• U.S.

Religion: Riverside Church

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Pinkerton detectives guarding Manhattan’s practically completed Riverside Church last week straightened to attention, craftsmen made a show of their slow assiduity, as a small, stocky, energetic, bushy-haired, suntanned man—Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick—walked with authoritative curiosity through the church nave and accessory rooms. A small group attended him on this his first inspection of the church since his regular summer vacation on Mouse Island in Boothbay Harbor, Me., “where a man can put on a flannel shirt in the morning and go to bed in it at night if he feels like it.” The church, he saw quickly, would be spick & span enough for his first sermon service therein, Oct. 5.

His followers pointed out the details of the interior: ten enormous stained glass aisle windows softening the sight of his stone pulpit, reading stand and chancel screen; the 1,408 seats in the nave, some equipped with electrical earphone connections, and only 100 blocked by pillars from view of the pulpit; ‘the two galleries at one end of the nave and the triforium galleries (seating 1,000) between the pillars and the clerestory windows, reached by four quiet elevators.

Dr. Fosdick’s party paused to study the great, stone chancel screen curving from reading desk to pulpit. Carved large on each of its seven separate sections is an aspect of the Christ.

The chapel (almost finished last week) is to be the jewel of the entire structure. Here small weddings, funerals and special religious services which require no more than 200 seats are to be conducted. The chapel, like the entire church, is replete with symbolism. But, although the church is modeled after the Gothic Cathedral of Chartres and the chapel an adaptation of the Romanesque features of the Cathedral of St. Nazaire at Carcassone, there has been throughout a careful disregard of inherently Roman Catholic symbolism. Whatever the Scriptures suggested to Riverside iconographers, that they designed. Thus the chapel reredos is dominated by a massive cross. Above its crossbar is the hand of the Father and the dove of the Holy Spirit and, carved small, the cruciform Son. However, the nave door of the chapel portrays the Nativity, without using the motif of Virgin & Child.

On the front porch of the church is a thin John the Disciple carved on the median jamb of the red double doors. St. John is the greeter. For “ushers” he has on one side of the porch Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah; on the other side followers of Christ SS. Simeon, Stephen, Paul, Barnabas, Timothy. Carved above them on the arch of the porch are two rows of angels framing a row of greatest scientists (Hippocrates to Albert Einstein, only living person yet figured in the whole church), a row of philosophers (Pythagoras to Ralph Waldo Emerson, only American figured), a row of religious leaders (Moses to David Livingstone. African missionary, explorer). High on the porch’s tympanum surrounded by Mark’s lion, Matthew’s angel, John’s eagle, Luke’s ox is Christ. Adjoining those Gospel writers is the idea of Matthew XXIII, 57: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”

This last is the true motto of the church. For, to Dr. Fosdick and to Mr. & Mrs. John Davison Rockefeller Jr., who have spared neither money ($4,000,000) nor thoughtful care for all details, the church is important only because of its prospective occupants. Who are they? They are students from every state and nation—tens of thousands who make upper Broadway near Riverside Drive the biggest student community (Columbia with all its schools, Barnard, Union Theological) in the U. S. They are, moreover, professors and friends of professors, thou-sands of educated people who live nearby and have jobs of more or less importance “down town.” And, besides these, just people—one or two hundred thousand who live in tall medium-priced apartment houses within walking distance. Altogether it has been an “unchurched” community. The Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine rises nearby and there is also a Fundamentalist Presbyterian church but otherwise there is little choice for Protestants. Dr. Fosdick proposes to give this educated community a place of greatest beauty for worship. He also proposes to serve the social needs of the somewhat lonely metropolite. Hence on a vast scale he has built all the accessories of a community church — gymnasium, assembly room for theatricals, dining rooms, etc., etc. He will have two assistant pastors besides many a staff worker.

In ten stories of the 22-story belltower are classrooms for the religious and social training of the young, from nurslings to college scholars. One floor is for the Women’s Society’s sewing room, another for the Women’s Bible Class. Dr. Fosdick’s study and conference rooms are on the 18th floor, richly decorated. Simple, but more massive in furniture is the floor above where the board of trustees meet— Edward Lathrop Ballard, fire insurance executive, president; John Davison Rockefeller III, who as secretary writes the chronicles; his father; his uncle Winthrop Williams Aldrich; et al. Not all of them rich, not all of them powerful, but all of them sociologically minded.

To understand this vast “inclusive” church, it is necessary to know the man who inspired it and who as long as he is there, will be its centre of inspiration, the 5 2-year-old man who is without doubt the most famed living Protestant preacher. Tens of thousands have heard him, millions have read him, hundreds have bared their hearts to him in private “confes-sional,” but his own life is little known. Briefly, the record:

First Crisis. Harry Emerson Fosdick met his first spiritual crisis at the age of seven, when he experienced conversion and determined to become a foreign missionary. The circumstance was astounding only to himself, for his family and environment were religious. Foretaste of the interdenominationalism which he was to make world-famed, he had been baptized a Baptist (by immersion), later attended a Presbyterian Sunday School and a Methodist young people’s society.

The scene was Buffalo, where he was born 52 years ago. Father Fosdick was a teacher destined to receive much local kudos as long-time high school principal and later Superintendent of Education. Son Harry was the best pupil in town. He won countless prizes, especially for oratory. Once he & friends removed the clapper from a Methodist Church bell and, baffled by the Presbyterian clapper, left it wrapped up in their clothes. But such a prank, except for indicating energy-voltage, was not typical of young Scholar-Orator Fosdick. who knew what he wanted to do and was well on the road to doing it.

Second Crisis occurred at Colgate University. Why, asked Freshman Fosdick, must the strength of Samson be literal fact if the strength of Hercules is myth merely? Two years later Junior Fosdick decided to remove God from his universe. Mean while, he had suffered such agonies of doubt as come only to those who are at once religious by nature and intellectually robust. But serenity returned when God came back stripped of obscurantist makeup. Harry Fosdick was graduated head of his class. Third Crisis was essentially physical, for never again was the Fosdick faith con founded. Dr. Fosdick’s is not a brilliant mind : Dr. Fosdick achieves brilliance. No preacher can equal his combination of simplicity and polish. This he gets by working 10 to 14 hours at a sermon. As a student in Union Theological Seminary he worked 14 hours a day. Besides his regular course, he took philosophy at Columbia. He also conducted a Bowery Mission, sometimes preaching nine times a Sunday to bums and toughs who needed strong, honest medicine. And he supported himself financially. Result: collapse, melancholia, gloom. It was, in evangelical idiom, the hand of God, for in later years thousands were to be rescued from despair by his sympathy. At least one man he indubitably saved from suicide. Development. Health regained, Harry Fosdick finished his last year at Union while serving as an assistant at Madison Avenue Baptist Church to Pastor George C. Lorimer (father of Editor George Horace Lorimer of Saturday Evening Post). Then, married, he took up his first pastorate in Montclair, N. J., prosperous-to-affluent suburb, which would have no youth but the ablest. For eleven years the man and his fame developed slowly, irre-sistibly. The man grew by meeting real issues. He flayed cardplaying (bridge). He was alarmed by this new thing called movies, He flayed parents who let “boys 12 years old send flowers to little girls and go in carriages to escort them to balls.” (He has now abandoned this gen-eral lire, doubtless because he finds the root-trouble is much deeper.) The man’s fame grew by books, simple, devotional, polished. Largely distributed through the Y. M. C. A., The Manhood of the Master, The Meaning of Prayer and others have reached a total sale of some 1,000,000 copies in the U. S. and have been translated into all manner of languages. Known by his books, he was in great demand as a university preacher. But that which made him universally famed was, to his regret, the

Fourth Crisis. In 1924, Dr. Fosdick had been for some years a professor at Manhattan’s First Presbyterian Church. Terrified by the advance of “Liberalism,” conservative Presbyterians led by William Jennings Bryan, et al. styled themselves Fundamentalists and launched an attack to drive from the church all who did not subscribe literally to a few “fundamentals” such as Virgin Birth of Christ. Astute, they concentrated on Dr. Fosdick, since he was a Baptist and since, there-fore, they might win a victory by ousting him from a Presbyterian pulpit without actually having a “heresy” trial in which they were by no means sure of even legalistic success. This made Dr. Fosdick the spokesman of non-Literalist Christianity. Upon him devolved the duty of presenting a “reasonable” Christianity which was not merely a milk & water diet of ethical excellencies. This crisis does not pass. And because it does not pass Dr. Fosdick can pack any church anywhere any time.

A few months ago, Dr. Fosdick became for a moment autobiographical, reminisced of his youth: “We roamed the woods, fished the streams, built our shanties by the brookside. . . .” Those, it might be said, were the old days when Faith was simple, when, despite the fast inrush of science and technology, the Church was a power in society. Today that power is everywhere threatened—not by persecution, but by indifference. In the most unchurched of educated communities in an increasingly unchurchlike world, Dr. Fosdick has caused to be raised on the banks of the magnificent Hudson a magnificent church. To voice its presence to surrounding multitudes John Davison Rockefeller Jr. has set in its tower 72 bells, world’s largest and heaviest carillon. (The Park Avenue Baptist, predecessor of Riverside Church, had only 53.) Their invitation Dr. Fosdick expressed in a great exordium:

“Let the youth of our day pass all the outworks of religion into its very citadel, into the presence of Jesus Christ Himself, what He was, what He stood for, and be challenged with that voice which long ago thundered, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and . . . thy neighbor as thyself.’ “

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