Over the course of the twentieth century the social process of suburbanization affected the practice of American religious life in ways both obvious and subtle. The translocation of where Americans worshipped transformed the way they worshipped. As pervasive as suburbs later became in American life, their emergence at the end of the nineteenth century owed to a confluence of factors that made these new communities a unique development in Western history. The word “suburban” literally denotes being “below the city,” as in outside the citys walls and its protection. In traditional European civilization the suburbs were a residential location for the poor with inferior services. As a result of rapid late nineteenth-century improvements in communication and transportation, suburbs in the United States emerged as desirable residential enclaves connected to, but set apart from, more crowded and dirty cities. Since then suburbs in American life have been alternately viewed as refuges for the wealthy, signs of what is wrong with the culture at large, and, increasingly, simply the way Americans live.
Suburbanization in the American context has been a social movement of both desire and necessity with far-reaching, often misunderstood ramifications for religion. The history of religion in suburbs is one of small beginnings in which suburban churches were, from the viewpoint of their denominations and sister churches in the cities, insignificant, and synagogues were virtually nonexistent. What began almost as an afterthought on the American religious landscape came to be one of religion’s areas of greatest strength by the middle decades of the twentieth century.
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