tv Religion in 20th Century New York City CSPAN June 11, 2016 8:31am-8:46am EDT
announcer: next on american history tv, a conversation with the president of the organization of american historians, jon butler. currently writing a book on religion in urban areas, mr. butler sat down with us to talk about religion in 20th century new york city and talked to us about misconceptions on the subject. he was interviewed this year in providence, rhode island. >> jon butler, you are writing a book called "god in gotham," what is it about?
jon butler: it is about religion in an unlikely place modern , manhattan. when people think about religion in america and new york, they do not put the two together. when we think about religion in modern america, we think about rural america and south. -- and the south. we think about evangelical america but we do not think , about manhattan. manhattan and new york city are often referred to as the capitals of american secularism. >> what encouraged you to write this book? jon butler: two things. i had a close friend who was an first, urban historian at ucla. we were close friends. he sadly died a few years ago. we both lived in minneapolis in summer. our kids played together. we talked about urban history all the time.
i just found out that i thought there was a story here. in other words, he helped me find a story. i started out as a colonial american historian. 200 years before him. i thought there was a story about religion in modern manhattan, and part of that you can see in the iconography and the architecture of the city. people do remember st. patrick's cathedral, central synagogue. if you walk around the city, you will find religious buildings of every conceivable corner, -- in every conceivable corner, cranny, people stuck them in wherever they could because they had no choice. i thought, well, there is something to say here and that is what i want to say. i want to tell a story, not an encyclopedic history, because it
is not going to be 700-pages long, but a series of essays about how religions unfolded from 1880 into the 1960's. the story is not the collapse of religion. it is not secularization. it is how religious groups coped ready --how monday it is howity -- religious groups coped with their situation, which was anonymity, density, diversity. new york city is the only american city where catholics and jews outnumbered protestants. it did not make protestants very happy. it also made catholics and jews anxious, because they were used to not living with so many other groups. and that is not taking into account all of the other groups in the city. there was a group in the 1920's which taught natural religions.
how do we know that? they would advertise on saturdays in the new york times. >> what is natural religion? jon butler: i don't know other than the ad. they disappeared. we have -- to my knowledge, i have not found much other evidence. they advertise themselves as a group that, in a sense, natural mankind had the capacities to rise above itself. therefore, when you discover those inner resources as opposed to reveal the religions which teach from texts and tell us what we need to know. we can discover this within ourselves. >> let me ask you about your work on revolutionary america. what similarities, if any, did you find from the time that you studied in your book? jon butler: one of the things i found in the colonial period. i wrote a book use ago called
"awash in a sea of fate." it traces american religion from european colonization up to the civil war. what i found was somewhat unexpected stories that we think emphasize the diversity of american religion. there were so many religions, most of them versions of christianity, but there were also substantial numbers of jews in america, in all the colonial cities. there was substantial numbers of catholics in america. protestants did not think they were. an incredible number of protestant groups. there is a perfectly commonsensical reason we have the first amendment. congress shall make no for no law respecting an establishment of religion, or preventing the free exercise of
religion. because each of the states, we should have state churches, the federal government had tried to enforce a religious conformity. they knew they would have failed. and that has to do with the diversity of religion. there is another phenomenon, that is that most americans of the revolutionary period did not actually belong to a congregation. it does not mean they were irreligious. i also found that americans would practice what you would call in modern times occultism. they had little things they carried around with them. something like an amulet that , they thought gave them some kind of special little powers. they would consult astronomers, i'm sorry, astrologers. they would consult them about illnesses, about their fortunes, if a child was lost in the woods. this was in colonial america in which animals roamed the woods. there were still wild boars and pigs, and then your child wanders off and you look for two
days and you cannot find the child. your local minister is there, and you would pray to find the child. if you still had not found the child, the local minister was going to be very upset. they wrote about their upsetness in their diaries or accounts that the family went to an astrologer to find the child. there were whole varieties of religions that were not orthodox in any way, so you have this incredible diversity. you have this unorthodoxy. and yet, people had a sense of the transcendence, the divine. overwhelming sense of purpose in life. i find that true of thousands and millions of new yorkers. >> tell me about the prominent religious leaders and did they had any particular challenges in -- did they have any particular
challenges in urban areas? jon butler: oh, yes. the first challenge in an urban area is to learn to live with other religions. it is ironic. the protestants more worried -- were worried about the influx of catholics and jews. how were they going to succeed? especially when they've out they -- especially when they figured out that they were being outnumbered. they could look ahead and say, if this immigration continues, east european jewish, italian, we're going to be inundated. what are we going to do? we had separation of church and state, so to speak, but we had a protestant culture. you can put it that way. but catholics were worried , because catholics authorities especially were worried because they were accustomed to state churches. and how is catholicism going to succeed without the support of government? that was the european pattern. how are they going to transfer this to new york city? jews were worried, because now
they are not living -- and many jews did not live in the state in eastern europe, but they were used to being suppressed and push down. some of them, many of them could not vote, they had restriction on property. now, they are all free and the problem was they also abandoned their judaism. some did because they become communists. some became socialists. they also remained as jews but , could you really be a jew and a socialist at the same time? all of them saw threats to their enterprise, and the irony is that amidst those threats they thrived. in other words catholics did a , great job, and you see it in the buildings in new york city. one huge catholic church after the next. that was the strategy of the archdiocese of new york, was to
have very large buildings and part of that has to do with that it really, physically, testified to the power of the church in a city that had lots of other -- that had all kinds of other people. jews began, on the one hand, those that date from the colonial times -- also building big buildings. the interesting part is that from the 1890's to the 1910s and 1920's, probably 1000-1500 small congregations, which were tiny, and they would rent rooms above laundries and above stores and most of them had no rabbis, but they were shipped and they worshiped together with 10 or 15 people. when they could not pay the
rent, they moved someplace else. they are the preface to the famous churches of african-americans, who moved from the south to new york city, and then rented rooms all over the place in stores. yes, there were also big african american congregations. so, you have all of this incredible variety of all of these little, tiny congregations. we generally pay attention to the big ones, because they are the ones that leave historical records. >> last question for you were , there any particular surprises in your research? jon butler: yes. one of the biggest surprises was that new york also became a place famous for theology, and -- the obligee. and so, if you think of paul
tillich, if you think of reinhold lieber, dorothy day, the leader of a special kind of catholicism who is now being promoted for sainthood, if you think of abraham or joseph , very famous jewish theologians, these people all coalesced in the 1930's or 1940's into a remarkable intellectual -- they gave a remarkable, intellectual life to the city. they did not always correspond or know each other, the two who did word abraham and have show. one gave the eulogy at the other's funeral. and the others did not necessarily associate. the city and intellectual vitality of modern manhattan helped empower them implicitly to make new york city a marvelously theologically creative place, and whoever
thinks about this about new york city? it is a place where broadway shows and whatnot. you do not think about it as a place for theological creativity. but where would we be in judaism, catholicism, and protestantism without those people? well, not just in new york city, across the nation these are , major national figures and here they are in the capital of american secularism. >> jon butler, thank you very much. jon butler: you are welcome. announcer: you're watching american history tv. next saturday, there'll be a conference on reconstruction and the legacy of the civil war. topics will include the free people camps, general grant's presidency after the war, and he reconstruction in the north. we will also hear conversations on the return of the confederate veterans and the origins of the "lost cause."
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