A Church on Every Corner: The History of Protestant Christianity in One Neighborhood

by: JoAnne Morse 

Walnut Hills, Cincinnati, is small neighborhood with a long history. By the 1860’s there were (at least) 4 Protestant churches less than a mile from each other in the north-west quadrant. In the mid-1800’s, the Kemper farm was being sub-divided into plots that would become Walnut Hills. One large area was designated for a Presbyterian seminary, Lane (1832); The Walnut Hills Presbyterian Church first met in that institution. Another plot of land, very near the original cabin of the Kemper family, was sold to a group of Episcopalians to be the home of The Church of the Advent (1855). A third plot came into the hands of Dangerfield Early and his family and friends, who founded The First Church of Walnut Hills (1856), a mixed Baptist and Methodist-Episcopal congregation.

How did so many churches get established so near to one another?

First, the Presbyterians. James Kemper had come to Walnut Hills from a Virginia Plantation via Kentucky. The Kemper family gave land and money to found Lane Seminary as the great “Princeton of the West”; the success of the institution seemed assured when the famous Second Awakening preacher, Lyman Beecher, became its head. But the first seminary class, caught up in Abolitionist fervor, embroiled the seminary in financial and theological troubles when most of the students emigrated en masse to Oberlin College. The church of Lane Seminary survived and continued its anti-slavery work. It joined other White Presbyterians in 1868 to form the Walnut Hills United Presbyterian Church. That congregation supported both neighborhood and national missions into the 20th century.

In Cincinnati, in the early 1800 Episcopalians had used the friendly forum of the down-town Presbyterian church to identify each other and form Christ Church near their Presbyterian neighbors. The Moffett family, living in Walnut Hills, belonged to this group but found the slog down and up the muddy hill tough going. They spearheaded the formation of a new Episcopal church. Made up of fairly wealthy White hill dwellers, the Church of the Advent soon became a local institution. From these early days, that congregation has remained very active in diocese and mission work.

Just around the corner in the heart of the African-American neighborhood in Walnut Hills, Dangerfield Early and others founded First Church to serve that community. Along with the overall population of Walnut Hills, the Black population continued to thrive. As the congregation grew, the Baptist portion continued into First Baptist, while the AME group founded Brown Chapel in 1862. These two institutions were part of the backbone of the middle-class Black neighborhood of Walnut Hills.

Four churches, all founded in Walnut Hills in the ante-bellum era when the total population of the area was less than 8,000! By the 1880’s additional churches – Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, another Episcopal – had been built in the same area. You can see at least one church on almost every corner of the north-east Walnut Hills!

Different denominations co-habiting the same neighborhood and separating neighbor from neighbor on Sunday mornings marked Cincinnati’s coming-of-age as an identifiably American city. While deep rooted anti-Catholic prejudice often turned to actual riots, American Protestants seemed almost eager to support other Protestants as they built churches and formed communities in each others’ back yards. Why?

That story is part of a larger history that should form a piece of our Truth Telling at a national level. But for the little community of Walnut Hills, this eagerness to found different Protestant churches points to how the national history shaped the parish of Church of the Advent as well other churches.

Cultural differences, manifested in liturgy and doctrine, seem to be at the root of White Protestant divides – with the notable exception of attitudes toward slavery. That issue formed a dividing line which can be visibly traced thru many Protestant denominations. On the other hand, racial differences marked the separation of White congregations from their Black neighbors. Over time, that division also turned into cultural, liturgical and doctrinal distinctions.

Nevertheless, if you worship today at Brown Chapel, First Baptist or Church of the Advent (the Presbyterian congregation has closed) – or any of the many other remaining congregations in Walnut Hills — you will find brothers and sisters in Christ praying similar prayers, singing similar hymns, clucking over the digital devices of their grandchildren, eating macaroni salad at potlucks, and seeking to follow Jesus.

What would Walnut Hills have been like if its early church founders had not followed the trend in American Protestantism to peaceably sub-divide, but had instead focused on Becoming Beloved Community – even at the expense of their own customs, heritage and doctrines? What does Becoming Beloved Community look like for Walnut Hills today?

 

Questions for reflection:

  1. What does the landscape of churches in your parish tell you about the history of that neighborhood?
  2. Can you walk to your church? Why or why not? Are there churches you could walk to? Have you been to them?
  3. Do you know brother and sisters in Christ who attend different churches in your parish? Have you visited their churches? Had them over for coffee or dinner?
  4. How much does difference in doctrine mean to you as you think about Becoming Beloved Community? How much does difference in liturgy? How much does difference in culture or class or race?

 

JoAnn Morse moved to Cincinnati in 2016 with her husband, Geoff Sutton. After 35 Minnesota winters, they returned to Geoff’s home neighborhood of Walnut Hills. They have two sons, both now grown and thriving. JoAnn’s father was a Presbyterian Minister; she grew up in that tradition but has also been active in Baptist and Quaker worship families. She and Geoff attend Church of the Advent, right around the corner from their new home and a faith community that shares their love of their diverse neighborhood. 

She has published before for the Diocese of Southern Ohio, sharing her reflections as a mother. Find that post here.