Manhattan’s Many Congregations — A Review of God in Gotham

Butler, Jon. God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020.

Reviewed by Bob Carey

If I were still teaching Introduction to Religion in American History, I would assign Jon Butler’s God in Gotham, with its excellent cameos of Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Abraham Heschel, Dorothy Day, the Reverends Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Sr., and other great or notorious divines who shaped Manhattan’s religious landscape from the Gilded Age to the Sixties. Butler surveys the high points of the Social Gospel and takes up sociological surveys once deemed the critical instruments for “seeing the city.” While viewing the monumental—St. Patrick’s, Trinity Church, and Temple Emanu-El—Butler also points out the more humble houses of worship, including a photo of a storefront church, one of four in my East Harlem neighborhood. 

Indeed, it is Butler’s consideration of neighborhood that provides the reader with the context for seeing how religious organizations—principally Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and a few outliers—sorted themselves out in facing what they deemed the existential threat posed by immigration and religious pluralism. Then, too, we see how race shaped the Protestant (white and black) and Catholic (white and black) landscape of the city. 

What I don’t understand is the title, God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan. There is a very interesting story here, but “miracle?” A bit of a stretch. What we have is not “manna from heaven” or “loaves and fishes,” but church suppers dished out by those indefatigable “ladies” who often made it possible for many churches to survive and even thrive. The concern here is not with salvation or damnation but with institutional business and real estate management and, above all, promoting brand loyalty—holding onto and increasing membership. Ministers, priests, and rabbis may have all agreed that “religion” was necessary for a thriving and vital society, but their immediate concern was to anchor their respective denominational traditions and practices in rapidly changing urban and suburban environments. 

The separation of church and state in America meant that religious organizations were on their own. You either kept your congregation or lost it. So, they held on: Protestants, especially Episcopalians, struggling to maintain their sense of being Gotham’s privileged and entitled; Catholics, within parish boundaries, shepherding successive waves of Irish, Italians, and Puerto Ricans; Jews seeking to set up shuls within a dismissive and sometimes hostile goyish culture (not quite as toxic as anti-Semitic Europe). The irony of the worried Protestants was that they were, according to Butler, trying to recoup a world that had never existed. They imagined halcyon days of Protestant prominence that, given Manhattan’s religious pluralism, were largely fantasy. For Catholics and Jews, the issue was more straightforward—carve out and hold space for institutional growth within their own flourishing ghettos and neighborhoods. The “miracle” of Manhattan: it was a huge, secular space where denominational managers could work out solutions to their particular needs.

“Stained-glass window at the 1923 Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York,” Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Butler is an excellent guide as to how, in meeting the challenge of the city, various denominations developed all manner of programs, institutions, and auxiliaries. They enlisted and profited from the devotion and time of thousands of women—nuns, Hadassah members, Sunday school teachers. And while such reliance on unpaid or poorly paid female labor was in some ways exploitive, we should remember that for a host of women, involvement in religious affairs opened the door to possible secular advancement in finance, marketing, management, and yes, real estate. In Gotham, after all, everybody played the real estate game. As congregations moved uptown (and then out of town) one denomination replaced another. Synagogues became churches; movie theaters were renovated and sanctified to accommodate massive congregations. 

The big three found a way to maintain loyalty and institutional reach and growth, but so too did Pentecostals, New Thought preachers, Swamis, and gurus who found a place and an audience. The cities, but most especially New York, proved to be something of the Home Depot for religious needs. So many aisles, so many possibilities! Suburbanization, initially seen as a threat, turned out to be largely more of the same—just spread out and without quite the vitality of city life. Where the faithful had once walked, they now drove. Butler shows that suburbanization did not, as alarmists had once prophesied, lead to the diminution of piety and observance. In the Levittowns of postwar America, religious consumers created what they needed and wanted, building new sanctuaries and other structures that housed a wealth of programs for all ages. And, God bless it, ample free parking.

Butler ends with muted confidence that what he described will continue to generate “mechanisms through which individuals and groups… [can] explore and fulfill their spiritual needs in spite of anonymity, mobility, density, and perceived indifference.”

Can we find a minyan in the Age of Covid and beyond? We shall see. Miracle anyone? 

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 1960s and has been a faculty member of Empire State College since 1973, retiring in 2018. He served as an Associate and Graduate Dean in the course of his career with the College. His areas of interest in historical studies are America’s racial and religious history, the history of food and disease, and critical reading.

Featured image (at top): Sukkah at Congregation Emanu-El, Manhattan, New York. Rhododendrites, 2019, Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.