The Attacks on Samaritan’s Purse Reveal a Fundamental Misunderstanding of Evangelical Relief Work

Samaritan Purse

As I wrote about yesterday, Franklin Graham’s organization Samaritan’s Purse has built a field hospital in Central Park to service coronavirus patients. Not everyone is happy about it.

For example, Brad Hoylman, a New York state senator representing Manhattan, wants to make sure that Graham’s views on traditional marriage do not get in the way of helping all New Yorkers.  In this NBC News piece, Hoylman says that it “is a shame that the federal government has left us in the position of having to accept charity from such bigots.” He added, “this health crisis is too delicate to leave it to televangelists, purveyors of the faith, to handle our medical needs.” New York Council Speaker Corey Johnson issued a statement describing Graham’s efforts in New York City as “extremely disturbing.”

The Gothamist is also up-in-arms about Samaritan Purse’s presence in Central Park.

As anyone who reads my work knows, I am no fan of Franklin Graham’s culture-war language and diehard support of Donald Trump. I do not support his Christian nationalism. He should not be surprised when some New Yorkers don’t want him there. Sadly, his support of Trump and his caustic attacks on the LGBTQ and Muslim communities have damaged his Christian witness. I wrote about him and other court evangelicals in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

But I defend Graham’s right to practice his faith and preside over a relief mission that reflects the beliefs of that faith. Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelical Christian organization. Millions of American evangelicals believe that sex is something reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. This is a deeply-held religious conviction. Samaritan’s Purse, in order to uphold the integrity of its ministry, should have the freedom to employ volunteers willing to embrace this belief.

The attacks on Samaritan’s Purse’s presence in New York City reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of evangelical relief work. I know of no evangelical relief organization that discriminates in the area of care. To suggest that the doctors, nurses, and volunteers working in the Central Park field hospital would refuse to treat LGBTQ coronavirus patients says more about Graham’s critics than it does about the mission of Samaritan’s Purse and the work of evangelical social concern generally.  Watch Franklin Graham here.

Two final thoughts:

  1. We live in a pluralistic society. I have argued that those on the Christian Right, Franklin Graham included, need to understand this. Today it is time for those on the Left to come to grips with this reality.
  2. The preservation of life is paramount right now. It is more important than church attendance. It is more important than the culture wars. The extreme ends of both the Left and the Right need to learn this lesson.

Samaritan’s Purse is Doing God’s Work in Central Park

I have been a strong critic of court evangelical Franklin Graham. But today I am going to put my disagreements with him aside.

Graham’s relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse, has set up a field hospital in Central Park in partnership with Mount Sinai Hospital. This is the evangelical community at work in times of crisis.

Last week I quoted theologian N.T. Wright.  His words are worth repeating today:

…when God wants to change the world he doesn’t send in the tanks…he sends in the meek, the mourners, the merciful, the hungry-for-justice people, the peacemakers, the incoruptibly pure in heart. That was never a list of qualities you  need to try to work at in order to get to heaven. It was always a list of human characteristics though which God would bring his kingdom on earth as in heaven. That is how God works. And by the time the bullies and the arrogant have woken up to what’s happening, the meek and the mourners and the merciful have built hospitals and schools; they are looking after the sick and the wounded; they are feeding the hungry and rescuing the helpless; and they are telling the powerful and the vested-interest people that this is what a genuinely human society looks like…

ADDENDUM (March 30, 2020 at 8:48pm): Over on Twitter, people are calling my attention to this piece at The GothamistAll I have to say is that the people behind Gothamist, like Franklin Graham and the court evangelicals, need to learn how to live in a pluralistic society.

When New York Mayors Run for President

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Former New York mayor John Lindsay, October 1965 (Wikimedia)

What do DeWitt Clinton, John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani, Bill DeBlasio, and Michael Bloomberg have in common? They were all New York City mayors who ran for president.

Here is Ed Kilgore at New York Magazine:

So that brings us to 2020 and Bloomberg. Interestingly enough, he’s emulating Giuliani’s skip-the-early-states strategy, but he’s putting his vast wealth into ensuring that when the calendar does turn to Super Tuesday in March he will be extremely well-known and have a solid campaign in those states. And it’s looking like he is lucking into a landscape in which all of his surviving rivals will have weaknesses he can exploit. Whether it’s a one-on-one cage match with current front-runner Bernie Sanders, or a large field of wounded and underfunded candidates struggling from state to state, Bloomberg is positioned to do a lot better than Rudy did and perhaps as well as or even better than DeWitt Clinton. If he blows this opportunity, it could be a long time before another New York mayor ventures onto the presidential campaign trail.

Read the entire piece here.

Let the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association Begin!

30 Rock

I’m not as angry as I look in this picture!  🙂

Thousands of historians have converged on New York City this week for the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (and other history-related meetings).

I arrived in New York this afternoon, checked into my hotel, and headed straight to 30 Rockefeller Plaza where I chatted with NBC News Now anchor Alison Morris about the “Evangelicals for Trump” rally in Miami. (The video is not yet available).

After the interview I went back to my hotel and watched some of Trump’s speech in Miami and then attended the dinner board meeting of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH).  There are lot of good things happening in the CFH these days.  Stay tuned.  The Call for Papers for our 2020 Fall meeting at Baylor University in Waco will be released soon.

Tomorrow I am going to finally register for the AHA conference, spend some time in the book exhibit, and attend a breakfast and two sessions sponsored by the CFH.

If you could not make it to the conference this year, we’ve got you covered here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  We have several great correspondents reporting from the floor of the conference.

More to come…

The Tail of George III’s Horse

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On July 9, 1776, colonial soldiers pulled down a statue of George III on horseback located at Bowling Green, New York City.  It is a famous story of revolutionary resistance.  Most of the broken statue was sent to Litchfield, Connecticut where the lead was melted into musket balls.

But one part of the statue did not make it to Litchfield.  The blog of the New York Historical Society tells the story of the horse’s tail.  Here is a taste:

After the gold was removed, the broken statue was carted off to Litchfield, CT, where the 4,000 pounds of lead were supposed to be melted down into musket balls for the coming war. In all, over 40,000 balls were made, but some key segments went missing along the way: The head, for instance, was apparently returned to England, where it disappeared from record. As for other pieces, the legend goes that the cart’s drivers stopped in a tavern in Wilton, CT, and local loyalists took the opportunity to spirit some of the segments away—including the horse’s tail.

What happened to the tail after that is not known. Nearly 100 years passed before it and several other pieces were found in a swamp near a Wilton farm in 1871. They were irresistible artifacts of the American Revolution, and in 1878, members of the New-York Historical Society banded together to purchase the fragments for one hundred dollars. They’ve been in our collection ever since, and the horse’s tail is currently on view in our second floor Dexter Gallery.

Read the entire piece here.

Help *The New York Times* Develop Its Walking Tour of New York City Women’s History

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Women’s Vigilance League at City Hall to protest the high prices of food in the city, 1917

The Times recently started a walking tour of New York City women’s history and they are looking to expand:

This summer, The Times started a walking tour to document some of the little-known locations where women made history in New York. (Want to check it out? Use the special offer code INHERWORDS for 15 percent off tickets or enter here for a chance to win two.)

Now we’re expanding our list beyond the city — and we need your help.

Is there a location in your town where some bit of remarkable women’s history took place?

It could be a bar that barred women until a groundbreaking law in 1970 (Barbara Shaum was the first to be allowed inside McSorley’s in Manhattan), a street corner where a woman was arrested for smoking in public (Katie Mulcahey, in 1908), or a nondescript office building where a group of women decided to start a feminist zine (Bust). Or something else entirely.

Email us at inherwords@nytimes.com and tell us about your spot. Where is it, and what happened there? Please provide as many specifics as possible — the more unexpected the better.

Read the entire piece here.

Trinity Church’s $6 Billion Portfolio

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Trinity Church in New York City was formed in 1697 by a small group of Anglicans. Alexander Hamilton, Eliza Hamilton, and Angelica Schuyler, three of the stars of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” are all buried in New York City’s Trinity Church.  Alexander and Eliza baptized five of their children at Trinity.  John Jay was also a parishioner.

Today, Trinity Church is very wealthy.  Over at The New York Times, Jane Margolies writes about the church’s real estate investments in the city and its own construction of a $350 million glass tower.  Here is a taste:

While many places of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their congregations and buildings, Trinity is a big-time developer itself.

The church has always been land-rich. And it has long had its own real estate arm, which controls ground leases and office space rentals in the buildings it owns. But now it finds itself with a newly diversified portfolio worth $6 billion, according to the current rector, the Rev. Dr. William Lupfer.

After being instrumental in changing the zoning laws in Hudson Square, a neighborhood between West Houston and Canal Streets, Trinity Real Estate has entered into a joint venture that gives it a majority stake in 12 buildings that contain six million square feet of commercial space. A lucrative deal with the Walt Disney Company, valued at $650 million, was signed just last year.

And as it builds its glass tower — which will house administrative offices, public gathering spaces and, yes, commercial tenants — Trinity is also renovating the interior of its historic church, which is expected to cost $110 million.

Trinity has been able to do all this because it’s been a savvy manager of its resources. It is also, as a church, exempt from taxes.

But some wonder about the ethics of a religious institution being such a power player in the world of New York real estate.

Read the entire piece here.

New York City’s Sons of Liberty

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Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell calls our attention to a new exhibit at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in lower Manhattan.  It is titled “Fear & Force: New York City’s Sons of Liberty.”

Here is a taste of Bell’s post:

The museum’s announcement says:

On display in the Museum’s largest gallery, the exhibition will immerse visitors in New York City in the late 18th century, when the Sons of Liberty first began to make a name for themselves as an organized group who opposed British rule through violent resistance prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. 

The exhibition will take visitors through a timeline that chronicles key players and stories behind some of the most dramatic events that ignited the spark of revolution in the 13 colonies, from the staging of New York’s very own “tea party,” to tarring and feathering Loyalists.

The New York Tea Party took place on 22 Apr 1774, four months after the famous Boston Tea Party and one month after the less famous second Boston Tea Party. But I can see why this site wants to highlight the New York event, and I’ll say more about it tomorrow. 

As for “tarring and feathering Loyalists,” New Yorkers actually carried out that public punishment on Customs employees or informers before Bostonians did, though folks in some of the smaller ports along Massachusetts’s north shore had established the tradition even earlier. 

Read the rest here.

The Gateway Tunnel Project and Donald Trump

Gateway Trustee Rich Bagger 
Amtrak CEO Tony Coscia
Senator Cory Booker
Senator Robert Menendez
Congressman Donald Payne Jr

Check out Michael Grunwald‘s fascinating article about power politics, partisanship, Donald Trump, and America’s crumbling infrastructure.  Trump is in favor infrastructure development, as long as it helps his base, his brand, and his party.  This is approach may be putting New York City, and the nation’s economy, at risk.

Here is a taste of Grunwald’s long-form piece at Politico: “The Tunnel That Could Break New York“:

By the end of the 40-minute meeting, it sounded like Trump was on board with the entire $30 billion Gateway program, not only the tunnel but a suite of related projects along the most congested stretch of American passenger rail. He delighted Gateway’s boosters by calling the tunnel vital for the economy, though he did note that it would be tough to get credit for, like an air conditioning project in the basement of one of his hotels. “Nobody’s gonna see it,” Trump told the group, “but you still gotta do it.” The politicians in attendance thought the president had even embraced an Obama administration commitment for federal taxpayers to foot half the bill. “Ask anyone on either side of the aisle. It was very upbeat, total agreement this needs to get done,” Christie told me. King describes the meeting as a love-in: “Not a single negative word, great body language, everybody on the same page.”

After the meeting, though, Trump asked Schumer to stay behind. He bluntly offered another deal, an offer suggesting he had a rather different conception of Gateway’s larger importance: Schumer could have his tunnel if Trump got his border wall with Mexico.

Schumer said he couldn’t make that trade. And ever since, the Trump administration has been doing just about everything in its power to derail the Gateway project.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Victoria Johnson

AmericanEden+Final+Cover+DesignVictoria Johnson is Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York.  This interview is based on her new book American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (Liveright, a division of W.W Norton, 2018).

JF: What led you to write American Eden?

VJEight years ago, in the course of research for a journal article on contemporary American botanical gardens, I came across David Hosack (1769-1835) for the first time (in Peter Mickulas’s Britton’s Botanical Empire). I love New York City, and I was floored to learn that Rockefeller Center had once been a botanical garden—the first founded in and for the young United States. I knew immediately that I wanted to write a book about Hosack. He was a polymath and involved in several dozen organizations (quite a few of which he helped found) and he was not famous enough to have had a critical edition of his papers published. Following his trail as I reconstructed his life eventually took me to about thirty archives in the US and Europe.

JFIn 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Eden?

VJ: There is a botanical garden two centuries old buried under one of the most iconic urban spaces in the world. The man who created it, David Hosack, is a forgotten architect of New York’s rise to civic primacy in the nineteenth-century United States, and his life story thrusts us into the post-Revolutionary generation’s battles over what kinds of institutions make cities and nations truly great and stable.

JF: Why do we need to read American Eden?

VJMany, many historians have written eloquently and rigorously on politics and natural history in the early Republic, and I’m deeply indebted to them for their scholarship. Because American Eden is a biography, we get to see through David Hosack’s eyes the very fraught political relationships all around him and to feel the excitement and heartbreak of institution-building and scientific inquiry. In the process, certain figures from the Founding era take on new complexity: not only the shadowy Hosack, long known simply as the attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel, but also Hamilton and Burr themselves, both of whom loved botany and horticulture. New York City likewise comes into clearer focus in American Eden. We don’t usually think of nature, agriculture, and natural history when we think of New York in the early Republic, but Hosack botanized right in the city as well as on Manhattan’s beaches and farms and in its meadows and woodlands. Finally, I’d add that while history is a field of intellectual inquiry that matters regardless of any explicit links we make to our present circumstances, I’ve found Hosack’s struggles enlightening as I try to make sense of contemporary American political culture and our divided views on science and nature.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

VJ:  I’ll answer the “historian” part first and then the “American” part. My PhD is in sociology, with a specialty in organizational sociology, but I was drawn to historical research early. One of my dissertation advisors in Columbia’s sociology department was Charles Tilly, who had a huge influence on my choice of dissertation topic: political relations between the French government and the Paris Opera from Louis XIV to Napoleon. That became Backstage at the Revolution (Chicago, 2008). For my second book, American Eden, I crossed the Atlantic and began studying American history because of my fascination with David Hosack and his enormous, unacknowledged contributions to New York, his young country, and translantic scientific networks.

JF: What is your next project?

VJ: Book tour! I will be sharing Hosack’s story of intense civic engagement and devotion to science with as broad an audience as wants to listen, in both the US and the UK; I have talks lined up running through 2020. In the meantime, I’m slowly starting to think about what comes next (to quote a certain king).

JF:  Thanks, Victoria!

Statues of Christopher Columbus and Italian-Americans

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Columbus Circle (Wikimedia Commons)

In case you have not heard, New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio is considering removing the statue of Christopher Columbus in the circle that bears his name.  David Marcus of The Weekly Standard explains how that statue got there:

The earliest celebration of Columbus in North America took place in in 1792. A newly formed New York City government called Tammany celebrated the 300th anniversary of his discovery of America. Eight years earlier, the Manhattan college formerly known as Kings College had been renamed, Columbia. This happened before many people who actually were Italian became residents of the world’s first constitutional democracy, and it greatest city. One hundred years later, Italians would begin to pour through Ellis Island like water drained through pasta. By 1900, Italians were becoming a fixture in the United States.

These Italian immigrants weren’t greeted warmly. In the 1890s, a group of Sicilian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans. Few Italian Americans today would suggest that they faced greater bigotry than blacks have. But, the lynching happened, and it is a part of our country’s dark history of racial resentment. In the wake of this bigoted violence, Il Progresso, the leading Italian language newspaper of the time in New York City, began a campaign to raise money for a statue of Columbus, as a gift to the city, and a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.

It worked: Small dollar donations led to an image of Columbus towering over the city. Italian immigrants chose Columbus as their avatar for good reasons. Not only was he a great man, who had inaugurated the trade between the New and Old World, he was a founding father of America. Only the Norwegians with Leif Erickson had a similar figure, but he was a tourist, not a man who changed the course of history.

This is interesting.  Many have argued that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monuments need to be removed because they were erected during the Jim Crow era as a way of glorifying the “Lost Cause” and white supremacy.  In other words, we need to understand these monuments in light of the meaning they carried at the time they were erected.  Could a similar argument be made for Columbus statues?

I am half-Italian.  I have spent a lot of time listening to my late grandfather (died a few years ago at the age of 103) talk about discrimination against Italian-Americans. White Americans treated him as a member of another race.  None of my grandfather’s stories about working in the breweries of Newark, New Jersey were as bad as the lynchings that Italians suffered in 1890s New Orleans.  And like Marcus, I do not pretend to believe that the story of Italian-Americans is synonymous with the sufferings faced by African Americans in this country.  That would be bad history.  But Columbus became a symbol of pride for Italian-Americans.  The statue in Columbus Circle, as Marcus points out, was erected “as a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.”

What do you think?  Should Columbus go?

George Washington Asks for a Ride to Church

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Federal Hall, Wall Street, and Trinity Church, 1789

Historian Jonathan Den Hartog of the University of Northwestern is working on a project on John Jay at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington this month.  At his Facebook page he shared this great 1789 letter from Washington to John Jay.

The President of the United States presents his Compliments to Mr Jay, and informs him that the Harness of the President’s Carriage was so much injured in coming from Jersey that he will not be able to use it today. If Mr Jay should propose going to Church this Morng the President would be obliged to him for a Seat in his Carriage.

The letter is dated “April-Dec. 1789.” Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, so it is unclear if he is POTUS yet.  There is no place mentioned on the letter, but all signs point to New York.  This was the site of the Federal Government until 1790 and it was the home state of Jay.  I would guess Washington needs a ride to New York’s Trinity Church where Jay was a church warden.

Hey, we all need a ride to church every now and then.

ADDENDUM: See the comments section.  It looks like GW was probably asking for a ride to St. Paul’s Chapel, not Trinity Church.  Nice work!

Grant Wacker on Billy Graham’s 1957 New York Crusade

WackerI have always been fascinated by this Billy Graham crusade. When I was in divinity school I wrote an M.A. thesis on separatist Protestant fundamentalism in the 20th century.  The 1957 crusade was a key part of my story.

Over at the blog “Evangelical History,” Justin Taylor interviews Graham biographer Grant Wacker about the 1957 Crusade, which got underway 60 years ago yesterday.

Here is a taste:

Setting aside whatever influences on the culture this crusade might have had, historians recognize that one of the most significant internal legacies from this summer was Graham’s decision about partnering with modernists, moderates, and mainliners.

The New York crusade embodied and portended one of the most important strategic decisions of Graham’s entire life. He determined that he would work with anyone who would work with him if (1) they accepted the deity of Christ and if (2) they did not ask him to change his message.

In practice he quietly overlooked the “deity of Christ” provision. He accepted the help mainline of Protestants who probably would have the affirmed the divinity but not necessarily the deity of Christ, and of Jews, who found his emphasis on God, patriotism, and decency appealing.

But the second provision—“if they do not expect me to change my message”—proved absolutely non-negotiable. There is no evidence anyone tried.

Inclusiveness worked—on the whole. As I noted earlier, the invitation to New York came from a majority of the churches, evangelical and mainline. It is hard to generalize about Catholics, but signs abound that thousands of ordinary believers and many members of the Catholic clergy supported him. Some Jews, too.

That being said, fundamentalists relentlessly opposed Graham’s effort in New York and, from then, pretty much everywhere else. By working with so-called liberals and Catholics, they reasoned, he had sacrificed doctrine for success, and the price was too high. Their opposition could be called “the bitterness of disillusioned love.” In their eyes, Graham had once been one of them, but he had left the family, never to return.

The diversity was not only religious but also included men and women from a variety of occupations and social levels. The crusade was sponsored and undoubtedly partly funded by leading figures in the business community, such as George Champion, vice president (soon president) of Chase Manhattan Bank, one of the largest in the nation. The nightly meetings featured a retinue of testimonials from prominent entertainers, politicians, and military men. Anecdotal evidence suggests that thousands of ordinary people—more often readers of the New York Post than the New York Times—talked about the meetings on the subways and in street corner diners.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner with Michael Rapport

the-unruly-city.jpgMichael Rapport is Professor of History at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. This interview is based on his new book, The Unruly City:  Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution (Basic Books, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Unruly City?

MR: I love walking – in the Scottish Highlands, in countryside and along coastline, but also in cities.  When you walk through a city with a long past, like Paris, London and New York (it has been pointed out that New York is older than Saint Petersburg or Versailles) you get a strong sense of the topography, which is often in itself the physical footprint of the past, no matter how much building and reconstruction has taken place over the decades.  And of course you can come across gems among the buildings and spaces – sometimes an entire street or neighbourhood – that bears an historic character.  All of this sparked my curiosity: what were these cities like two-and-a-half centuries ago?  And how did their citizens experience the upheavals and the fight for democracy in my own historical period, the age of the American and French Revolutions?  How were the buildings and the cityscape marked by these struggles?   I chose to write about Paris because it was the beating heart of revolutionary politics in France; New York because I wanted to explore the vicissitudes of revolution, war, occupation and reconstruction (after the fire in 1776)…and because of all American cities I probably know it the best; and London because it avoided revolution, so took an alternative political path.  These are also three cities that I love.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Unruly City?

MR: I start from an apparently obvious point, namely that revolutions take place in a physical space, that they of course erupt over ideology and culture, political power and social change, but that they are also in a very real sense struggles for the strategic and symbolic control of key places and spaces within the cityscape.  How revolutionaries, radicals and their opponents then adapted, embellished and used the buildings, streets and other sites in the city tells us a lot about the revolutionary process itself.

JF: Why do we need to read The Unruly City?

MR: Firstly, and foremost, I hope, out of pure curiosity: I cannot emphasise enough that this is a book that I wrote primarily to be enjoyed.  Secondly, I hope that readers will share in my own pleasure in walking the city.  While this is not a guidebook to Paris, London and New York, it does gently tell readers (either in the text itself or in the endnotes) how they can find each new site where the action unfurls.  Thirdly, the story of the American and French Revolutions, and of the British democratic movement in the same years, reminds us that many of the rights and freedoms that we enjoy were fought for in the past – and that they are still a matter of contest in many parts of the world today.  Finally, many of the streets, buildings and spaces described in the book still exist today, or their imprint does.  Although their association with the tumultuous events of the revolutionary epoch may now often be forgotten, or overlaid by other, more recent developments, they are – or could be – sites of memory, places that connect us directly with the eighteenth-century struggle for democracy.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MR: This will take some space to answer…because I am primarily a European historian.  So to begin with ‘when’, we are all, in different ways, students of history throughout our lives.  I’ve been interested in the past for as long as I can remember.  My father, George Rapport – who is, amongst other things, a keen historian – always encouraged my interests in history and, for a few years, he lived in Belgium, a cycle-ride from the battlefield of Waterloo.  As my interests developed – and because I have both Swedish and Russian heritage – I was drawn to European history.  Moreover, although I was born in the United States (in Bronxville, New York) I have lived almost all my life in Europe, particularly France, England and, for the most part, Scotland, so my identity is probably best described as transatlantic.  I’ve always loved the creative and intellectual challenges of writing – short stories, an historical novel, and, above all, history – and in my late teens was drawn to a career in journalism.  But at school I also had a truly inspiring history teacher – Jeremy Barker – who was a zealous devotee of European history, and particularly modern France and the French Revolution.  At the same time, my mother and stepfather Mike moved to Paris, so historical passion aligned with location: I had found my period, and my place, namely revolutionary France.  My mother Anita was always there to remind me that much of history was social history, so the discovery of ‘how people lived’, has become a mantra.  So I’ve always been absorbed, one way or another, in pursuing the past.  That’s the answer to ‘when’.

That leaves the answer to ‘why’: despite my focus on Europe, my American origins have always been in the background – and they were (and still are) regularly foregrounded by frequent return trips to the US.  When we were boys, my brother Allan and I travelled with my father around sites of the American Revolution.  We visited Civil War sites, too: since my father is an alumnus of the Virginia Military Institute, it could not have been otherwise.  My father also wrote a novel about the Fetterman Massacre, during which time my stepmother, Jane, treated us to a trip to Montana and Wyoming as part of the research.  So I’ve had grounding in American history since at least my early teens.  As an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, I won the Class Medal in the sophomore survey course on American History and then went on the study, as part of my Honours programme, the social history of colonial America under Alan Day, who had pursued his doctorate under none other than Jack P. Greene.  It also so happened that Helen, a Scottish historian (and, it should be said, a specialist in Scottish urban history) and the woman who became my wife, was in the same seminar group, so (as they say) we were firing on all cylinders.  And though I went on to pursue doctoral work at Bristol University with Professor Bill Doyle on the French Revolution, my focus has always been on the revolution in a wider, international context.  I rapidly discovered that, in order to understand the transnational dimension of the French Revolution – its origins, course and legacy – one must also understand, amongst other dimensions, the Atlantic perspective.  So I find myself pulled, repeatedly, back to the young American Republic and the Americas.

JF: What is your next project?

MR: Rather alarmingly, there are four irons heating up in the furnace.  Firstly, in writing The Unruly City, I came across (rather belatedly) a series of theoretical approaches to space and place that has exercised some historians and cultural geographers, namely the ‘spatial turn’, which engages with the different ways in which space, place and location affected human behaviour.  So I am writing a book on revolutionary Paris which deploys the hardware in this arsenal.  Secondly, I am working on a book for Cambridge University Press, A Concise History of Europe.  Thirdly I’m editing The Oxford Handbook to Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century, 1789-1914 and, fourthly, I have edited, with my excellent friend and colleague Ben Marsh of Kent University (and an American historian to boot), a volume on Teaching and Understanding the Age of Revolutions, a collection of essays published by the University of Wisconsin Press by leading and up-and-coming historians on a variety of cutting-edge, innovative approaches to teaching and learning about the many different aspects of the ‘age of revolution’ in the Atlantic world.

JF: Thanks, Michael.  You are a busy man!

The Author’s Corner with Kyle Roberts

evangelical-gothamKyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago. This interview is based on his new book, Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860 (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Evangelical Gotham?

KR: The scholarship I found most exciting in graduate school was about the history of evangelicalism. So many great books came out in the 1990s and early 2000s – Heyrman’s Southern Cross, Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity, Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival, Lambert’s Inventing the Great Awakening, Noll’s America’s God – but so few focused on evangelicals in cities. For a while I thought evangelicals only existed in the rural hinterland.

As for Gotham, I was regularly crossing through New York as I took the Amtrak back and forth between my home in Boston and graduate school in Philadelphia. I felt like historians had sort of figured out Boston (Puritan) and Philadelphia (pluralistic), but the story of New York was still waiting to be told. When scholars did write about religion in nineteenth-century New York, they often focused on eccentrics, such as Johnson and Wilentz’s Kingdom of Matthias, or religious communities who settled themselves in urban spaces built by others, such as in Orsi’s glorious Madonna of 115th Street. I wanted to know more about the religious beliefs, practices, and worldviews of the mainstream folk who built the city in the first place.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Evangelical Gotham?

KR: In Evangelical Gotham, I argue that the astonishing rise of the nation’s leading city and its dominant Protestant religious movement were intricately intertwined between the end of the American Revolution and the outbreak of the Civil War. Inherently pluralistic and syncretistic, evangelicalism provided a broad range of New Yorkers with a meaningful and adaptable, if at times contradictory, urban religion that helped them respond to, locate themselves within, and significantly contribute to the growth of the city and the nation over a crucial eighty-year period.

JF: Why do we need to read Evangelical Gotham?

KR: I think we miss a key part of the American experience if we ignore the place of religion in the development of the nation’s cities. There are two important things that surprised me in writing this book:

First, evangelicals were really innovative. Earlier scholars of nineteenth-century urban religion have discounted evangelicals as failures who could not think beyond transplanting rural models in urban spaces. What I found couldn’t be more different. Evangelical New Yorkers were remarkably creative people, eager to put the secular resources of the city to sacred ends. Take, for example, their rethinking of sacred space. They had some of, if not the, earliest storefront churches in the country, dating back to the 1760s; they perfected a vernacular style for meetinghouses that well suited the realities of urban real estate; they threw out centuries-old modes of funding churches and created a series of Free Churches on a radically new plan; and they adapted everything from theaters to ship decks into places for preaching the gospel. Even the briefest glance at the extent, plan, and scale of their publishing ventures confirms how forward-thinking they were.

Second, evangelicalism was not all about social control. It’s easy to caricature antebellum evangelicals as pious, middle-class do-gooders. Many of them were. But reducing their faith to some form of class control isn’t fair to my historic subjects and misses the point. I wrote each chapter around the story of one or more New Yorkers so that readers could get a sense of what their faith meant to them and how it inspired them to act upon it. Some, like Lewis Tappan and Phoebe Worrall Palmer, are still remembered today; others, like Charles Lahatt or Michael Floy, have been forgotten – but have much to tell us.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

I think it was the summer after my junior year in high school that I made peace with the fact that I was destined to be an Americanist. I had spent that summer at MASP – the Massachusetts Advanced Studies Program – sort of a nerd camp for public school kids held at Milton Academy. There I discovered that I hated economics and loved writing. So, I gave up my thoughts of becoming an insurance agent like my father. I jumped feet first into American Studies when I got to Williams College and haven’t looked back. Along the way I also embraced my calling as a public historian and digital humanist.

JF: What is your next project?

KR: I’m trading evangelical New Yorkers for Midwestern Catholics. When I arrived at Loyola six years ago, I knew I wanted a locally-based research project through which I could teach the digital humanities, public history, and the history of religion. My first week there I made an appointment with University Special Collections to see what they had for materials related to the history of the library. (It wasn’t a completely random question, I had just spent two years in London creating Dissenting Academies Online (http://www.qmulreligionandliterature.co.uk/research/the-dissenting-academies-project/dissenting-academies-online/), a recreation of the holdings and borrowing records of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dissenting academies.) The archivist brought out a detailed manuscript library catalog from the school’s first decade. I knew at that moment that I had found my next project.

Over the past few years I’ve worked with dozens of bright undergraduate and graduate student interns on the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project (https://jesuitlibrariesprovenanceproject.com/). It has provided some on my most rewarding teaching and confirmed the value of collaborative research. We’ve recreated Loyola’s first library catalog in a virtual library system, tracked down and documented most of the nearly 1500 titles still surviving from the original library, identified library catalogs and collections at other Jesuit colleges and universities, and even started to reconstruct the Catholic book trade in the 1840s Mississippi Valley from a massive ledger kept by Jesuits in St. Louis. The goal is now to bring this all together in a monograph that asks readers to rethink Catholicism, print, and nationalism from the perspective of the nineteenth-century Midwest. Let’s just say Lyman Beecher actually had something to fear when he published his Plea for the West in 1835!

JF: Thanks, Kyle!