When a meeting of the vestrymen of the first Society of the Unitarian Church on March 19, 1825 resulted in a decision to build at new church, the $6,000 needed to buy three building lots was only one of the congregation’s problems. Manhattan’s social and political leaders were mostly Episcopalian and their religious tolerance was slim.
Decades later, on March 15, 1875, The New York Times would remember “The disfavor in which Unitarianism was held at the commencement of the century, a disfavor which did not desert it until the last generation, and traces of which are not wanting even at the present day, was a heavy obstacle in the path of the early Unitarian societies.”
The Second Congregational Church in New York, which would become better known as the Church of the Messiah, endured; moving twice before finding a permanent home. The first church, a Greek Revival structure at Mercer and Prince Streets, was completed in 1825 and burned a few years later. The congregation moved to 728-730 Broadway in 1839; but as the neighborhood changed from an upscale residential area to one of entertainment and commerce, the church relocated once more.
In 1866 the trustees commissioned German-born architect Carl Pfeiffer to design a new structure on Park Avenue at the northwest corner of 34th Street. The 30-year old Pfeiffer had been in New York only two years, having lived in the West for several years. His Church of the Messiah would draw attention.
On November 3, 1866 the cornerstone was laid “with appropriate ceremonies,” according to The New York Times. Within the stone were a copy of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, a piece of the Trans-Atlantic cable, coins, medals and photographs, copies of New York newspapers and a brass plate inscribed with a brief history of the church.
The Times announced that “The architecture will be of the style known as the German Round Gothic or Rhenish, which was much in vogue during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.” The newspaper noted “The English Cathedrals of Peterboro, Norwich, Chichester and Durham assimilate to this style.”
The Times also commented on the site, disagreeing with some who considered it to be rather far uptown. “The location for the new church is one of the finest in the City, and if the plans are fully carried out the edifice will be one of the ornaments of the metropolis.”
The Murray Hill area was seeing the continued construction of lavish mansions as the city’s wealthy inched uptown. The building was completed in April 1868 at a cost of $100,000—in the neighborhood of $2.5 million in 2015. As Pfeiffer had promised reporters, it was generally Romanesque with splashes of Gothic Revival in the buttresses and spiky finials, along with modern touches like mansard roofs. The blend of styles prompt some modern historians to tag it Victorian Romanesque.
The sanctuary could seat 1,294 worshipers. Three hundred, sixty-six of those were in the galleries which were supported on brackets which did away with sight-blocking columns. The entrance, which faced 34th Street, was entered through a complex stone porch, over which was a 14-foot rose window.
In reporting on the consecration services, which took place during a rainstorm on April 2, The Times noted “The church, for the first time lighted up, was very imposing in appearance. Long rows of gas jets extended underneath the arched roof the entire length of the church on either side, flooding the whole interior with light mellowed by its distance.”
Critics, at first, praised the brick and stone structure. Appleton’s Hand-book of American Travel called it “a little gem as a piece of architecture,” and the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide deemed it a “handsome Byzantine edifice.” As tastes and architectural fashions changed, so would opinions on Pfeiffer’s design.
But in the meantime the Rev. George H. Hepworth took the pulpit as permanent pastor on the first Sunday in October 1869. The views of the Unitarian Church had caused unease among traditional New York worshipers for decades; and Hepworth would contribute with his unexpected opinions.
While other priests and ministers railed against the theater, card playing, and non-industrious frivolity; Hepworth preached about “Amusements” in his sermon on March 19, 1871. Citing Proverbs, he started out “A merry heart doeth good as a medicine.” Before getting into the subject, however, he cautioned his congregation that “he might say some things which would not entirely accord with the preconceived notions of many, or the teachings of the pulpit during the twenty years.”
The pastor lamented the American devotion to work. “The life of a merchant is as near like a horse in a treadmill as can be, and the result is that he is prematurely old…Americans are the most serious-looking and serious-acting people in the world…What Americans need is more amusement, innocent, healthful amusement.”
While Hepworth condemned some pursuits—like billiard parlors and gambling—he scoffed at other clergy’s obsession with harmless fun. Regarding the theater, he said he “would say if their consciences told them it did them harm, then let none go, but if they felt otherwise, let them enjoy it, and seek to elevate its tone.” He said he would never prevent his own children from playing a game of cards at home, or from dancing. “To do either with respectable people could not injure them.”
Hepworth suggested that if he could convince some of the old men in the congregation to play a game of baseball with him, “he would add ten years to their life.”
The Rev. George H. Hepworth’s unorthodox and somewhat shocking views would set the standard for preachers at the Church of the Messiah for decades to come. But they would also result in his removal from the church.
Hepworth eventually came to the realization that his personal views on religion did not align well with the concepts of the Unitarian Church. On Friday, December 29, 1871 he sent a letter of resignation to John Babcock, President of the Trustees, explaining that he had become “irreconciled to many of the methods and tenets of Unitarianism.”
Instead of an acceptance of his resignation, Hepworth received a letter the following day telling him he was summarily fired. Babcock added that since a replacement preacher could not be found in one day, that he would appreciate Hepworth's officiating at services for which he would be paid for his trouble.
The New York Times reported “This letter Mr. Hepworth declined undignified, and considered himself aggrieved at the treatment he received.”
A maelstrom of gossip, scandal and upheaval swept through the congregation and on Sunday the church was packed with members who expected a scene. And they got what they came for. The Times summed it up saying “A scene of an unusual character was expected, and the anticipation was fully realized.”
As women wept in their pews, Rev. Hepworth did not deliver a sermon as such, but told the congregation why he had decided to resign and about the letter from Babcock. When he got to the part about being paid for his services that day, the members were shocked. It “was censured as an unmerited insult,” said the newspaper.
At one point John Babcock rose from his seat and declared his personal friendship for Hepworth. “He had loved and visited and served him, and did all in his power to gain his sympathy, love and affection,” the newspaper related. He suggested that the minister “wanted possession of the church for the purpose of introducing orthodoxies into it.” The congregation replied with loud hisses.
It would be seven years before the church had another long-term pastor in the form of Rev. Robert Collyer. The minister was located in Chicago, where he had rebuilt his Unity Church after it burned in the 1871 Chicago Fire. Rumors in June 1879 hinted that he may consider coming to New York despite his ties to Chicago, due of his wife’s delicate health.
The personable minster was familiarly called the Blacksmith Preacher. Munsey’s Magazine, in March 1893, explained. “Mr. Collyer’s career has been as striking as is his personality. He was the son of a country blacksmith in the north of England, whose death forced him to go to work for a living when he was only eight years old. First six years he toiled in a Yorkshire linen mill; then he was apprenticed at his father’s trade, and grew to manhood as a journeyman blacksmith.”
He came to the United States at the age of 27, working as a blacksmith at Shoemakerstown, near Philadelphia. But the call to the ministry led him to preach as the local Methodist minister. Munsey’s wrote “Then in 1859 he was charged with heresy, and the Conference refused to renew his license. He had abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity.” Perhaps even without knowing it, he had embraced Unitarianism, which holds that God exists in one person and not three.
The joy of the congregation of the Church of the Messiah over Collyer’s acceptance of the position was doubled by its emergence from debt that same year. Donations finally erased the $125,000 the church had owed since the building’s completion more than ten years earlier.
Somewhat surprisingly, when Robert Collyer preached his first sermon in October 1879 a writer from the Record and Guide was in the congregation. He approved of the sermon and of the minister; but panned the structure.
The journalist said Collyer “is a man of fine presence, and has a charming manner, and will doubtless prove popular and useful in the sect to which he belongs. As a trade journal, we have nothing to do with religion or sects, and only refer to the commencement of Mr. Collier’s [sic] ministry in this city, to point out some grave defects in our prevailing church architecture.”
The structure that the Record and Guide had earlier deemed “handsome” was now a “mistake.” The anonymous writer used the Church of the Messiah as an example of American ecclesiastical architecture based on “religions conceptions which have come down to us from an idolatrous age.”
He said the spires were relics of “phallic worship” and that the configuration of churches were based on Greek antecedents—“not designed for speaking. The great oblong temples were intended for sacrifice.” His scathing critique continued saying that the Church of the Messiah “is a feeble imitation of an old heathen temple, and Mr. Collier’s [sic] genial, kindly, humbleness and pathetic utterances seems strangely out of place in a temple designed originally for the worship of Jupiter or Venus.”
The likable Rev. Collyer was still in the pulpit in 1893 when he celebrated his 70th birthday. Like his predecessor, he scoffed at the strait-laced and overly-serious Victorian clergy; one journalist noting that he, “enjoys a joke, even in the pulpit.”
When Robert Collyer had arrived at the Church of the Messiah, it contained some stunning stained glass windows. One, by Tiffany, represented the Spirit of Light Descending on the World of Darkness. He added to them by donating two windows, one costing $2,000 and the other $8,000. Following his death, a memorial window to Collyer was installed, executed by Frederic S. Lamb and representing John Wesley preaching to the miners.
He would be followed by another free-thinking minister, the Harvard-educated John Haynes Holmes. In 1909 Holmes was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and vigorously promoted social reform. In 1912 he wrote The Revolutionary Function of the Modern Church. His fervent interest in reform nearly caused a riot in the church when it hosted a meeting of unemployed workers in 1915. A speech by a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and rantings by an out-of-work man who declared unemployment caused him to “hate God, and hate you people and hate the churches and hate the Government” nearly ended in what The New York Times deemed “a row.”
In 1914, with the outbreak of war in Europe, Holmes made his opinions clear from the pulpit of the Church of the Messiah. His sermons, starting in December that year, would have titles like “The Fallacies of Force,” “Is War Ever Justifiable,” and “Exemplars of Non-Resistance.”
On the Sunday before Christmas in 1914 he started his sermon by saying “Never before, perhaps, in the world’s history has humanity received so great a shock as that which came to it last summer on the sudden outbreak of the War of the Nations…Confident that he was at last civilized, man was all at once awakened to the discovery that he was still a barbarian.”
The minister’s pacifist ideology emanated from the pulpit as he decried military recruitment. But his views eventually directly clashed with the rising patriotism after a German submarine sank the Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania, killing nearly 1,200 innocent civilians, including Americans.
In the spring of 1917 John Haynes Holmes was on the brink of dismissal from his position. The United States was poised to enter the war and Holmes derided military service in his sermon on April 1. His words touched off a firestorm of indignation and calls for his dismissal.
A special meeting of the board of trustees was held the following afternoon, during which he and the board came to an understanding. The Sun reported “it was announced that while every member of the board differed with Dr. Holmes in the views he had expressed on Sunday, there is not the slightest intention of asking for his resignation.”
Holmes expressed a tempered viewpoint. “If war comes no individual or group of individuals has the right to interfere with recruiting. I withdrew from the anti-enlistment league after the sinking of the Lusitania and any one who goes to the front from my church will have my blessing.”
|In 1918 the 34th Street facade of the church received at $17,000 remodeling, including the removal of the porch. photo from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Holmes drastic changes were most noticeable when he changed the name of the church in April 1919 to the Community Church of New York. He announced “The church will be open to men of any color, creed, race or religion. The Socialist and the capitalist will be equally welcome; the Catholic and the Confucian, too.”
He explained to the New-York Tribune a month later, “I have left Unitarianism—cut myself off from all denominational connection of every kind, that I may preach a universal humanistic religion which knows no bounds, not even Christianity.”
On the afternoon of September 11, 1919 the funeral of Horace Traubel, biographer of Walt Whitman, was scheduled to be held in the chapel. About 50 mourners were assembled in the chapel, just behind the main church, at 3:30. As pall bearers prepared to remove the body from the hearse, an usher shouted that the church was on fire.
Within minutes the blaze, which started in the organ loft, spread throughout the sanctuary. A second, then a third, alarm was sent in. The crowd gathering on Park Avenue was certain that the entire edifice would be destroyed. A sexton, Charles Jackson, was able to rescue two oil paintings, records, books and Bibles. John Haynes Holmes also tried to save valuable relics from the church, but the thick smoke and the danger of a roof collapse forced him back.
Firemen broke through the rose window to spray streams of water into the building. Others smashed through the stained glass windows on the Park Avenue side. The $20,000 organ crashed through the organ loft to the floor below. Many of the stained glass windows were destroyed, including the Tiffany window and the two donated by Rev. Collyer. Newspapers later reported that the ceiling and pews were totally destroyed.
Following the commotion, the funeral was moved to the Rand School of Social Science on East 15th Street.
The Sun took advantage of the reporting of the fire to air its feelings about the Rev. John Haynes Holmes, saying he “is noted for his radical tendencies. In January of this year he threatened to quit unless it ceased to continue along the conventional lines of a Unitarian parish church. Shortly after that he changed the name of the church to that which it now bears, ‘Community Church,’ and made it a non-sectarian organization. Before the war, too, Dr. Holmes was the subject of much comment because of his pacifist tendencies.”
Holmes would retain his position until 1949—seeing another World War and the Great Depression. On December 28, 1930, with the nation reeling, he preached “Everybody will be glad to get rid of 1930—the most dreadful year we have known since the close of the great war. The one thing perfectly manifest in this past year is collapse—the progressive collapse of our political systems, our economic methods or international endeavors after peace.”
|Shortly after this shot was taken in 1931 the church would be demolished -- from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Six months later it was announced that the Community Church had leased the site of its building to the Roed Holding Corporation “where a twenty-six-story combination community house, church and hotel is being erected.” Carl Pfeiffer’s stately church was replaced by an Art Deco high rise designed by Helmle, Corbett & Harrison which survives.
|photograph by Beyond My Ken|