1900. (Abell, op. cit., p. 194.) Though on the whole the deaconess movement did not fare well, it did serve to break down the barrier which up to this time had kept women relatively inactive in Protestant church work. From now on women would be in the vanguard of most of the social endeavor of the leading Protestant denominations.

The Sunday School Endeavor

One particular agency which must be mentioned because it came to be related more directly than most of the others to the organized church was the Sunday School. The Sunday School movement was started in England in 1780 through the inspiration of Robert Raikes. Its primary intention was to provide elementary education to the children of the poor who otherwise would not be able to afford such training. The movement spread widely throughout America and in such large cities as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, Albany, Hartford, Baltimore, and Charleston, the Sunday School soon came to be a regular part of the Protestant outreach among the poor. These Sunday Schools, operated as they were by laymen, provided an excellent opportunity for women to be religiously active and they served as a forerunner of the broader movement which would come later in the century.

As the nation’s public school system improved, the need for the kind of secular education offered by the Sunday Schools disappeared and gradually the Sunday Schools were taken over by the churches. In the process they became distinctively religious in character. (Olmstead, History of Religion, p. 292) The beneficial results of this move as far as the churches were concerned were acclaimed by almost everyone.

Within a very brief time, the Sunday School—benefiting from its surge of popularity—had begun to replace revivalism as the primary recruiting device of the churches. No longer was it merely a children’s school. Adult classes were formed which frequently rivaled the stated services of the church in attendance. (Hudson, op. cit. pp. 235–236.)

Here an there, however, voices of warning and protest were raised. “Where,” asked Edward Eggleston in 1880, “has the question of the mode of decreasing pauperism through the Sunday School ever attracted any attention? What have Sunday School people done to promote the acquisition of skill in handicraft by Sunday School children?” (“Recent Phases of Sunday School Work,” Scribner’s, XIX (February 1880), 529. Cited by Abell, op. cit., p. 207.)

Besides having to provide satisfactory answers to these questions, the Sunday schools had to become more successful as recruiting agencies for the churches. The rapid movement of population from country to city, the increasing secularization of the public schools and the easy pitfalls of city life—all these demanded of the Sunday school greater effectiveness. (Ibid.)

The Sunday School movement was plainly in a bind for it was expected to be both a member-recruiting agency for the churches and a social service agency to the community. The increasing rural-to-urban migration kept one kind of pressure on, and the decline in the effectiveness of the older revivalism made the door to the church through the Sunday School all the more important from the other side. At the same time, certain inherent weaknesses in the relation of the Sunday School to the Church caused some thoughtful observers to question its real basis.

Nineteenth century studies of the Sunday School indicated that in very many places, while the number of pupils kept increasing enormously each year, the percentage of those who passed from the Sunday School to full church membership was discouragingly small. (Abell, op. cit., p. 207.) The cause of the Sunday School’s failure seemed attributable to its lack cf vital connection with the local church. Sunday Schools often operated as something apart from the authority and ministry of the regular church,. as a sort of laymen’s organization which met in the same building but was not really part of the whole. As a result there was a minimizing of the importance of congregational worship and of preaching. Where this occurred, something was evidently lacking in the perspective of the Sunday School and one might ask whether the Sunday School was actually a help or a hindrance to the growth of the Church. However, wherever local congregations succeeded in bridging the gap, Sunday Schools proved to be of great benefit both as an educational arm of the church and an evangelistic agency for gaining new members.