|Architect and artist Alexander Jackson Davis created this rendering around 1830. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Unitarianism, which arrived in the United States around 1800, was not well received by mainstream Christians. The Unitarians rejected the concept of the Holy Trinity, believing that God was a single entity. Jesus, therefore, while a savior, was not a deity. The tenet caused most Christians to view the group with suspicion, if not outright hostility. In fact until 1819 Unitarianism was practiced mostly in secrecy.
In 1820 construction of the First Congregational Church, on Chambers Street, was begun. Despite the denomination's challenges, only five years later a Second Congregational Church was planned about a mile to the north, at the corner of Prince and Mercer Streets. Decades later, in 1892, King's Handbook of New York City explained "The parish was formed in 1825 by a few members of the older Chambers-Street society."
The new congregation chose well-known architect Josiah R. Brady to design its building. Brady worked almost exclusively in ancient classic styles; even in his domestic commissions. His magnificent mansion for the Anderson family in Throgg's Neck, New York, for instance, took the form of a noble Greek temple. The same would be true for the Second Congregational Church.
The cornerstone was laid on November 24, 1825 by William Ware, the minister of the First Congregational Church. A plaque was laid inside the stone which read:
The Second Congregational Unitarian Church
in the City of New-York;
Erected by Public Subscription.
This Stone laid with Religious Ceremonies,
November 24, 1825.
To us there is one God, the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ.
The building, 63 feet wide and 80 feet long, was completed almost exactly one year later. Brady's Greek Revival design took inspiration, in part, the Choragic monment of Thrasyllus at Athens. Four massive Doric columns fronted the recessed entrance and supported the Grecian pediment. The Christian Examiner explained that the "entablature is without blocks or triglyphs" in keeping with the Chroagic monument. "The walls and columns are of brick covered with cement in imitation of marble." The broad entrance steps were of granite.
|The Choragic monment of Thrasyllus partly sparked Brady's creative muse. from the collection of the Smithsonian Institution|
The Christian Examiner went on to describe the interiors, which it deemed "beautifully arranged." The main floor held 132 pews, and the gallery-organ loft had another 24. "The pulpit is of a pedestal form, with a pedestal and balustrade on each side. The whole is correct in proportion, chaste and neat in design and execution."
|from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
The church was dedicated on Thursday, December 7, 1826. The Christian Examiner reported that "At an early hour the house was thronged." Rev. Ware returned to give the consecrating prayer; but the sermon was delivered by the Rev. William Ellery Channing, a founder of American Unitarianism. His sermon, which extended for an hour and a quarter, wore even wore out. The Christian Examiner noted, "it was regretted that the failure of the preacher's strength compelled him to omit some interesting topics of illustration."
Entitled "Unitarian Christianity Most Favourable to Piety," the sermon was later published as a 40-page booklet. The Christian Examiner remarked "It has been pronounced the noblest production of the very pure and original mind which composed it, and was delivered with an effect which will never be forgotten by those who heard it."
Its ample property allowed the Second Congregational Church to have a burial ground. Following the construction of the Third Universalist Church, on crowded Grand Street, the two congregations shared the graveyard.
On Sunday, April 5, 1829 Stephen W. Bailey, a member of the Live Oak Fire Engine Company No. 44 was overcome while fighting a blaze. The 24-year old "was seized with an apoplectic fit, doubtless induced by over exertion, while in the faithful discharge of his duty as a fireman," as reported by The Gospel Herald and Universalist Review on April 11. A member of the Third Congregational Church, the young firefighter died that night. After his impressive funeral in the Third Universalist Church two days later, "he was conveyed to [the] Prince street Church, and interred in one of the vaults," reported the periodical.
|from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The congregation faced a crisis beginning in 1825. Rev. Abner Kneeland was invited in a "summer pulpit exchange," but the visit turned into a permanent position. The congregation was unaware of Kneeland's rocky past within the Universalist movement. His ever-changing theology and radical opinions had shaken even the New England Universalist General Convention. A line from one of his many hymns read, for instance,
As ancient bigots disagree,
the Stoic and the Pharisee,
so is the modern Christian world
in superstitious error hurl'd
According to the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography, "Kneeland did not tell the congregation the extent of the transformation in his thinking until early 1827, when full disclosure of his theological opinions divided the church in two."
Jonathan Greenleaf, in his 1846 A History of the Churches, of All Denominations, in the City of New York, was brutally direct. He wrote that the Rev. Nehemian Dodge "was succeeded by the celebrated Abner Kneeland, whose impious ravings soon scattered the congregation."
Kneeland left in 1827, taking his supporters from the congregation to form the Second Universalist Society. Later Illinois Universalist minister Clinton Lee Scott called Kneeland "the most controversial character ever ordained to the Universalist ministry," and the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography said "Ultimately he was led beyond Christianity." Kneeland eventually was convicted of blasphemy in Massachusetts.
The ministers of the Second Congregational Church were paid adequately, but their salaries were by no means as lavish as those of the rectors of Manhattan's most fashionable churches. Following Rev. Orville Dewey's sermon on "The Moral Importance of Cities and the Moral Means for their Reformation" on June 5, 1836, the congregation was invited to stay over to discuss the salary of the "minister at large." The $2,850 agreed upon would equal about $77,500 per year today.
Tragedy struck the following year when fire tore through the structure, destroying it. Rather than built on the old site, the congregation acquired a plot at Nos. 728-730 Broadway, near Waverly Place. When that building was dedicated in 1839, the congregation changed its name to the Church of the Messiah.
|The corner of Prince and Mercer Streets today.|