Episcopalians’ Influence in American Culture

Speaking simply in terms of social status, Episcopalians have traditionally been at the top of America’s informal religious hierarchy. This was much more the case a few generations ago, perhaps, and even more so in the early part of the 20th Century. (When Golden Age Hollywood wanted to portray the upper class at church, it almost invariably depicted Episcopalians–just think of The Philadelphia Story and The Bishop’s Wife). A forthcoming book from the University of North Carolina Press, Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression, by Peter Williams (Miami University), explores the influence of wealthy Episcopalians on urban culture in America. Here’s the publisher’s description:

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.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: