The City That Never Stops Worshipping

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Though some have likened it to Sodom and Gomorrah, New York City has a long history of religious vibrancy.

Anarchy! Violence! Destruction! All the talk of how American cities are turning into hellscapes is a good reminder that, truly, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

This vein of cultural imagination has a history. In fact, it long predates the nation itself. The medieval poet Dante located the deepest, darkest circles of hell entirely inside city gates. Satan was not only “The Emperor of the Universe of Pain.” He was the ruler of “hell’s metropolis.”

A metropolis was hard to find in the United States prior to the Civil War. Cities were small and in most cases run by wealthy white Protestants, who loved urban America before they left it. Their change of heart was driven, first and foremost, by their inability to see an unprecedented influx of European immigrants as anything other than a dire threat to American democracy. In 1885 leading minister Josiah Strong sounded the alarm about “the dangerous classes,” writing, “It goes without saying, that there is a dead-line of ignorance and vice in every republic, and when it is touched by the average citizen, free institutions perish.”

Thirty years later the pugnacious revival preacher Billy Sunday homed in on the nation’s largest city and delivered one of his signature punches. “There is little hope that the Lord ever will be able to save such a hell hole as New York,” Sunday informed the crowd at the Philadelphia Tabernacle in the dead of winter 1915. He heaped on a laundry list of pejorative adjectives for good measure: “rotting, corroding, corrupt, hell-ridden, God-defying, devil-ridden.” The next week The New York Times published a response by a woman worried that Sunday’s comments …

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