Whoever passes up Broadway finds his attention arrested by three fine structures, Trinity Church, that of the Messiah, and Grace Church.
His impressions are, probably, at first of a pleasant character. He looks upon these edifices as expressions, which, however inferior in grandeur to the poems in stone which adorn the older world, surely indicate that man cannot rest content with his short earthly span, but prizes relations to eternity. The house, in which he pays deference to claims which death will not cancel, seems to be no less important in his eyes than those in which the affairs which press nearest are attended to.
So far, so good! That is expressed which gives man his superiority over the other orders of the natural world, that consciousness of spiritual affinities of which we see no unequivocal signs elsewhere.
But, if this be something great when compared with the rest of the animal creation, yet how little seems it when compared with the ideal that has been offered to him, as to the means of signifying such feelings. These temples! how far do they correspond with the idea of that religious sentiment from which they originally sprung?
In the old world the history of such edifices, though not without its shadow, had many bright lines.—Kings and Emperors paid oftentimes for the materials and labor a price of blood and plunder, and many a wretched sinner sought by contributions of stone for their walls! to roll off that he had laid on his conscience. Still the community amid which they rose, knew little of these drawbacks. Pious legends attest the purity of feeling associated with each circumstance of their building. Mysterious orders, of which we know only that they were consecrated to brotherly love and the development of mind, produced the genius which animated the architecture, but the casting of the bells and suspending them in the tower was an act in which all orders of the community took part; for when those cathedrals were consecrated it was for the use of all. Rich and poor knelt together upon their marble pavements, and the imperial altar welcomed the obscurest artisan.
This grace our Churches want, the grace which belongs to all religions, but is peculiarly and solemnly enforced upon the followers of Jesus. The poor to whom he came to preach can have no share in the grace of Grace Church. In St. Peter’s, if only as an empty form, the soiled feet of travel-worn disciples are washed, but such feet can never intrude on the fane of the holy trinity here in republican America, and the Messiah may be supposed still to give as excuse for delay “The poor you always have with you.”
We must confess this circumstance is to us quite destructive of reverence and value for these buildings.
We are told that at the late consecration the claims of the poor were eloquently urged, and that an effort is to be made, by giving a side chapel, to atone for the luxury which shuts them out from the reflection of sunshine through those brilliant windows. It is certainly better that they should be offered the crumbs from the rich man’s table than nothing at all. Yet it is surely not the way that Jesus would have taught to provide for the poor.
Would you not then have these splendid edifices erected? We certainly feel that the educational influence of good specimens of architecture, (and we know no other argument in their favor) is far from being a counterpoise to the abstraction of so much money from purposes that would be more in fulfilment of that Christian idea which these assume to represent.
Were the rich to build such a church, and, dispensing with pews and all exclusive advantages, invite all who would to come in to the banquet, that were, indeed, noble and Christian. And, though we believe more, for our nation and time, in intellectual monuments than those of wood and stone, and, in opposition even to our admired Powers, think that Michael Angelo himself could have advised no more suitable monument to Washington than a house devoted to the instruction of the people, and believe that that great master and the Greeks no less would agree with us if they lived now to survey all the bearings of the subject; yet we would not object to these splendid churches, if the idea of Him they call Master were represented in them. But till it is, they can do no good, for the means are not in harmony with the end. The rich man sits in state while ‘near two hundred thousand’ Lazaruses linger, provided for, without the gate. While this is so, they must not talk much, within, of Jesus of Nazareth, who called to him fishermen, laborers and artisans, for his companions and disciples.
We find some excellent remarks on this subject from Rev. STEPHEN OLIN, President of the Wesleyan University. They are appended as a note to a discourse addressed to Young Men, on the text:
This discourse, though it discloses formal and external views of religious ties and obligations, is dignified by a fervent, generous love for men, and a more than commonly catholic liberality, and though these remarks are made and meant to bear upon the interests of his own sect, yet they are anti-sectarian in their tendency and worthy the consideration of all anxious to understand the call of duty in these matters. Earnest attention of this sort will better avail than fifteen hundred dollars, or more, paid for a post of exhibition in a fashionable Church, where, if piety be provided with one chance, worldliness has twenty to stare it out of countenance.*
“Consecration of Grace Church,” New-York Daily Tribune, 11 March 1846, p. 2.