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Evangelical Gotham

Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

At first glance, evangelical and Gotham seem like an odd pair. What does a movement of pious converts and reformers have to do with a city notoriously full of temptation and sin? More than you might think, says Kyle B. Roberts, who argues that religion must be considered alongside immigration, commerce, and real estate scarcity as one of the forces that shaped the New York City we know today.
            In Evangelical Gotham, Roberts explores the role of the urban evangelical community in the development of New York between the American Revolution and the Civil War. As developers prepared to open new neighborhoods uptown, evangelicals stood ready to build meetinghouses. As the city’s financial center emerged and solidified, evangelicals capitalized on the resultant wealth, technology, and resources to expand their missionary and benevolent causes. When they began to feel that the city’s morals had degenerated, evangelicals turned to temperance, Sunday school, prayer meetings, antislavery causes, and urban missions to reform their neighbors. The result of these efforts was Evangelical Gotham—a complicated and contradictory world whose influence spread far beyond the shores of Manhattan.
Winner of the 2015 Dixon Ryan Fox Manuscript Prize from the New York State Historical Association

352 pages | 32 halftones, 7 maps, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Historical Studies of Urban America

History: American History, Urban History

Religion: American Religions, Religion and Society


“The book tells readers much about religious life in early New York, as well as the way the churches and the city grew together. Its use of a wide variety of sources demonstrates that the author has creatively found many paths into understanding his topic. Further, his challenge to readers today focuses on the dynamic of the inner life and the outer practice, the ties between individual transformation and social responsibility. The book also reminds readers to look for evangelicalism in cities and even in Manhattan itself, as contemporary congregations like Redeemer Presbyterian Church and Times Square Church can attest to the continued presence of evangelicalism near the heart of Gotham.”

Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“Roberts skillfully studies ideas, tracks material changes, and narrates well-contextualized microhistories of individual churches, publishers, and reform societies, featuring characters both familiar and relatively unknown. But there are also great maps, figures, and charts, including in its appendix. The study of American evangelicals between the Revolution and Civil War is a well-established, crowded field, but Roberts makes valuable contributions by focusing on matters of class, space, and place.”

Reading Religion

“Roberts surveys this remarkable evangelical surge and the struggle to realize its spiritual goals in a secular world. Seven chapters are grouped into three chronological parts and feature critical themes: evangelical immigration to New York; evangelicalism’s growing vision to serve the needs of women, children, workers, and sailors; an emerging evangelical publishing industry; challenging expressions of evangelical democracy; gendered debate over women’s roles in churches and the possibilities of moral perfection; and the struggle to maintain existing congregations as denominations moved northward with the city’s burgeoning population. A story of triumph and tragedy, Gotham’s evangelical enterprise failed to convert many, struggled with societal issues like slavery and internal issues concerning ministerial authority and ecclesiology, and fought the immigrant faiths of Jews and Catholics. It negotiated complex change by weaving old faith into modern urban cloth. Recommended.”


"Evangelical Gotham persuasively demonstrates that American evangelicals shaped the development of New York City, even as New York City shaped the development of American evangelicalism. . . Roberts convinces that without Gotham, evangelicalism in America would not have developed into the powerhouse it became over the course of the nineteenth century."

Common-place: The Journal of Early American Life

“With deep and wide-ranging research, Roberts has provided a path-breaking interpretation of religious dynamics in the development of New York City as the nation’s leading urban center. The book is simply jammed with insights—especially on the city’s expanding but also conflicted evangelical churches (Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist), but also on race, religious and ethnic minorities, missionary initiatives, market-place instincts, gender, revival, philanthropic voluntarism, and more. Evangelical Gotham is a splendid book.”

Mark A. Noll, author of America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln

“Roberts’s deeply researched and much anticipated book calls attention away from the frontier to show how influential Manhattan was as a center for evangelical religion in the early American republic. With extensive evidence of the presence of evangelical organizations in the expansion of New York City, Roberts corrects the mistaken impression that religion played only a minor role in the development of that vibrant commercial center. This book will find its place among ‘must reads’ for a long time to come.”

Amanda Porterfield, author of Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation

Evangelical Gotham’s evocative portrait of born-again Protestantism in early nineteenth-century New York City offers a startling new history of religious fervor in a city too quickly tagged with secularism and a vivid account of America’s first evangelical nerve center. Vividly written and ingeniously researched, Evangelical Gotham recasts much of what we thought we knew about American urbanism, religion, and the dynamics of American evangelical germination.”

Jon Butler, Yale University

“Until recently historians have viewed the landscape of religion chiefly from the perspective of social history, treating the realm of faith as a subjective response to uncertainty and change and spiritual movements as instruments for imposing order. Sometimes the secular approach goes farther and sees in revivals and awakenings the ambitions of elites to impose social control over the subordinate classes. Roberts will have none of this. In Evangelical Gotham, religion operates as a domain of meaning in its own right, anchoring individual lives, building institutions, and inspiring aid to the needy in body and spirit. Roberts shows that evangelicals embraced the city and appropriated its characteristic institutions to religious ends. In a stratified society, rent by divisions of class, race, and ethnicity, these dedicated souls were inclusive and expansive, seeking to bring every possible soul within their embrace. Such a faith proved a social force of immense importance and in charting its impact Roberts provides us with a powerful lens through which to view the world of the early republic.”

Robert Gross, University of Connecticut

"In this exquisite gem of a book on the rise of Protestantism in New York City, Kyle Roberts explains the contests between competing versions of Christian responses to American society during the early republic and well into the nineteenth century. This book provides readers with the foundational view on Christian efforts of all stripes in the period before the creation of the immigrant Catholic Church in the same city to conquer the landscape for Christ and His Church."

Catholic Library World

“Roberts' ambitious study of the growth of evangelical congregations in New York City in the period from the American Revolution to the Civil War is meticulous in its attention to detail, thought-provoking in its claims, and sensitive in its interpretations.”

Wesley and Methodist Studies

Table of Contents

Part I 1783–1815
1 Crossings and Dwellings
2 The Widow, the Missionary, and the Prostitute
Part II 1815–1840
3 The New Missionary Field
4 Practicing Faith through Reading and Writing
5 Free Churches and the Limits of Reform
Part III 1840–1860
6 Perfection and the Antebellum Urban Evangelical Woman
7 Moving Uptown


New York Academy of History: Herbert H. Lehman Prize

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