Be for the City: 19th Century Evangelicals and Progressive Urban Theonomy

Nineteenth Century Evangelical Protestant reformers foreshadowed their late Twentieth Century co-religionists by their heavy influence on social and moral reform particularly in northern cities. In his Evangelical Gotham, Kyle Roberts noted that Evangelicals in early nineteenth century New York City, like their successors, did not admit a hard distinction between the sacred and the secular in their labors for social and moral reform. Poverty, inequality, and urban dissatisfaction with traditional religion motivated Evangelical ministers to tailor their messages and outreach to the sociological anxieties and hopes of the United States’ rapidly growing cities.

            Evangelical clergymen, usually relatively young and recently ordained, participated in reformist movements in cities even if they had not procured pastorates at particular churches. Ezra Stiles Ely, a Connecticut native and Presbyterian ordinand, came to New York City in 1810 to run an almshouse set up under the sponsorship of New York’s local presbytery. Ely served as the stated preacher for the almshouse and preached a gospel that he believed should serve the city’s spiritual and temporal needs. Ely believed that previous generations of Christians had not felt deeply enough the spiritual needs of urban populations.[1]

            Ely, like most northern Evangelicals, wedded the impulse to Christianize urban society with a commitment to explicitly Christian national politics. Long before Evangelicals articulated urban moral and social reform as being a facet of Christianizing “every square inch” of human society, Ely and others posited that Messiah reigned “over all the inhabitants of the earth, whether Jews or Gentiles, the exhortation and benediction of our text are founded. Let all princes, kings, judges, and rulers of every description, says the Psalmist, be exhorted to be wise for themselves and their people. Christians should learn “true wisdom; and act in conformity with their duty and privilege in serving the Lord with filial fear and reverential joy.” Pious believers should “render to the Son of God, in their private character and public stations, that submission of the heart, and homage of their lives, which he claims, ‘lest he be angry and they perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little.’”

            Christians acted in their public stations through politics, according to Ely. God, required from Christians “a Christian faith, a Christian profession, and a Christian practice of all our public men; and we as Christian citizens ought, by the publication of our opinions, to require the same.” Ely rejected the notion that Christians had divine right to vote their conscience with complete freedom. “Since it is the duty of all our rulers to serve the Lord and kiss the Son of God,” it was “most manifestly the duty of all our Christian fellow-citizens to honour the Lord Jesus Christ and promote Christianity by electing and supporting as public officers the friends of our blessed Saviour.” Christians had “the same rights and privileges in exercising the elective franchise, which are here accorded to Jews and Infidels.” Jews and Muslims would understandably elect their co-religionist; so Ely argued should Christians. He asked “no other evidence to show, that those who prefer a Christian ruler, may unite in supporting him, in preference to any one of a different character.” If wise, prudent, temperate “friends of God and of their country” did not not endeavor “to control our elections, they will be controlled by others: and if one good man may, without any reasonable excuse, absent himself, then all may.” Ely told his fellow Christians that “the love of Christ and of our fellow-men should forbid us to yield the choice of our civil rulers into the hands of selfish office hunters, and the miserable tools of their party politics.” [2]

            Ideologies that cast working for an explicitly Christian politics as a moral necessity, at least in the Twenty-First Century, have typically been variously associated with right-wing populists, fringe Revivalist Charismatics, Christian Reconstructionists, and theonomists often in the Sunbelt. The roots of that ideology, however, were neither southern, not Western, nor conservative. Centrist urban Evangelicalism is much an inheritor of theonomic-style Christianity as Southern Baptists or southern Presbyterians. A more honest approach to the roots of urban Evangelical Protestantism would clarify religious and intellectual distinctions and lead to a richer discussion on historic Evangelicals in general.


[1] Kyle R. Roberts, Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 1-2, 51; Ezra Stiles Ely, The Journal of the Stated Preacher to the Hospital and Almshouse, in the City of New-York, for the Year of Our Lord 1811 (New York: Whiting and Watson, 1812), 75.

[2] Ezra Stiles Ely, The Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Rulers. A Discourse Delivered on the Fourth of July, 1827 (Philadelphia, William F. Geddes, 1828).

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