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.
In this penetrating and insightful work, Williams surveys the Episcopal Church's influence on art, education, and politics, and its strong involvement in political causes that advance human rights and dignity. But, he wonders, has the church gone too far, and alienated the very constituency that made it so wealthy and powerful? Williams presents the Episcopal Church as one of the most influential religious institutions in American history, possessing an economic and cultural stature only rivaled by the Catholic Church. Great edifices such as Trinity Church in N.Y.C. testify powerfully to the church's love for tradition, wealth, and power, but, as Williams so cuttingly observes, all of this is at risk as the church gets more deeply involved in present-day social movements while being increasingly eclipsed by the growing populist and secular movements. Episcopal music, art, and educational institutions maintain a crucial place in American culture, but with a rapidly dwindling membership, all this may count for little. Williams provides prescient forecasts and constructive musings on the future of the Episcopal Church.