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Riverside's Ecumenical Foundations

New York- 'Rockefeller Church'

This photograph, from ca. 1930, is taken from the entrance to Columbia University at Broadway and 116th St. (with Barnard College to the left), facing northwest as the Riverside Church spire rises in the distance. Riverside was known as the 'Rockefeller Church' because his fortune built it.

 

 

      When Albert Einstein landed in New York on December 12, 1930, just two months after the Riverside Church opened its doors to the public, Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick welcomed the German scientist and his wife to the church for a private visit. Fosdick’s autobiography reports, “The news that he was sculptured over the doorway of a Christian church had reached him in Germany, and he had been reported in the press as wanting ‘to see that oddity.’ He was a charming guest and I recall the feeling in his voice when, looking at that arch of the world’s foremost scientists with himself the only one there still living, he exclaimed: ‘That could not have happened anywhere except in America.’”[1] Einstein’s wonder is understandable—the inclusion of the likeness of a German Jewish scientist on the façade of a Protestant church in America is certainly extraordinary. But one might go even further than Mr. Einstein and say that this remarkable occurrence could have happened only at the Riverside Church, a house of worship built literally and spiritually on truly modern ecumenical principles.

    

     Born out of the former Park Avenue Baptist Church, the Riverside Church is the product of a collaboration between Rev. Fosdick, a somewhat radical minister with progressive ideas about interdenominational congregations and an inclusive vision for the church, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the great financier and philanthropist who embraced Fosdick’s progressive notions and encouraged them. According to Andrew Dolkart, Rockefeller had originally intended to continue financing the ongoing construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, but his relationship with the Episcopal Bishop Manning soured in 1925 when Manning refused to allow Rockefeller to serve on the church’s board of trustees.[2]  Rockefeller then turned his attention and his considerable fortune toward building a new church in Morningside Heights, the so-called “Acropolis of the new world” because of the location of Columbia University, Barnard College, and several other renowned academic institutions, where he might more fully participate in the stewardship and direction of the church. [3]



[1] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days: An Autobiography (New York: Harper, 1956), 192.

[2] Andrew Dolkart, Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture & Development (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 72.

[3] “A Modern Acropolis,” Dayton Press, January 21, 1896 (TCA, Newspaper Clippings).

 

Riverside's Ecumenical Foundations