May 22, 2010 Matthew

Portland the “City of Churches”

Sunday Oregonian 1899

The Sunday Oregonian 1899, front page

It might be hard to believe but Portland was once known as a “city of churches.” Today everyone seems to know it as the most unchurched city in America. Well, a 100 years ago people would emerge from their dwellings every Sunday morning to the sound of church bells everywhere and head to church in droves. There would be “fashion parades” down the streets as families, richly dressed, would make their weekly procession into the diverse selection of denominational churches. Beggars were kept away or at a distance so that the church-goers could march on to church in “peace.”

These were top notch churches for ministers to work for too. Pay was typically better for ministers than it was “back east.”

What an interesting church history for Portland. The city was founded in 1850 and churches sprout up all over the place into the early 20th century, and most people went to church. The eccentric church buildings were some of the most expensive building projects in town. Then that generation passed away and a new one came and decided they didn’t like church. Now, 3 generations later, Portland is called the most unchurched city in the US.

But perhaps it was not all it was cracked up to be…for those who know the history of Portland well, this might seem like a vast veneer of prettiness beneath which there was all manner of corruption including a payoff system that went all the way up to the Mayor of Portland.

According to Portland Confidential,

“It may come as a bit of a shock, especially to anyone who has come to regard Portland as a haven for enlightened progressive thought, light rail, and lattes for all, that not too long ago—in fact, at least as recently as the 1950s—Portland was known throughout the country as a Mecca of vice and sin.” (Stanford, 2004)

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