Faith in the City: Religion and Urban Life in Chicago, 1870-1920

First Baptist Church, Wabash Avenue, Chicago / The J. Paul Getty Museum

How, if at all, did religious communities change their inherited traditions in the midst of new surroundings?

By Dr. Christopher D. Cantwell
Assistant Professor of Public and Digital History
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

By Dr. Daniel Greene
Adjunct Professor of History
Northwestern University


In the fifty years between the Civil War and World War I, the United States experienced a dramatic transformation. In 1870, three-quarters of the population lived in rural areas; by 1920, over half the nation lived in cities. This rapid urbanization was fueled by European immigration and the migration of rural, native-born residents who flocked to cities to work in factories. As a result, cities across the country exploded in size. Chicago’s population, for example, ballooned from just under 300,000 in 1870 to over 2.7 million in 1920. This demographic explosion brought with it a remarkable religious diversity. Catholics, Protestants, and Jews lived together in close proximity few had experienced before. Moreover, the rapid arrival of newcomers from across the globe brought new kinds of diversity to religious communities themselves. Irish Catholics, for example, not only had to learn how to coexist with European Jews and white and black Protestants from the American South and Midwest, but also with other Catholics from Italy, Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere.

Chicago’s religious diversity posed a number of challenges. Migrants and newcomers had to consider how, if at all, their religious traditions, customs, and institutions would follow them to the city. Religious leaders and ordinary people alike worried that certain practices or communities could not survive the city’s industrial rhythms and myriad distractions. How, for example, would Sabbath observance persist in cities where business and recreation occurred seven days a week? How would churches, synagogues, and parishes thrive in new urban spaces like the vice district, immigrant ghetto, or industrial slum? How, in short, would religious communities change their inherited traditions in the midst of new surroundings?

At the moment of the city’s ascendance in American life, many observers and religious leaders claimed that urban living would destroy religious life. Some early scholars of American religious history would largely agree that cities were secular spaces that contributed to religion’s decline. More recently, however, using sources like the documents collected here, scholars have argued that the city was a space of religious innovation, rather than decay. Many of Chicago’s religious communities creatively engaged the challenges presented by urban life. Some altered or adapted existing rituals; others reaffirmed traditional beliefs in new or more fervent ways; and some generated entirely new religious ideas and practices. All, however, found ample space within the city to fashion their religious lives.

Brick and Mortar: Catholicism in Chicago

Catholics have long had an imprint upon Chicago’s history. The area’s first non-Native American resident was an Afro-French fur trader named Jean Baptiste Point DuSable who settled on the Chicago River in the 1790s. Catholics have also been Chicago’s largest religious community throughout much of the city’s history. Immigrants from Ireland and Germany comprised the city’s first Catholic community, establishing twenty-two “territorial” parishes in the thirty years after the Archdiocese of Chicago’s creation in 1843. These territorial parishes were open to all Catholics within a defined geographic area and thrived during Chicago’s early years. The rapid arrival of immigrants from Italy, Poland, and other parts of Southern and Eastern Europe, however, radically transformed Chicago’s Catholic communities. Finding work and preserving ethnic heritage were the most pressing concerns for these largely unskilled newcomers. Many preferred to worship and associate with their ethnic brethren. The Archdiocese responded by reluctantly allowing the formation of “national” parishes where membership was based upon one’s country of origin and not current residential location.

Holy Family Parish, Chicago: Priests and People / Thomas Mulkerins. 1923
“Young Men’s Sodality Baseball Club, 1910 Champions”: “Sodalities” are voluntary devotional organizations of local Catholic churches often organized by age or sex. But in the rapidly urbanizing late-nineteenth century, these religious organizations also took on important social roles. / Thomas Mulkerins. From Holy Family Parish, Chicago: Priests and People, 1923

These documents provide a glimpse into Chicago’s parish life at the turn of the century. Holy Family is the city’s second oldest Catholic Church, organized as a territorial parish in 1857 on Chicago’s near West Side.

The Annals of St. Boniface Parish, 1862–1926 / F. L. Kalveage. 1926
“Young Ladies’ Society, June 27th, 1897” / F. L. Kalveage. From The Annals of St. Boniface Parish, 1862–1926, 1926

St. Boniface parish, on the other hand, was from its founding in 1862 a church for German immigrants staffed by German priests.

Daprato Map of Chicago Showing the Location of all Catholic Parishes: In 1926, Chicago hosted an international celebration of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Here, a comemorative map shows the location and ethnic composition of every Catholic church in Chicago, 1926

The Daprato map, published by the Archdioceses to celebrate its hosting of the 1926 International Eucharistic Congress, continues to underscore the ethnic nature of Catholicism in Chicago.

“Address at the Dedication of the New School at St. Edmund’s Parish in Oak Park, Illinois, October 17th, 1917”: Cardinal George Mundelein was one the most active bishops in the history of the Archdiocese of Chicago, overseeing the church’s rapid expansion. His address here on the opening of a new parish school. / George Mundelein. From Two Crowded Years: Being Selected Addresses, Pastorals, and Letters Issued During the First Twenty-Four Months of the Episcopate of the Most Rev. George William Mundelein, D.D., as Archbishop of Chicago., 1917

Meanwhile, the address by Cardinal George Mundelein (1872–1939), Archbishop of Chicago from 1915 through 1939, reveals some of the tensions that existed between old immigrants who ran Chicago’s Archdiocese and the new immigrants who filled the churches. An American-born son of German immigrants, Mundelein argued that parishes should be places where immigrants adopt their new identities as American, not reaffirm their foreignness. Throughout his tenure as Archbishop of Chicago, Mundelein would lead a campaign to return to territorial parishes over national ones. His efforts had decidedly mixed results.

A Chosen People in a Strange Land: Chicago’s Jewish Communities

Jewish immigrants from German lands established an institutional presence in Chicago during the 1840s. It was the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1924, however, that transformed the Jewish population of Chicago. By the early 1930s, Chicago had the third largest Jewish population of any city in the world, trailing only New York and Warsaw. Questions surrounding Jews’ acculturation to the rapidly growing city preoccupied Jewish communities. These three sources—a sermon by a rabbi, a memoir by a Jewish immigrant, and woodcut illustrations by an immigrant published in an important sociological analysis of Jewish Chicago—speak to a range of concerns about how Jewish traditions and customs might endure amid pressures to assimilate. In particular, the fact that the Jewish Sabbath (beginning Friday at sundown and ending Saturday at sundown) does not coincide with the more widely recognized Christian Sabbath on Sunday caused particular stresses to Jews both as individuals and as communities. The issues that arose around conflicting Sabbaths were not only religious in nature but also social and economic.

“Address by Dr. E. G. Hirsch”: Rabbi Emil D. Hirsch lead Chicago’s Sinai Congregation throughout much of his career. Under his leadership, the synagogue became a bastion of Reform Judaism, which aimed to adapt Jewish life to American Culture. / Emil G. Hirsch. From Report of the Services in Commemoration of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Introduction of Sunday Services in Chicago Sinai Congregation January 15, 1899, 1899
“Talmudic Student”: The Talmud is a sacred text of Jewish law often studied by young men going into the priesthood. Here, Todros Geller depicts an Orthodox Talmudic student, as seen in his unshaven side curls. / Todros Geller, Louis Wirth. From The Ghetto, 1928
“Street Musicians”: Louis Wirth’s sociological analysis of Chicago’s Jewish community considered nearly every aspect of its culture. Here, Todros Geller depicts the street musicians on Maxwell Street, where many Jewish immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe settled. / Todros Geller, Louis Wirth. From The Ghetto, 1928
“Maxwell Street”: Maxwell Street was the center of Chicago’s Jewish community. Immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe fleeing oppression settled in tne surrounding neighorhood and attempted to recreate their former villages in the new city. / Todros Geller, Louis Wirth. From The Ghetto, 1928
“Horseradish Grinder” / Todros Geller, Louis Wirth. From The Ghetto, 1928

Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch (1852–1923) led Chicago’s Sinai Congregation (Reform) from 1880 through 1923. A national figure because of his particularly dynamic pulpit orations, Hirsch put Sinai at the cutting edge of Reform Judaism and argued that rituals and practices had to adapt to fit modern circumstances. Indeed, Sinai’s policies on observing the Sabbath were seen as radical even within Reform Jewish circles.

I Came a Stranger: The Story of a Hull-House Girl: Hilda Satt Polachek (1882–1967) emigrated from Poland to Chicago in 1892. She took classes at Hull-House as a child and maintained an association there as an adult, teaching classes and giving tours, 1989

Hilda Satt Polachek (1882–1967) emigrated from Poland to Chicago in 1892. She took classes at Hull-House as a child and maintained an association there as an adult, teaching classes and giving tours. She remained active in social reform causes throughout her life and published poetry, plays, essays, and this memoir I Came a Stranger: The Story of a Hull-House Girl. Todros Geller (1899–1949) emigrated from Ukraine to Canada in 1906. By 1918, he had settled in Chicago as an artist. His popular portfolio of woodcuts, titled Yiddish Life, appeared first in 1926 and were included in University of Chicago sociologist Louis Wirth’s influential 1928 book, The Ghetto. His work provides a glimpse into the world of Orthodox Jews, who were generally less willing to alter their ritual practices.

To Save the City: Protestant Responses to Urbanization

At the turn of the twentieth century, the majority of Chicago’s Protestants were broadly evangelical in nature. With the exception of Lutherans who hailed from Germany and Scandinavia, most were white, native-born migrants from New England and the Midwest. Their religious beliefs were forged in the revivals of First and Second Great Awakenings. Despite their denominational differences, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist churches alike all agreed upon certain essential doctrines such as a belief in the Bible’s divine origins. Paramount, however, was a belief that it was the duty of every Protestant Christian to evangelize, or proselytize, nonbelievers to their faith. Through church activity and mission work, evangelical Protestants hoped that the Gospel message, or the story of Jesus as recorded in the Bible, would convert the world.

Chicago’s demographic, cultural, and religious transformation at the turn of the century posed a number of challenges to this evangelical mission. The city’s ethnic diversity made communication, much less evangelization, difficult for native-born Protestant ministers. Even more challenging were the social conditions in some parts of the city. Some ministers argued that the overcrowded, industrial neighborhoods where many immigrants lived were not conducive to the establishment of Protestant churches. Others found the concentration of saloons and brothels in vice districts such as the city’s notorious “Levee” an affront to Protestant moral standards.

Report of the Work of the Eighteenth Year of the Pacific Garden Mission Ending September 15th, 1895: Founded in 1877 in Chicago’s notorious “Levee,” the Pacific Garden Mission intended to convert the red-light district’s visitors to evangelical Christianity. Their annual reports chronicled the Mission’s evangelization efforts.

These documents represent two differing responses to the difficulties of urban evangelization. Real estate speculator and Civil War veteran George Clarke (1827–1892) founded the Pacific Garden Mission with his wife Sarah in 1877 in an attempt to convert the visitors of Chicago’s Levee district.

“God is Love” / Pacific Garden Mission. From Report of the Work of the Nineteenth Year of the Pacific Garden Mission Ending September 15th, 1896

The Mission’s name was derived from the saloon where it was first located, the Pacific Beer Garden, and reflected Clarke’s desire to take over the Levee for Jesus. In contrast, Chicago Theological Seminary professor Graham Taylor (1851–1938) took a different approach.

“The Gospel Wagon” / Pacific Garden Mission. From Report of the Work of the Nineteenth Year of the Pacific Garden Mission Ending September 15th, 1896
“Healthier Workrooms! Clean Streets! Open Schools! Better Factories!”: As a settlement house, the Chicago Commons focused on alleviating the living conditions of the neighborhood it served. This flyer suggest the kinds of activities the Commons took on. / Chicago Commons. 1901

Taylor was at the forefront of the Social Gospel movement, which sought to address not only people’s spiritual but also their material conditions.

Chicago Commons New Building: The Chicago Commons built an large structure to house its expansive social services. This fundraising pamphlet suggests the building’s many uses, c.1901
“Report for October 1916”: Located in a poor neighbood on Chicago’s West Side, the Chicago Commons was a settlement house that focused on helping the city’s poor. This monthly report details the Commons’ activities.

A friend and admirer of Jane Addams and Hull House, Taylor founded the Chicago Commons settlement house in 1894 as an extension of his mission work.

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 08.29.2017, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.