|From the Supplement to the 123rd Annual Meeting
New York City, popular perceptions and academic stereotypes notwithstanding, has always served as one of America’s principal religious capitals. If not quite the gold buckle of the Bible Belt, the metropolis nonetheless contains an extraordinary array of devotional sites that testify to the diversity of its ever-changing population. Majestic architectural masterpieces, modest storefront churches, elaborate neighborhood shrines, and thriving mosques and temples grace the city’s streetscape. This brief guide merely samples a few prominent and historically interesting religious institutions.
The Flushing Quaker Meeting House (137-16 Northern Blvd., 718-358-9636, www.nyym.org/flushing), built in 1694–95, is the oldest house of worship in New York State. It provides an appropriate venue for reflecting on the Flushing Remonstrance, the landmark 1657 declaration of religious liberty drawn up by Queens inhabitants.
Trinity Church in lower Manhattan (74 Trinity Pl., 212-602-0800, www.trinitywallstreet.org) and nearby St. Paul’s Chapel (209 Broadway, 212-233-4164, www.saintpaulschapel.org), constructed in 1766 as a chapel of ease for Trinity, illustrate the powerful Anglican impulses that shaped the city’s early ecclesiastical culture.
Both churches became important spiritual centers following the terrorist attacks on the neighboring World Trade Center. St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery (131 E. 10th St., 212-674-6377) a Greek revival Episcopalian church completed in 1799, occupies the site of Peter Stuyvesant’s family chapel and burial place. Many New Yorkers best know St. Mark’s for its social outreach and advocacy programs. The church also hosted poetry readings by such prominent beat poets as Allen Ginsberg.
The Reformed Church in America rivaled Anglicanism for supremacy in colonial New York. Marble Collegiate Church (5th Ave. at 29th St., 212-686-2770, www.marblechurch.org) traces its roots to 1628 as the first Dutch Reformed church in North America, but the landmark 19th-century structure on 5th Avenue more recently earned its reputation as the site from which Norman Vincent Peale preached the power of positive thinking and similar messages from 1932 until 1984.
Protestant evangelicals viewed New York City as a 19th-century center for missionary reform. The American Bible Society (1865 Broadway, 212-408-1200, www.americanbible.org), established in 1816 and now boasting a Museum of Biblical Art, remains the last outpost of the antebellum benevolent empire still headquartered in Manhattan. The John Street Church (44 John St., 212-269-0014, www.johnstreetchurch.org) brought Methodism to New York when local adherents erected Wesley Chapel in 1768. It became especially noteworthy for another reason when several African American members began conducting separate services in 1796, planting the seeds of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights (75 Hicks St., 718-624-4743, www.plymouthchurch.org) called Henry Ward Beecher as its first pastor in 1847, thus inaugurating one of the most successful and controversial ministries in 19th-century New York. The church promoted temperance, sheltered escaped slaves, dispatched bibles and rifles to antislavery settlers in Kansas, and witnessed a celebrated adultery scandal involving its charismatic minister. Judson Memorial Church (55 Washington Sq. South, 212-477-0351, www.judson.org), founded in 1890 on Washington Square, has served as a center for political protest and avant-garde artistic expression throughout the 20th century. Judson’s Romanesque revival architecture owed much to the desire of its Baptist founder to attract the Italian Catholics who had begun to transform the cultural landscape of Greenwich Village.
Indeed, Roman Catholicism emerged as the city’s largest religious body during the 19th century. Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, on the corner of Prince and Mott Streets in Manhattan (263 Mulberry St., 212-226-8075, www.oldcathedral.org), was dedicated in 1815 and restored in 1868 after a fire destroyed the original Gothic revival building.
It offers a striking contrast to the monumental successor Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue, designed by James Renwick and opened in 1879 (5th Ave. between 50th and 51st St., 212-753-2261, www.saintpatrickscathedral.org). Some other interesting Catholic sites include Our Lady of Mount Carmel Shrine (448 East 116th St., 212-534-0681), which served as the subject for Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street; the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in Brooklyn (Jay St. and Cathedral Pl., 718-852-4002, www.brooklyncathedral.net); St. Malachy’s in the Theatre District, established in 1902 and popularly known as “The Actors’ Chapel” (239 W. 49th St., 212-489-1340, www.actorschapel.org); and the Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first canonized American saint, at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in lower Manhattan (7 State St., 212-269-6865, www.setonshrine.com).
Sephardic Jewish refugees from Brazil first arrived in New York in 1654, but by the turn of the 20th century Eastern European Jewish culture dominated Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Eldridge Street Synagogue (12 Eldridge St., 212-219-0888, www.eldridgestreet.org) remains downtown; a museum tells the story of the recently restored Moorish-style building. Central Synagogue (652 Lexington Ave., 212-838-5122, www.dev.centralsynagogue.org), contrastingly, joined the uptown exodus of prominent religious institutions in 1872 when it moved to its present 55th Street location in a landmark building designed by Henry Fernbach. The Center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th St., 212-294-8301, www.cjh.org) offers excellent exhibitions, public programs, and scholarly resources concerning Jewish life in America.
Mainline Christian denominations attract fewer communicants in the 21st century, despite the existence of such vibrant institutions as Riverside Church, the fascinating collaboration between John D. Rockefeller and Harry Emerson Fosdick dedicated in 1931 (490 Riverside Dr., 212-870-6700, www.theriversidechurchny.org). Many traditionally powerful African American Christian churches thrive and remain influential, including: Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem (132 Odell Clark Pl., formerly W. 138th St., 212-862-7474, www.abyssinian.org); the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral in Queens (110-31 Merrick Blvd., 718-206-4600, www.allencathedral.org); and St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn (859 Hendrix St., 718-257-1300, www.spcbc.com).
Newer and recently renewed religious institutions perhaps best reflect the city’s growing cultural and spiritual diversity. The Malik El Shabbaz Mosque in Harlem (130 W. 113th St., 212-662-4100, www.mosqueofislamicbrotherhoodinc.org), which served as Malcolm X’s ministerial headquarters in the 1960s, retains its significance. Ganesha Hindu Temple (45-57 Bowne St., 718-460-8484, www.nyganeshtemple.org) in Queens was consecrated in 1977 and has emerged as a center for prayer and community formation. The Sunni Muslim mosque at the Islamic Center of New York (371 6th Ave., 212-722-5234, www.icnyu.org) now boasts the largest Muslim congregation in New York, while Times Square Church (1657 Broadway, 212-541-6300, www.tscnyc.org), founded in 1986 by prominent Pentecostal minister David Wilkerson, testifies to the power of the megachurch phenomenon. The once-struggling Brooklyn Tabernacle (17 Smith St., 718-290-2000, www.brooklyntabernacle.org) numbers nearly 10 thousand members and boasts several Grammys for its award-winning choir. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dedicated its Manhattan New York Temple near Lincoln Center in 2004 (125 Columbus Ave., 917-441-8220, www.ldschurchtemples.com/manhattan); a 10-foot statue of the Angel Moroni stands atop the spire.
Amid all the ferment, annual meeting participants may discover the most potent symbol of the confusing and vibrant world of New York religious life at the seemingly traditional Cathedral of St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Ave., 212-316-7490, www.stjohndivine.org). This massive and sprawling structure on Morningside Heights, which has been under construction for over a century, appears destined to remain unfinished—a perpetual work-in-progress.
Peter J. Wosh is the director of the archives and public history graduate program in the history department at New York University and a member of the Local Arrangements Committee. His most recent book is Covenant House: Journey of a Faith-Based Charity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) and he is currently researching a history of Manhattan College in the Bronx.Last Updated: December 15, 2008 3:48 PM