What the Map of Urban Religious Histories Shows Us

Earlier today Paul Putz wrote a post about an interactive bibliography that he and I created of books that study American religion in the context of cities. Paul explained our motivation for the project and how we created it. I’d like to offer a few observations about what I think we can learn from the map.

'Screenshot
Figure 1: Screenshot of the Bibliography of Urban Religious History. [PNG]

First, and utterly unsurprisingly, the map basically aligns with the urban population of the United States. So New York, Chicago and Boston, followed closely by New Orleans, Washington, Detroit, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, are the most written about cities.

The implication of this, second, is that cities fall into two groups: cities that have been written a lot about, and cities that have only been written about once. (And, of course, cities that have never been written about.) For those seven cities, it is possible to get a rich comparative perspective on different groups and different periods. For other cities, you are much more likely to get a one or at most two studies. We have quite a lot of work on religion in biggest cities, less work on religion in smaller cities.

Third, urban religious history has been written predominantly as the history of Catholics, Jews, and African Americans. A rough count shows at least 44 books specifically about Catholics, at least 25 about Jews, and at least 26 books about African Americans, out of our current total of 178. This says something about how the field thinks about (or, at any rate, thought about) religion and cities. That is to say, that urban religion and ethnically or racially marked religion were considered to be linked, while unmarked (read, white Protestant) religion was thought of as transcending specific places. This is probably an overstatement. But then again, many of the exceptions to this rule are about Southern white religion, which can again be read as a kind of ethnic marker.

Fourth, the vast majority of these books are about a single denomination or group. There are well know exceptions that deal with multiple groups, such as Gerald Gamm’s Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed, and it is certainly possible that I am not familiar with works that deal with multiple religious groups in a single city. (We also don’t include the chapters in American Congregations on the map.) But this strikes me as mostly a missed opportunity to study the religious congregations as participants in an ecology of religion, as modeled by sociologists Nancy Eisland in A Particular Place: Urban Restructuring and Religious Ecology in a Southern Exurb and Penny Edgell in Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life.

Fifth, there is reason to hope that recent endeavors in the digital history of religion, specifically mapping projects, will take up richer models of religion in urban space. A leading example is the Houses of Worship project at the University of Minnesota, created by Jeanne Halgren Kilde—who has also been writing quite a bit about space and religion—and a team of researchers. The Houses of Worship project (map here) includes “information on over 250 congregations and over 500 sites related to religious and ethnic groups who settled in several neighborhoods in the Twin Cities” from 1849 to 1924. Chris Cantwell and Daniel Greene have put together an online exhibit/essay on Catholics, Jews, and Protestants in Chicago, titled “Faith in the City: Religion and Urban Life in Chicago, 1870-1920.” There was a panel on just this topic at ASCH this January, featuring Marie Basile McDaniel’s GIS work on colonial Philadelphia, Judith Weisenfeld’s study of Father Divine and utopic space in Harlem, Kilde’s Houses of Worship Project, and my own work on mapping. All of these projects were rethinking the way in which urban religious history is conceived, and I think they were all interested in how different groups related to one another. This is a topic for another post, but there is an enormous amount of (potentially) spatial data about religion that historians have long known about but haven’t known what to do with. More on that another time.

Final observation: the very first book that Paul put in our spreadsheet was Wallace Best’s Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915–1952, which is also my all time favorite book on this list, though Orsi’s Madonna of 115th Street, Johnson’s Shopkeeper’s Millennium, and Bendroth’s Fundamentalists in the City are pretty high up there too.