Late 18th c. early 19th c. wedding at Trinity Church = wealth?
February 28, 2014 9:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm inclined to think that any young lady whose father walked her down the aisle of Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan in a late 18th or early 19th century wedding was probably born to wealth. Pretty size-able wealth. Are we talking robber baron wealthy, or what? Or was the church actually available to all comers?
posted by John Borrowman to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
New York was still a fairly small place in the 18th century. Trinity Church would have been one of the few churches available to people, in general, and everybody's got to get married somewhere.

Keep in mind we're talking about a period where Greenwich Village was considered a separate town from New York City.

I'm pretty sure that the notion of Trinity as a socially important church didn't arise until a little after your period (18-teens or '20s), though it probably depends on exactly where in that 18th/19th century spread you're really talking about.

The book Gotham might shed a little more light - I remember some specific discussion of class consciousness in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and periodic discussion about which churches were en vogue among the smart set. You may want to get the Kindle edition and search the book for references to churches -- it's a bit of a tome.
posted by Sara C. at 9:33 AM on February 28, 2014

Robber Barons weren't all that common at that time period - NY was still a backwater to Boston and Philadelphia. Not that it didn't have an elite - it did - but that is a little before the era of massive industrial fortunes.

Based on the church history (things like its founding, and George Washington's having worshipped there, other prominents being buried there) it's definitely likely that it was the home to an elite class of people.

What I don't know about, though, is what the practices were around hosting a church wedding. I think that would require more contextual research, if not archival research. For instance, was it just an add-on to a regular service? Was it a special service? Was it a benefit of church membership or trusteeship (seems likely to me)? Or could anyone 'book' the church (seems highly unlikely to me). Did money have to change hands if you were a member? What kind of annual donation was required to be a member?

Also not sure if "walking down the aisle" was a wedding custom at that time. IN fact, church weddings really weren't even always the norm. At that time, most U.S. weddings were small family gatherings held in people's home parlors, not at churches.

I have a feeling the church historian - which this kind of church asssuredly has - could answer this easily for you, probably by putting his or her hand directly on the relevant record books. Especially if you have the name of the person who was married. If this is more of an inquiry to inform a creative work, they'd be happy to help with that too, and most likely do it relatively often.
posted by Miko at 9:36 AM on February 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Trinity Church's history does not appear to suggest the sort of exclusion that you seem to be assuming.

"Trinity Church parish played an important role in the Anglican movement to abolish slavery. It established schools for slaves, freed blacks and Indians, and helped finance the operations of 1,700 churches worldwide." (link).

I don't think it's wise to assume that the church wouldn't allow access to common folk, simply because the church is located in what is now a very wealthy and cosmopolitan area.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:44 AM on February 28, 2014

Most churches did allow access to all but it was quite tiered and very physically delineated. For instance, in that era people paid to reserve their own assigned pew. Pews closest to the front were for the families of the wealthiest, who gave the largest donations, and you renewed each year with a subscription, tithe, or dues to the church. If your circumstances changed (you became a widow, for instance), you might have to give up your high-status pew and move to the low-status one. In the back of the church were public pews, and standing room, and often the loft or gallery upstairs was where people of color and poor people would sit.

The wealther/bigger donor you were to the church, the more you could expect in the way of deference, attention from the clergy, and services. Though a lot of churches were engaged in social causes, just as today, that didn't necessarily mean that they considered their targets of charity their social equals. There were structures of access, cash payment, and events that recognized people's differing status. So I'm not sure I would be confident expecting that a an African-American or poor white washing-girl, for instance, would be welcome to be married by clergy in this church, at least not with a full service and an audience, etc. There might have been a back-chapel version with junior clergy, or most likely for that sort of person, a home wedding.
posted by Miko at 10:02 AM on February 28, 2014

Trinity Church was and is a parish church. If you were Anglican and lived in the parish, that was your church. But as has been pointed out, many marriages in this period took place at home. If you want definitive examples, research the marriages of the Astors and Morgans in that time period. You may wish to also consult All Dressed in White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:04 AM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

research the marriages of the Astors and Morgans in that time period

Keep in mind that the Astors and Morgans and The 400 and Robber Barons and all that sort of thing are about a century after the period you're thinking of.

There were Astors in NYC at this time (it's right around the point that John Jacob Astor was a fur trader turned real estate speculator), but he'd have been nouveau riche in this era and not as socially prominent as you're probably imagining.

J.P. Morgan was born in Connecticut and is from a prominent Boston family.
posted by Sara C. at 10:32 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, thank you for the correction on the robber baron allusion. Obviously different era.

Fascinating answers, all.

And, yes, I have a name and date. So, it's off to the church historian I go. Thank you, Miko!
posted by John Borrowman at 11:06 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Good luck, would love to hear back when/if you learn anything!
posted by Miko at 11:12 AM on February 28, 2014

Most parish churches will marry parishoners only. And generally only parishoners who attend the church. Sometimes money can sway them but usuallly not. So it was probably much more a function of location and not wealth.
posted by fshgrl at 2:17 PM on February 28, 2014

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