The economic and religious ascendancy of Williamsburg and Greenpoint before 1860 was an indicator that the northern States were entering the Civil War with their material and moral strengths cresting into a new high. Like the civil war song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” intoned in the pages of the 1862 The Atlantic Monthly, their inhabitants’ eyes had seen “the glory of the coming of the Lord” in the 1840s and 1850s. They were prepared by decades of spiritual revival and abolitionist campaigns to see the demise of slavocracy under God’s judgment -- “the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword.”
In the years running up to the Civil War, Williamsburg and Greenpoint were growing in population and in the public’s eyes. Business and religion were booming. Williamsburg became a city in 1851, and in the following year added the Third Baptist Church, an African American congregation. Greenpoint grew into a town.
Then, Williamsburg and Greenpoint were swept into Brooklyn in 1855. The politicians’ promises of a bright future for all concerned seemed to come true. A huge economic boom in Civil War-related industries obscured any regrets. Huzzahs were given to Greenpoint’s huge Continental Iron Works when in 1862 it famously produced the iron clad warship Monitor that saw action in the Civil War. The faith-based abolitionists in Williamsburg and Greenpoint took satisfaction that their area housed the arsenal of “the terrible swift sword” of the Union. Their population growth continued. The South Third Street Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg was started the same year as the Civil War in 1860.
The similarities between public interests today and the evangelicals in yesteryear in Williamsburg and Greenpoint have become striking in the last few years. Today, youthful activists are white hot in their opposition to modern forms of slavery, sex trafficking and the lockdown of the poor into poverty. Evangelicals are starting and joining cross-faith and non-faith coalitions on these issues. Today, the tensions between the Manhattan rich and the rest of the city pivoted a Brooklyn-based candidate into the mayor’s office with strong evangelical support. It will be interesting to see what these coalitions might accomplish if they hold together.
The stresses of the Civil War poised crises for the faith-based abolitionists of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
During the anti-draft riots in 1863, many African Americans escaped the lynching mobs in Manhattan by fleeing to Verien Hall which served German settlers in Williamsburg. German Lutherans and socialists were against slavery, enlisted in large numbers into the Union army and were inclined toward helping the escaped slaves in the city. Local churches engaged “colored ministers” to visit the refugee families applying for assistance, according to the report of the committee formed to provide the relief.
During the war years, some evangelicals in Williamsburg and Greenpoint sought a deeper, more intimate connection to the divine and started congregations that would eventually lead to a new Holiness movement across the United States after the Civil War. Perhaps, this was the reason that in 1864, about half the membership left the old Methodist church and organized the Green Point Tabernacle. Another reason was that Greenpoint’s population was growing fast.
After the Civil War, Williamsburg and Greenpoint evangelicals promoted the arrival of new immigrants but also had to adjust to an increase in the density of population with a higher linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity. Two forces wrestled to claim New York City for their vision of a good society. The post-war boom had led tycoons to a conceit that they were the essential ingredient and deserved an over-the-top lifestyle. Many of the Manhattan rich were opting for ostentatious displays of wealth and immoral behaviors characteristic of the French Bourbon aristocracy. While newspapers reported that the 1% was in a tizzy over Russian Czar Alexander III’s lavish coronation ball, they were callously indifferent to the thousands of New Yorkers driven to craziness and suicide by an incredibly harsh poverty. Opposing them, a vast movement of evangelicals countered with a social gospel and evangelism.
Evangelicals were uncommonly active in the 19th Century after the Civil War. One historian, William McLaughlin, has called the years between 1860 and the early Twentieth Century the era of the Third Great Awakening. Evangelicals in Williamsburg and Greenpoint would certainly have been affected by the ferment among city evangelicals. In the city one observer estimated that over one half of Christian laymen were involved in voluntary associations. Notable evangelicals like the photographer and journalist Jacob Riis campaigned to arouse city churches, synagogues and humanist groups to the plight of poor immigrants with his 1890 best seller How the Other Half Lives.
Brooklyn evangelicals also played a significant national role in the promotion of evangelism, missions and Bible literacy. Coming out of the Methodist church, people who were seeking a deeper spirituality through an emotional connection with God and rigorous ethics founded the Holiness movement and the Nazarene Church. In 1875 Dwight L. Moody, the Billy Graham of his day, held his most significant evangelism campaigns in Brooklyn in 1875 and 1876.
In October 1875 Moody launched his Brooklyn campaign by setting up 6000 seats in the skating rink on Clermont Avenue in Fort Greene. With a 250 person choir and over a hundred cooperating churches, the events became standing room only. However, as his biographer and friend Wilbur Chapman noticed, the effect of this campaign was “an awakening rather than a great conversion of non-church goers.” Pastors and lay leaders went back to places like Williamsburg and Greenpoint with an excitement to involve their congregations in Moody’s next campaign. Brooklyners passed along their excitement to church leaders in Manhattan.
On February 7, 1876 Moody launched his follow up campaign in Manhattan at Gilmore’s Concert Garden. Over 7,000 people packed the auditorium, 4,000 listened in the overflow rooms and thousands waited out in the streets. Twelve hundred singers backed up the evangelist at daily services and five services on Sunday. The event launched a new evangelical wave in the United States. Moody’s friend Chapman wrote, “In moving New York God moved the country, and the voice of evangelists was heard through-out the land.” The wave cascaded overseas, particularly in Korea, setting up a chain reaction that circled back to New York with the arrival of the new immigrant wave in the late Twentieth Century in which the Korean churches in New York could be said to be the outcome of 1876. And the religious movement started in Brooklyn.
Dwight Moody reading the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:4-14):
At about this time Brooklyn church leaders also planned the first Bible and prophecy conference in the world. This introduced a new emphasis on prophetic teachings that forecast the re-establishment of Israel and inclined American presidents to support such a development. One outcome was the establishment of a heightened appreciation of Jewish roots of Christian churches.
The Williamsburg and Greenpoint churches grew rapidly and by the end of the century were accommodating the immigrants’ culture and languages. Williamsburg became two-thirds German as early as 1847. Germans were the second largest new immigrant group in New York City, close behind the Irish in number. One third of the Germans in the city, particularly those of the second generation, lived in Brooklyn. Consequently, German evangelical Lutheran churches grew quite a bit. In 1870 the German Evangelical Mission opened at the corner of Leonard and Stagg Streets in Greenpoint. St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on South Fifth Street was built in 1884. Greenpoint’s population tripled from 23,000 to 75,000 from 1880 to 1890. Manhattanites feared the growing power of Brooklyn.
The Germans were often found in industries that required technical and scientific knowledge or skilled craftsmanship. In the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area Germans also started a number of breweries. The German love of a good beer created tension between German evangelicals and other evangelicals who favored the abolition of alcoholic drink. Evangelicals joined with other Brooklyners in their alarm about how alcohol addiction was ruining families and throwing people into permanent poverty. However, when the temperance movement of “tempering drinking” gave rise to an abolitionist movement of “no drinking,” the temperance movement split. Despite many temperance meetings throughout Brooklyn and many campaigns, the abolitionists were not able to abolish drinking on even one day a week, Sunday.
However, evangelicals had multiple aims in improving the lot of the poor. In 1880 they received some help by the arrival of the Salvation Army who arrived in Manhattan and eventually established an outpost in Williamsburg. In 1882 the Salvation Army set up its national headquarters in Brooklyn. The Army’s forays brought even more attention to the treacherous conditions of the immigrant poor. In their outreaches and kitchens the Army also assembled renewed support for alcohol abolitionism.
Politically influential saloon keepers instigated the arrests of Army members for demonstrating in front of their drinking establishments. The result was that Brooklyn churches made these “prisoners of conscience” a powerful rallying point. The efforts enhanced sympathy for the addicted but was less successful in its abolitionist aims.
Williamsburg and Greenpoint became more ethnically mixed over the century. Large number of Polish immigrants settled in Greenpoint. Italians, Jews from Eastern Europe, Russians and many others immigrated into the communities. The mix occasionally was combustible.
In Manhattan the Protestant and Catholics criticized each other, injecting the conflicts of Europe into America. The troubles in Ireland were particularly resonant among the working classes. Also, the Protestant craftsmen were defensive about being displaced by cheaper immigrant labor. The conflict turned to violence and over a hundred lives were lost in one confrontation, mainly Irish Catholic workers shot by militia and police.
One conflict centered on whether the government would support Catholic schools and what Bible – the King James Version (Protestant) or the Douay Version (Catholic) would be used in religion classes. The Protestants decided that they would rather have no religion in the public schools if that meant that Catholicism was included. So, during the 19th Century Catholics led by Archbishop John Hughes established a network of schools.
Hughes, knicknamed “Dagger John,” decided to settle scores with the Protestant bullies by dishing out some comeuppance. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral the bishop pugnaciously delivered in November 1850 a sermon on “The decline of Protestantism and its causes.” He foresaw the triumph of Rome over the Protestant nations everywhere, including the United States. He declared the mission of Catholic church in America was to “convert the Legislatures, the Senate, the Cabinet, the President, and all!" Later, in 1864, Pope Pius IX issued a “Syllabus of Errors” that added fuel to the fire by denouncing the separation of church and state and freedom of conscience.
In fact the Catholic hierarchy in Rome was so rigidly anti-modern that it was out of touch with conditions in America. The leaders of one Catholic order of priests commanded that Italian Catholic school kids should be insulated from Protestant contamination by Italian-language only schools. The priest ignored his headquarters, and the schools taught their lessons in English. Hughes himself said he was committed to tolerance and democracy. He joined forces with Protestants in trying to curb alcoholism with a Catholic abstinence society and employed similar methods as the Protestants to help the poor. Long after his death, Catholics from Old St. Patrick’s Church established a Catholic Bowery Mission that for a short time paralleled the Protestant one.
Catholics in Brooklyn eventually had their own bishop who was less pugnacious than Hughes. For whatever reason there seems to have been fewer conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in Brooklyn. The great evangelical enterprises in Brooklyn did not usually feature anti-Catholic attacks. The evangelist Moody perhaps surprised a few people with his willingness to work with Catholics. He monetarily supported the building of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church near his training center in Massachusetts and met with Archbishop Corrigan of New York to give a conciliatory message. Moody said that he “wanted to see New York shaken for Christ and wouldn't it be a great thing if all the churches swung into a simultaneous effort …” He told critics, “I hope to see the day when all bickering, division and party feeling will cease, and Roman Catholics will see eye to eye with Protestants in this work.”
Late in life in 1899, Ira D. Sankey recorded his favorite hymn, "The Ninety and Nine," on a wax cylinder, source is Library of Congress:
The famed evangelist Moody died in 1899, but his legacy continued in the churches of Brooklyn. On May 13, 1896, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that a close associate of Moody was the lead speaker at local conference with a morning prayer service lead by Hannah G. Williams, a woman lay leader from the New England Congregational Church in Williamsburg. In 1908 the Dwight Moody’s son lead the funeral by his father song leader Ira Sankey, who had made popular such songs as “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Sankey lived for twenty years on Oxford Street near today’s Barclays Center. There were many Williamsburg representatives at the funeral because they also attended the funeral of Williamsburg notable and Presbyterian elder General J. V. Meserole in the same church, Lafayette Presbyterian Church.
Undoubtedly, the evangelicals of Williamsburg and Greenpoint entered the Twentieth Century confident that they could make a difference in the greater New York City which had consolidated into one city in 1897. Brooklyn had become the Protestant center of gravity in the city and crafted an identity as the “city of homes and churches” for the middle classes. The sculptor of the moment was John Rogers whose popular reproductions of his “Coming to the Parson” sat on many a Brooklyner’s mantel, sometimes alongside a Currier and Ives print of going to church. About 60% of the Brooklyners identified themselves as Protestant while only 47% of Manhattanites did. Though looked down upon as unfashionable, the strength of the people living in the brownstones and sitting in the pews was formidable. Harriet Beecher Stowe capture this unshowy strength in her 1875 book about New Yorkers, We and our neighbors; or the record of an unfashionable street.
After kicking off a prophecy movement, Brooklyn evangelicals also started to view Jews as allies. The re-establishment of Israel started to become an issue for evangelicals, a trend of opinion that paralleled the rise of Zionism. One outcome was the establishment of the Williamsburg Mission to the Jews in 1897 that eventually became the national organization Chosen People Ministries. The city was merging into a thick stew that mixed shared religious interests, commerce and political expediencies.