The Riverside Church
I recently read Titan, Ron Chernow’s outstanding biography of John D. Rockefeller and it made me realize the substantial influence of the Rockefeller family on New York City. Examples of prominent New York institutions include Rockefeller University (John D. Rockefeller), Rockefeller Plaza (John D. Rockefeller Jr.), Lincoln Center (John D. Rockefeller III), World Trade Center (David Rockefeller), and Botanical Gardens (Peggy Rockefeller). Another example is The Riverside Church, an interdenominational American Baptist and United Church of Christ church conceived by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Harry Fosdick completed in 1930.
The architecture of Riverside Church was inspired by Chartres Cathedral in France; it is the tallest church in the U.S. and 24th tallest in the world. The church is home to lively political discussion with notable speakers including Martin Luther King Jr. who voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War in 1964, Bill Clinton, Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan, Cesar Chavez, Jesse Jackson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Desmond Tutu, Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela. The church provides various social services including a food bank and HIV counseling. It has family, prison, AIDS, immigrants’ rights, and anti-death penalty ministries. See Wikipedia for more detail.
According to “The Riverside Church” available at the church gift shop, the church’s story began as early as 1841 in a modest building on the lower east side. “For decades the lay members and pastors sought to be a progressive church and to enrich the spiritual life of the wider community. More and more people came to the doors. Finding more than once that a larger building was needed for the expression of its ministry, this vigorous church moved farther and farther north like the rapidly expanding city itself.“
“The Park Avenue Baptist Church provided the community a daily, year-round ministry. Over the years, members of the congregation had been struggling with the rising controversy between fundamentalism and modernism in the interpretation of the Bible.” As the minister of the church prepared for retirement, members “…became deeply interested in the inspired preaching of Harry Emerson Fosdick. Dr. Fosdick had become a key figure in this debate, as a result of his sermon of May 21, 1922 at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, titled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?
Led by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. an active layman in the church, the membership called Dr. Fosdick in 1925. He agreed, on three conditions:
First, affirmation of faith in Christ must be the only requirement for membership.
Second, any Christian, regardless of denomination, seeking admission to the church, must be freely welcomed.
Third, a new and larger building and a more expansive ministry should be planned in a neighborhood critical to the life of the whole city.
The Park Avenue Baptist Church weighed seriously the terms of his acceptance but proved itself ready for his challenge.
Dr. Fosdick and the congregation recognized a compelling need for a Protestant parish church to minister to the thousands of people drawn to Morningside Heights by Columbia University, Barnard College, Teachers College, Union Theological Seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary, International House, and St. Luke’s Hospital. A site was chosen and plans for the new building were drawn in 1926.
The building was financed primarily through the sale of properties of the church on Park Avenue and the generous donations of a few individuals, particularly John D. Rockefeller Jr., under whose leadership a building committee was established.”
“The architects, Charles Collens and Henry C. Pelton, traveled through France and Spain to visit cathedrals and to assimilate the best architectural concepts of Gothic grandeur and contemporary usefulness.
The Riverside Church cornerstone was laid on November 20, 1927 and within a year the enormous nave was standing.”
“The church opened its doors to people of all races and nations, and sought to appeal to the needs and concerns of people of all economic backgrounds.”
From Titan: “Formally dedicated in 1931, the church was an ecumenical shrine that seemed to bridge both the spiritual and temporal worlds. Instead of saintly statues lining the chancel screen, one found scientists, doctors, educators, social reformers, and political leaders, including Louis Pasteur, Hippocrates, Florence Nightingale, and Abraham Lincoln. Statues of Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, and Moses stared down from the archivolts above the main portal, while Darwin and Einstein occupied honored niches. After a few years, the congregation was both interdenominational and interracial, with fewer than a third of the members coming from Baptist backgrounds. Once exponents of the old-time religion, the Rockefellers had now advanced into the vanguard of liberal Protestantism and were loudly denounced by conservative theologians for desecrating the true church.” Thirty years after left-wing social reformers had vilified the Rockefellers, the family, under Junior’s influence, was now being excoriated from the right. In 1935, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who had been the principal lay donor to the Northern Baptist Church, made his last annual gift. “What gives me pause,” he said in his valedictory letter, “is the tendency inherent in denominations to emphasize the form instead of the substance, the denominational peculiarity instead of the oneness of Christian purpose.”
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