This Sunday, I took the first of what will probably be many tours of the Riverside Church. I’ve been trying to think about what my three exhibits will be and it has been difficult to decide what to focus on since so many aspects of the church’s history are rich and fascinating. John D. Rockefeller’s money and vision, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s controversial ecumenical beliefs, and the architects’ Gothic design hiding a modern steel framework all deserve extensive treatment. Because these have already been well-documented (in Dolkart and elsewhere), I’m leaning instead toward focusing on the details that most interest me: its visual culture, including stained glass windows, paintings, and sculptures, especially the impressive chancel screen and building facade; the evolution of its Weekday School for young children; and its role in the community during World War II.
Visual Culture at Riverside Church
The beauty of the building is undeniable. But what I find so charming about the Riverside Church is the mixture of Old and New World elements, varying styles and themes. It is a Gothic cathedral with clerestory windows and a chancel labyrinth modeled on those in the cathedral in Chartres, France, but its Christ Chapel is built in the Romanesque style, after the 11th-century nave of St. Nazaire in Carcassonne. Much of the stained glass is contemporary, including one window that honors the workers who helped make the church a reality (sculptors, artisans, carpenters), although the narthex features two remarkable 16th-century Flemish windows illustrating events and parables in the life of Christ. The windows are believed to be from a church that had been threatened or destroyed during the French Revolution and were dug up in a field in Bruges in the 19th century!
Narthex windows (Image credit: http://www.theriversidechurchny.org/about/images/photo_glass.jpg)
Chancel floor maze, one of a few such medieval designs in the world! (Image Credit: Meredith Levin)
Nave of Riverside Church (Image Credit: Meredith Levin)
The Weekday School
Established in 1930 by Florence Allen Whitney Fosdick, the wife of Riverside’s first pastor, the Weekday School (formerly known as the Nursery-Kindergarten Weekday School) is one of the oldest and most successful early childhood education programs in New York City. Mrs. Fosdick was dedicated to serving the local population of Morningside Heights- upon her death in 1964, it was asked that in lieu of flowers contributions should be made to a fund in her name that would permanently support the school (Miller 300). While the Weekday School’s original purpose was to provide care and education for the young children (ages 2-6) of working women, it is now a prestigious, tuition-based program that can cost upwards of $20,000 a year. The school maintains its original nondenominational and multicultural approach to education but one wonders how Mrs. Fosdick would feel about today’s elite private enterprise.
Riverside Church and World War II
Harry Emerson Fosdick served as the pastor of Riverside Church from 1930-1946, seeing his congregants through much of the Great Depression and World War II, despite his personal beliefs as a pacifist. In May 1935, Fosdick joined 250 ministers and rabbis who met at Riverside Church and recited a pledge that their religious beliefs could not be reconciled with war (Sittser 24). Fosdick often delivered anti-war sermons, and published his famous “Keeping Christ Above the Strife” in January 1941 in response to The Christian Century‘s question, “If America is drawn into war, can you, as a Christian participate in it or support it?” (Loconte 115). But these anti-war sentiments did not stop Fosdick or other church leaders from ministering to those involved in the war effort. In fact, Riverside Church played a significant role in the lives of men and women who were training or stationed in New York during the war. “A notice that ran in the bulletin of the Riverside Church throughout the war years welcomed any military personnel who were worshiping with the congregation, encouraged them to sign a guest register specially designed for them, and informed them of Dr. Fosdick’s willingness to write a personal note to anyone they desired back home, informing that person of their visit to Riverside” (Paris et al. 120). I was particularly struck when wandering through the nave by this inscription thanking the church for its hospitality during the war:
(Image Credit: Meredith Levin)
I have a lot of research ahead of me, including visits to the Riverside Church Archives and to the Special Collections at the Union Theological Seminary’s Burke Library but I am excited at the prospect of uncovering more about art, education, and wartime solidarity at Riverside Church. More to come soon…
The End of Illusions : Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm. Ed. Joseph Loconte. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
Miller, Robert Moats. Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Paris, Peter J. et al. The History of the Riverside Church in the City of New York. New York: New York University Press, 2004.
Sittser, Gerald Lawson. A Cautious Patriotism: The American Churches and the Second World War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.