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How Competition, Urban Transformation, and Race Shape Congregations: the Case of Manhattan, 1939–1999


The body of this dissertation is three empirical essays concerning social forces affecting urban U.S. religious congregations. The chief source of the results is an original dataset of the life histories of the religious congregations in Manhattan from 1939 to 1999. Broadly, I argue that urban congregations are affected by sociodemographic changes in the local population of people, by changes in the population of congregations nearby them, and by their own innate characteristics.

The first essay (chapter 3) measures how the population of religious congregations in Manhattan changed during the 1939–1999 period and theorizes how some of the most dominant urban trends of that period may have driven the change. I argue that White flight and increasing Black wealth led the number of congregations per capita in Manhattan to increase from 1939 through the mid-1960s despite a declining population and a falling number of immigrants. From the mid-1960s onward, as depopulation and urban decay prevented Black wealth in Manhattan from continuing to rise, the number of congregations per capita stagnated. A substantial increase in immigration owing to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 prevented congregations per capita from dropping. There is reason to believe that many of the findings in this essay may apply to various other large U.S. cities as well.

The second essay (chapter 4) is a test of a central tenet of the theory of religious economies: religious competition. Existing empirical tests of that theory are limited by one or more of the following two problems: (1) ambiguity regarding which religious groups are expected to compete with which other groups, and (2) a neglect of the local level (competition among congregations). Event-history analyses indicate the following: (1) the more congregations there were nearby a given congregation that were theologically dissimilar to that congregation, the less likely that congregation was to advertise; (2) when there was an increase over time in the number of nearby congregations that were theologically similar to the focal congregation, that congregation became more likely to advertise; and (3) when there was an increase over time in the number of nearby congregations that were theologically dissimilar to the focal congregation, that congregation became less likely to advertise. Implications include critiques of religious-economies theory yet also a defense from attempts to dispense with the theory wholesale.

The third essay (chapter 5) adjudicates between two opposing predictions regarding the survival chances of ethnic organizations. Numerous empirical studies document the pernicious effects of racial and ethnic discrimination on individuals. Recent scholarship implies that racialized organizations may face similar disadvantages, but empirical evidence is lacking. On the other hand, there are strands of research on Black and immigrant religious congregations arguing that these congregations are sources of solidarity, which implies durability. An event-history analysis shows that, on average, Black congregations were less likely to survive a given year than congregations of any other racial/ethnic category. However, once other variables are accounted for, White nonethnic congregations had the highest mortality rate. This quantitative finding of lower mortality among ethnic congregations supports and extends qualitative findings of solidarity and strength within ethnic organizations.

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