|At the turn of the last century, the neighborhood around the church was no longer quietly residential. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
By the time evangelist Charles Gradison Finney preached his first sermon in New York City around August 1829, he was renowned. Affiliated with no church, his no-nonsense sermons struck home to many among his audiences. In 1900 church historian Susan Hayes Ward wrote "The hearer at the time felt that Mr. Finney was talking to him personally rather than preaching before an audience...He did not speak about sinners in the abstract, but he talked to the individual sinners before him."
In December 1831 a congregation was organized especially for the preacher, and on February 14, 1832 the Second Free Presbyterian Church was constituted with a membership of 41. It initially operated from Broadway Hall, just north of Canal Street, and then from the former Chatham Garden Theatre, renamed the Chatham Street Chapel.
From its inception the church embraced Finney's passionate anti-slavery stance. Black worshipers were welcomed (albeit in a separated section)--a policy which, coupled with Finney's outspoken abolitionist sermons, did not sit well with many outsiders and newspapers. During the riots of 1833, a mob broke into the church and attacked black members. On July 8 the Courier and Enquirer spat "Another of those disgraceful negro-outrages &c., occurred last night at that common focus of pollution, Chatham Street Chapel."
The congregation moved into a new structure in 1836, the Broadway Tabernacle on Broadway between Worth and Catherine Lane. The following year Finney left to teach theology in Ohio. But he left his congregation a strong abolitionist legacy. On July 6, 1840 the church was reorganized under David Hale; but it still held fast to its motto "Slavery and Christianity cannot live together."
The Congregational Quarterly later explained "the encroachment of business compelling families to remove up town, made it difficult, if not impossible, longer to sustain a church in that locality; and, in 1857, the Tabernacle was sold, and the last religious service was held within its walls on the 26th of April in that year."
The congregation paid a total of $78,500 for eight lots on 34th Street at the northeast corner of 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, facing what would later be named Herald Square. It later sold the northern portion for $33,000, making the net cost of the land about $1.3 million today.
In her 1901 The History of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, Susan Hayes Ward noted "In selecting an architect for the new structure the choice of the Building Committee lay between Mr. Upjohn, the architect of Trinity Church, New York, and of Dr. Storrs's Church in Brooklyn, and Mr. Leopold Eidlitz." They chose Eidlitz, whose plans were accepted on July 17, 1857 "on the condition that the church could be built for $73,000." On Christmas Day 1857 the cornerstone was laid "in the presence of some hundreds of spectators, many of whom were ladies," according to The New York Times. Inside the cornerstone was a Holy Bible, Church Psalmist, copies of the church manuals, and other documents. A copper plate read:
The Broadway Tabernacle Church and Society,
Organized July 6, 1840,
after the Congregational order of New England, erect this their second house of worship
As Upjohn most likely would have done, Leopold Eidlitz turned to the Gothic Revival style. He faced the church in field stone (described as Little Falls rubble) and trimmed it in light-colored sandstone. Its 89-foot front faced Sixth Avenue and it stretched back along 34th Street 150 feet. The Congregational Quarterly reported "The style of the building is perpendicular Gothic, carried out with a chaste and almost severe simplicity, which imparts an air of grandeur and beauty to the whole structure." The corner tower rose 135 feet, dominating the neighboring brick and brownstone residences.
|The Congregational Quarterly, January 1860 (copyright expired|
Keeping the project within the family, Eidlitz's builder brother, Marc, had constructed the church. The stained glass windows were executed by Henry E. Sharp (whose "Faith and Hope" window from the demolished St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Brooklyn now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the organ was built by R. M. Ferris.
|from The History of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, 1901 (copyright expired)|
Later that year, on October 8, pastor Rev. Dr. Joseph P. Thompson spoke about the hypocrisy of some New Yorkers. "Yet now men calling themselves Christians, who gave largely for foreign missions, pretended to doubt whether it was wise, and safe, and patriotic to talk against Slavery as a system of iniquity, and to vote against its extension." He told the congregation that returning missionaries told him "that they saw men flourishing here in Broadway who at Gaboon had been engaged in the Slave-trade."
|from King's Handbook of New York City, 1893 (copyright expired)|
Following the outbreak of Civil War, Thompson was even more energized in his sermons. On September 26, 1861 he said in part "It is necessary to wipe out Slavery, from the South...It is prying upon our vitals, and must be cut out with the sharp edge of the sword."
As had been the case for decades, the Broadway Tabernacle's outspoken abolitionist policy sometimes made it a target, no more so than during the violent Draft Riots of 1863. The three-day reign of terror resulted in the murders of black citizens, the burning of the homes and businesses of known abolitionists--even the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue where children barely escaped with their lives. Christian Work recalled on January 24, 1901 "Union services were so frequent in the Tabernacle...that during the riots of July, 1863, the mob was with difficulty prevented from burning the building."
The incident merely steeled Rev. Thompson's resolve. He later recalled "During the draft, and when treason lurked at the North, your pastor came into the pulpit and said that we must not give it up. After the sermon, a meeting was held, and funds were subscribed to raise a church regiment."
Thompson realized that declaration of peace could not wipe out racism. In his sermon of December 7, 1865 he acknowledged "A gigantic system is slow to die; and when injustice has been sanctioned by custom, legalized by the State, shielded by the church; when wealth and family distinction have been founded upon it, and children trained to practice it, and woman has devoted all the passionate energy of her nature to its support, it is not possible that the spirit of justice will die in an instant." He concluded "One thing was certain--that the people of the South should recognize the negro as being come at last, and they might as well at once make up their minds to it"
More than 2,000 people filed into the church on December 10, 1865 for a memorial service for the 360,000 Union soldiers who had perished. In his discourse, Thompson detailed both the number of black and while soldiers who had died in the hospitals, on the battlefields, and in the "prison pens."
The neighborhood around the Broadway Tabernacle was highly affluent. At the eastern end of the block stood the marble palace of Alexander T. Stewart and the brownstone mansions of the Astors. The wealth of the congregation was evidenced in 1871 when Thompson announced his retirement.
On October 25 The New York Times reported that the congregation had accepted his resignation. Following the meeting it was agreed to present him with a gift of $52,000, slightly over $1 million today.
The Broadway Tabernacle continued its policy of outreach. An annual event within the church was the anniversary exercises of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. Citizens could see the fruits of the instruction received by the children, who one-by-one got up before the assembly and performed feats like writing on a blackboard or demonstrating sign language.
|In 1878 the Sixth Avenue Elevated was erected directly in the face of the church. from the collection of the New-York Historical Society|
It organized the New-York Christian Home for Intemperate Men at No. 48 East 78th Street in 1877. The goal of the facility was, according to its president William T. Booth, "to save men who were rendered homeless and had lost everything by their appetite for drink." Once the men were made sober, they were helped to find employment.
The congregation's concern for and inclusion of minorities extended to the highly discriminated against Asian population. On May 13, 1884 The New York Times reported "About 900 Mongolians, varying in ages from 12 to 30, sat in the Broadway Tabernacle last evening, and took part in the first anniversary entertainment of Chinese Sunday-schools connected with the churches of New-York and Brooklyn...The Tabernacle was red with flags."
By now commerce had encroached on the formerly-exclusive neighborhood. The Metropolitan Elevated Railway had extended its tracks directly in front of the Broadway Tabernacle in 1878. With it came stores and other businesses.
|from the collection of the New-York Historical Society|
|The change in the neighborhood is evidenced in 1901 as Macy's department store rises in the background on Herald Square. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
In reporting on the last service held in the church on April 27, 1902 The Outlook recalled Joseph P. Thompson. "Under Dr. Thompson the Tabernacle occupied its most conspicuous place in our history It had already been known as a place for the oppressed."
The proposed "gigantic hotel" did not come to pass. Instead the 11-story Beaux Arts style Marbridge Building replaced the church. Designed by Townsend, Steinle & Haskell, it survives.
|from the collection of the New-York Historical Society|