Faith in the City: The Newberry and Chicago's Religious History

The Chicago Commons. The Commons (Nov. 1899): Cover. I 318.159
Interior of the mission. Report of the Work of the Nineteenth Year of the Pacific Garden Mission Ending September 15th, 1896 (Chicago: Pacific Garden Mission, 1896), 12-13. D 8896.
Interior of the mission. Report of the Work of the Nineteenth Year of the Pacific Garden Mission Ending September 15th, 1896 (Chicago: Pacific Garden Mission, 1896), 12-13. D 8896.

Chicago is a city most noted for its hardships. In both popular imagination as well as in academic inquiry, Chicago is often the broad-shouldered hog butcher for the world, coated in the soot of so many smokestacks, and rent by the tension of so many social and political struggles. But Chicago also has an equally important religious history, one that has shaped its social, economic, and political development. From the Catholic parishes that anchored so many of the city’s immigrant communities, to the Reformed Jewish leaders who brought urban innovations to received traditions, to the evangelical revivals that spurred numerous reform campaigns, Chicago’s history is in many ways a religious history.

The Newberry is an outstanding place to research Chicago’s religious history. The library holds a number of collections unique to Chicago that not only illuminate the city’s religious history, but also contribute to the study of religion in America more generally. For more information about all of the Newberry’s holdings in religious history, please see our research guide on Religion. Today I want to highlight two documents from our collections and suggest how they contribute to the study of one of America’s many religious traditions, Protestantism.

Chicago’s rapid demographic and economic expansion throughout the final decades of the nineteenth century not only brought enormous opportunity to the city, but also a number of new, uniquely urban problems. Overcrowding, industrial pollution, and poor drainage brought unsanitary living conditions to many neighborhoods. Nowhere were these conditions more pronounced, however, than in the working class neighborhoods of the city’s south and west sides.

In addition to being social and residential issues, the problem of working people’s living conditions was also a particularly religious issue for some city residents. Chicago Theological Professor Graham Taylor, for example, saw the alleviation of working class religious conditions as a part of his Christian duty. As a part of his curriculum in “Applied Christianity,” Taylor chose to move to a heavily immigrant district on the city’s near northwest side in 1894 to open what he called the Chicago Commons. Modeled after Jane Addams’ Hull House, the Chicago Commons quickly became an important settlement house offering day care, trade classes, space for political meetings, and a number of other social services to nearby residents. Within five years, the Commons’ schedule had become so robust that Taylor oversaw the construction of a massive, multistory building to house all of the settlement’s activities. The Newberry holds Graham Taylor’s personal papers. They are filled with reports and manuscripts that document the Commons’ development, including other sources on Taylor’s important place in the emergence of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism. The first image here is an architect’s sketch of the new Chicago Commons building, taken from the settlement’s newsletter The Commons, which the Newberry also holds. (The Newberry’s holdings of The Commons are actually the personal copies of another renowned Chicago reformer, Henry Demarest Lloyd.)

But Taylor’s settlement house approach was not the only religiously-inspired effort to address the city’s living conditions. In 1877, successful real estate investor and Civil War veteran George R. Clarke organized his own reform society in an abandoned saloon in the city’s notorious “Levee” district on the near south side. Calling his institution the Pacific Garden Mission after the building’s previous occupant, Clarke transformed the saloon into what he called a rescue mission in order to save the lost souls of Chicago’s red light district. For Clarke, a more conservative evangelical who was personal friends with famed evangelist Dwight L. Moody, the city’s problems were a result of spiritual conditions, not social ones. Both the structure and the activities of the Pacific Garden Mission reflected this view. Clarke held the Mission in a one-room saloon that he had transformed into a sanctuary where he held nightly revival services and prayer meetings. Though Clarke would distribute aid to the city’s poor in the form of food, clothing, or help in finding work, he usually only did so after they had attended worship services or had converted. The second image here is a snapshot of a service taken from the Newberry’s holdings of Pacific Garden Mission’s annual reports, which is the most complete collections of the Mission’s papers anywhere.

Though different approaches to addressing the problems of urban living, both the Pacific Garden Mission and the Chicago Commons have had an enduring presence in Chicago’s history and remain open and active today. That both of their records can be found in the Newberry’s collections is a testament to the library’s strength as a repository of American religious history.

By Chris Cantwell

Post New Comment