Cover image for Church and Estate: Religion and Wealth in Industrial-Era Philadelphia By Thomas F. Rzeznik

Church and Estate

Religion and Wealth in Industrial-Era Philadelphia

Thomas F. Rzeznik


$72.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05967-9

$32.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05968-6

304 pages
6" × 9"
11 b&w illustrations/1 map

Church and Estate

Religion and Wealth in Industrial-Era Philadelphia

Thomas F. Rzeznik

“In this remarkably rich and revealing book, Thomas Rzeznik has rediscovered the marrow and meaning of religion for the elite classes of Philadelphians. Rzeznik brings rare sensitivity and common sense to a subject too much the domain of pundits quick to dismiss the integrity of upper-class faith and too little the focus of sustained historical analysis. The result is a finely wrought book that should re-open discussions of the religious impulses of Progressivism and renew considerations of the centrality of religion in modern American life.”


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In Church and Estate, Thomas Rzeznik examines the lives and religious commitments of the Philadelphia elite during the period of industrial prosperity that extended from the late nineteenth century through the 1920s. The book demonstrates how their religious beliefs informed their actions and shaped their class identity, while simultaneously revealing the ways in which financial influences shaped the character of American religious life. In tracing those connections, it shows how religion and wealth shared a fruitful, yet ultimately tenuous, relationship.
“In this remarkably rich and revealing book, Thomas Rzeznik has rediscovered the marrow and meaning of religion for the elite classes of Philadelphians. Rzeznik brings rare sensitivity and common sense to a subject too much the domain of pundits quick to dismiss the integrity of upper-class faith and too little the focus of sustained historical analysis. The result is a finely wrought book that should re-open discussions of the religious impulses of Progressivism and renew considerations of the centrality of religion in modern American life.”
“Thomas Rzeznik's remarkable exploration of religion and wealth in Gilded Age and Progressive Era America combines unprecedented breadth and sophistication with a Philadelphia focus that speaks for America while still retaining the Quaker city's unique flavor. Smoothly written and deftly researched, Church and Estate is one of the few books to describe Protestants, Catholics, Jews, wealth, and religion together, and it brings fresh life to controversial facets of American religion that often still echo discordantly today.”
“In terms of historical studies of religion and the elite of Philadelphia, this sets the standard by which future scholarship will be judged…. An impressive and exhaustive historical work that provides a valuable case study showing how the elite of industrial-era Philadelphia created religious class cultures within congregations that conformed to their tastes and desires.”
“A rich and engaging study of the relationship between religion and wealth in the formation of America's urban elites.”
“Rich in original research and perceptive analysis, Church and Estate is a major contribution to our understanding of the interplay of religious belief and new industrial fortunes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. . . . This is a brilliant and important study that will be a crucial reference for those seeking to understand the changes in Quakerism in the last century in dialogue with the broader religious and economic landscape.”
“Among the strengths of [Church and Estate is Rzeznik’s] refusal to reduce his stories of the changes taking place [in Philadelphia] to economics and matters of social status. These are human stories in which the power of wealth and the seeking of ‘spiritual capital’ and prestige and influence were ever operative, but where ‘sincere spiritual yearnings’ and a ‘genuine desire for sound teachings, meaningful worship and spiritual fulfillment’ also had their roles. . . . One appreciates [Rzeznik’s] comprehension of the complexities and mixed motivations of religious life of this era.”
“Rzeznik’s book provides a very detailed overview of the sometimes tenuous relationship between ‘money interests’ and organized religion in Philadelphia during the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. . . . Rzeznik’s clear prose and mastery of the subject make the book one of great interest to those who study religion and American culture. It is a welcome addition to the discussion.”
Church and Estate is a valuable work for scholars interested in the elite of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Philadelphia. Rzeznik’s work should remind those who study the city to retain a sensitivity to religion and how their subjects dealt with it.”
Church and Estate is a well-written and meticulously researched book on a topic that has received little attention from historians of U.S. Catholicism to date. By examining the ways in which wealthy Christians—Catholics and Protestants—supported their churches, Rzeznik has contributed to our knowledge of both the development of Catholic philanthropy and the role played by wealthy Philadelphia Catholics in the growth of the U.S. Church.”

Thomas F. Rzeznik is Associate Professor of History at Seton Hall University.


List of Illustrations



1 “Money Faithfully and Judiciously Expended”

2 A Controlling “Interest”

3 A Labor “Exceedingly Magnificent”

4 The “Quaker-Turned-Episcopal Gentry”

5 The Episcopal Ascendancy

6 Confronting the “Money Interests”

7 Changing Fortunes

Conclusion: Legacies





In 1921, the board of the Provident Life and Trust Company of Philadelphia approved a reorganization plan that separated the firm’s life insurance and trust divisions. Following its formal establishment in December 1922, the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Company of Philadelphia orchestrated an extensive advertising campaign to promote the new enterprise. Among the services it marketed were investment annuities, touted in one brochure as guaranteeing “relief from anxiety” and “comfortable income through life.” To help potential clients visualize the benefits the firm’s annuities could provide, the brochure included a series of drawings portraying the leisurely pursuits of the privileged class. In one, a golfer hits a long drive to a distant green as his caddie stands by. Another shows a transatlantic steamer carrying passengers to overseas adventures. A third portrays two women being chauffeured past a country estate in their luxurious touring sedan. For Philadelphians, these scenes of upper-class comfort evoked the idealized, carefree lifestyle of the “Main Line,” the string of fashionable suburban communities that had grown up along the main east-west line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. If the illustrations were to be believed, annuities guaranteed their holders a share in this exclusive world of wealth and privilege.

In and of itself, the brochure was hardly extraordinary. There was no shortage of depictions of the country club set in 1920s advertising. Nor was Provident marketing a new service; the company had been selling annuities since its inception in 1865. But for those familiar with the history of the firm, the brochure marked a radical departure from Provident’s traditional attitude toward wealth. The company had been founded by members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), who were guided by an ethic of “fiduciary responsibility.” Provident’s early advertising capitalized on public perceptions of Quaker trustworthiness and proudly spoke of the “strict economy with which affairs are managed.” Unlike the brochures of the 1920s, which enticed readers with such alluring titles as “Saving and Success” and “Spend Your Money, and Have It . . . Too,” the sober advertisements of earlier years stressed the responsibility that came with wealth rather than the pleasure and status it could provide.

How should we interpret these new trends in Provident’s advertising? On one level, they can be explained as part of the triumph of consumerism that had taken hold in American society by the 1920s. On another level, however, they reflected a distinct change in how money and its uses were understood within a religious community whose teachings traditionally cautioned against outward displays of wealth and warned of the corrupting influence of worldly desires. To use the lure of luxury to attract business, as Provident did in the 1920s, seemed contrary to the Quaker principles on which the firm had been founded. In his 1908 annual report, company president Asa S. Wing had reminded investors that selecting a firm for life insurance or the management of trusts should not be decided “by the liberality of promises made, but by the character of the company as evidenced by its past history and present standing, and by the character of the men who control its management.” And, speaking at the company’s fiftieth anniversary in 1915, Wing had reminded his colleagues that the “affairs of each patron have always been regarded as of a delicate and sacred nature, demanding the greatest integrity.” Yet, by the 1920s, the proper management of wealth, once seen as a spiritual exercise, came to be promoted as a pathway to conspicuous consumption. Although corporate expansion had by then diluted the Quaker presence within the firm, members of the Society of Friends remained well represented on the board of directors, who presumably had approved the new advertising initiative.

This change in how Quakers within one firm understood the relationship between money and morality is just one small part of a much larger story of the interplay of religion and wealth in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At arguably no other time in American history were these two forces more intimately linked than during this period, which saw not only the creation of great industrial fortunes and the consolidation of a powerful capitalist class, but also the vast expansion of religious institutions and the strengthening of denominational identity across the religious spectrum. The temptation persists to segregate these spheres and draw stark dichotomies between the realms of God and Mammon, but such divisions obscure the considerable connections between the economic, social, and religious developments of the time and the transformations and tensions they engendered.

Provident’s history provides one glimpse of how these developments worked in concert. Even as the tenor of its advertising changed, the company capitalized on the public trust it had accrued from the managers’ strict adherence to Quaker principles. At least within the local sphere, the firm’s religious heritage served as a marketable commodity, one that distinguished it from other investment houses. Known informally as “the Quaker bank,” Provident made explicit references to its founding by Friends both in its early advertisements and in its later brochures. Other Quaker concerns saw similar benefits in affirming their history. In 1911, Strawbridge and Clothier, one of the city’s leading department stores, unveiled a company seal that depicted William Penn consummating a treaty with the leader of the local Indian tribe. The “Friendly handshake” that solemnized the agreement came to serve as the store’s “seal of confidence,” which was displayed prominently within the store and used extensively in advertising material. As with Provident, Quakerism provided not only a guiding ethic, but also a corporate identity.

Provident’s promotional strategies may not appear at first glance to offer much in return for the Quakers themselves, but they, too, gained from the relationship. Even though the Society of Friends, as a religious body, had no direct involvement in these company affairs, they nevertheless enjoyed the fruits of corporate success. Like other religious communities, the Society of Friends benefited from the increased wealth and upward social mobility of its members. Philanthropy and patronage sustained Quaker charitable initiatives and educational institutions. In a more indirect way, regular invocations of a firm’s Quaker heritage and use of Quaker imagery in advertising helped keep the Society in the public eye at a time when its members had neither the numerical strength nor the degree of social influence they once enjoyed.

Yet alongside these symbiotic relationships, Provident’s history also reveals the tensions and ambiguities inherent in this convergence of religion and wealth. The scenes of luxurious living that appeared in Provident’s later advertising demonstrate all too clearly how financial success could cause individuals to succumb to worldly temptations. Without vigilance, Quakers had long taught, the same wealth that testified to an individual’s hard work and honest dealing could lead to moral bankruptcy. The use of Quaker references and imagery in advertising held its own dangers, too. Those who publicly professed their Quaker identity invited religious scrutiny. Holding themselves to a higher moral standard, they needed to be mindful and protective of their reputations. Unscrupulous business practices or risky economic behavior reflected poorly not only on the individuals who engaged in them, but also on the companies and religious communities to which those individuals belonged. Economic and spiritual imperatives continually vied for allegiance. How individuals and religious communities negotiated those competing impulses would shape the social and religious worlds of the industrial era.

The relationship between Provident Life and Trust Company and the Society of Friends points to a deeper set of dynamics working within American society during the transformative decades of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What could be framed as simply an episode in the history of corporate growth in the United States speaks just as powerfully to the influence religious belief and class aspirations had on individuals and communities alike during the industrial era, when those two forces were nothing short of pervasive. They lay at the core of personal identity and shaped the contours of social relations. They informed behavior and established boundaries. They were matters both intensely private and unavoidably public.

To gauge the social and religious transformations of these decades, Church and Estate sets its focus on Philadelphia, one of the nation’s leading industrial centers throughout the period. The city’s developmental trajectory serves as a representative example of how wealth transformed American society—creating value systems, reordering class relations, and structuring authority. In Philadelphia, as elsewhere, industrial prosperity not only reshaped the physical, social, and religious landscape, but it also enabled those who controlled economic resources to attain prominence and exercise considerable influence in economic, political, and civic affairs. Although the less affluent also sought to advance their own interests, those who possessed a disproportionate share of wealth ultimately possessed a disproportion degree of power and authority. This was no less true in the religious sphere as it was in other areas of life.

The decision to focus on Philadelphia also stems from its rich religious history. Well before the industrial era, the city had secured a reputation for its religious diversity. The well-known Quaker legacy of religious toleration made Philadelphia, in the words of one work, “America’s first plural society.” In addition to being a Quaker stronghold, Philadelphia was the seat of the mother diocese of the Episcopal Church, the site of the first Presbytery organized in the United States, home to one of the nation’s oldest Jewish communities, the first place in the colonies where Catholics could worship openly, the cradle of American Methodism, the birthplace of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and a haven for a number of persecuted religious minorities. On account of its deep religious roots, Philadelphia came to serve over time as an important administrative center for several denominations. The Philadelphia Yearly Meetings of Orthodox and Hicksite Friends were generally regarded as the most influential Quaker bodies in the United States. Many important boards and agencies for the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches were headquartered in the city. By the late nineteenth century, the strong Jewish institutional presence arguably made Philadelphia the “Capital of Jewish America.” Throughout the industrial era, the numerical strength of the city’s various denominations further contributed to Philadelphia’s importance as a religious center. The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, which covered the five-county Philadelphia region, was consistently the second largest and second wealthiest diocese in the nation at this time. Presbyterian membership was equally impressive, with the Philadelphia Presbytery surpassed only by the Pittsburgh. As Catholic numbers grew, the naming of Archbishop Dennis Dougherty to the College of Cardinals in 1921 signaled the city’s importance within the Catholic Church. For all of these reasons, Philadelphians had the potential to extend their influence well beyond their local religious communities.

By examining the religious involvements of wealthy Philadelphians, Church and Estate draws attention to two complementary and interrelated processes. First, it examines how religious belief and denominational affiliation shaped individuals’ class identity and informed their public actions. Although deeply personal, religious belief structured social relations, guided business decisions, and informed civic commitments; in doing so, it entered the public arena. Indeed, the elite themselves recognized that their status as a ruling class and their claims to social authority rested on moral foundations. Second, it explores the influence wealth and status afforded individuals within their local churches and broader denominations. It thereby traces how financial forces and class influence affected the development of religious communities and shaped the character of American religious life as it took its modern form. Though informed by the theological debates that emerged over the moral order and nature of the capitalist system, this study concentrates instead on the everyday negotiations that occurred as Philadelphia’s wealthy individuals and religious communities contended with competing moral and economic imperatives.

Exploring these dynamics contributes to our understanding of American social and religious history in two significant ways. First, it encourages historians to recognize the prevalence and power of religious belief among members of the social and financial elite, rather than simply regarding it as secondary to more material concerns. The elite in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the United States had a need for moral satisfaction and spiritual security. For many, churchgoing and charitable work were not only important social rituals, but also sincere expressions of religious faith. Wealthy individuals drawn to religious expression cannot be reduced to Jackson Lears’s aesthetes in search of authentic experience or Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumers of devout observances. Even scholars who credit white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) for providing the “integrating ethic of American life” have largely failed to examine the religious identity of their subjects or the religious roots of that ethic. Most offer only bittersweet laments for the loss of perceived cultural cohesiveness once provided by this group, and assume the assistance of their cultural, political, and social power without describing its origins. Although some recent biographies of Gilded Age greats have acknowledged the authenticity of their subjects’ religious beliefs, it is striking how quickly religion drops out of the equation when wealthy individuals are aggregated as a class. Too many accounts rely on an uncritical acceptance of a secularization thesis that views a decline of religious devotion as a corollary to increased education and affluence.

Second, it calls attention to the ways in which wealth and elite influence affected religious institutions and their mission. In the ecclesiastical realm, as in other areas, those who controlled financial resources enjoyed power and authority. Their wealth enabled members of the upper class to craft religious practices that conformed to both their theological and their social sensibilities. Yet, with the exception of several recent works that have deftly explored theological responses to market capitalism, historians of American religion have been largely silent on the issue of class—or money, for that matter. Some scholars have employed rational choice models to describe the functioning of the American religious marketplace, but their works do not directly address the issue of class. They fail to consider the issues of power and authority that characterize the broader history of class relations and the formation of class interests within and among groups. Furthermore, those who speak of the democratization of American religious life overlook the recurring influence of elites. As with social and political institutions, wealth and elite interests have the potential to erode the democratic nature of religious bodies. This caveat applies not only to elite assemblies, but to all religious communities, since even the poorest congregation has its wealthiest member. By drawing attention to these forces, Church and Estate seeks to initiate a fuller and more open discussion of how class interests and financial forces shaped religious institutions, for better or for worse, and how they affected the social mission and theological message of the nation’s churches.

Tracing the relationship between religion and wealth thus sheds new light on the process of class formation in the United States. Beyond a handful of older accounts, such as those of sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, scholars have paid only scant attention to religion’s role in structuring class relations. Even Sven Beckert’s masterful study of the rise of the American bourgeoisie in late nineteenth-century New York makes only passing references to the religious affiliation and faith commitments of its subjects. Of the few studies that address the issue, most focus on the middle and working classes. Yet even here, religious identity is often perceived as transitional, fading once other social forces such as economic advancement, working-class consciousness, or Americanization have fostered a new group identity. Too often religion is perceived as a difference to be overcome rather than as a force of social cohesion, with the inclusionary and exclusionary aspects of religious association helping to create and sustain class boundaries. Religion, among many other factors, contributed to how, in Beckert’s words, “a group of people with often-divergent material interests forged themselves into a social class and how they were at times able to act collectively on this identity.”

More important, religious involvement and adherence to moral principles helped legitimize class authority. During the industrial era, wealth alone could not secure social respectability. To count among the ruling class, members of the social and financial elite were expected by their peers and the general public to abide by the teachings of their churches and to serve as exemplars of civic virtue. Only with the proper spiritual capital could members claim the moral authority they needed to exercise power. This is not to say, however, that religion served merely an instrumental function. Members of the upper class may not have been uniformly devout, but many were deeply religious and desired a sense of moral security that financial success alone could not provide. They weighed the ethical demands and wrestled with the social responsibilities that accompanied their economic and political power. Their religious beliefs and personal faith bound them to a particular cosmology and system of ethical standards that informed choices, conditioned behavior, and directed attention to ultimate ends. More than a source of status gained through nominal affiliation, religion served as a practical moral force and essential theological guide.

At the heart of these developments lay a complex system of economic and symbolic exchange. Just as churches depended on members of the social and financial elite for economic support, so these individuals relied on their churches for spiritual solace and moral approbation. They sought the spiritual and psychological comfort of knowing that they were justified, both in the eyes of God and their religious communities, in their use of wealth and exercise of power. They further recognized that religious affiliation conferred status, just as religious communities recognized the benefits of their association with members of the social and financial elite.

Throughout this study, I employ the metaphor “spiritual capital” as a conceptual tool to denote the benefits individuals derived from their religious involvements. Borrowing from recent research on “social capital” by Robert Putnam and others, “spiritual capital” helps convey the significance of religion in people’s lives. It suggests that members of a religious community, like those who belong to other voluntary associations, derive certain benefits, both tangible and intangible, by virtue of their membership and participation in that group or social network. The metaphor is particularly apt for the study of religion among the financial elite. Although it is important not to overrationalize religious choice, interpret spiritual motivation in purely functionalist ways, or crassly assume that the rich sought to buy their way into heaven, it is equally important to acknowledge that individuals “profit” from their religious participation. In return for their commitment to religious principles and their financial support for religious institutions, wealthy individuals obtained the spiritual capital they needed to secure their social status and strengthen their class authority.

The metaphor “spiritual capital” is also informed by the theoretical insights of Pierre Bourdieu, whose exploration of “cultural capital” reveals how social differentiation depends on the cultivation of shared tastes and aesthetic sensibilities. Bourdieu demonstrates that class identity is not simply the product of one’s economic standing, but stems from one’s habitus, a disposition that one shares with other members of a particular class or social group. Once internalized, the tastes and sensibilities of one’s habitus serve as “structuring structures” by which individuals preconsciously order the social world and situate themselves within and among groups. These internalized subjectivities serve as the basis of social classification and facilitate the collective action upon which class formation depends. In industrial era Philadelphia, religious affiliation, modes of worship, and ecclesiastical tastes all served as classificatory devices and symbolic markers of class status. Drawing from Bourdieu, one can further argue that, like their cultural equivalents, these religious behaviors and attitudes are “predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social difference.” Conforming to certain religious behaviors or expectations gave wealthy individuals moral sanction for their actions and conferred them with the religious authority needed to establish themselves as a ruling class.

Actual experience, however, was never this straightforward. Moving from the broad contours of social theory to the particulars of history, Church and Estate explores in more concrete terms the class dynamics at work within American religious life and religion’s role in class formation. How did faith condition social behavior? What did wealthy individuals’ quest for spiritual capital mean for their religious communities? Answering such questions deepens our understanding of the workings of two dominant forces—religion and wealth—that shaped American society during the transformative decades of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In tracing these connections, particular attention needs to be given to the mechanisms that allowed wealthy individuals to use their economic resources to gain influence within their local religious communities and broader denominations. Theological beliefs, institutional structures, and denominational culture all governed the nature of the relationship. By looking closely at the lived religious experience of Philadelphia’s elite and the inner workings of their religious communities, Church and Estate reveals both the range of their motivations and the limits of acceptable action. No one recognized the inherent complexity of their relationship better than wealthy benefactors and their religious leaders. As they were well aware, members of the social and financial elite were able to influence religious affairs in a variety of ways, whether through involvement in congregational formation and church governance or by their philanthropy and patronage. But given the nature of religious authority, they could not control their churches in the same way they could their businesses or the government. Those involved in religious affairs were subject to their churches’ moral standards and ethical norms. Clergy possessed not only the ability to impart their blessing upon the wealthy and powerful, but also the power to withhold it, although doing so entailed considerable risk. Church leaders may have had the authority—and indeed the moral imperative—to place a check on overweening financial influence and to hold the wealthy morally accountable for their actions, but they could rarely afford to alienate prominent benefactors. The moral ambiguity of worldly wealth further complicated matters. Wealth could be an obstacle to personal salvation, of course, but members of the upper class also knew that, if used properly to promote the social good, it could also serve as a means to that end.

So who were the Philadelphia elite? Social scientists have established a complex and technical vocabulary to describe the structuring of social relations, distinguishing between status groups, social classes, castes, elites, and other social groups. Though mindful of these important distinctions, I often employ “upper class” as a purely descriptive term used interchangeably with other classifiers such as the “financial elite” and “wealthy individuals” to identify the subjects of this study—those who controlled the great fortunes of the era. Speaking of the “upper class” as a singular term, though not meant to imply the existence of fixed social categories, also reflects the social outlook of the time, when individuals had a more objective sense of class and their own class identities. As Ira Katznelson has argued, social classes do, at some point, become “formed groups” with a shared outlook and disposition that makes collective action possible. Admittedly, not all wealthy individuals were recognized as members of the upper class, nor did they choose to be. In Philadelphia, moreover, patterns of exclusion and self-segregation from “proper society” led to the creation of what might best be understood as parallel upper-class societies among certain groups, notably the Jewish and Quaker elite, each possessing their own unique markers of status.

Knowing who counted among the upper class, therefore, seemed to be at once instinctive and elusive. For outsiders, a search through Who’s Who and the Social Register provided some sense of who qualified for recognition among the city’s social elite. But as Nathaniel Burt once cautioned, these directories were a “handy but not always reliable index of upper-classness.” They relied on family pedigree, organizational membership, and place of residence to establish objective, quantifiable markers of upper-class status. Yet as anyone who was anyone would attest, these affiliations alone did not make an individual part of proper society. Class identity had as much to do with a shared mindset as it did with conformity to a set of criteria. As a result, the effort to define an upper-class mentality has long been a cottage industry among Philadelphia writers. Various social observers have attempted to distill the essence of the city’s upper class into qualities like “privilege,” “sense of position,” or “family pedigree.” Writing in 1914, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, for instance, remarked that Philadelphia is a town “where it is important, if you belong at all, to have belonged from the beginning.” To her, no further explanation was needed.

If somewhat difficult to tally, members of the upper class were somewhat easier to locate. In Philadelphia, the upper class created and inhabited a unique social world, where their collective mentality found embodiment in place. As E. Digby Baltzell observed, elite enclaves, with their “distinctive architecture, fashionable churches, private schools, and sentimental traditions,” were instrumental in the development of upper-class life. Class identity depended on physical proximity to one’s perceived social peers. One resident of fashionable Chestnut Hill described living with “Biddles to the north, Whartons to the south, Vauxes to the east, and Drexels to the west.” As his comment suggests, residential patterns also helped to reinforce the kinship networks so vital to the perpetuation of class status across generations. As members of the upper class themselves understood, knowing who counted among proper society required knowing where to look.

Over time, the city’s social geography grew more pronounced as members of the upper class distanced themselves from those of lower rank. In the mid-nineteenth century, the migration of the elite from the old wards near what is today Society Hill helped make the area around Rittenhouse Square the city’s premier Victorian neighborhood. With the expansion of rail networks in the late nineteenth century, Chestnut Hill, the Whitemarsh Valley, and the communities along the Main Line, which had first developed as seasonal escapes for the well-to-do, were transformed into fashionable commuter suburbs surrounded by great country estates. By the early twentieth century, the Main Line had assumed an almost mythical quality as the embodiment of the exclusive world of wealth and privilege. Immortalized in works like Christopher Morley’s Kitty Foyle and Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story, the Main Line became a world unto itself. Not surprisingly, this upper-class mobility and subsequent changes in the city’s social geography had profound consequences for religious institutions, which would see their own fortunes rise and fall as members of the upper class extended or withdrew their financial support.

With these changes, social distinctions came to be patterned onto the religious landscape. Not only were members of Philadelphia’s social and financial elite instrumental in supporting the broader institutional growth that defined religious life in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but within their own communities, they built and sustained churches that conformed to their religious and class sensibilities, knowing that the presence of fashionable churches would help attract others of their economic and social rank. These patterns of patronage also gave rise to distinct religious enclaves that reinforced religious bonds among segments of the upper class. Rittenhouse Square, Chestnut Hill, and the Main Line emerged as strongholds for wealthy Episcopalians and other prominent Protestants, while members of other religious communities established their own separate enclaves, whether as a result of social exclusion or self-segregation. Members of the Jewish elite, for instance, established a presence on North Broad Street and later in the region around suburban Elkins Park, while upper-class Quakers settled near their colleges at Haverford and Swarthmore or kept to their ancestral enclave in Germantown.

Given Philadelphia’s religious and social diversity, a few additional comments need to be made about the selection of this study’s subjects. I have not made a scientific sampling of Philadelphia’s financial elite, but rather have selected individuals representative of their class who espoused religious belief, participated in church affairs, and contributed financially to their religious communities. Tracing the record of service and giving brought these individuals to the fore. Not all of these individuals have enjoyed enduring fame, but most were eminent figures in their day. Names like Drexel, Houston, Harrison, Pepper, Roberts, Wanamaker, and Wharton were recognized within religious circles and well regarded locally.

I have chosen the churches and religious institutions examined here with similar selectivity. To gauge upper-class financial influence within the religious sphere, I have focused on the city’s elite congregations, which were recognized as such by virtue of their upper-class membership and location in fashionable neighborhoods. I have included as well a handful of less-affluent congregations for their noteworthy relationship with a particular donor, such as Bethany Presbyterian Church, whose fortunes depended on the generosity of department store magnate John Wanamaker. Since no single religious denomination claimed the undivided loyalties of the city’s upper class, the churches under consideration reflect a cross section of the city’s religious landscape. At the core of this study, though, are the Episcopal Church, Society of Friends, and Presbyterian Church, all three of which had long enjoyed close connections to the city’s prominent citizens.

Although Catholics and Jews remained largely outsiders to Philadelphia’s “proper society,” there were members of these two communities who acquired sizable fortunes and gained social prominence. Drawing them into the discussion at critical junctions provides an opportunity not only to highlight broader differences in social outlook and religious practice among the city’s elite, but also to demonstrate how different religious communities responded to the changes unleashed by industrial prosperity. Whereas Protestants tended to emphasize the authority of the individual donor, Catholics and Jews tended to be guided by a communal ethic in their giving to churches and synagogues. They also possessed a strong sense of internal solidarity, whether born of ethnic bonds or a shared sense of religious persecution, which helped them mediate internal class divisions in ways that Protestants could not. Philadelphia’s industrial wealth may have remained concentrated in Protestant hands, and the ethos of the city’s upper class may have remained rooted in Protestant values, but making comparisons with other groups draws attention to the fact that no religious community was immune to the social changes of the industrial era or free of elite influence.

No matter one’s religious affiliation, personal faith and spiritual beliefs can be notoriously difficult to determine and evaluate. Many people were reticent to discuss their personal religious sentiments, let alone record and preserve them. Fortunately, many members of the Philadelphia elite penned autobiographies, memoirs, and other reminiscences of their family history and private social world. These introspective accounts, taken together with their personal papers and the record of their religious involvements, shed light on their religious worldview and help reveal the beliefs and principles that motivated them. Additional insights emerged from examining the spiritual practices individuals would likely have encountered within their local churches as well as from a close reading of the material elements to be found there. One should be careful not to assign religious devotion where none existed, but neither should one overlook such indirect forms of religious expression.

Determining the effects of financial influence and class authority within American religious life can be equally difficult. Although financial contributions can be quantified, the influence that donors derived from them cannot. It is similarly difficult to gauge the degree of influence members of the upper class gained from their personal involvement in church affairs. Therefore, in order to determine the nature and extent of upper-class influence within local religious communities and American religious life more broadly, I have focused primarily on official institutional records. One can speculate about backroom deals and the private influence enjoyed by wealthy donors, but it is more productive to focus on what can be substantiated, such as how members of the upper class fulfilled the responsibilities associated with board seats, committee appointments, and other positions of authority in their churches. As part of the historical record preserved in church annals, denominational publications, and institutional archives, these matters are open to public scrutiny.

Making sense of the social and religious transformations that suffused industrial era Philadelphia requires coming to terms with the local terrain. Whatever their differences, members of the social and financial elite shared a common identification with the city. Those who mattered saw themselves first and foremost as “Philadelphians,” a term that carried more than geographic connotations. For that reason, it is important to establish a sense of the city and its character. Despite its staid reputation, Philadelphia displayed a remarkable inner vitality. The economic prosperity of the era touched all areas of life. How Philadelphians came to terms with their industrial fortunes would shape the very essence of the city.

Philadelphia of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a paradoxical place. The city seemed at once reserved and vibrant. In the years and decades following the end of the Civil War, Philadelphia emerged as one of the nation’s leading industrial centers. Among the events that marked its economic coming of age was the 1876 Centennial Exposition, which advertised the entrepreneurial spirit and industrial capacity of its host city like nothing else could. By the late 1920s, Philadelphia ranked as the third largest and third richest city in the nation, and “third too in the overall value of its products, with a billion dollars invested in 266 distinct lines of manufacturing, and a workforce of 670,865, almost evenly divided among persons in professional, industrial, and service categories.” Although rail, iron, steel, coal, and heavy manufacturing served as the foundation for industrial era growth, the city’s economy remained remarkably diverse. Not only did major Philadelphia firms excel in older segments of the economy, such as textile production, but they also contributed to developing fields, such as publishing and advertising, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and consumer electronics. Philadelphia’s industrial base, unlike that of other cities, included an impressive number of small and midsize firms that concentrated on specialized production and catered to niche segments of the market. Because its economy was not dominated by a handful of large companies, the city’s wealth was spread more broadly among its citizens than elsewhere.

Yet, even as Philadelphians embraced technological innovation and pursued economic progress, their collective ethos remained decidedly conservative. The exuberance of the era seemed not to have disturbed the city’s traditional air of quiet contentment. Even as boosters spoke of what was to be, Philadelphians reflexively recalled earlier achievements. Indeed, the pervasive presence of the colonial past in the city’s consciousness helps explain why Philadelphia’s prominence as one of the nation’s most productive industrial centers is often overlooked. Amid the social change of the period, Philadelphians affirmed traditional values as the bedrock of prosperity; they ascribed their city’s economic success not to technological advances or protectionist policies, but to thrift, prudence, and integrity. Even as industrial prosperity reordered class relations, older notions of status became more entrenched; the patrician values of the past were embraced not only by the city’s traditional elite but also by those who had more recently risen to social prominence. Though its power and influence extended nationally, Philadelphia was “isolated by custom antique,” as writer Lafcadio Hearn observed in 1889; its inhabitants remained decidedly parochial.

In seeking to explain this peculiar Philadelphia temperament, social observers both past and present have pointed to the city’s Quaker heritage. They attribute the city’s unique character and ethos to the vestigial influence of the Pennsylvania colony’s religious founders, whose distinctive values became part of the city’s cultural heritage. Writing in 1898, local essayist Agnes Repplier spoke poetically of how “the impress of the Quaker hand lingers still; not only in the simple, dignified old buildings to which time lends an added charm, but in the in effaceable spirit of the town.” In a more scholarly vein, E. Digby Baltzell and David Hackett Fisher compelling demonstrate the formative influence of Quakerism on the city’s social character and regional customs. The patterns of leadership and the ordering institutions established by the founding generation, they argue, left a lasting imprint on the city and its residents.

This Quaker trope had a certain self-fulfilling effect. The more people spoke of Philadelphia as the “Quaker City,” the more its inhabitants came to view themselves as heirs to its founders’ legacy. They embraced the stereotype, seeing in the past what they valued in themselves. The latent Quaker ethos became the wellspring of civic virtue and the source of collective identity. For some, the glorification of the Quaker past also served as a way of registering concern about the unsettling social change of the industrial era. It provided a means to inveigh against foreign immigrants, the nouveaux riches, and other outsiders who threatened the established social order. Philadelphia’s Quaker heritage thus served both as a readily accepted explanation for the city’s peculiarities and a defense of the status quo in an era of immense flux.

More than the Quaker heritage itself, the desire to preserve the established order helps explain the contradictory tendencies of industrial era Philadelphia. Many who enjoyed the benefits of economic prosperity felt deeply ambivalent about the transformations unleashed. They desired the stability of an imagined past while gazing steadily toward the future. Calling Philadelphia “the staunchest city in America,” a 1902 guidebook noted how “this quality of staunchness . . . has at times been designated as ultraconservatism,” but in reality “the history of Philadelphia is one continuous story of more than two centuries of progress.” The guidebook discerned no apparent contradiction between an unwavering commitment to established custom and an ardent faith in steady improvement. Indeed, industrial era Philadelphia would hold the countervailing tendencies of conservatism and progress together in productive tension.

Far from making it impassive or stolid, Philadelphia’s staunchness provided the city with its own unique dynamism. Preserving prerogative and privilege required constant vigilance and active defense of one’s interests. Within the economic sphere, Philadelphia’s industrialists relied on a number of private forums, such as the Union League and the Manufactures’ Club, to develop strategies to that effect. They used their collective influence to promote a protectionist agenda and maintain their proprietary rights. They opposed government regulation and worked to weaken the power of labor unions and other groups that threatened employer prerogatives or managerial authority. Indeed, the relative calm of labor relations in the city gave employers little reason to question their managerial decisions. “The antagonisms between labor and capital are few,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reassured its readers in 1896, and the city did not experience a major strike until 1903, when some 100,000 textile workers seeking shorter hours walked off the job. Overall, however, the general prosperity of the age left employers convinced of the essential soundness of their established economic and corporate policies.

Philadelphia’s social character displayed similar retrenchment amid flux. As economic prosperity reshaped class relations, members of the city’s elite vigilantly defended the social hierarchy and notions of class privilege. Those who belonged to “Old Philadelphia” families continued to view themselves as the true arbiters of proper society, even as their financial fortunes declined. Meanwhile, those of more recent wealth sought to claim that heritage for themselves. The region’s great estates and elite residential communities, for instance, reflected their owners’ efforts to convey a sense of established social position. By surrounding themselves with the trappings of the landed gentry, they sought to create a social world that transcended the industrial era and the recent provenance of their wealth. From a distance, class status may have seemed secure and absolute, but in reality it was as contrived and ephemeral as the laissez-faire economy and manufacturers’ vision of industrial harmony.

Religious communities likewise found themselves searching for stability amid the dramatic transformations of the period. As population growth and urban expansion altered the city’s social and physical landscape, established denominations sought to preserve their status and authority. Diversity of belief and sectarian competition added vitality to religious life but also fostered a need for self-differentiation and boundary maintenance. Sustained by industrial wealth and the benefactions of Philadelphia’s elite, the vast program of church extension and institutional growth of the era tended to emphasize denominational distinctions, and served as a catalyst for the hardening of denominational identity that came to define religious life in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. The imposing churches built during these years provided a sense of spiritual security amid the disquiet of the industrial age. Much like the staunchness that characterized the city’s economic and social affairs, religious life in Philadelphia acquired an air of institutional permanence that belied the period’s dramatic transformations.

Philadelphia’s distinctive staunchness, though often mistaken for provincial backwardness, in reality reflected the dynamism of the industrial era. Confronted with the immense socioeconomic change of the period, Philadelphians, in their collective search for order, clung to the past even as they forged a new future. These countervailing impulses shaped the character of the city and colored its economic, social, and religious development. In each of these spheres, individuals sought to preserve past prerogatives and customary privileges. Yet, as they would discover, the worlds they built and the mental visions they maintained could not keep the forces of change at bay.

Moving from the late nineteenth century to the economic heyday of the 1920s, Church and Estate traces the emergence of, and the struggle to sustain, a social and religious order born of industrial prosperity. Though not strictly chronological, its chapters follow a three-part trajectory of growth, consolidation, and contestation, with each chapter focusing on a discrete topic, such as philanthropic practice or religious conversion. This thematic approach serves to highlight religious differences among members of the social and financial elite and to demonstrate how different religious communities responded to similar influences.

Broadly speaking, the first three chapters explore how wealth and upper-class influence shaped institutional growth and structured authority within the religious sphere. Chapter 1 focuses on patterns of elite giving and the distinct denominational cultures that guided upper-class philanthropic practice during the age of great fortunes. It shows how wealthy individuals sought to reconcile religious imperatives with their own class sensibilities in pursuit of a morally and personally satisfying philanthropy.

Chapter 2 looks more closely at the systems of institutional finance and church governance that allowed members of the upper class to play an increasingly powerful—and officially sanctioned—role in ecclesiastical affairs. Drawing on Sam Bass Warner’s classic analysis of urban development, it relates how wealthy donors applied “privatist” economic logic to their religious commitments, thus shaping the nature and direction of church growth during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The structures of church governance further allowed wealthy individuals to use their financial resources and personal influence to shape the social mission and theological message of their churches. The dominant system of congregational organization, with its emphasis on localized administration, financial autonomy, and lay authority, opened the door for those in possession of wealth, status, and professional expertise to secure positions of authority, particularly through appointment to church boards, vestries, or other administrative bodies.

In addition to holding formal positions of authority within their local churches and broader denominations, wealthy individuals had the ability to refashion religious life in more subtle, yet equally significant, ways. Their role in determining the design and decoration of their churches, in particular, gave them a means to promote their own distinctive visions of religious community. As chapter 3 reveals, artistic and architectural patronage allowed members of the upper class both to display their theological loyalties and to transform sacred spaces into the physical embodiments of their own cultural tastes and class sensibilities. In so doing, they created religious environments suitable for their spiritual needs. They also set a standard for refined worship and proper ecclesiastical style that extended their influence beyond their own local churches. However trivial they might seem individually, these aesthetic changes had a profound cumulative effect on religious communities’ theological identity and spiritual praxis.

Shifting to issues of class formation, the next two chapters describe the forces that contributed to the religious consolidation of the upper class and the consequences of that consolidation for social and religious life, both locally and nationally. Chapter 4 discusses the spiritual and theological factors that motivated religious conversion among the Philadelphia elite. A substantial number were drawn to the Episcopal Church, creating a pattern of migration that contributed to a striking shift in the religious character of the city’s upper class. The emergence of what E. Digby Baltzell has termed Philadelphia’s “Quaker-turned-Episcopal gentry” provided a cohesive religious foundation for shared class identity. Rejecting the notion that religious conversion among social and financial elite stemmed from nothing more than their search for status, the chapter examines the complex motives and high social costs that often accompanied religious conversion and the quest for the proper spiritual capital. It also explores the cumulative effect these conversions had on religious communities, both those who gained and those who lost adherents.

The consolidation of the social and financial elite along religious lines came to shape the contours of the wider religious landscape. Nowhere was this more evident than within the Episcopal Church, whose power and prestige within American life were entirely disproportionate to its numerical strength. As chapter 5 demonstrates, members of the social and financial elite were among the prime exponents and beneficiaries of the “Episcopal Ascendancy”; their support of efforts to raise the Episcopal Church’s public profile, such as the construction of the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge, served to enhance their own status as well. Through this exchange of financial and symbolic capital, members of the Episcopal Church came to see themselves as the nation’s de facto religious establishment and to act accordingly. Developments within the Church further reveal how those who possessed wealth and status were able to acquire a disproportionate degree of authority within American religious life, just as they had within the nation’s political and economic life.

By all appearances, the social and religious order born of industrial prosperity seemed unshakable as Philadelphia entered the modern era. The stately churches that dotted the city’s landscape testified to the strength of religious conviction, while the churches’ moral approbation convinced the wealthy that they were indeed entitled to their place atop the social hierarchy. Yet, as the final two chapters describe, fault lines had begun to emerge within both the social and religious spheres. In the class-charged atmosphere of the progressive era, the union of religion and wealth did not go uncontested.

Chapter 6 examines the actions of Rev. George Chalmers Richmond, Scott Nearing, and Morris E. Leeds, three figures who challenged the elite orthodoxies of early twentieth-century Philadelphia. Stirred by the progressive spirit and their own faith, each raised questions about the moral legitimacy of the patrician class and consequently elicited a powerful response from those they challenged. Individually, each man had only limited success in changing the status quo, but, taken together, their crusading efforts exposed the tenuous nature of elite authority. Philadelphia’s religious communities had likewise to contend with criticism. For H. Richard Niebuhr, H. Paul Douglass, and other early twentieth-century observers of religious life in the United States, the success of these communities had come with a price. Many of the most pressing pastoral problems of the day, they argued, from the rise of “class churches” to the destabilizing effects of social and geographic mobility, were related to social class and resource allocation.

Chapter 7, the final chapter, examines how religious leaders in Philadelphia responded to the immense socioeconomic changes that had taken place within American society at large and within their own churches during the industrial era. It highlights their efforts to bridge class divisions and correct the disparity between professed theological inclusivity and experienced social exclusivity. Although efforts to mitigate class distinction met with limited success, the forces that had shaped the social and religious character of the era eventually succumbed to their own internal contradictions. The ultimate instability of wealth and status explains why, for religious life in the age of industrial prosperity, the luster did not last.