Finding Religion in the City: A Review of Mark Wild’s Renewal: Liberal Protestants in the American City after World War II

Mark Wild. Renewal: Liberal Protestants and the American City after World War II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Review by Bob Carey

Renewal: Liberal Protestants and the American City after World War II is a well written study of how liberal Protestants (liberal, white male Protestants, it is important to note) tried to establish their voice as the voice of urban Protestant witness in a postwar restatement of central Social Gospel themes of reconciliation and justice for “the least of these.” Wild’s discussion is periodized between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, during which the contours of “urban ministry” emerged, flourished for a season and then disappeared, replaced by another approach. Urban ministry, in this period, was a work of reclamation, of churchmen trying to recover a world they believed was once theirs. The theme of “the world we have lost” floats like a leitmotif through the book.

Urban ministry took the city to be a “problem,” as a place of crisis and change—where the dominant voice had once been that of Protestant Churchmen. What happened, following the war, was an exodus of white Protestants to the suburbs that, along with the Interstate Highway system, and the growth of malls connected to them, constituted a new geography of church-going America. The city might have been a problem, but it was now someone else’s problem, as congregations relocated into the largely white suburban ring. Who would speak to and for the city? Who would “save” the city? Wild ‘s achievement is to introduce us to those who stepped forward to do just that—exploring their vision of the city and reading of what Christianity was or should be in the circumstances set by urban issues of slums and slum clearance, poverty, and growing black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Storefront church, E. 20th Street and Cecil Avenue, Baltimore, MD
Eli Pousson. Storefront church, E. 20th Street and Cecil Avenue, Baltimore, MD. Baltimore Heritage/Flickr.

Linked to the vision of the city was the question of what form urban ministry was to take. The variety of Protestant churches did not matter overly much in a smallish city or rural town; they were all Protestant and the theology’s cultural hegemony was self-evident. In larger urban areas, the looming presence of the Roman Catholic Church with its networks of parish, parochial schools, and religious orders fit the urban scene in ways that Protestantism never could. The Catholic Church could minister to a variety of immigrant populations as they were negotiating terms of membership in American life. Might African American Protestants become the urban voice and the bearer of the Social Gospel tradition? Wild shows how first whites largely controlled initiatives to minister to the city with African American protestants as junior partners in the enterprise, and then black protestants, shaped and reshaped by black power theology and a burgeoning civil rights activism, became the Protestant urban voice. Like their white counterparts, African American renewalists and traditionalists also had to deal with the same “anxieties about their future” as they coped with problems that white congregations faced—“shrinking membership, suburban flight, and demographic transition.” The city itself was changing as gentrification and deindustrialization helped shaped a new urban milieu.

488104020 (1)The liberal attempt to renew the church’s voice was an attempt to reimagine the shape of ministry, giving rise to a host of experimental forms—the East Harlem Protestant Parish, the Detroit Industrial Mission, Cloverfield, the Urban Training Center for Christian Mission, worker priests, the Ecumenical Institute, coffee house ministries, and other initiatives that bypassed the traditional congregation as the locus of ministerial activity, seeking instead to shed traditional evangelical language of outreach while ministering to a variety of populations. A reading of Niebuhr’s and Bonhoeffer’s theologies encouraged a host of seminarians and churchmen to be Christian in another way—disguised as it were—in the form of ministries that served neighborhoods or championed changes.

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, for many, became another form of ministry—with more extensive resources and career possibilities. Working with the Office of Economic Opportunity, the conduit for a range of War on Poverty program funds, made it easy for many renewalists to see an “equivalency” between “religious and secular work.” Renewal efforts led to the creation of an infrastructure of denominational and inter-denominational support—an alphabet city that Wild describes in helpful detail. One of the ironies of this period, noted by Wild, is the success and size of Billy Graham’s evangelical crusades during this period, appealing as they did to thousands of people.

And then it was over. By the 1970s, according to Wild, the renewal effort had run its course. What had all of this activity amounted to? One reading would suggest that not much changed: “In cities, racial class, and neighborhood divisions continued to divide the populations…The decline of broader cooperative, ecumenical efforts and the increasing emphasis on local congregations followed and enabled social decentralization.” That said, it also is true, argues Wild, that “the renewal movement provided an organizing sense of purpose for tens of thousands to live out their Christian principles … the larger movements for social justice and community empowerment that we often attribute to secular organizations would not have achieved as much as they did without the church’s involvement.”

Bob Carey did his undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (’61); read for degrees in theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (’66, 68), and did his doctoral work in American history at Columbia University in New York City (’84). He served as an Assistant Pastor at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in the ‘60’s and has been a faculty member of Empire State College since 1973, retiring in 2018. He has served as an Associate and Graduate Dean in the course of his career with the College. His areas of interests in Historical studies are America’s racial and religious history, the history of food and disease and critical reading.

Featured image (at top): St. James Episcopal Church, completed in 1867 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Carol M. Highsmith, August 22, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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