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Recruiting Reverend Fosdick

John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., c.1915

Harry Emerson Fosdick

A young Reverend Fosdick

486-497 Riverside Drive

Riverside Drive and 122nd Street in 1925- the featured buildings were demolished to make room for the new church.

     When Rockefeller first approached Rev. Fosdick about leading this new church, Fosdick made very clear that he would accept the position only if three conditions were met: one, that affirmation of Christ be the only qualification for membership (unlike other churches which required baptism, Fosdick wanted his to make it optional, “according to the conscience of the individual”); two, that the church be truly interdenominational, welcoming Christians of all backgrounds and faiths; and three, that the building be ample enough to accommodate a large congregation and provide space for programs and services for the community.[1] Rockefeller shared Fosdick's inclusive and ecumenical vision for the church, having "developed a permanent distaste for petty denominationalism and denominational territorialism" after witnessing Christians and their churches working together in Europe during World War I.[2] The rest of the congregation offered up no opposition to Fosdick's conditions, which, in the reverend’s own words, "opened a door I could not refuse to enter."[3]

         Fosdick, a former student and professor at the Union Theological Seminary, distinguished himself from other well-regarded evangelical preachers of the period through his “commitment to a liberal theology that made the Christian faith intelligible to contemporary people.”[4] He was familiar with Riverside’s prospective neighborhood and relished the opportunity to connect with the notoriously irreligious academics who lived and worked in Morningside Heights. An article in the Christian Century from October 1930 highlighted the challenges he would encounter, declaring: "Paul faced no more skeptical, no more aloof audience on Mars Hill than Dr. Fosdick faces on the heights of the American metropolis."[5] The article then wondered, "Can the Christian gospel be so interpreted to that questioning, individualistic and religiously irresponsible population concentrated around Columbia University in such a way as to draw them together in an organic fellowship?" before praising Fosdick's courage in attempting to overpower the prevailing indifference to religion.[6] Fosdick recounts in his autobiography a humorous anecdote about the religious attitudes of Riverside’s soon-to-be neighbors: “Two private dwellings and an unsightly apartment house occupied the site. I remember inspecting it one day and hearing a man- a resident, I suspect, in the apartment house- loudly telling a friend his low opinion of the folly and stupidity of building a church there. ‘What good will it do?’ he shouted.”[7]

Despite rumblings from the local community, Rockefeller and Fosdick remained undeterred and set forth on their grand project. One of their first (and most significant) decisions was choosing a name for their church. They wanted it to be evocative and powerful without seeming too tied to one denomination. In an unpublished 1928 letter to John B. Trevor, one of the church’s advisory building committee members, Rockefeller reveals his true feelings about calling it ‘The Riverside Church’:

As I have already briefly indicated in conversation, it is realized that the name ‘Riverside Church’ is colorless and insipid. On the other hand, no name has been proposed which was available and seemed better. ‘Christ Church by the Riverside’ or ‘Christ Church’ is beautiful. The difficulty there is that such names would seem to link the church so closely with Christian Science churches as to cause misunderstanding and confusion. Then too, in choosing the name ‘Riverside Church’ we have followed the precedent which our church has followed in naming all of the church edifices which it has occupied, from Suffolk Street to Fifth Avenue, then to Park Avenue and now to Riverside Drive. If eventually some better name can be brought forward, the one who makes the suggestion will be rendering a real service.[8]

It is unclear whether any other names were considered seriously and the matter seems to have been settled long before the church opened its doors in October 1930.

[1] Mary Wood, “A Descriptive Analysis of the Group Life within the Riverside Church” (master’s thesis, Columbia University School of Social Work, 1945), 5.

[2] James Hudnut-Beumler, “The Riverside Church and the Development of Twentieth-Century American Protestantism,” in The History of the Riverside Church in the City of New York, ed. Peter J. Paris, et al. (New York:  New York University Press, 2004), 18.

[3] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days: An Autobiography (New York: Harper, 1956), 178.

[4] Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, “Preachers for All Seasons: The Legacy of Riverside’s Free Pulpit,” in The History of the Riverside Church in the City of New York, ed. Peter J. Paris, et al. (New York:  New York University Press, 2004), 60.

[5] “Dr. Fosdick Accepts the Challenge,” The Christian Century, Oct. 15, 1930, 1239.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days: An Autobiography (New York: Harper, 1956), 188-9.

[8] Rockefeller,  Jr., John D. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to John B. Trevor, February 24, 1928. Letter. From Avery Fine Arts & Architecture Library, Columbia University.