Riverside Church

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Interior of Riverside Church
Riverside Church
Riverside Church
The Riverside Church in the City of New York is an inter-denominational, but member of American Baptist and United Church of Christ church in New York City's northwestern Manhattan neighborhood of Morningside Heights, famous for its large size and elaborate Neo-Gothic architecture and 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."[1] It has been a focal point of global and national activism since its inception.
The church was conceived by famed but controversial industrialist/financier/philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., (1874-1960),[2] and the emerging but controversial, famous minister and preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, (1878-1969), as a large, inter-denominational church in a neighborhood important to the city, open to all who profess faith in Christ. Its congregation includes more than forty ethnic groups.[3] As of 2007, the church had a $14 million annual operating budget and a paid staff of 130.[4] In 2012 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[5]

Mission Statement[edit]

The Church's mission statement, adopted in 1992, is:
"...the worship of God, known in Jesus, the Christ, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit ... to serve God through word and witness, to treat all human beings as sisters and brothers; and to foster responsible stewardship of God's creation ... The church pledges itself to education, reflection, and action for peace and justice and the realization of the vision of the heavenly banquet where all are loved and blessed."[6]

Notable speakers[edit]

Martin Luther King Jr. voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War at Riverside on April 4, 1967.[7] Bill Clinton spoke at Riverside Church on August 29, 2004.[8] Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan spoke there after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Cesar Chavez, Jesse Jackson, 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 African-American 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. On January 15, 2012, a commemoration celebration for Martin Luther King Jr. took place at the Riverside Church, which included appearances by Patti Smith and Yoko Ono.

Social Services and Ministries[edit]

Riverside's Pride Parade Float
Riverside Church provides various social services, including a food bank, barber training, clothing distribution, a shower project, and confidential HIV tests and HIV counseling. "[9]

LGBT Advocacy[edit]

National Religious Campaign Against Torture
Some of Riverside's Prison Ministry Volunteers at a Correctional Facility
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. "[9]


Riverside Church participates in the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.[10] Current social justice minister Rev. Robert Coleman was a steering committee member of the Metro New York Religious Campaign Against Torture from 2007 to 2009.

Prison Ministry and Family Advocacy[edit]

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."[11]

HIV-AIDS Ministry[edit]

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."[12]

Immigrants' Rights[edit]

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. Current Social Justice Minister Rev. Robert Coleman served as President of the New York New Sanctuary Coalition from 2008 to 2009, and in 2009 the Riverside Church hosted the National Gathering of The New Sanctuary Movement in New York.[13] 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 aren't 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. "[9]

Other Ministries[edit]

Further 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."[9]

Occupy Wall Street[edit]

The 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. "[14]


Harry Emerson Fosdick
Harry Emerson Fosdick, (1878-1969), [served 1930–46], was the most prominent liberal Baptist minister of the early 20th Century. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1903 at the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, and later served at First Presbyterian Church. While at First Church, he was 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 established an openness to diversity and strong progressive policy.
Robert J. McCracken, (1947–67), was a Scottish-born professor of systematic theology. He preached that racism was a sin, and he said of atheists, "...we can learn from radical doubters [...]It is the heretics who have forced the church to clear its mind, opened up to it new insights, spurred it on to deeper thinking about God and Christ and man [...]Their concern is a challenge to our complacency.""[15]
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 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 financial and other reparations made 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 was the first director to 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 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.[1] Braxton graduated from the University of Virginia and was then a Rhodes scholar at Oxford.[16] On June 29, 2009 he submitted his letter of resignation.

Current clergy[edit]

The church is presently served by Interim Senior Minister Rev. Stephen H. Phelps, a graduate of Yale Divinity School long involved in social justice and interfaith dialogue. Rev. Phelps also teaches church history and Christian ethics in New York Theological Seminary’s Master’s Program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York.[17]
Rev. Linda Tarry-Chard serves as Minister for Membership, Care & Parish Life. Her career has involved much advocacy for disadvantaged urban children and families; she was the Director of Adoption Services at Graham Windham Children’s Services; Director of Victim Services Agency/ Community Outreach in the five boroughs of New York City; Director of Special Projects for the New York City Board of Education, and founding Board Member of the Sister Fund, a private foundation that supports women and girls in New York.[13]
Rev. Julie Johnson Staples serves as Minister for Education. She now moderates the New York-New Jersey Regional Association of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and is a member of the NACCC national ambassador team, acting as a regional advisor to ministerial search committees and a resource representative for member churches in the NACCC. A fellow of the Congregational Foundation for Theological Studies, which is dedicated to developing and sustaining ministerial excellence within her denomination, Rev. Johnson Staples recently completed a Th.M. degree in Religion, Literature and Culture at Harvard University.[18]
The church is engaged in searching for its next Senior Minister.


Riverside Church (left), as seen from the campus of Columbia University
The tallest church in the United States, 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)).[19] 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.[6]
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 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.


View on the narthex with the organ
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.[20] The organ is the 14th largest in the world.[21]
The Director of Music and organist is Christopher Johnson.[22] Past organists at the Riverside Church include Virgil Fox (1946–1965), Frederick Swann (1957–1982), John Walker (1979–1992), and Timothy Smith (1992–2008).[23] 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.[22]


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).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jump up to: a b Russ Buettner (2008-08-04). "Riverside Church Selects a New Leader". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-04.
  2. Jump up ^ Ron Chernow, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., London: Warner Books, 1998
  3. Jump up ^ "Riverside Church", Neighborhood Preservation Center, accessed 24 Jan 2009
  4. Jump up ^ Freedman, Samuel G. (May 5, 2007). "Riverside Takes On the Task of Rebuilding a Church". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-09.
  5. Jump up ^ "National Register of Historic Places listings for December 21, 2012". U.S. National Park Service. December 21, 2012. Retrieved December 21, 2012.
  6. ^ Jump up to: a b "About Us". The Riverside Church. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
  7. Jump up ^ "Letter from Robert J McCracken to MLK". Retrieved 2012-04-12.
  8. Jump up ^ "Local Listing, New York, NY". Retrieved 2012-04-12.
  9. ^ Jump up to: a b c d "Missions and Social Justice", The Riverside Church: Missions and Social Justice, accessed 10 Apr 2012
  10. Jump up ^ "Global Justice and Peace", The Riverside Church: Missions and Social Justice: Global Justice and peace, accessed 10 Apr 2012
  11. Jump up ^ "Prison Ministry", The Riverside Church: Missions and Social Justice: Prison Ministry, accessed 10 Apr 2012
  12. Jump up ^ "HIV", The Riverside Church: Missions and Social Justice: The Riverside Church Global HIV/AIDS Ministry, accessed 10 Apr 2012
  13. ^ Jump up to: a b "Staff", The Riverside Church: Staff, accessed 12 Apr 2012
  14. Jump up ^ "Occupy Wall Street and the Riverside Church", Occupy Wall Street at the Riverside Church, accessed 10 Apr 2012
  15. Jump up ^ "Atheism in Our Time", Theology Today,Volume 23. No. 3., accessed 12 Apr 2012
  16. Jump up ^ Vitello, Paul (September 14, 2008). "Divided Landmark Church Picks ‘Progressive Evangelical’ as New Leader". The New York Times. Retrieved December 6, 2008.
  17. Jump up ^ "Rev. Phelps", The Riverside Church: Senior Minister Rev. Stephen H. Phelps, accessed 10 Apr 2012
  18. Jump up ^ "Staff", The Riverside Church: Staff, accessed 25 Oct 2012
  19. Jump up ^ New York Architecture Images - Riverside Church. Accessed July 31, 2006
  20. Jump up ^ Riverside Organ specification at NYC AGO.org, accessed June 5, 2010
  21. Jump up ^ "The World's Largest Pipe Organs". Retrieved 2007-12-21.
  22. ^ Jump up to: a b "Metro Concert Calendar – 2009". New York Chapter, American Guild of Organists. Retrieved 2009-04-09.
  23. Jump up ^ "Music at St. Paul's". Office of the University Chaplain. Columbia University. Retrieved 2009-04-09.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 40°48′43″N 73°57′48″W / 40.81194°N 73.96333°W / 40.81194; -73.96333