Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Protestant Bourgeois New Yorkers’ Struggle to Reconsolidate the Urban Public Sphere

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:30 PM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Motoe Sasaki, Hosei University
At the turn of the twentieth century, St. George’s Church in Stuyvesant Square in New York City, then commonly known as “J.P. Morgan’s church,” was the operating base of Episcopalian “goo-goos (good government advocates).” These Episcopalians, many of whom were wealthy and middle-class businessmen and professionals, took aim at Tammany Hall which was, in their view, a hotbed of corruption heavily supported by Irish Catholics. This paper explores movements within high-end Protestant churches, like St. George’s, during a time when society was becoming increasingly diverse and the market economy was expanding in New York’s urban space as newcomers gained power and status from their newfound wealth. In the early 1880s, the once-flourishing St. George’s church began to decline and lost much of its membership in the midst of immigrant communities. Yet, under the leadership of Rev. William S. Rainsford, a strenuous clergyman whom Theodore Roosevelt praised as a man with “remarkable physical and mental equipment,” it evolved into a more ‘democratic’ church accommodating both the rich and the poor. Lay leaders, including financial tycoon J. P. Morgan, earnestly supported the transformation of St. George. Moreover, many lay leaders became involved in a variety of church-based activism and became good-government reformers. Naturally, St. George’s served as an Episcopalian power-base for the campaign for Seth Low, one of its lay leaders, in the 1897 mayoral election. They passionately supported Low and advocated the elimination of corruption from Tammany Hall, by reinvigorating the rhetoric of republican civic virtue wrapped in the language of reformist evangelicalism. By looking at their activism as a part of the hegemonic struggle in the emerging liberal-democratic capitalist urban space, the paper will reinterpret the nature of the value-neutral public sphere that Protestant bourgeois New Yorkers attempted to forge by blurring the boundaries between religion and politics.
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