Riverside Church is a Christian church in Morningside Heights, Upper Manhattan, New York City. It opened its doors on October 5, 1930. It is situated at 120th Street and 490 Riverside Drive, near the Columbia University Morningside Heights Campus, across the street from, and one block south of, President Grant's Tomb. Although interdenominational, it is also associated with the American Baptist Churches USA and the United Church of Christ. It is famous for its large size and elaborate Neo-Gothic architecture as well as its history of social justice. It was described by The New York Times in 2008 as "a stronghold of activism and political debate throughout its 75-year history ... influential on the nation's religious and political landscapes." It has been a focal point of global and national activism since its inception.
The church was conceived by industrialist, financier, and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874–1960), and minister Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), as a large, interdenominational church in a neighborhood important to the city, open to all who profess faith in Christ. Its congregation includes more than forty ethnic groups. As of 2007, the church had a $14 million annual operating budget and a paid staff of 130. In 2012 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Martin Luther King Jr. voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War at Riverside on April 4, 1967 (the same day he was killed the following year) in his Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, also known as the Riverside Church speech. The Rev. Jesse Jackson gave the eulogy at Jackie Robinson's funeral service in 1972. Bill Clinton spoke at Riverside Church on August 29, 2004. Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan spoke there after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Cesar Chavez, Desmond Tutu, Fidel Castro, Arundhati Roy and Nelson Mandela have all spoken at Riverside Church. Other past speakers include such theological superstars as Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German who was instrumental in the Christian resistance against the Third Reich, and Channing E. Phillips, a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and the first African American to receive votes as a presidential nominee at a Democratic National Convention. Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy President of Interfaith Alliance of Washington, DC.
Social services and ministries
Riverside's HIV-AIDS ministry hosts a quarterly Spiritual HIV Support Forum and participates in on-site HIV Testing, Counseling and Referral programs. They collaborate with AIDS Service Center NYC Spiritual Outreach Services Program, Conscious Contact New York HIV Ministry Technical Assistance Program and United Church of Christ HIV/AIDS National HIV/AIDS Faith Partnership. The ministry is also involved in HIV-AIDS issues in Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Europe."
Other ministries at Riverside include an Anti-Death Penalty Task Force, which is in opposition to capital punishment in the United States, an 'Overcoming Violence' task force dedicated to fostering dialogue with the New York City Police Department, the Densford Fund for the education and appreciation of Native Americans in the United States, a South Africa Support Group, and a Support Group for Hispanic and Latino Americans."
- LGBT: Riverside Church's LGBT ministry is known as Maranatha (an Aramaic word meaning "Our Lord, Come!"). Marantha hosts a LGBTQ-SGL Pride Breakfast and has marched in the Pride Parade since 1978. Maranatha also hosts events, including Elder Queer Spirit, Transgender Forum, workshops about the spiritual journeys of LGBT people and movie nights. Riverside Church also hosted its first legal same-sex wedding in 2011 when Brad Hauger and TJ Williams were married.
- African Fellowship and Ministry: has historical roots that extend as far back as the Biafran War in Nigeria, when refugees from that war came to the United States. Today the members of the group and their allies trace their heritages and work on behalf of Africa throughout the African diaspora and Continent With a Pan African focus, the Fellowship sponsors educational forums about issues facing the Continent of Africa and advocates on behalf of Africans throughout the diaspora. It provides fellowship and support of people of the church and community with similar interests.
- Anti-torture: Riverside Church participates in the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
- Prison ministry and family advocacy: Riverside's Prison Ministry and Family Advocacy Program conducts services of worship in the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, lobbies for prison reform and humane legislation, links inmates with their families and communities, collects Christmas gifts for the children of people in prison, leads an annual forum on Criminal Justice issues, provides assistance to other faith communities in establishing their own prison outreach programs, and hosts a support group for families and friends of people in prison."
- Immigrants' rights: Riverside is a participant in the New Sanctuary Movement. As a part of this movement, congregations maintain that the immigration system mistreats immigrants and breaks families apart. They seek to end raids of job sites that have led to the arrest of thousands of undocumented workers, and lobby for policies that would help keep the families of illegal immigrants together in the United States.
Volunteers within Riverside's congregation support detained asylum seekers and those on parole from immigration detention by visiting immigration detainees who have no friends or family in the area. Asylum seekers sometimes spend months in detention centers before they win asylum or are deported. The Department of Homeland Security gives parole to asylum seekers who are not a security risk and have someone to take them in. Riverside assists asylum seekers with free housing, connection to food banks, and a survival-level cash stipend.
- Occupy Wall Street: Riverside Church donated 100 tents to Occupy Wall Street and joined with other NYC churches in a coordinated effort they called "Occupy Faith". As a part of Occupy Faith, Riverside provided shelter to OWS protestors who needed shelter during cold or inclement weather, and after the Zucotti Park evacuation."
- Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969; served 1930–46), was the most prominent liberal Baptist minister of the early 20th century. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1903 at the Madison Avenue Baptist Church and later served at First Presbyterian Church in the West Village, in lower Manhattan. While at First Church, he was the subject in a 1923 church trial requested by the national general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. over his modernist views. Later, while at Riverside, he established an openness to diversity and strong progressive policy. A notable sermon, "The Unknown Soldier," preached on Sunday November 12, 1933, immediately following Armistice Day, in which Fosdick trenchantly denounced and renounced war, inspired Canon Dick Sheppard in the Britain in 1934 to write a letter to the press, which led to the founding of the Peace Pledge Union.
- Robert J. McCracken (1947–67) was a Scottish-born professor of systematic theology. He preached that racism was a sin and said of atheists, "we can learn from radical doubters ... It is the heretics who have forced the church to clear its mind, opened it up to new insights, spurred it on to deeper thinking about God and Christ and man ... Their concern is a challenge to our complacency."
- Ernest T. Campbell (1968–1976) was raised in New York City by working class, Irish immigrant parents. He was the first minister who was not Baptist, but rather Presbyterian. He graduated from Bob Jones University and attended Princeton Theological Seminary, and in 1960 he received a "Man of the Year" award from the American Civil Liberties Union for his work in civil rights. Campbell preached a controversial sermon entitled "The Case for Restitution," in which he argued the case for making financial and other reparations to African-Americans for past injustices. He preached against the Vietnam war, and for greater tolerance of gays and lesbians.
- William Sloane Coffin (1977–87) was an initial advisor to the Peace Corps and the first director of the Peace Corps Field Training Center in Puerto Rico. In 1961 Coffin was one of several Freedom Riders who were arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for protesting segregation laws. He was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and was arrested in 1968 for aiding and abetting draft resisters. He was also a classical pianist who studied with Nadia Boulanger as a teen, until World War II forced him to leave Paris. After attending Yale University, he was going to enter the CIA, until he attended a conference at Union Theological Seminary, which he then entered, although he interrupted his studies to work for the CIA during the Korean War, when he trained Russians who were opposed to the Soviet Union for operiations within the Soviet Union. He eventually completed seminary at Yale Divinity School. He once gave a sermon entitled "It's a Sin to Build a Nuclear Weapon," and, during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, urged his congregation to "pray for the Iranians too."
- James A. Forbes (1989–2007) was heralded by Newsweek magazine as one of the twelve most effective English-language preachers, and called one of the best black pastors by Ebony magazine. He was active in the anti-apartheid movement, and officiated at a service with Nelson Mandela. He was also concerned with the growing economic disparity in the United States. Forbes was proclaimed Distinguished Senior Minister Emeritus upon his retirement.
- Brad R. Braxton became Riverside's sixth senior minister in 2008. Braxton graduated from the University of Virginia and was then a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. On June 29, 2009 he submitted his letter of resignation.
- Amy Butler was elected as Riverside's seventh (and first female) senior minister on June 8, 2014. Butler received both her BA and MA from Baylor University in 1991 and 1996 respectively. She also holds degrees from The International Baptist Theological Seminary (BD '95) and Wesley Theological Seminary (DMin '09). Before coming to Riverside Church she served as senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. for 11 years.
The Rev. Michael Livingston is the Executive Minister.
The tallest church in the United States, and 24th tallest in the world, Riverside was designed by the firm of Allen, Pelton and Collens. Henry C. Pelton and Charles Collens were commissioned by Rockefeller to travel across Spain and France to find inspiration for their project. They took for their model of the nave the 13th-century Gothic Chartres Cathedral, France. For the massive single bell tower that dwarfs the rest of the church, they modeled one of the towers at Laon, but here with a base 100 feet (30 m) square, and built on a steel frame the equivalent of a 22-story building (392 feet (119 m)). Inlaid on the floor is a labyrinth. The church was begun in 1927 and, following delays caused by a spectacular fire in the wooden scaffolding, held its first service at the main altar on October 5, 1930.
The exterior buttressing is purely decorative, for the structure is supported on its steel frame, and its weight would not be sufficient to counter the weight of the vault. The writers of the WPA Guide to New York City (1939) noted "Their smallness has the effect of making the building itself seem smaller than it is, so that its scale is scarcely impressive, even when seen at close range."
The west-facing main entrance, in the base of the tower, is based on the Porte Royale of Chartres, with the seated figure of Christ in the tympanum, flanked by the symbols of the Evangelists. The figures sculpted in the concentric arches of the doorway represent leading personalities of religion and philosophy, joined by great scientists. The nave has a seating capacity of 2,100.
The tower houses a carillon that John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated in memory of his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller. Its final complement of 74 bronze bells (at the time the largest carillon of bells in the world—see also Kirk in the Hills) includes the 20-ton bourdon, the largest tuned bell in the world.
The church used to house a public observation deck on top of the carillon, closed since September 11, 2001.
The church was conceived as a complex social services center from the outset, with meeting rooms and classrooms, a daycare center, a kindergarten, library, auditorium and gym. It was designated a New York City Landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2000.
The original chancel and gallery organs for the Riverside Church were built by Hook and Hastings of Boston when the church was opened in 1930. A new five-manual Aeolian-Skinner chancel console was built in 1948, followed by that firm's new chancel organ in 1953–54, retaining some of the original pipework but replacing some gallery pipework.
In 1964, a new Aeolian-Skinner organ was installed in the second gallery, and all pipes were revoiced. During 1966–67, Anthony A. Bufano built a new five-manual console; at the same time, Gilbert F. Adams made major tonal revisions, including the addition of the Positiv, new pipework in the Bombarde, complete new principal choruses in the Great and Swell, chorus reeds in the Great, revoiced reeds in the Swell, Solo, and Choir, and other new flues. A rebuilt four-manual Austin console was installed in the gallery.
Bufano gave the Trompeta Majestatis, built by Möller and voiced by Adolph Zajic, in memory of his mother in 1978. The Grand Chorus division was added two years later (1980), and a complete new principal chorus was installed in the chancel Pedal. In 1994, a Solid State Logic multi-level combination action was installed and the console was completely rewired. In summer 1995, the dry acoustics were improved when 10 coats of sealant were applied to the ceiling. During 1995–96, organ curator Robert Pearson supervised the complete cleaning, tuning, and revoicing of the organ to suit the new acoustical environment. The organ is the 14th largest in the world.
The Director of Music and organist is Christopher Johnson. Past organists at the Riverside Church include Virgil Fox (1946–1965), Frederick Swann (1957–1982), John Walker (1979–1992), and Timothy Smith (1992–2008). Several recordings of the organ and Riverside Choir have been released. The church offers a popular summer organ concert series on Tuesday nights in July and August.
In the Riverside Church hang three paintings by Heinrich Hofmann which were purchased by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.: Christ in the Temple (1871), Christ and the Young Rich Man (1889), and Christ in Gethsemane (1890). Stained glass for the apse was created by Harry Wright Goodhue.
The church contains statues of a number of science personalities including Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, Darwin, Pasteur and Einstein.
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Einstein was immortalized at the west portal of the Riverside Church next to personalities such as Euclid, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, Darwin and Pasteur, to only mention a few.