|photo by Alice Lum
In 1853 the Murray Hill area was still mostly undeveloped. The Bond Street and St. John’s Park neighborhoods were still the exclusive enclaves of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens. Nevertheless, the winds of change were beginning to affect Murray Hill and wide speculative brownstone rowhouses had begun lining the side streets one or two years earlier.
The fabulously wealthy Phelps and Dodge families had purchased the block of land on Madison Road (later to become Madison Avenue) between 36th and 37th Streets in 1852 in preparation for the construction of three massive brownstone mansions. Yet when James Chesterman offered the cumbersomely-named Association of the City of New York for the Dissemination of the Doctrines of the New Jerusalem Church three building lots on East 35th Street in 1853, the congregation balked at the donation.
The Society, known as the New Jerusalem Church, or simply the New Church, traced its beliefs to 18th Century Sweden. There Emanuel Swedenborg, around 1743, began having visions and revelations. Swedenborg, a nobleman, was among the leading scientists of Europe. Born in 1688, his visions of heaven, hell and Jesus Christ later in his life would prompt him to abandon his scientific work to focus on theological writings—the nature of God, the afterlife and the meaning of Biblical text. He wrote “I have conversed with apostles, departed popes, emperors, kings and with Luther, Melancthon, Calvin and many others.”
Swedenborg’s writings would become the doctrine of the New Church, also known as the Swedenborgian Church. Only half a century after his first visions, the first New Churchman arrived in New York City in 1792. By the time that Chesterman offered the building lots The New York New Church had grown, survived a schism, and boasted a substantial congregation.
Although the church never accepted the land from Chesterfield, it was deeded the property following his death. The location was unusual in Chesterfield’s vast holdings of property, almost all of which was in the Harlem area. As more and more handsome residences rose in the neighborhood, the church deliberated for four years over the advisability of construction here. Finally in 1858 a decision was reached and congregant James Hoe, principal of the James C. Hoe & Co. building concern, was given the task of erecting a new church building. Hoe not only offered to build the structure at no profit; he donated $500 to the building fund—around $10,000 today.
The New York Times reported on the laying of the cornerstone on July 2 that year. Saying that it was laid with “appropriate ceremonies,” the newspaper described the stone as “a granite block about three feet square,--beneath which a leaden box was placed, containing a parchment record of this event, with the names of the architect, builder, and mason, the four leading doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg, and his exposition of the ten commandments, a book of worship, used by the first Society of the New Church, and several periodicals of New York, the newspapers of this morning, and a number of coins.”
An anointing ritual was conducted before the ceremonies were concluded. “Corn, wine and oil were poured upon the stone, a psalm was sung, a benediction pronounced, and the audience—about 100 persons—separated,” reported The Times. The New York Herald gave a much higher count of the crowd, estimating it at 200.
The Times, saying that the architecture would be “gothic style,” predicted that the building would be completed within the year and estimated its cost at about $15,000. In fact the completed church, including furnishings, came in a little over budget at $18,150.
While the newspaper got the cost just a little wrong, it was wildly off base with the architectural style. Instead the completed 1859 structure was neo-Renaissance. The handsome building sat far back from the property line, allowing for an ample, grassy lawn. A brownstone base supported upper walls of brick, possibly stuccoed. Classic Renaissance pediments and other architectural elements created a dignified presence on a block quickly filling with high-end residences.
|The later addition would bring this section to the property line. photo http://newyorknewchurch.vzwebsites.com/aboutus.html
The Times deemed the completed structure a “small but elegant church edifice in Thirty-fifty-street, belonging to this still comparatively unknown body of Christians.” On May 12, 1860 the newspaper wrote about the tenth anniversary of the American Swedenborg Printing and Publishing Society held in the church building. The Reverend Mr. Barrett spoke about the purpose of the association.
|The neo-Renaissance details of the original structure beautifully survive -- photo by Alice Lum
“Its object was to publish treatises and tracts explanatory of the writings of the great Seer,” said The Times, “and the speaker asked for it sympathy and support. A monthly periodical, called the Swedenborgian, is published by the Society, and at present it has 600 subscribers.”
In May 1865 the 35th Street church was given the honor of hosting the first annual meeting of the New-York Association of the New Church. The New York Times noted that “This association comprises societies, ministers, and isolated members of the Church in New-York, New-Jersey and Connecticut, uniting for the purpose of promoting the spiritual and social unity of the Church; providing for the education of suitable persons for the ministry, and their authentication; for disseminating the doctrines by means of missionaries, and the publication and distribution of books and tracts; providing for the religious education of children; and performing such other services as may be desirable.”
That long laundry list, perhaps, proved too much for the “small but elegant church edifice” and the following year it was enlarged. The short wing at the western end of the property was enlarged, stretching out to the sidewalk, which deftly blended with the original architecture.The New-York Tribune reported on the opening of the new Sunday School in the new section on Christmas Day 1868. "The room has been tastefully decorated with mottoes and evergreens for the occasion."
The New Church was often misunderstood by mainstream Christians who often viewed it as a cult or oddball sect. Therefore, when a Boston minister of the New Jerusalem Church preached a sermon explaining “What It Is Not, What It Is—Its Place in The Spiritual Progress of Humanity,” the New York church’s Rev. Chauncey Giles repeated it on March 1, 1874. The long-winded oratory, which was reprinted in the morning papers on Monday, may have confused most readers rather than elucidated the subject.
In part Giles said of the church “It throws new light on his early condition; solves his doubts, dispels his fears, lifts his burdens, increases his strength; gives him patience to wait, and zeal to work; shows him the true relations between himself and nature and man, and the common Father of all; enlarges his freedom, draws aside the veil which hides the endless future, reveals to him a new world more real, more substantial, more glorious than this, and sets him on his endless way to the attainment of endless and ever-increasing blessedness.”
|The newer portion architecturally melded with the original church -- photo by Alice Lum
The Genesis account of God’s creation of man and woman would affect Christian attitudes towards the feminine sex for centuries. The title of Rev. Gile’s sermon on February 13, 1876, was somewhat reflective of this—“The Beginning of Man’s Fall, and what is Meant by Building a Woman from his Rib.”
But male-female ascendancy would rear its head in a more fundamental way in 1893 when the issue of hiring women as missionaries and teachers was raised on February 22. The Times reported that “The special meeting was held yesterday afternoon, and in the four hours that it lasted there was some rather highly-spiced discussion, which was punctuated with applause, and in one instance with cries of disapproval and hisses.”
When C. C. Parsons moved for the adoption of a resolution for the employment, “the battle began,” said the newspaper. L. S. Burnham, a congregant from Brooklyn, tried to dismiss the matter, saying that the association out not to “go fast.” Instead, he suggested “We have nothing to do with this woman question. I move that we table the matter and go up to Central Park to spend the afternoon.”
Burnham even offered to pay for the carriages to transport the members to the park. “I think our duty is to read and disseminate doctrines and let these matters settle themselves.”
One forward-thinking member, John R. Waters, lashed out at the more conservative associates. “The ridiculous thing is that male human beings assume to say what shall be done with the women. Let the women do as they see fit. The way to find out woman’s sphere is to let her gravitate to her place.”
Reverend H. W. Schliffer countered with scripture. He said that it was explicitly stated “in the heavenly doctrine of Swedenborg that what belonged to the priesthood belong to man. In all the writings of the great teacher the masculine pronoun alone referred to one holding priestly office; the priesthood belongs to man.
“Women are not qualified for the ministry,” he asserted. “Shall we put away all the doctrines and yield to the popular idea that women can do all things as well as men? Do we wish to put aside this plain statement of doctrine?”
The Times reported on the reaction within the room. “This was a bombshell and a number of women rose at once and tried to catch the Chairman’s eye.” A feisty Mrs. J. B. Dearborn took the floor. “We all understand that women cannot do men’s work. The question is: Shall Mr. Schliffer understand the Scriptures for us or shall we understand them for ourselves?”
Reverend A. J. Auchterlonie of Newark pointed out that women were making great strides in the workplace. “Woman is being forced to go into all sorts of work, and I think this is to teach her to take the position she should. The presence of a woman in an office raises it. Instead of throwing extracts from Swedenborg at their heads, I want them to go ahead. The Church and women alike have been held in a sort of slavery.”
A Mr. Ager, in trying to sound modern, instead exhibited his own Victorian sexism. He “said the Church would never be harmoniously built until men and women worked together. Man, he said, was the intellectual part and woman the voluntary, and both must be united in the Church for its good,” reported The New York Times.
In the end it was decided that that several societies of the church should study “this subject carefully and persistently, and that the societies of the Church report from time to time the result of their study and experiences.” It was what, a century later, would be called a “cop out.”
When the 98th General Convention of the New Church in America, Swedenborgian, was held here on June 5, 1920, the focus was on religious issues rather than financial. The Rev. Julian K. Smyth expressed his thinly veiled disapproval of other churches who overly-concerned themselves with money. "It is sometimes said that while other religious bodies are appointing their committees and raising their millions by sensational drives, the New Church has not so much as set herself to draw up a program of social reconstruction," he said. But he added that a greater authority cared less for financial gains than spiritual. "But long before the churches so much as thought of making drives there was drawn up by a Master Hand a program which challenges comparison with anything of a similar nature ever set before man."
The Swedenborgians remained in their handsome, arcane church throughout the 20th century. But dwindling membership and subsequent dwindling finances resulted in the building suffering structural neglect. By the 1980's water was seeping into the main sanctuary. It was closed off and services were held in a meeting room.
|photo by Alice Lum
|photo by Alice Lum