Kyle Bulthuis teaches history at Utah State University. This interview is based on his forthcoming book, Four Steeples over the City Streets: Religion and Society in New York’s Early Republic Congregations (NYU Press, October 2014).
KB: In graduate school I found myself drawn to two historical fields—religious and social history—that often do not mix. When they interact, each tends to flatten and simplify the other field. In this book I wanted to do justice to both methods. In New York City, individuals such as John Jay, James Harper, Sojourner Truth, and Peter Williams were not just prominent citizens but also churchgoers. I strove to tell their story as religious as well as social individuals, people located in a time and place that included religious and secular commitments.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Four Steeples over the City Streets?
KB: These four New York City congregations—Trinity Episcopal Church, John Street Methodist Chapel, Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, and St. Philip’s (African) Episcopal Church—were all historically significant in their respective denominations (and socially significant landmarks in New York City), and each were profoundly shaped by the social changes of the early Republic. The language of Christian unity that congregants voiced proved to be an ideal that was impossible to maintain in an environment where wealth and poverty, race and gender, and physical and material development tended to divide religious bodies more than unite them.
JF: Why do we need to read Four Steeples over the City Streets?
KB: In major American cities, churches are often prominent landmarks that tourists treat as museums of the past. American politics and culture tend to identify cities as places of primarily secular, not religious, commitments. These assumptions have carried weight in the scholarly community. American religious histories often focus on denominations, or large movements, rather than individual buildings or congregations. Further, scholars of American religion have traditionally focused on the western frontier, the place of big camp meeting revivals, rather than urban centers. My examination of city congregations therefore reveals a different scale in a different place than is typical. I found that these central New York City congregations experienced religious change earlier and more intensely than elsewhere: rather than being a place where religion was peripheral, New York City was a place where religious change was cutting-edge, for good as well as for ill. Democratization, revivalism, feminization, racial segregation, reform: these developments all contributed to the urban religious experience.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
KB: As a student I loved history for its sheer variety—in a single lecture an historian can touch upon philosophy, literature, statistics, epidemiology, family relations, and many points in between. Ultimately that variety still fascinates me: I value the ability to teach broadly, to research and write along multiple tracks, and to try to make a difference to students and the wider scholarly community. I am especially glad to be working in early America, where the worlds I study remind me regularly that the past is indeed a foreign country.
JF: What is your next project?
KB: My next project moves earlier, to the late colonial era. And in contrast to this book, which focused on a tight geographic region, this project is spatially expansive. The eighteenth century revivals of ministers such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards are very well known. More recently blacks who participated in them such as Gustavus Vassa (Olaudah Equiano) or Phillis Wheatley have received a lot of attention, in part because many of them—like Vassa—were extremely mobile and part of a wider Atlantic world that linked the slave trade and revivalism in intersecting, and sometimes opposing, networks. I hope to place these black religious figures in a historical rather than a literary context—to examine the spaces they inhabited, the places they moved from and to, how and why they affiliated and worshiped with different church bodies and groups, how and why they published, and what other political and cultural commitments they took on. The scholarly conversation on these issues is quite vibrant and I look forward to taking part in it.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner