Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression

Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression

Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression

Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression

Synopsis

This cultural history of mainline Protestantism and American cities--most notably, New York City--focuses on wealthy, urban Episcopalians and the influential ways they used their money. Peter W. Williams argues that such Episcopalians, many of them the country's most successful industrialists and financiers, left a deep and lasting mark on American urban culture. Their sense of public responsibility derived from a sacramental theology that gave credit to the material realm as a vehicle for religious experience and moral formation, and they came to be distinguished by their participation in major aesthetic and social welfare endeavors.



Williams traces how the church helped transmit a European-inflected artistic patronage that was adapted to the American scene by clergy and laity intent upon providing moral and aesthetic leadership for a society in flux. Episcopalian influence is most visible today in the churches, cathedrals, and elite boarding schools that stand in many cities and other locations, but Episcopalians also provided major support to the formation of stellar art collections, the performing arts, and the Arts and Crafts movement. Williams argues that Episcopalians thus helped smooth the way for acceptance of materiality in religious culture in a previously iconoclastic, Puritan-influenced society.

Excerpt

In the improbable event that my grandparents, newly off the boat from the southern Baltic in the years after the Civil War, had presented themselves for worship at an Episcopal church one Sunday morning, the result would most likely have been mutual incomprehension. They would have found the English being spoken unintelligible, and would have been immediately branded as foreigners. In a few churches they might have found a familiar crucifix and some images of saints, but even there the décor would have seemed unwelcomingly austere. In some cases an usher might have directed them to a mission where they would find their own language spoken. Or perhaps another usher might, with just a hint of distaste, have shown them to a pew in the rear, far from those rented by and reserved for regular communicants. Most likely they would not have repeated their mistake and would have sought out instead a more gemütlich parish that would re create the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of north central Europe.

The Episcopal Church in the era of massive European immigration was growing rapidly, but only in a few urban neighborhoods did its new membership come from recent immigrants. It was becoming the “Anglo” church at a time when the terms “English” and “Anglo-Saxon” were code for a fashionable aesthetic, a favored genetic lineage, and an ideology of racial superiority. New members were attracted in some cases by a traditional, euphonious liturgy, and they could pick and choose among a wide variety of theological options. Others perceived, at some level of consciousness, an opportunity to acquire a marker of enhanced social status and opportunities for business, professional, and political networking. The church might also have given their children entrée into the new educational world of the private boarding school, where they would find a fast track to an Ivy League college and a circle of acquaintance that would prove advantageous in later life on Wall Street or the higher reaches of government. It might have inspired them with a socially desirable (or even genuine) appreciation for the arts and have led them to become patrons of the museums and symphonies that every city aiming at respectability was striving to acquire. It might also have exposed them to a critique of laissez-faire capitalism, drawn them into movements . . .

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