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date: 18 August 2017

Religion in the American City, 1900–2000

Summary and Keywords

Home to more than half the U.S. population by 1920, cities played an important role in the development of American religion throughout the 20th century. At the same time, the beliefs and practices of religious communities also shaped the contours of America’s urban landscape. Much as in the preceding three centuries, the economic development of America’s cities and the social diversity of urban populations animated this interplay. But the explosive, unregulated expansion that defined urban growth after the Civil War was met with an equally dramatic disinvestment from urban spaces throughout the second half of the 20th century. The domestic and European migrations that previously fueled urban growth also changed throughout the century, shifting from Europe and the rural Midwest to the deep South, Africa, Asia, and Latin America after World War II. These newcomers not only brought new faiths to America’s cities but also contributed to the innovation of several new, distinctly urban religious movements. Urban development and diversity on one level promoted toleration and cooperation as religious leaders forged numerous ecumenical and, eventually, interfaith bonds to combat urban problems. But it also led to tension and conflict as religious communities busied themselves with carving out spaces of their own through tight-knit urban enclaves or new suburban locales. Contemporary American cities are some of the most religiously diverse communities in the world. Historians continue to uncover how religious communities not only have lived in but also have shaped the modern city.

Keywords: pluralism, reform, new religious movements, African American religions, Asian religions, Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism

The Minaret and the Ferris Wheel

The first mosques constructed in America were intended to be sideshows more than places of worship, but the religious histories of urban landscapes are rarely what they seem. Built on Chicago’s Midway Plaisance by organizers of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the mosques were the centerpieces of elaborate re-creations of notable Islamic sites intended to transport visitors to a “typical” Tunisian village, Ottoman palace, or Cairo street (Figure 1). Indeed, planners placed such a premium on the authenticity of these sites that they paid foreign nationals from Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and other regions to work as actors at these and other international pavilions. Although fairgoers looked upon these mosques only as attractions, the Middle Eastern workers, many of whom were Muslim, used them for genuine religious purposes. As one newspaper reported, “every detail of Mohammedan worship” could be found in the mosques, from special services to the daily calls to prayer. Nor did Islam’s presence in the United States end after these faux houses of worship came down. By 1900 a sizeable portion of the nearly one thousand Syrians who called Chicago home had come to the United States by way of the Midway Plaisance.1

In addition to Islam, the Columbian Exposition introduced American visitors to many other faith traditions. Alongside the Plaisance’s attractions, the fair hosted a World’s Parliament of Religions in September, which hosted more than two hundred delegates from religions across the globe for two weeks of interfaith dialogue. Organizers claimed that the Parliament offered the country’s first public lectures by a Hindu swami, Buddhist monk, and Jain priest. Though these and other non-Christian faiths enjoyed a long presence in America through Asian immigrations on the West Coast as well as through the Atlantic slave trade, the Parliament for the first time brought together religious leaders who gave these religions institutional support. The Hindu Swami Vivekananda, for example, followed his widely reported visit to the Parliament with a nationwide speaking tour. Before he returned to India, Vivekananda organized dozens of Vedanta societies in cities big and small, where communities of largely white converts practiced yoga. The Japanese Buddhist Shaku Soyen and the Zen monk Anagarika Dharmapala of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) similarly stayed in or returned to America after the Exposition in order to organize new centers of meditation.

Religion in the American City, 1900–2000Click to view larger

Figure 1: “Moorish Palace and Ferris Wheel,” in Chicago Tribune Glimpses of the World's Fair: A Selection of Gems of the White City seen through the Tribune's Camera (Chicago: Laird & Lee, 1893).

The Columbian Exposition heralded a number of themes that would define the religious history of American cities throughout the 20th century. The first was growing religious diversity. By the century’s end, nearly every religious tradition had found a place in America’s cities as changes in U.S. immigration policy shifted the flow of immigrants from largely Catholic and Jewish centers throughout Europe to religiously diverse regions across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. At the same time, these established faiths were joined by a number of homegrown religious movements born of the city’s diverse milieu. Second, the Exposition highlights how the spiritual lives of cities increasingly found expression in consumer culture. In the same way that Muslims prayed in a carnival attraction and visitors witnessed Islam while riding the Ferris wheel, citydwellers increasingly encountered new faiths or performed their own either in or in reaction to the marketplace. Urban religious institutions frequently arose in order to help their members navigate or protest the industrial economy as more and more city dwellers suffered under its excesses. Finally, the history, use, and eventual destruction of the Exposition’s mosques illustrate the relationship between religious communities and the built environment. Much as Muslims at the Exposition repurposed a carnival attraction for their own use, the religious histories of American cities often reflect adaptation and reuse. Urban religious communities often made even the most secular sites into sacred spaces, worshiping in storefronts, on the airwaves, and even in sports leagues. But as the mosques’ ultimate destruction also conveys, the urban devout often lived their lives amid political and economic forces beyond their control.

Studying the religious life of American cities involves more than simply documenting the activities of religious communities who happen to find themselves in urban spaces. It also requires attending to the impact city life had on religious expression, as well as how religious communities shaped the social life of cities. “Urban religion,” the historian Robert A. Orsi suggests, “is what comes from the dynamic engagement of religious traditions … with specific features of the industrial and post-industrial cityscapes and with the social conditions of city life.”2 This interplay has not only yielded distinctly urban religious forms and subjectivities, but has also imprinted religious life onto the American city. The remainder of this essay surveys the history of urban religion throughout the 20th century, moving through four overlapping phases of religious and urban development. Beginning with the Protestant response to the influx of Catholic immigrants into the city, the essay also considers the dynamic rise of new religious movements driven in part by the religious creativity of African Americans who migrated to cities throughout the century, the religious history of suburbanization in the postwar era, and the remarkable religious diversity of the contemporary city made possible by changes in U.S. immigration law.

Catholic City, Protestant Response, 1900s–1920s

Before the calendar even officially flipped over to 1901, many observers had already concluded that the 20th century would be the century of the city. “We must face the inevitable,” the Social Gospel minister Josiah Strong proclaimed in 1898. “The new civilization is certain to be urban; and the problem of the twentieth century will be the city.” Statistics certainly supported Strong’s contention. Where the United States had only six cities of more than one hundred thousand residents in 1850, the 1900 census counted thirty-eight. Within twenty years’ time, more than half the nation would call cities home. But Strong’s portrayal of the city as a “problem” was a far more loaded and subjective assessment; it reflected his particularly Anglo-Protestant fears over specific conditions of urban living that posed a threat to Protestantism’s cultural dominance. Such concerns would animate the era’s religious developments.3

This is not to say that life in the early 20th century city was not without its challenges. The rapid, largely unregulated industrialization that fueled urban growth throughout the 19th century generated numerous social problems. Industrial slums, tenement districts, and other concentrated sites of poverty plagued nearly every American city, from established industrial metropolises like New York and Chicago to emerging New South cities like Atlanta and Charlotte, as well as West Coast hubs like Seattle and San Francisco (Figure 2). The lack of sanitation, adequate housing, and city services that defined these areas not only subjected their residents to horrendous living conditions but also shocked many middle-class observers. Equally as troubling, however, were the residents who came to populate these areas. From New York City’s Five Points neighborhood, where Irish Catholics lived, to San Francisco’s Chinatown, immigrants had long called these industrial districts home. The first decades of the 20th century, however, saw a decisive shift in both the origin and scale of immigration to the United States. In contrast to the 19th century, when a majority of immigrants originated from northern European regions such as Ireland, Germany, and Britain, by 1900 immigration shifted dramatically to people from southern and eastern Europe. By then, a handful of American cities were home to some of the world’s largest concentrations of Jews, Poles, Italians, and certain other nationalities.

Religion in the American City, 1900–2000Click to view larger

Figure 2: “The tenements surrounding St. Stanislaus Kostka (Polish) in Chicago.” Robert Hunter, Tenement Conditions in Chicago (Chicago: City Homes Association, 1901), 22.

For white, middle-class, Anglo-Protestant observers like Josiah Strong, then, the “problem” of the city was as much about the threat it posed to Protestantism’s longstanding hold on America’s moral order as it was about the conditions under which Jews, Catholics, and other religious communities lived. For Strong, the deplorable living conditions produced by industrial capitalism signaled the declining influence of Christian benevolence in the country, while the scale of European immigration raised the specter of foreign rule. Reestablishing Protestantism’s moral and cultural authority over the city therefore became a central concern of many ecclesiastical and interdenominational associations in this era, inspiring several developments that contributed to the growing divide among Protestantism’s major theological camps. More liberal Protestants, for example, turned from the moral reform campaigns that had defined 19th-century urban evangelism and embraced more academic and professional methods that could alleviate the inequalities of industrial capitalism. Long-established settlement houses and institutional churches like Chicago’s Hull House (1889) or New York City’s Henry Street Settlement (1893) increasingly incorporated the practices of social workers and the survey methods of social scientists into their work. For these exemplars of the Social Gospel, the city’s spiritual redemption was dependent upon first addressing citydwellers’ material needs.

In contrast, a growing network of evangelical Protestants argued that the city could be redeemed only by vigorously recommitting to personal piety and social morality. The first two decades of the 20th century witnessed a series of large-scale urban revivals led by evangelists who preached an “old-time” religion while also promoting numerous moral reforms. The famed evangelist Billy Sunday, for example, preached the gospel of both Jesus and Prohibition on the revival circuit, using his stops in cities big and small to promote the passage of local option laws and, eventually, the Eighteenth Amendment. While liberal Protestants decried these efforts as regressive, evangelicals were anything but antimodern. Many were among the most cosmopolitan innovators of their time, repurposing consumer culture for religious ends. Sunday effectively employed secular advertising methods in his campaigns, while the founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, Aimee Semple McPherson, built radio towers instead of church steeples atop her Angelus Temple in Los Angeles in order to broadcast her sermons across the country. Nor did the evangelical emphasis on personal conversion necessitate a rejection of social welfare. Though founded in mid-19th-century London, the Salvation Army continued to thrive in American cities through a series of spectacular urban welfare campaigns like the “Christmas kettle” fund drives. Other evangelical leaders established a number of alternative urban missionary training centers, such as the Moody Bible Institute (1886), the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (1908), and Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School in Minneapolis (1902), which became headquarters of the fundamentalist movement in their battles with theological modernists throughout the early 20th century.

While native-born Protestants of every theological stripe attempted to claim control over the urban landscape, the immigrant Catholics and Jews who were the target of these efforts busied themselves with creating safe havens of their own within the city. Churches and synagogues proved vital in this regard, proclaiming in stone their sense of ownership over portions of the city. These houses of worship were not only the seats of religious communities but also the anchors of entire social worlds which helped immigrant families navigate the industrial economy while reinforcing their ethnic identity. The concentration of some forty Orthodox Jewish shuls, or synagogues, along Chicago’s Maxwell Street, for instance, also allowed for the growth of a an open-air market where eastern European Jews could buy and sell religious and ethnic wares. Roman Catholic parishes similarly became sites of ethnic identity and social mobility where religious practices connected immigrants to the old world while helping them thrive in the new. Following practices established in the 19th century, most dioceses created “national” parishes that allowed particular immigrant groups to express the particularities of their ethnic faith through architectural styles or religious practices. The festa to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Harlem, for example, allowed Italians to create a cultural connection to home which the experience of immigration had severed, while devotions to Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Antonio helped Mexican-Americans celebrate their ethnic identity amid a growing Anglo population hostile to it. Despite their diversity, however, virtually every national parish hosted numerous sodalities, benevolent organizations, and clubs that provided the church’s working-class parishioners not only with religious instruction but also with important social and professional networks. They organized athletic leagues, employment agencies, and even some labor unions, all of which helped immigrant Catholics thrive in the urban world.

The influence that immigrant Catholics and Jews exercised over the urban landscape was profound. In most cities they overlaid a sacred topography atop the city streets that for many residents ordered the urban world. Catholics, for example, often described their place in the city not by what neighborhood they lived in but by what parish they were from, while official city names like Chicago’s Maxwell Street or New York’s Lower East Side came to refer to the Jewish communities who lived there more than their geographic location. In many cities these overlapping ethnic and religious identifications persisted even well after immigrant families left the area. And by 1920, the ethnic composition of many industrial cities did begin to change. World War I and the passage of restrictive immigration laws in 1924 effectively closed America’s borders to European immigration, cutting off the arrival of newcomers who had regularly bolstered ethnic communities. The nationalism and nativism that lay behind these events also prompted a number of concerted Americanization campaigns intended to shear immigrants of their old-world traditions. Federal agencies, Protestant organizations like the YMCA, and even a number of influential Catholic and Jewish leaders conspired to assimilate the nation’s immigrants. Major urban bishops such as Minneapolis’s John Ireland and Chicago’s George Mundelein blocked the formation of national parishes and mandated the use of English in parochial schools, while established Jewish communities contributed extensively to the formation of Jewish settlement houses in order to bring more Orthodox Jews arriving from southern and eastern Europe under Reformed Judaism’s influence. The biggest change in the religious history of American cities, however, came in the arrival of an entirely new community of residents who would transform not only urban spaces but the whole nation.

New Peoples, New Faiths, 1920s–1940s

Though immigrants and their children comprised a large portion of the urban population throughout the 20th century, the demographics of American cities shifted significantly in the decades after World War I. African Americans from the rural South migrated to northern cities in massive numbers throughout this era, drawn by economic opportunities and the chance to flee Jim Crow segregation. Nearly 2 million black southerners migrated northward before 1930, many of them settling in industrial centers such as New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago. Those who settled along the nation’s eastern seaboard also joined some 140,000 Afro-Caribbeans who immigrated to America’s cities in search of greater opportunity in the decade before the nation’s strict immigration laws went into effect. These urban newcomers not only transformed many preexisting religious communities but yielded a host of new ones as well.

Many historic African American congregations attempted to incorporate the rapidly arriving southerners through direct outreach or expanded social services, but encounters between established black communities and southern migrants were often fraught affairs. In addition to being relatively small, most northern African American churches at the start of the 20th century tended to be largely middle-class congregations who supported longstanding denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church or the National Baptist Association. In contrast, most southern migrants were unskilled laborers with a broader set of religious affiliations, including Holiness and Pentecostal associations that originated in the South. Some migrants bristled at the expectation of religious leaders that they adopt the middle-class sensibilities of their northern neighbors in order to join their churches and opted to organize their own congregations instead. The rapid proliferation of the Church of God in Christ, Pentecostal Holiness Associations and even unaffiliated charismatic or apostolic assemblies in black neighborhoods reflected the religious transformations brought on by this demographic and cultural change.

Ever since the journalist H. L. Mencken, while covering the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, had depicted Pentecostals as culturally backward “holy rollers” whose home was in the countryside, observers and scholars alike have characterized Pentecostalism as an antimodern reaction to the traumas and excesses of contemporary life.4 Yet southern Pentecostal migrants proved remarkably adept at successfully navigating the urban environment. Indeed, Pentecostalism’s emergence on the national stage was on Los Angeles’s Azusa Street, where a massive, nearly decade-long revival began in 1906. Led by William J. Seymour, a Louisiana-born son of former slaves who migrated to Los Angeles by way of Kansas, the revivalists deftly repurposed urban spaces for their own purposes. Seymour himself held revival services in a former stable, while his followers occupied homes, business, and abandoned warehouses. This became a hallmark of many urban Pentecostal and Holiness denominations. Many assumed ownership of formerly white churches and synagogues whose members had fled the city. Even more formed in old storefronts, where the only cost associated with starting a church was a month’s rent. By the 1930s, a distinct African American sacred topography had developed in most cities, where businesses and religious associations mingled along the main streets of every “Black Belt” or segregated neighborhood (Figure 3).

Religion in the American City, 1900–2000Click to view larger

Figure 3: “‘Storefront’ church. Chicago, Illinois.”

Photograph by Russell Lee, 1941. Farm Security Administration. Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF34-038827-D.

Such unconventional congregations in part reflected the limited means of the individuals who founded them, but they also conveyed Pentecostalism’s entrepreneurial ethos. In contrast to most historic denominations, which located religious authority in the ordination conferred by ecclesiastical bodies, Pentecostals argued that the Holy Spirit’s calling would be proved in the success of their efforts. In addition to making space for several female preachers and religious leaders, this belief also privileged innovative approaches to religious expression that allowed Pentecostalism to thrive. Nowhere is this more clearly seen in than in the development of gospel music. Like fellow Pentecostal Aimee Semple McPherson, many southern migrants took to the airwaves to broadcast their services. But alongside their messages ministers also showcased the new, urban sound of their choir directors. Mixing the rhythms of jazz and blues with messages from the Bible, gospel music directly reflected the tastes and experiences of southern migrants. It also became a musical genre that reached beyond black communities. Many gospel innovators, such as Chicago’s Thomas A. Dorsey and New Orleans’s native Mahalia Jackson, whom Dorsey mentored, went on to become internationally recognized recording artists for such hits as “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” For these and many other gospel musicians, commercial culture became not only an outlet to spread the good news but also an avenue toward a livelihood. Gospel music also became a fount that shaped American culture more broadly. Even secular musicians like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, a southern migrant and a child of one, respectively, honed their talents performing in black churches.

The Great Migration’s movement of people also gave rise to a number of new religious movements that departed even further from the dominant Protestant culture. The Barbadian immigrant Arnold Josiah Ford, for example, abandoned Christianity altogether and founded an African American Jewish congregation in 1924. An early advocate for the United Negro Improvement Association founder Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist vision that people of African descent should unite and build self-sustaining communities, Ford determined that only a reclaimed Jewish identity could promote black self-determination. Similarly, the southern migrant Thomas (or Timothy) Drew determined that “Negro” was an artificial construction imposed upon blacks by white slaveholders. After founding the Moorish Science Temple in Chicago in 1925, Drew called upon African Americans to return to what he claimed was their rightful Islamic heritage as descendants of the Moors. To emphasize this break, Drew encouraged followers to forsake their Christian names for more holy designations. Drew himself took the name Noble Drew Ali, and by the time of his death in 1929 he had helped found dozens of temples with thousands of members. The movement fractured after his death, however, and in the absence of a clear leader the most prominent Islamic group to emerge was Wallace Fard’s Nation of Islam (NOI). Fard, who may have been a member of Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple, founded the NOI in Detroit sometime in the early 1930s and quickly amassed a following. After Fard’s disappearance in 1934, a former Baptist minister from Georgia named Elijah Poole succeeded him as NOI’s leader. An early convert of Fard, Poole eventually took the name Elijah Poole Muhammad, declared himself to be the Messenger of Allah, and taught that Fard had been God in the flesh. Like Fard and Garvey, Muhammad advocated the reestablishment of black communities. But alongside self-determination Muhammad injected an antagonistic cosmology that predicted the United States’ ultimate destruction and called upon African Americans to secure not only their cultural independence but also political and territorial autonomy.

While the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, and numerous other new religious movements accounted for a relatively small portion of the Great Migration’s urban religious landscape when compared to the number of African Americans who remained in established churches, their cultural impact extended well beyond mere membership. Their existence afforded African American communities the opportunity to reimagine their identity in a new urban environment. The collective emphasis of these movements on the importance of self-determination also contributed to the social and commercial infrastructure of many black communities. While not every southern migrant agreed with the NOI’s rejection of Christianity, many still appreciated and frequented the black-owned businesses and community centers NOI temples helped support and that Elijah Poole Muhammad claimed were crucial to the race’s survival.

Souls and the Suburbs, 1940s–1960s

Southern migrants repurposed many storefronts because their previous owners were increasingly abandoning the city as the 20th century progressed. Streetcars and other forms of mass transit had facilitated the outward migration of well-to-do congregations since the late 19th century, but the process increased dramatically in the decades after World War II. Driven by federal housing policies and a sustained postwar economic boom, fully 80 percent of U.S. population growth between 1950 and 1970 occurred in suburban areas. Planned communities of single-family homes like the pioneering Levittown, which opened outside New York City in 1946, encircled established cities throughout the north, while Sunbelt cities such as Miami, Dallas, and Los Angeles developed as a network of residential subdivisions. Connected to urban centers by a recently developed federal highway system, these new communities transformed the American urban landscape from a series of dense industrial districts into sprawling regional metropolises comprised of inner cities, the surrounding suburbs, and a number of “edge cities,” or exurban business districts, where growing numbers of suburbanites shopped and worked.

Suburban development also transformed America’s religious landscape. A sizable portion of families who moved to the suburbs after World War II included second- and third-generation Catholic and Jewish immigrants who had recently joined the middle class by way of high union wages and programs in the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill. While their predecessors had built the tight-knit ethnic enclaves that defined the 19th-century city, these new suburbanites settled in religiously integrated spaces defined more by class. To some observers, such interfaith residential patterns heralded a new spiritual watershed (Figure 4). As the sociologist Will Herberg argued in his widely popular survey of postwar religious life Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955), the commercial amenities of suburban life had stripped away the ethnic or cultural differences that had divided America’s religions and revealed the “spiritual values” they all shared. Buying a house, going to church, and participating in politics were all ritual expressions of a civil religion whose creed was “the American way of life.” While differences between religions would certainly persist, it now mattered less to what religion an individual belonged, so long as they were religious. “By and large, to be an American today means to be either a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew,” Herberg wrote of this suburban reality. “Not to be a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Jew today is not to be anything, not to have a name …”5

Religion in the American City, 1900–2000Click to view larger

Figure 4: “Beth Shalom Synagogue, in suburban Elkins Park, outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”

Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith (n.d.). Library of Congress, LC-DIG-highsm-15376.

Herberg’s assessment of suburban religious life was apt. The Cold War demonization of the Soviet Union placed a premium on America’s constitutional commitment to religious liberty, which supported a pluralistic conception of the nation as one built on “Judeo-Christian” values. Americans also reported a greater appreciation of religious life after World War II, as survey after survey found that the nation’s religious membership had reached historic highs. As one 1959 poll determined, fully 60 percent of the population claimed to belong to some religious denomination—the highest such number in American history. And as Herberg hypothesized, the religious sensibilities of middle-class Catholics, Protestants, and Jews mirrored one another in crucial ways. This was especially seen in the explosion in church construction that accompanied suburban development. Unlike their inner-city forebears, where the built environment proclaimed in stone the congregation’s ethnic or theological distinctiveness, the churches and synagogues constructed in America’s suburbs largely embraced modernist architectural styles whose abstract designs and technological triumphalism reflected their collective embrace of consumer culture.

Beneath the surface of this interfaith veneer, however, were numerous fault lines. Poets, writers, and other figures of the Beat Generation argued that while postwar Americans might have found religion, the oppressive uniformity of suburbia revealed that they had no soul. Reclaiming urban spaces abandoned by suburbanites, such as Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York City, these countercultural prophets offered up an urban religious vision that eschewed tradition and reveled in the city’s diversity. From their bohemian enclaves, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg embraced not only Asian spirituality but also the revelatory power of urban commercial staples such as art galleries and the theater. Nor were the Beats the only figures concerned about the effects suburban culture had on the nation’s soul. While more conservative, straitlaced figures like the evangelical minister Billy Graham never embraced the intemperance of beatnik spirituality, they nonetheless shared their concern that America’s postwar consumer culture was a sign of its moral decline. A North Carolina Southern Baptist minister educated at Wheaton College in Illinois, Graham became a national figure in 1947 after hosting a successful revival campaign in Los Angeles. Calling upon Americans to forgo both the hedonism of the Beats and the shallow spirituality of the suburbs, Graham helped revive conservative evangelicals through an ongoing series of urban crusades that laid the groundwork for the rise of the “religious right.”

Even in the suburbs, however, the portrayal of suburbia as peaceful, homogenous, and uneventful ultimately broke down. Surveys of suburban life found that Catholics and Jews continued to feel excluded by their Protestant neighbors despite their shared economic status. Levittown, for example, saw tensions emerge over a youth sports league after Protestant residents complained that their working-class Catholic neighbors taught their children to compete too roughly. As a result, suburban Catholics and Jews across the country continued to place a premium on organizing their own social and recreational associations. When matters turned to questions of schooling, zoning, or municipal governance, tensions sometimes erupted into open conflict. School board elections in particular were often tense as Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish families variously accused one another either of injecting religion into or removing religion from public education. The suburban hamlet of Rutherford, New Jersey, for example, became the site of contentious legal battles in 1951 after the local school board voted to allow the Gideons society to distribute Protestant Bibles to students. Despite the board’s requirement that the Gideons give Bibles only to students whose parents signed a waiver, Catholic and Jewish families successfully argued that the board’s approval amounted to religious establishment. Though the case never made it beyond the New Jersey Supreme Court, it was indicative of the religious currents of suburban communities across the country. Indeed, many of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark cases on religion in public education began as suburban school conflicts.

The religious integration of suburban America, however, was based on its complete racial segregation. While postwar suburbs were home to Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, race-based housing practices at both the federal and local levels ensured that they remained exclusively white. Indeed, white families fleeing the city’s growing African American population had propelled suburban development. Some 5 million black southerners migrated to cities across the north between 1940 and 1970, a process some historians refer to as the Great Migration’s second wave. The process decreased the overall population of many cities while simultaneously increasing African Americans’ demographic prominence. The result proved disastrous for urban African American communities. In addition to relocating a sizable portion of the urban tax base, the federal highway system also demolished viable working-class communities as the roads were laid. Historic black communities like New York’s Harlem and Chicago’s Bronzeville quickly became overcrowded, while the decline in municipal services led to rapid neighborhood decay. What federal money cities did see after World War II often came in the form of poorly planned public housing projects whose construction only demolished more potential residential areas (Figure 5). Designed by reformers who, like their Protestant forebears, believed urban life stunted community growth, these projects, under the ironic label of “urban renewal,” leveled the churches, homes, and storefronts of vibrant African American communities.

Religion in the American City, 1900–2000Click to view larger

Figure 5: “The Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.”

Photograph by Peter Pettus. Library of Congress, LC-USZ6-2329.

In the same way that religious institutions facilitated the growth of black communities during the Great Migration, prominent ministers, local congregations, and religious rituals and symbols helped African Americans challenge social injustice in the postwar city. Religious communities catalyzed local efforts to combat Jim Crow, while ministers stood at the forefront of many campaigns for civil rights as respected, and connected, community leaders. The famed Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, for example, began as a one-day protest over the city’s segregated transit system. But after thousands of members of the African American community met in local churches and organized the Montgomery Improvement Association, the boycott carried on for a year, led by a then largely unknown minister, Martin Luther King Jr., who had become the association’s president at the community’s insistence. This pattern was repeated in cities across the South, as urban ministers like Birmingham’s Fred Shuttlesworth and Tallahassee’s C. K. Steele became the public faces not only of local campaigns for justice but also of the national civil rights movement through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which they helped found.

Although substantial differences existed between the religious histories of urban and suburban developments in this era, campaigns to address injustices were also marked by growing interfaith efforts. King especially made religious collaboration a central part of his leadership, claiming that every faith shared a commitment to justice and nonviolence. The struggle for civil rights in America’s cities more broadly was defined by its religious diversity. An influential Nation of Islam member, Malcom X, disagreed with the SCLC’s willingness to work with white religious leaders and politicians. But Malcolm’s advocacy for African American self-determination by “any means necessary” was rooted in NOI teachings, to which this Omaha, Nebraska native, born Malcolm Little, had converted in the late 1940s.

Other urban religious activists used the civil rights movement as an opportunity to address the racial injustices of their own institutions. After northern Catholic churches found themselves faced with declining membership due to suburbanization, a number of parish priests began concerted efforts to aid black communities. Following what came to be called “the Chicago plan” after a number of South Side Catholic churches transitioned from being the home of white ethnics to vibrant African American parishes, a handful of priests in northern cities opened churches and schools as resources for their new neighbors. In the process, some came to criticize the Roman Catholic Church’s implication in the decline of American cities. Milwaukee’s Father James Groppi became both a civil rights activist and a vocal critic of the church’s racial biases. The son of Italian immigrants, Groppi criticized not only his white brethren for engaging in racist housing practices, but also the church for divesting in urban spaces by shuttering city churches in order to follow white parishioners to the suburbs. The suburb and the city, then, were never as disconnected from each other as the spaces between them might imply.

Global Cities, Global Faiths, 1970s–2000s

The strains placed upon cities by suburbanization only increased at the end of the 20th century. Manufacturing firms soon joined white middle-class families in leaving the city, relocating to non-union sectors of the Sunbelt South or abroad. This flight of capital affected the entire U.S. economy as manufacturing went from comprising fully one-third of the nation’s economic output to just over 10 percent at the turn of the millennium. Deindustrialization particularly affected northern cities born of the Industrial Revolution. Detroit, for example, had already lost half of its manufacturing jobs by 1977 and would see most of the rest leave by the century’s end. The process amplified the decline in central business districts already underway since the end of World War II, as the newly rechristened “Rust Belt” became subject to staggering rates of unemployment, crime, and poverty. Entire tracts of many inner cities became filled with shuttered factories, abandoned businesses, and boarded-up homes, leading to the widespread perception that the American city was in crisis.

Decline, however, is always a relative register, an interpretation of change rooted in presumptions about what constitutes normalcy. Despite their many challenges, cities witnessed something of a revival at the turn of the 21st century. First, America’s rate of urbanization had continued unabated throughout the entire 20th century. Much of this growth took place in cities throughout the Sunbelt, which benefited from the Rust Belt’s economic decline. But metropolitan regions as a whole also saw their numbers continue to climb. According to the 2010 Census, more than 80 percent of the U.S. population then lived in metropolitan statistical areas, the highest such number in American history.

The kinds of people moving to America’s cities in the final third of the twentieth century also changed dramatically. Amendments to the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1965 reopened the America’s borders for the first time in nearly half a century and quickly transformed the nation’s demographic landscape. European immigration dropped precipitously, while the number of immigrants coming from Asia, Africa, and Latin America rose rapidly. Many of these settled in and around metropolitan regions. Distinct local histories always shaped patterns of settlement: Laotian Hmong settled around Minneapolis as refugees from the Vietnam War, for instance, while California welcomed the “Silicon Sikhs” whom Silicon Valley tech firms recruited from India in the 1990s. In fact, nearly every major city witnessed the growth of new immigrant communities by the century’s end.

Religion in the American City, 1900–2000Click to view larger

Figure 6: “Hindu Temple, Austin, Texas.” 2009.

Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-highsm-27341.

These new immigrants reshaped the urban religious landscape. Buddhist and Hindu temples (Figure 6), Sikh gurdwárás, and Muslim mosques soon emerged alongside churches and synagogues in cities across the country. Even more dramatic was the effect these newcomers had on the rhythms of neighborhood life. Santería shrines, Buddhist prayer flags, and murals to Our Lady of Guadalupe soon filled front porches and alleyways in many cities and were joined by public processions or religious festivals. While the growth in Asian, Arab, and Latino populations often contributed to popular portrayals of the city as alien or “other” throughout this era, these newcomers often revitalized urban spaces. The eastern European immigrants who had settled in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, for example, migrated out of the area after 1950 as the city’s stockyards declined. By 2000, however, Pilsen was a thriving Mexican-American community whose members resuscitated not only the neighborhood but also a number of once struggling Catholic parishes. Similarly, Chicago’s Devon Avenue was once home to Orthodox Jews until most fled to the suburbs after World War II. After a period of decline, Devon was transformed into the arterial hub of the city’s South Asian community, filled with Asian groceries, Indian restaurants, and Hindu shrines.

The 21st century city, then, is in many ways a profound departure from the White City of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Where cities of largely white residents struggled to combat the excesses of industrial capitalism at the start of the 20th century, cities today cast themselves as “global cities” that are home primarily to communities of color striving to fill the void left by the departure of major industries. Despite these major changes, however, those themes that defined the industrial city continue to shape the religious history of the post-industrial metropolis. First is the continued religious vitality born of the city’s diversity. In addition to adherents from the world’s major religious traditions, American cities continue to be crucibles in which new religious movements and domestic revitalizations are born. The Calcutta native A. C. Bhaktivedanta, for instance, arrived in New York City the same year the United States reopened its borders to immigration. A former manager at a chemical firm in India, Bhaktivedanta came in 1965 to spread a devotional brand of Hinduism that quickly attracted thousands of largely white converts and followers. Within a decade the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) had established some thirty temples with thousands of devotees across the country in what became one of the first distinctly American—and urban—varieties of Hinduism. As Hindus from throughout Asia immigrated to the United States in growing numbers, ISKCON temples were often the only temples available, leading to a uniquely urban amalgam of several sects occupying the same house of worship.

Urban religious communities also continue to develop in relationship to the urban marketplace. The increasing number of evangelical churches that intentionally locate themselves in blighted areas claim they are motivated in part by correcting the injustices of deindustrialization and white flight. Through targeted church plants and “urban immersion” missionary programs, these “emergent evangelicals” represent an urban blend of Social Gospel activism and conservative theology that arose in response to the city’s economic plight. Yet the relationship between urban religion and the urban economy operates at much more subtle, but no less profound, levels as well. The Latino Catholic who attends Bikram yoga classes or the evangelical Christian who encounters a shrine to the Buddha in a Thai restaurant also traffic in religion while they consume other wares.

Finally, the contours of the city’s religious history continue to develop in relationship to the built environment. In contrast to densely packed 19th-century cities built around a central business district, today’s cities are fractured, composite landscapes defined by varying levels of decline and development that often overlap municipal, county, or state lines. Connecting these widely dispersed locales are an ever-increasing number of highways and interchanges, so that religious communities no longer have to be within walking distance of their houses of worship or other important sites. This is why so many Hindu temples and evangelical megachurches are situated near suburban interchanges. As a result, cities are now crisscrossed by a variety of different, and occasionally competing, sacred routes, as today’s urban religious sometimes travel great distances in order to practice or pray. Devotees to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Chicago, for example, initially established their shrine to the Virgin in the suburban town of Des Plaines because city parishes refused to accept a statue of the Virgin commissioned by a Mexican-American layperson as a gift. After church officials in Mexico blessed the shrine in 2001 as the “Second Tepeyac in North America,” it became a site of pilgrimage for Mexicans from across Chicagoland who similarly felt neglected by the Roman Catholic Church.

Historians might not be able to predict how the religious history of American cities will unfold throughout the coming century. But if the previous century is any indication, religion and the city will continue to form and shape each other as diverse peoples continue to live in, with, and through the built environment.

Discussion of the Literature

The earliest scholarly works that considered the religious lives of cities as a distinct object of study appeared alongside the rapid growth of American cities themselves in the first decades of the 20th century. Based on social scientific surveys and extensive interviews, these early works in what would become the sociology of religion often read like primary sources in their detailed documentation of urban religious life. H. Paul Douglass’s 1000 City Churches (1926), for example, surveyed how urban conditions and Social Gospel theology changed local congregations, while Louis Wirth’s 1928 classic The Ghetto surveyed the community Eastern European Jews formed around Chicago’s Maxwell Street.6 In addition to archiving the religious lives of urban communities, these texts also forged a lasting interpretation of urban religion that cast city living as a challenge to faiths. The Chicago School of sociology proved particularly influential in this regard. Without exception, the works published by sociologists such as Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, and their students—who included Wirth—portrayed city life as, at best, a challenge to faith, and more often a detriment to it.7 This conclusion—that the city’s social diversity, population density, and economic inequality threatened religious faith—was more a value judgment than an empirical reality. It rested on a particular conception of religious life as institutionally stable, ethically progressive, and culturally modern which mirrored the social worlds of researchers more than the people they studied; but it would haunt the study of urban religion throughout the century.

The legacy of this early work can be seen in the earliest histories of urban religious life. Works like Charles Howard Hopkins’s The Rise of the Social Gospel in the Progressive Era, 1900–1920 (1940), Aaron I. Abell’s The Urban Impact on American Protestantism, 1865–1900 (1943), and Henry F. May’s Protestant Churches and Industrial America (1949), for example, were in their time pathbreaking works of religious history. Unlike older church histories that focused on a single denomination or emphasized theological developments, these authors considered how urbanization and industrialization spurred developments that transcended denominational lines. Their work surveyed the myriad institutional, ecclesiastical, and political efforts Protestant bodies undertook to address urban problems, often focusing on the history of a particular institutional church or rescue mission over denominational efforts at church planting or evangelizing. But in their focus on educated, ordained, and, principally, Protestant leaders, these first histories perpetuated older themes of the city’s threat to spirituality. The focus on the efforts of settlement house workers and urban evangelists came at the expense of those who attended, or were the target of, these institutions and perpetuated the notion that their religious lives were somehow lacking or deficient.

The rise of social history in the second half of the 20th century challenged these assumptions by incorporating overlooked voices in the history of cities. The interest among many historians in the experiences of women, immigrants, and working people also inspired scholars of religion to make Catholics, Jews, and African Americans a part of the historical narrative as well. Given the immigration patterns of many Catholic and Jewish communities, much of this new work was urban religion by default—particularly works that focused on the first half of the 20th century. James W. Sanders’s The Education of an Urban Minority (1977) and Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s Seasons of Grace (1990), for example, homed in on a particular archdiocese in order to explore the impact immigration had on the development of the Roman Catholic Church in America.8 Works on 20th-century Judaism, such as Susan A. Glenn’s Daughters of the Shtetl (1990) and Ruth Gay’s Unfinished People (1996), similarly placed the arc of American Jewish history in the cities where many eastern European Jews first settled.9 For African American Protestantism, Milton C. Sernett’s foundational Bound for the Promised Land (1997) was one of the first texts to cast the Great Migration of black southerners to northern cities as a distinctly religious phenomenon.10 For Sernett, the scale of the Great Migration was made possible only by religious idioms that framed the flight from the Jim Crow South as a new exodus for a chosen people.

Work on the second half of the 20th century has similarly sought to include a diversity of voices. In contrast to many studies of the early 20th century, which have tended to focus on a single religious tradition or community, works on the postwar period often explore the histories of a city’s religious communities in tandem. Works like John T. McGreevy’s celebrated Parish Boundaries (1996), Gerald Gamm’s Urban Exodus (1999), and Etan Diamond’s Souls of the City (2003) variously consider how Catholic parishes, Jewish communities, and African American churches participated in the suburbanization of American culture or navigated the onset of urban decline.11 Works on the rise of Sunbelt cities also tend to see the rapid development of places like Los Angeles and Miami as interfaith affairs. For example, even though Deborah Dash Moore’s To the Golden Cities (1994) and Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt (2011) focus on a particular religious community, they both see the Sunbelt’s social and religious diversity as important factors in the development of postwar American Jewish culture and evangelical social conservatism, respectively.12

While the rise of social history increased the cast of characters that appeared in urban religious histories, the city often remained cast as the stage upon which religious histories took place or as a force effecting change. Only recently have scholars begun to challenge longstanding assumptions that the religious creativity of city dwellers was merely a curious departure from established traditions. The publication of Robert A. Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street (1985) and Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola (1991) are groundbreaking in this regard.13 Together these books stimulated two fundamental changes in the study of urban religion. First, both books became a part of a larger reassessment of urban religion that saw the city less as a threat to religious life and more as an idiom that could be utilized in fashioning distinctly urban religious formulations. Brown’s textured ethnography of a Haitian Vodou priestess’s practices destigmatized Vodou worship by highlighting its personal and communal efficacy. Both she and Orsi challenged portrayals of urban religious practices as eccentric or superstitious by attending to the meanings they had for their participants.

Orsi’s and Brown’s work has led to a reevaluation of several established traditions in the field. Works such as Wallace Best’s Passionately Human, No Less Divine (2005), Jacob Dorman’s Chosen People (2013), and Judith Weisenfeld’s New World A-Coming (2016) have recentered the religious history of the Great Migration away from Sernett’s focus on established black denominations and toward the new religious movements that became a hallmark of African American communities throughout the urban north.14 Lila Corwin Berman’s Metropolitan Jews (2015) and Deborah Dash Moore’s Urban Origins of American Judaism (2014) similarly reconceived the role of the city in American Jewish history.15 For Berman, Moore, and others, urbanity is as much a component of American Jewish identity as it is a reflection of the spaces where many Jews once lived.

In addition to rethinking the “urban” in urban religious histories, Orsi’s and Brown’s pioneering work also popularized the use of ethnography alongside archival research in the study of lived religion. The ethnographic investigation of contemporary religious practices has helped scholars read printed sources against the grain. Through participant observation, scholars could contrast the perspectives of religious leaders with the cultural practices of the non-elite. But in a return to the study of urban religion’s very origins, ethnography has also facilitated the documentation of today’s diverse religious communities. For Thomas Tweed’s Our Lady of Exile (1997), Timothy Matovina’s Guadalupe and Her Faithful (2005), Zain Abdullah’s Black Mecca (2010), and Jeff Wilson’s Dixie Dharma (2012), for example, participant observation proved crucial in simply uncovering the histories of Miami’s Cuban Catholics, San Antonio’s Mexican Catholics, African Muslims in New York, and Richmond’s Chinese and American Buddhists, as well as interpreting them.16

Primary Sources

Historians of religion in the modern city have a multitude of primary sources available to them. Such abundance stems from the fact that most histories of religion in the city require scholars to account for a topic’s urban and religious contexts. Following these interwoven threads will often lead researchers to sources at both the national and local level. The papers and publications of denominations or other large ecclesiastical institutions typically contain the voices of the elite, while local church records provide insight into the beliefs and practices of ordinary people. Despite their disparate locations, however, national and local sources often speak to each other and are frequently explored in tandem.

This interplay between the local and the national is most clearly seen in the records left by individuals that historians utilize in writing about urban religion. The journals, correspondence, and other manuscript sources of prominent individuals have long outlined the impact urban religious life has had on American history. The papers of the urban minister and social welfare activist Graham Taylor, for example, touch on multiple topics of inquiry simultaneously. Since he was pastor of Tabernacle Congregational Church and founder of the Chicago Commons settlement house, Taylor’s papers provide insight into the intimate details of the neighborhood in which he worked. However, his faculty position at the Chicago Theological Seminary and role in support of national reform campaigns also placed Taylor at the center of numerous theological and political conversations about the fate of American cities more broadly. The same is true for the papers of other ministers, religious leaders, activist, and laypeople. These collections can be found in multiple locations, in archives both religious and secular, at the local, state, and national levels.

Beyond ministers, the papers and publications of those seminarians and social scientists who first studied urban phenomena often provide a wealth of raw data on urban religious communities. Publications on religion such as the aforementioned H. Paul Douglass’s 1000 City Churches (1925) and Louis Wirth’s The Ghetto (1928) are obvious places to start. The papers of researchers or activists like University of Chicago sociologist Ernest Burgess or New York social reformer Leonardo Covello are also filled with primary source material on the religious lives of cities. The dissertations of students whom these early social scientists trained also provide first-hand accounts of urban religious communities.

In addition to the collections of individuals, the organizational records of institutions and houses of worship are important primary source material. Churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship in particular constitute the foundation for many people’s religious life, and their surviving records can provide important insights into the religious lives of cities. Membership records often contain vital records such as births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and transfers that illuminate the social and ethnic composition of a congregation. The minutes of church and synagogue committees reveal the activities and worldviews of dedicated laypeople. Published material such as church histories, congregational directories, manuals, weekly bulletins, broadsides, hymnbooks, services, and special service programs often survive and can contain information on the devotional and aesthetic worlds of local church life. Sometimes this material can still be found in the attics and basements of congregations that are still active. Often, however, churches donate older material to a variety of local and denominational archives. The Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, the American Baptist Historical Society at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, the Southern Baptist Historical Society in Nashville, the United Methodist Archives and History Center at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, the Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, and the American Jewish Archives in New York, and the American Jewish Historical Society’s collections in Cincinnati are national repositories that collect such historic congregational material. Again, local libraries and archives should also be consulted. The ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, meanwhile, often ensures that local church records remain in diocesan and archdiocesan repositories.

While local churches often anchored the religious life of America’s cities, a hallmark of urban religion has been how experiences and perceptions of the city spurred broader forms of institutional growth, interdenominational cooperation, and, eventually, interfaith dialogue. These voluntary, denominational, or parachurch organizations produced diverse source material. For example, the published material and organizational records of denominational hospitals, orphanages, asylums, settlement houses, and community centers, as well as the records of denominational offices focused on particularly urban issues such as labor, immigration, and social welfare, often provide insight into the ecclesiastical perceptions of a city as well as the living conditions of citydwellers. Found in local or denominational archives, these collections occasionally have restrictions on their use for privacy reasons. Many urban locales also had city church unions, ministerial associations, Sunday school societies, and other denominational or ecumenical gatherings whose published and unpublished collections shed light on the religious life of a particular locale as well as trends in urban religion more broadly. The records of Chicago’s Community Renewal Society, for example, not only demonstrate ways specific religious communities engaged with the civil rights movement, but also the rise of interfaith activism and reconciliation theology more broadly.

Yet the history of urban religion is more than just the history of ecclesiastical institutions. Because the urban religious lived in, with, and through the city, municipal records are valuable sources for documenting the religious history of cities. In the absence of robust denominational records, urban sources are sometimes the only outlet for documenting small and short-lived new religious movements. For example, city directories or service announcements in city newspapers often provide clues to the existence of even the most eccentric religious communities. City council minutes and municipal court papers also provide insight into moments of conflict and cooperation among religious communities. Noise ordinances and zoning debates can be particularly revealing sources, as established religious communities complained about the worship styles or church plants of more recent religious communities.

Finally, ethnography has also become an important resource for scholars documenting topics in urban religion. Observing and analyzing contemporary religious communities not only uncovers devotional practices or cultural meanings that official sources might leave out, but also helps interpret printed sources from the recent past. Researchers interested in undertaking ethnographic research can consult examples mentioned in the discussion of the literature above, as well as primers in the ethnographic study of religion, such as James R. Bowen’s Religions in Practice: An Approach to the Anthropology of Religion (2014), James Spickard, J. Shawn Landres, and Meredith B. McGuire’s edited collection Personal Knowledge and Beyond: Reshaping the Ethnography of Religion (2002), and Penny Edgell Becker and Nancy L. Eiesland’s text Contemporary American Religion: An Ethnographic Reader (1997).17

Digital Projects and Materials

Bodenhamer, David et al. Digital Atlas of American Religion. Polis Center, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Cantwell, Christopher D.Faith in the City: Chicago’s Religious Diversity in the Era of the World’s Fair. Newberry Library.

Chiat, Marilyn D. and Jeanne Halgren Kilde. Houses of Worship. University of Minnesota.

Eck, Diana. World Religions in Greater Boston. Pluralism Project, Harvard University.

Howell, Sally and Andrew J. Shyrock. Building Islam in Detroit. University of Michigan.

Jews in America: A Portal to American Jewish History.

A Journey through NYC Religions.

Mapping Jewish L.A. Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, University of California, Los Angeles.

Further Reading

Berman, Lila Corwin. Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Best, Wallace D.Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915–1952. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Dochuk, Darren. From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.Find this resource:

Eck, Diane L.A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Now Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.Find this resource:

Giggie, John M., and Diane Winston, eds. Faith in the Market: Religion and the Rise of Urban Commercial Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Gamm, Gerald. Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Livezey, Lowell W., ed. Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City. New York: New York University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

McGreevy, John T.Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Moore, Deborah Dash. Urban Origins of American Judaism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Numrich, Paul D., and Elfriede Wedam. Religion and Community in the New Urban America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Orsi, Robert A., ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Wilson, Jeff. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.Find this resource:


(1.) Quote from Olean Democrat (Olean, New York), May 12, 1893. I wish to thank Peter Manseau for alerting me to this quote. While some of Chicago’s Syrians were Muslims, the majority of this first wave of settlers were Melkites, or Greek Catholic Christians. On Chicago’s Syrian population see Sarah Gualtieri, “Syrians,” in Encyclopedia of Chicago, edited by James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Rife (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 808.

(2.) Robert A. Orsi, “Introduction: Crossing the City Line,” in Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape, edited by Robert A. Orsi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 43.

(3.) Josiah Strong, The Twentieth Century City (New York: Baker and Taylor, 1898), 54. The above statistics, as well as the quote from Strong, are cited in Jon C. Teaford, The Twentieth-Century American City (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), which remains one of the best surveys of urban history across the 20th century. All statistics cited here are derived from Teaford’s text.

(4.) Mencken’s coverage of the Scopes trial is gathered in H. L. Mencken, H. L. Mencken on Religion, edited by S. T. Joshi (New York: Prometheus, 2002), 180, 183.

(5.) Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983 [1955]), 40.

(6.) H. Paul Douglass, 1000 City Churches: Phases of Adaptation to Urban Environment (New York: George H. Doran, 1926); Louis Wirth, The Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956).

(7.) See Robert E. Park, Ernest Burgess, and R. D. McKenzie, The City: Suggestions for the Study of Human Nature in the Urban Environment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925).

(8.) James W, Sanders, The Education of an Urban Minority: Catholics in Chicago, 1833–1965 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Seasons of Grace: A History of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990).

(9.) Susan A. Glenn, Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990; Ruth Gay, Unfinished People: Eastern European Jews Encounter America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).

(10.) Milton C. Sernett, Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997).

(11.) John T. McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Gerald H. Gamm, Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Etan Diamond, Souls of the City: Religion and the Search for Community in Postwar America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).

(12.) Deborah Dash Moore, To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A. (New York: Free Press, 1994); Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).

(13.) Robert A. Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985); Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

(14.) Wallace D. Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915–1952 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Jacob S. Dorman, Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Judith Weisenfeld, New World A-coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During The Great Migration (New York: New York University Press, 2016).

(15.) Lila Corwin Berman, Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Deborah Dash Moore, Urban Origins of American Judaism (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014).

(16.) Thomas A. Tweed, Our Lady of Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Timothy M. Matovina, Guadalupe and Her Faithful: Latino Catholics in San Antonio, from Colonial Origins to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); Zain Abdullah, Black Mecca: The African Muslims of Harlem (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Jeff Wilson, Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

(17.) James R. Bowen, Religions in Practice: An Approach to the Anthropology of Religion (6th edn.; Boston: Prentice Hall, 2014); James V. Spickard, J. Shawn Landres, and Meredith B. McGuire, Personal Knowledge and Beyond: Reshaping the Ethnography of Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2002); Penny Edgell Becker and Nancy L. Eiesland, eds., Contemporary American Religion: An Ethnographic Reader (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 1997).