Professor Kyle B. Roberts Publishes New Book
The Loyola History Department offers its congratulations to Dr. Kyle B. Roberts on the publication of his new book, Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860. Professor Roberts' book explores the experiences of evangelical Protestant men and women in New York City between the American Revolution and the Civil War. It interprets evangelicalism as a fundamentally modern urban religion that appealed to New Yorkers because it allowed them to navigate the experience of the rapidly expanding city around them. It seeks to recover what they believed, as well as what motivated them to act and how they contributed to the development of the city as it grew.
Public History MA student Marie Pellissier spoke with Dr. Roberts about his motivations and experience writing Evangelical Gotham.
MP: What got you interested in the topic?
KBR: I have long been interested in the relationship between individual belief and religious community. In college and graduate school I grew increasingly frustrated with scholars who didn’t approach religious belief critically or seriously. For much of the twentieth-century, scholars located within specific faith traditions wrote religious history. Some of what they wrote is very good, but much isn’t very critical. When non-religious scholars started to take religion more seriously as a subject for study in the second half of the twentieth century, they tended to focus more on what the religious did than what they believed. Histories of antebellum Protestant religion in particular are rife with arguments that reduce religion to social control. These arguments always struck me as simplistic and unsatisfying.
As I became increasingly interested in urban history, I was similarly frustrated that historians often fail to consider the role that religion has played in the development of modernizing cities. More often urban historians focus on real estate, immigration, or commerce as the primary factors shaping urban development. I wanted to expand the discussion by showing the ways in which one urban religious community, evangelical Protestants, played a previously unrecognized role in urban development. A study of New York City made sense because its pre-Civil War religious landscape has been relatively understudied and because it emerged by mid-century as a national and international center for evangelical cultural production, exported across the country and around the world.
MP: What was the most interesting aspect of the project for you?
KBR: All of it! But two things stand out. First, my way of researching was to completely immerse myself in primary sources created by evangelical New Yorkers – autobiographies, journals, church records, tracts, books, maps, paintings, meetinghouses – in order to understand their world through their words and on their terms. Graduate school offers an unparalleled opportunity for this kind of work. It is as much an experiential as an archival process. Only through researching in the New York Public Library or the New-York Historical Society during the day and walking the streets of Manhattan at night could I begin to more holistically understand the story unfolding before me and conceptually organize how I would tell it.
Second, I embraced the opportunity to use digital mapping to recover a world that is largely lost to us. Evangelical New Yorkers built hundreds of churches over the eighty years following the American Revolution. Evangelicals were barely a presence before the war broke out, but they were the dominant religious group in the city on the eve of the Civil War. But the vast majority of their churches, institutions, and homes no longer stand, victim to the dramatic, ongoing redevelopment of the urban built environment. Mapping their world allowed me to recover where they congregated, when and why they moved, and to think about what their decisions meant for some important processes as neighborhood development, commercial growth, and the racial and class-based segmentation of the city. Over my nearly decade’s worth of work on the project, digital mapping applications continued to evolve, becoming easier and easier to use and allowing me to ask even more questions of my data.
MP: What challenges or obstacles did you encounter during the project?
KR: Too much good material. Talk to any scholar who has devoted significant time to a research project – a student writing a History Honors paper, a graduate student crafting a dissertation, or a senior scholar finishing a masterly monograph – and she or he will tell you that more material ends up on the cutting room floor than in the final work. The manuscript that I submitted to the press was 60,000 words longer than my contract allowed. So I spent an entire semester on leave sitting in my dining room cutting words. A friend advised just cutting one chapter and publishing it as an article. But I couldn’t figure out which chapter to part with, so I edited the entire manuscript down, line-by-line, word-by-word. I’m glad I did it. The book is much better for it, but it was certainly a challenge. That was also the winter when Boston (where I make my home when I’m not in Chicago) received the greatest snowfall in its recorded history, so I wasn’t really tempted to do anything else instead!
MP: How does Evangelical Gotham relate to present issues or current events?
KBR: Turn on the television or read a newspaper online and you would think that religion in general, and evangelicalism in particular, was the exclusive domain of rural Americans. But then go out and walk the streets of New York, Chicago, or any American city and you will see that religion is alive, well, and quintessentially urban. The church you pass in the storefront in the former storefront in a strip mall isn’t a new invention. New York Methodists innovated with commercial space in the 1760s. Get off the Red Line at Chicago and State and odds are you will see women and men distributing religious literature for free. The most important evangelical Bible and tract publishing operations were located in New York throughout the nineteenth century. Think about how many prayers were said within and without Wrigley Field during the World Series, by players and fans alike. Religion is alive and well within the American city today not simply because it is interwoven into the fabric of the built environment, but because at a fundamental level it helps people negotiate the experience of being urban. By not understanding how religion functions, we miss an important component of the urban experience.
MP: What's next?
KBR: There are two different digital projects that I have been working on for the last few years that will be the basis for books. Before I came to Loyola, I spent two years at Queen Mary, University of London creating Dissenting Academies Online: Virtual Library Systemwith an international team of scholars. Dissenting Academies recreates the holdings and borrowings from leading English Protestant dissenting academies over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Working with the massive data we gathered in that project, I have in development a book that looks at the ways in which textual communities functioned as political and religious communities on both sides of the Atlantic over two centuries.
When I arrived at Loyola, I started a new research project as a way of teaching Digital Humanities and Public History. I felt it was really important for that project to be a local story, grounded in the collections and resources of my new institutional home. The Jesuit Libraries Project recreates the holdings of the original library catalog for the c.1878 St. Ignatius College (precursor to current day St. Ignatius College) in a virtual library system while the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project gathers images from the nearly 1750 titles that survive from the original library in a digital archive and fosters a participatory community around them. Nearly three-dozen undergraduate and graduate Loyola interns have been involved in the project. Together we’ve begun to uncover the previously overlooked importance of print to transnational nineteenth-century Catholics, their contributions to the shaping of American nationalism, and the opportunities and challenges of educating the children of immigrants in a booming city, Loyola’s original social justice mission.
But before those books come out, I have two co-edited anthologies to finish: Crossings and Dwellings: Restored Jesuits, Women Religious, American Experience, 1814-2014 with Stephen Schloesser of Loyola and Reading, Identity and Community in the Atlantic World with Mark Towsey of the University of Liverpool. Given that I am also the new Director of Loyola’s Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities, I have a pretty full plate!