Baptist Problems in Large Cities
Alfred J. Dickinson, D.D., 1914
THE SOUTH is rapidly growing large cities. New Orleans, Louisville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Richmond, Nashville, Houston and many other places are fast taking on the size and character of metropolitan centers.
The people of the New South are saying: "Come, let us build us cities and get us a name; and soon Jehovah will come down to see the cities they have built." Shall they be cities wherein Jehovah is honored? This question will be answered in a few years; for a city, like a person, gets its bent of life and character in its youth. It becomes us, therefore, not longer to delay in projecting and effecting some program of action for the salvation of our cities.
Southern Cities Will Be Largely of Native Americans
OUR BRETHREN of the North have not been specially successful in the salvation of their cities. Baptists, especially, have lost out in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and other great cities in their down town districts, where the congested population will ever be.
Shall this be repeated in the South, as our cities come on? It ought not to be, because we have here much more favorable conditions than our Northern brethren had. In the North the population of cities has been mainly of foreign origin, not so hospitable to Baptist views and points of view; so far as the Baptist faith and practice is concerned the lump had to be leavened de novo among these emigrants from abroad. But in the South the coming city population is destined to be, for the most part, American and largely Southern. We ought, therefore, to make a better showing than the Baptists of the North and West have been able to do.
The problem of the large city is its downtown section. In the residential section the situation is not very different from that in the small city or large town; and we have proven ourselves very proficient in handling these situations. But what shall we do in conserving the culture of religious life in the down-town sections of the cities of a hundred thousand population and over? Is the problem now calling for solution?
"Down-town" Section Analyzed
WHEN A CITY passes to a hundred thousand and over in population it begins to generate what is called "the down-town section." There grows up around the business section a fringe of boarding houses, lodging houses, hotels, flats, apartments, etc., where the new-comer, the visitor and the
transient live. This, together with the business section, is the down-town district; and it presents a unique and peculiar situation from many points of view.
It is the most densely [sic] populated spot In the land, and yet the most lonesome to live In. Though you are always in some one’s presence, yet you feel forsaken; for he cares nothing for you, nor you for him. Nowhere else are the units of society so little affiliated as in this spot; and hence social restraint is weak, and personal liberty is free to express itself as you please. It is the freest spot on earth. The population is transient, nomadic, bent on buying and selling and getting gain, and going hence; and so cares little for the conditions in the temporary lodging places. It is the most unstable and responsive social situation in society. Here are the terminals and depots; and it is the gateway of the modern city. What a set of nomads the modem palace car has made of us Americans, and our cities have generated the conditions of the great centers of the Ancient East in nomadism, only more acute.
A Concern of the Country at Large
THIS MAKES the down-town situation different from the residence sections of our cities, where the population is much more stable and local. This makes the situation of the down-town district a matter of more concern to the country at large than to the city in which it is situated; for each section of the country at large has its representative in this lodge of strangers. Very few of the population of this district have citizenship in the city; for they do not stay long enough, nor have they interest enough in the city to acquire citizenship with its responsibilities. It is a cosmopolitan sample of the world at large, this heart of the great city; and so the conditions therein are of concern to the people of the entire country.
But here are the segregated districts, where the commerce in crime and vice is granted protection from the law and is "regulated” by the police. This makes it the wickedest spot on earth; where sin is aggressive and entrenched and predatory. It is “where Satan’s throne is” that the visitor and stranger must live while in the city.
There are no bar-rooms in the sections of a city where the permanent citizens live, but only where the visitors live. The struggle for righteousness is most intense; and the righteous are under great strain while in the city.
A Problem Never Yet Solved
THE PROBLEM of religion in such a situation, has never been solved. Baptists especially have been driven from the field after a hard fight. The city cannot furnish a force to keep up the fight, for few of its permanent residents live in this section of the city, or care to come down town with their families for worship and Sunday- school. They gradually establish for their better convenience churches in the suburban sections, where they and their neighbors live. So the old down-town churches are gradually depleted of their sustaining members; and the congregation becomes an incoherent mass of strangers and transients. A church with definite character, a working organism, a body of Christ, expressing the life of our Lord, doing his work according to his counsel, is no longer possible. The old church sees this, and the conviction grows that it must either move out of the district or go out of existence as a church. So it packs up bag and baggage, realizes on its heritage by the sale of the new very valuable property; and out into the resident section it goes, rich in this world’s goods, but poor in faith, possibly.
Thus this great down-town section is left without anything, abandoned to Satan, whose throne is there. Thus we fail in the evangelizing in the gates of modern life; and thus we seem ever destined to fall. Here is our problem. How can we so change the religious equipment, methods of work, organization and alignments of the old down-town church to meet the changes which the new situation brings on?
Blessed is the man or the people who can answer that question unto the furtherance of the Kingdom of God. Ten years from now, possibly, and certainly in twenty years, it will be too late for the salvation of the Baptist cause in the South in at least its half dozen chief cities.
[From The Home Field Magazine, January 1914, pp. 3-4; via Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More on Baptists: Various Subjects
Baptist History Homepage