"Evangelical Gotham" Roundtable: An Audience Comment



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Jonathan Den Hartog

I very much appreciated the just-concluded roundtable on Kyle Roberts' Evangelical Gotham.

I found myself taking in the roundtable just as I was finishing reading the book. 

So, in the spirit of an "audience comment," let me add one additional point that particularly struck me.

I was much impressed by the way Roberts' focus on religion in New York City opened up consideration of the meaning of New York City on other levels--the national and the international. The book works as a fine-grained study of one particular place (Manhattan), expressed with even more particular details of congregations and individuals. Yet, by choosing New York, the book has situated its local story in a city where developments in local religious life could produce effects beyond its borders.

One direction the City faced was westward, to the American continent. New York grew in economic and cultural significance throughout the nineteenth century, and its impact was energized by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. New York print culture came to shape, if not the nation, at least a much larger region of the North. Thus, it mattered what was printed and that much of the printed materials were Bibles or Christian tracts or religious magazines. 

Further, New York City became the headquarters for national organizations such as the American Bible Society and the American Tract Society. These organizations had a national reach and a national impact, but their activities were coordinated by individuals living and working in New York. So, the religious life of Gotham shaped the practice of faith throughout the nation. This linking of the local and the national was evident in the annual celebrations that these national organizations put on simultaneously in New York's public spaces, with events such as addresses and parades.

At the same time, the City continued to face the Atlantic. Roberts begins with the Atlantic orientation, as travelers of all kinds came to relocate in the city. But it's worth remembering that New York remained a significant port throughout the period covered in the book. It was a node in the web of exchange that was the Atlantic World. Local events and figures influenced the people and ideas which circulated throughout the Atlantic.

I suspect that international ideal motivated the evangelism to sailors that Roberts documents. Not only were sailors resident in New York, but their journeys would take them to many other ports, making them potential evangelists themselves. At the same time, as a port, New York was ideally situated as an embarkation point for American missionaries heading abroad.

As a receiving port, New York could also hear of new developments in the broader, transatlantic evangelical culture. So, the American Bible Society grew under the inspiration of the British and Foreign Bible Society, just as missionary endeavors were motivated by the example of the London Missionary Society.

Thus the story of Evangelical Gotham was not just about itself, but its influence was felt nationally and internationally. I'm appreciative for Roberts' illustration of how historical particularity, when studied deeply, can open up into broader stories and significances. So, in agreement with the roundtable contributors, let me encourage people to give the book some careful consideration.

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