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The Gold Coast Church and the Ghetto: Christ and Culture in Mainline Protestantism

By James K. Wellman Jr
Univ. of Illinois Press. 1999. 257 pp. Hb. $49.95. Pb. $21.95. ISBN 025206804

Reviewed by William P. Thompson
LaGrange Park, Ill.


The "church" in the title of this book is Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and the "ghetto" is the Cabrini-Green public housing project a mile west of the church. The author, James Wellman, is a lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program of the University of Washington, who served from 1993 to 1996 as a member of the staff of Fourth church, directing the young adult education program.

He has had access to the archives of the church and conducted personal interviews of many of its leaders as well as a survey of a random sampling of its members.

During the 20th century this church has changed the emphasis of its mission from evangelism to liberal Protestantism. Wellman tells this story by recounting the ministries of the four pastors who have served the church from 1908 until today: John Timothy Stone (1908-28), Harrison Ray Anderson (1928-61), Elam Davies (1961-84) and John Buchanan (1985-present). Stone, Anderson and Buchanan were each elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church. Although I have known Anderson, Davies and Buchanan personally and now live in a Chicago suburb, I have never been a member of Fourth church and have not been familiar with its understanding of its mission.

Stone led the church to a new location at the intersection of Chestnut and Michigan Avenue, both of which were then unpaved. He oversaw the construction there of a gray stone Gothic church building designed by the same architect who planned the Princeton University Chapel and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. In the century just concluded, this location has become the sole church site on what is now known as “the Magnificent Mile,” the most affluent residential and commercial area in metropolitan Chicago.

Stone is identified as a “moderate evangelical” who understood business methods and related well to the community’s business and political leaders, many of whom were Fourth church members. His personality and preaching were attractive so that the church membership tripled.

During the First World War he was able to see a union between patriotism and the Christian faith. He did not speak about the plight of the poor and the growing population of African-Americans. The social situation had changed by 1928 when he left Fourth church to become president of McCormick Seminary.

Anderson is characterized as a pastor motivated by “Puritan moral norms.” Under his leadership, the church sought to confront immorality and corruption but seemed unaware of ethnic and racial segregation. During the Great Depression and World War II, the church leaders ignored “the lower status groups,” except as they condemned their moral standards and sought to treat them as objects of charity.

The church supported the war effort and welcomed midshipmen who were training at Northwestern University. During this period, urban renewal resulted in further segregation in the area and huge high-rise apartments and office buildings were constructed around Fourth church. Davies, a charismatic Welshman educated at Cambridge, is portrayed as an “evangelical liberal.” His preaching attracted many worshipers, yet he tended to lead the church without bureaucratic intervention and he felt little gratitude for the guidance of higher governing bodies.

As even more massive buildings went up around Fourth church in the 1960s and ’70s, he was keenly aware of the struggles of his church members during that same period. He was able to bridge divisions of class and race. Although the church remained upper middle class, he persuaded the members to abandon their pew rental system. Gradually, the church became aware of the needs of underprivileged children and youth, of African-Americans and Hispanics, and even of the women of the congregation.

Buchanan is described as a “liberal Protestant.” He raised sufficient capital funds to make possible the renovation of the sanctuary and the rebuilding of other parts of the church plant. Under his leadership the church’s membership has reached more than 4,400, the largest in its history, and the endowment has exceeded $28 million.

By the standards that Stone would have understood, the church is unusually successful today, yet it is also under Buchanan’s leadership that Fourth church has become a “lay liberal” church. His preaching regularly fills the church, and it is estimated that one-third of the worshipers are nonmembers. But the concern of the church for the people of Cabrini-Green remains strong.

Fourth church has launched a program at Cabrini-Green known as the Center for Whole Life and among its long-time programs the tutoring opportunities for children who come from their homes to the church building to meet their tutors continues unabated. In 1998, the number of children reached 530, with 80 on the waiting list. And many of the tutors, who are mostly professional persons convinced of the significance of this work, are not members of the church.

Fourth church today is a “lay liberal” church with a vital concern for the less fortunate persons, young and old, a short mile to the west.

This book should be widely read by all who wish to learn more about this church which is actively engaged in this sort of ministry today. It is particularly relevant within Protestantism that is now experiencing confrontation between liberal on one hand and conservative on the other.

Unfortunately, the churches that are described by advocates at one extreme or the other are too often represented by caricatures. This book demonstrates that Fourth Presbyterian Church has responded to its changing situation in quite different ways. Over most of the past century it has developed from a purely evangelical to an authentic liberal ministry.