Nondenominational church on the border of the Morningside Heights and Harlem neighborhoods on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. Famous not only for its elaborate, gothic style architecture, but also as a center for causes of social justice. But, primo, a bit of history.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, Christian churches in New York City and their members were in debate over the future of their faith. Some preached a fundamentalist interpretation, made famous previously by thinkers such as William Jennings Bryan, who believed in a strict interpretation and enforcement of the Bible. Others, however, disagreed, and believed that for religion to succeed it must take a more modern approach, being actively involved in the society around them in the example of Jesus Christ. In 1922, the later group, with the help of John D. Rockefeller and modernist Presbyterian Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, decided to create a church dedicated to these values in New York City.

This church was to be built around three main principles advocated by Dr. Fosdick: membership open to all who have faith in Christ, an interdenominational setting, and a large church in a neighborhood important to the city. Based on these requirements, land was purchased by Mr. Rockefeller and construction began in December 1927 and ended two years later on October 5, 1930. Modeled after a French church (see Architecture below), Riverside Church remains not only an important landmark for tourists, but also an important center for lively political discussion. Past speakers at the pulpit have included the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking on his objection to the Vietnam War, Nelson Mandela on his first visit to the United States after being released from prison, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan after September 11, 2001, and Fidel Castro during one of his rare visits to the country in 1999. The rich variety of voices present at the Church insures it a vital role into the next century, as it stands at the forefront of many movements for social justice.

Art and Architecture: The Church Upon a Hill

The Church was designed by Harry C. Pelton and Charles Collens, who were commissioned by Rockefeller to travel across Spain and France to find inspiration for their project. They found a model in a 13th Century gothic cathedral in Chartes, France. The elaborate design was twinned in Riverside, and remains a spectacular example of the genre today. Perhaps the most amazing feature of this architecture is in the interior of the church on the floor. It is an elaborate engraved maze, modeled after one found in the French cathedral. While its origins are unknown, some have said it represents Christ’s path to the Calvary, and to others it represents those Christians who refused to join the Crusades.

The Church Today

The Church remains today an ironic contradiction in terms. It is an ancient building that is home and nurturer to radical ideas of modernity, a citadel of immense and elaborate works of art that stands as an advocate for the poor. Such a church could only exist in New York City, on the top of a hill in Harlem, looking out for the rest of us.

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