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History

A History of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, since its inception in 1843, has been grounded in and nourished by a solid base of Trinitarian theology expressed in Reformed worship, preaching, Christian education and ministry to its members, the surrounding community, New York City, and the world at large. Begun in a sparsely settled Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan Island, the congregation went through several mergers with other Presbyterian assemblies as it followed the trend of city growth northward. In 1864 it settled on 55th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. Under the leadership of Dr. Charles S. Robinson, the congregation outgrew its facilities and several years later moved to 53rd and Madison where it became known as Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (MAPC). Continuing growth included many who were living in the emerging Upper East Side of the city. Under the influence of these members, the congregation established its first outreach ministry, the Good Will Chapel on East 82nd Street, to minister to the ever-increasing numbers of European immigrants living in that area. The chapel offered worship services on Monday and Thursday evenings by the minister from Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, and included a lively Sunday church school and other forms of outreach ministry. At one point, a minister and three callers served about 600 people.

In 1858, another congregation, the downtown Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, established a similar outreach ministry on the corner of Madison Avenue and 73rd Street. Named The Phillips Church, it was built on a plot of land given by James Lenox, famous New York City citizen and staunch Presbyterian. Opportunities for increased ministry in this rapidly emerging portion of the city led to conversations between MAPC and the Phillips Church which resulted in the merger of the two in 1898. The Madison Avenue and 55th Street property was sold with the proceeds used to build a new sanctuary on the Madison Avenue and 73rd Street site. Construction began in 1889 with the demolition of the Phillips Church sanctuary. The three-storied church house behind the sanctuary was left standing and was incorporated into the new and current sanctuary structure. The building still bears the inscription of its original name over the 73rd Street door. The newly merged congregation took the name Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and began its ministry at this location upon the completion of the sanctuary in 1901.

The first several years of the newly merged church’s life were marked by difficulty as the leadership of the two former communities adjusted to the reality of becoming one new congregation. This was further exacerbated by the transition of several ministers, financial hardships, and the search for a new pastor willing to take on significant challenges. The leadership was intent upon calling a conservative evangelical pastor, but could not find one it could afford. In 1905 the congregation called Henry Sloane Coffin, Jr., a young pastor who had grown up in New York City and was educated at Yale Divinity School and St. Andrew’s Divinity School in Scotland. Mr. Coffin was then engaged in a successful urban ministry in the Bronx and ready for a larger congregation and its challenges. Having grown up the son of an affluent New York attorney, and a member of a successful business and merchandising family, Coffin, who had initially considered professional Y.M.C.A. service, discovered in seminary a passion for the emerging social gospel movement and its insistence that the Christian message minister to people’s physical as well as spiritual needs. True to Reformed principles, he was also a staunch advocate for insuring that theology be informed by the new knowledge emerging out of science as well as the critical study of scripture. He accepted the challenge of a call to MAPC for the staggering sum of one dollar a year on the provision that the church’s leadership would be open to his innovative vision for ministry. The leadership’s acceptance of his pastorate signaled a willingness to minister more aggressively among the people living to the east of what is now Park Avenue—then a ditch that was the main line track-bed of the New York Central Rail Road—intending not only to minister to their needs, but also to incorporate them into the membership of the congregation. Though the church continued its support of the satellite ministry of the Good Will Chapel on east 82nd Street, the new pastor had a broader vision for the future of MAPC. 

An aggressive program of ministry was initiated to those living in the tenement cold water flats to the east of the church building. Dr. Coffin and members of his staff began ringing doorbells of the tenement dwellers who then occupied much of the East Side beyond the 3rd Avenue Elevated line, sending a church wagon through the streets on Sunday mornings to gather up children and those for whom the walk would be a deterrent. Dr. Coffin had one inflexible rule: families could send their children to Sunday school for only three weeks. Thereafter, they must accompany them, or their children were no longer welcome. He knew well who shaped the faith of children and was insistent on ministering to the parents as well as their children.

Within five years, the proliferation of activities for parents and the growing church school population meant that the three-storied Phillips Church House building, which had been incorporated into the new sanctuary structure, was no longer sufficient to meet the church’s needs for program space. In 1910, Mr. Coffin’s college roommate, Edward S. Harkness, purchased and gave to the church a three-storied carriage house adjacent to the sanctuary on Madison Avenue. He also gave funds to convert the building into rooms for classes, meetings, offices, as well as a gym. Here the church held a variety of classes to meet the needs of the women, men, boys and girls in the community around them—language, parenting, cooking, sewing, household management and job training—as well as traditional religious education. In 1911, Coffin’s vision became a solid reality; the people of the Good Will Chapel were fully incorporated into the membership of MAPC and the chapel closed.

The new Church House was soon bursting at the seams. Resources were given by the congregation to provide a much-needed, larger, eleven story Church House building, which was erected on the site of the former carriage house and dedicated in 1917. Now there was even more space for classes, meetings, club activities, offices, as well as a two gyms—one for boys and the other for girls— two bowling alleys, residences for an outreach staff, a covered roof garden with projector, and a swimming pool. In an age when swimming pools and such were scarce in New York City, these were opened to people of the community whether or not they were members of this or any church. The tallest structure on the Upper East Side, it was known as “a beacon of light” and a center of life and ministry for both the congregation and the community at large. The building currently houses not only offices for the church’s pastoral and administrative staff, but also its nursery school, three staff residences, one full gym and another smaller recreational space, both of which are being used by independent schools in the area for their physical education programs. In addition, a feeding program for men and women and two shelters for homeless men are operated by the church out of this building, attesting to the fact that the Coffin and Harkness vision and legacy of ministry in and to the people of the city continues in the twenty-first century.

Help to others was not limited to New Yorkers. Early on, MAPC sponsored American missionaries in China and other lands. In World War I the church gladly opened its facilities to troops passing through the city while also providing clothing and medical supplies for the war effort, including the gift of an ambulance to France. By the 1920s, stewardship at MAPC had nearly reached a fifty-fifty split between the operating and mission budgets of the church, though Dr. Coffin was still only accepting one dollar a year in salary.

Dr. Coffin was not only a leader in social ministry; he was a theological force in the larger church. He had been educated theologically as the evangelical consensus of the 19th century was giving way to the advances in science, history, biblical studies and the social sciences. A student of the movement, he was committed to accommodating the traditional faith to the new knowledge as the church struggled with Darwin’s theory of evolution and the challenge that seemingly presented to the Bible’s description of creation. Convinced that theology must be conversant with modern scientific theory—often spoken of as the “modernist movement” within the church—he insisted upon open dialogue between theology and science, believing that if theology did not keep pace with modern thought, it would soon be left behind as irrelevant. The so-called “modernist movement” was met with a zealous counter movement known as “fundamentalism,” named for the so-called five fundamentals held to be essential tenets of the faith—the verbal inerrancy of scripture, the reality of eternal punishment, the necessity of conversion and personal assurance of salvation, and the imminent return of Christ (to these were later added the virgin birth and the physical resurrection). Following World War I, the increasing aggressiveness of the modernists was met by the militancy of the conservatives, threatening to split the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, as well as the Baptists, Methodists and others. At the 1926 General Assembly, Coffin emerged as the pivotal leader who forged a compromise that would keep the church together. Agreeing on the essentials of mission, while providing latitude for differences in theology, a strategy was adopted that would serve the church well until the emergence of the biblical theology of Karl Barth, whose “neo-orthodoxy” would provide a theological framework suitable for maintaining the primacy and integrity of scripture while addressing and pursuing the questions of science and history. Dr. Coffin returned from the 1926 General Assembly to find himself called from the MAPC pulpit to Union Theological Seminary where he became President that same year.

Dr. Coffin’s successor was George Arthur Buttrick. Reared an English Methodist, and severely wounded in World War I, Buttrick was educated at the University of Manchester in England and then migrated via Canada to Buffalo, New York, where he was serving a Presbyterian congregation and building a reputation as a gifted preacher. In 1927, MAPC called Dr. Buttrick to be its pastor. A solid biblical scholar with a centrist theology and commitment to outreach, Buttrick was first and foremost an eloquent and passionate preacher. Yet, scarcely had Dr. Buttrick settled into his New York City pastorate than the city and nation found themselves engulfed in the Great Depression. Not unlike his predecessor, Buttrick found it “irreconcilable with Christianity that 10 percent of the American people owned 95 percent of the nation’s wealth.” It was not lost on him that many of that 10 percent were within his own congregation! And so, he preached his way through the Depression with a zealous integrity and eloquence, combining his pulpit articulateness with a pastoral grace and compassion to win the hearts of the captains of industry as well as the working poor in the congregation. Despite a shrinking budget, soon down by a third, the church faced the Depression as an opportunity for ministry, helping hundreds of families with food, clothing, housing, and job resources while maintaining the social programs for ethnic groups and people from the tenement housing who had been drawn to the church during the Coffin years. In addition, worship began to be as important to the congregation’s life as its ministry of outreach. It not only became known as a center of Reformed Worship, with music a central part of the service—served by several notable church musicians—it was also known as a center for the finest Reformed preaching in the country. Dr. Buttrick not only taught three generations of preachers in his role as Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary, he taught by example on Sundays mornings. By 1939, MAPC was the largest Presbyterian congregation in New York City, with a membership of 2,857. At the end of the twentieth century, Dr. Buttrick was listed as the third most important and influential 20th century preacher in the world, preceded only by Billy Graham and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

World War II brought special challenges and opportunities. Dr. Buttrick’s war experience and understanding of the gospel had engendered in him a passionate commitment to pacifism which he did not fail to articulate as forces in the late thirties argued for the United States’ entrance into the War in Europe. With his pacifist commitment nationally known and unpopular in many quarters, nonetheless, the church, under his leadership, extended itself to create a USO center with an active ministry to men and women in uniform, as well as a strong program for conscientious objectors. At the end of the war, Buttrick was still a strong voice of conscience, challenging the captains of industry who sat before him on Sunday mornings to resist the lure to profit at others expense and what he saw as an emerging unholy alliance between the military and industrial complex. With the challenges of war behind the country, Buttrick had a vision for ministering to the needs of families and their young children. In 1948, he brought to the staff a man he considered the brightest and best Christian educator in the land, Dr. Frank Grieb, with the provision that Grieb develop a day school ministry for the church. Initially envisioned as preschool through eighth grade, it soon became apparent that a preschool would be demanding enough (in those days there were no kindergartens in the independent schools of New York City), and Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church Day School was established as a ministry of the congregation. At the same time, Buttrick’s gifts as preacher and scholar were turned to a scholarly pursuit that would serve and shape the pulpit ministries of the land, as he became general editor of The Interpreter’s Bible, a twelve-volume commentary on all of the books of the Bible, including not only scholarly exegesis, but also homiletic assistance. In 1956, just before his 30th year of service, with church membership at 2,600, Dr. Buttrick accepted a call to be Preacher to the Memorial Chapel of Harvard University and Professor of Homiletics at its Divinity School.

Dr. Buttrick’s departure opened the way for the church’s third prominent pastor of the twentieth century, the Scottish preacher David H.C. Read. Dr. Read, ordained shortly before World War II, had been a British Army Reserve Chaplain who was soon activated and shortly thereafter captured by the Germans in June 1940 during the battle of St. Valery-en-caux, France. “A guest of the Third Reich,” as he often said, David Read saw his confinement as an opportunity for ministry, preaching, teaching, caring for and representing the British officers to their captors. Soon, his sermons and lectures were being smuggled out of prison camps and finding their way to publishers, so that upon his liberation in April 1945, he discovered himself with a wide readership and in great demand as a conference preacher. Thereupon, he became the first Chaplain to students at Edinburgh University, and subsequently Chaplain to the Queen when she was in Scotland. In 1956, while he was on a preaching tour of the United States, the newly formed pastoral search committee at MAPC heard him preach, and within a few weeks extended a call to Dr. Read. Readily accepting, David H.C. Read became MAPC’s next pastor.

The rapid and deep changes that reshaped American society in the wake of World War II found themselves reflected in the ministry of MAPC. Not only did the Day School become a substantial part of the church’s outreach, radio now became an important ministry as well. This medium had come to have an astonishing impact across the nation, as preachers filled the airwaves. Dr. Read’s gifts found a special place in the utilization of this venue, as well as in the emerging technology of television. A leading preacher on the National Radio Pulpit, he gave eloquent voice to the message of the gospel from a Reformed perspective. His weekly radio, and later television, programs drew a wide and appreciative audience. An articulate apologist for the Christian faith during the emerging secularism that followed World War II, Dr. Read lead many through their “age of doubt” and helped them face the challenges of their changing world through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. A prolific writer, his 28 books nurtured parishioners and pastors alike, and congregations across the country became accustomed to hearing what David H.C. Read had said concerning this or that biblical text. In 1979, Time Magazine named Dr. Read one of the ten princes of the American Pulpit.

Preaching and worship were now clearly the center of the congregation’s life, but rather than as an exclusion to ministry in and to the community, they became the fountain from which those ministries emerged as the congregation remained alive to the needs of its local community. The Church House remained busy with programs designed to meet the challenges of the day. Twelve Step programs became firmly established, not only for alcohol abuse but also for cocaine dependency. The Day School continued to flourish, and a nursery school was soon located in the Church House as well. Soon the Gateway School—a school for children with learning disabilities—was given space to begin its work, and quickly developed into one of the primer schools of its kind in the country. The old Depression phenomena of the poor took a new twist as the country was confronted with people living on the streets. MAPC joined a coalition of concerned churches and established the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter (NCS) with its multifaceted programs to address the needs of the homeless, and later, together with its sister congregation, St. James Episcopal Church, provided the seed money for NCS’s purchase of its own facilities on the Upper East Side. As hunger became an increasing issue, the church established two feeding programs, the Senior Lunch program on Sunday afternoons, and Shelter Dinner on Thursday evenings. Numerous other outreach and social service organizations came to know the MAPC Church House as their “guest house.” In December 1989, two days before his 80th birthday, Dr. Read retired and became Pastor Emeritus of the congregation, continuing to live in New York City and worship with this congregation until his death in 2001, shortly after his 90 birthday.

MAPC’s strong tradition of preaching and worship, combined with a commitment to ministering in and to the city and world around it, sent the new Pastoral Nominating Committee on a two year, international search that ended in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where the Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson had been serving the Pine Street Presbyterian Church for the last fourteen years. Dr. Anderson took up his call to MAPC March 1, 1992. He brought with him wide experience as a preacher, worship leader, educator, liturgical theologian, administrator and hymn text writer, as well as one experienced in developing community ministry. A denominational leader in preaching and worship, he was chosen as the liturgist for the 1982 Assembly of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches that met in Ottawa, Canada. Within the Presbyterian Church, he had served on the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Worship, as Clerk and Writing Team member for its Task Force that developed the denomination's new Directory for Worship adopted in 1989, and preacher for the 1991 General Assembly. In addition, his hymn texts began to appear in both Protestant and Roman Catholic hymnals in North America, China and Japan, with fifteen included in the Presbyterian Hymnal published in 1990. Continuing his work on a metrical psalter based on the New Common Lectionary, his newest psalm texts appear regularly in MAPC’s Sunday orders of worship.

Having established notably successful feeding programs that served the broader communities of his previous congregations—the first food pantry in Pompton Plains, New Jersey including a one acre church garden that supplied fresh produce and a seven day a week “soup kitchen” (Downtown Daily Bread) in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—Dr. Anderson was equipped to take up not only MAPC’s preaching and worship leadership, but also its ministry of outreach in New York City. Under his leadership MAPC has reenvisioned, revitalized and expanded the Day School from 45 children to approximately 125 students, developed a dedicated Christian Education hour for adults, as well as children, instituted a mid-week children's program, established the Learning Enrichment Activities Program (LEAP) in East Harlem, developed two overnight shelters that house approximately 30 men each night, entered into a partnership with the First Spanish Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn to support a full time pastor for that congregation, and deepened the churches partnership with Church of Gethsemane and its Christmas Angel program, a ministry to the children and families of incarcerated women and men. In doing so, he has also invigorated the congregation’s stewardship commitments, reducing its dependence upon its endowment, while maintaining the church's vigorous pace of community-based ministries in and beyond the Church House. Addressing the decline in membership experienced in the previous two decades, he instituted an innovative and aggressive program of evangelism, utilizing not only the traditional mediums of newspapers and radio, but the newest technological advancement, the Internet. In 1994, the congregation was one of the first to launch a website, which included an archive of Dr. Anderson’s sermons in print and audio format. Much like his predecessor’s books of sermons, Dr. Anderson’s archived sermons dating back to 1994 have become a popular resource for young preachers across the country. Continuing the preaching tradition of his predecessors, Dr. Anderson is regularly featured on Day1, the former Protestant Hour radio program, and his sermons are frequently published on goodsermons.com, an independent online preaching resource. In addition to his Bible-based expository preaching, Dr. Anderson is acknowledged as a gifted teacher and regularly offers courses on biblical, historical, and doctrinal theology.

By the early 1990’s the church’s facilities were beginning to show their age and immediate attention was required to bring them into repair. Falling plaster from the ceiling of the sanctuary prompted the 1997 launch of the $12 million Fund for Renewal campaign to complete the total renovation and modernization of the Sanctuary and Parish Hall, as well as replacement of the Church House elevators. Subsequently, a columbarium was added adjacent to the Sanctuary. Tithing a portion of the monies raised in the financial campaign, the church provided grants to help construct Carnegie East, an assisted care facility in Manhattan, and Presbyterian Senior Services, a facility in the Bronx designed to house grandparents raising grandchildren. In addition, a major grant was made to the Presbyterian Church in Malawi (CCPA), to provide similar care for children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic.

Within three years of the dedication of the remodeled Sanctuary, it became evident that the infrastructure of the Church House was about to collapse. A second capital campaign, the $13 million 921 Fund, was launched to provide for the total replacement of the Church House electrical and plumbing infrastructure, installation of a thermostatically controlled circulating hot water heating system to run in parallel with the unregulated steam system until it can be completely replaced, installation of a fire suppression system that will eventually place sprinklers on each floor, construction of three staff apartments on the 10th floor, the total renovation of the Day School’s 9th floor facility, the second floor gym, the renovation of the sub-basement including the removal of the now outdated swimming pool in order to install the new heating system, trash storage, workshop, locker rooms and showers. The covering of the old pool space allowed for the build-out of two overnight shelters, one of which is used for a drug rehabilitation program during the day.

Church leadership was again committed to tithing a portion of the 921 Fund, but this time chose not to break that amount into smaller gifts as it had with the Fund for Renewal. Long known as a congregation invested in supervising seminarians and training future ministers, and Dr. Anderson’s experience and gifts as a seminary teaching pastor and pastoral supervisor, the Global Ministry Fellowship was established. This program sponsors a two-year fellowship for a newly ordained Presbyterian minister to experience ministry in the Global South. The fellowship currently works in partnership with the Theological Education by Extension Zambia program located in Kitwe, Zambia. Upon completion of the work with TEEZ, and further travel throughout the Global South, the Fellows return to MAPC to interpret their experience, to make the transition back into American life, and to seek their next call. In order that the larger congregation can participate in and experience some of the dynamics of the rapidly growing church in the Global South, MAPC is also pursuing a mission partnership with the Synod of Harare in Zimbabwe, Africa.

Beyond Dr. Anderson’s responsibilities as Pastor at MAPC, other institutions benefited from his leadership skills. He served as a trustee for Princeton Theological Seminary, Chair of the Board of Trustees at the Center of Theological Inquiry, and as a trustee of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. His work with the foundation took him to Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Argentina, China, Turkey, Cuba, and Azerbaijan as the organization works for religious freedom and mutual respect across the globe. He was also a member of the team that leads the annual Conference on Religion and Public Life at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Dr. Anderson retired in May, 2015.

MAPC has also been blessed with distinguished church musicians and no account of the MAPC story would be complete without recognition of the church's exceptional musical tradition. In 1913, while still on the faculty at Yale University, Seth Bingham began a 38-year ministry at MAPC as Organist and Director of Music, and was also Professor of Composition at Columbia University and lecturer in Church Music at Union Theological Seminary.

Dr. John Weaver, now Director of Music and Organist Emeritus, served from 1970 until 2005. Though officially retired and living in West Glover, Vermont, John Weaver remains an internationally recognized organist, church musician, composer, recitalist and teacher. Having instituted the weekly Bach Cantata series while organist at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church before coming to MAPC, he quickly organized the Saint Andrew Music Society and began a series of Sunday afternoon concerts and recitals, featuring some of New York City’s most gifted musicians. In addition, the Saint Andrew Chorale was formed to perform master choral works complete with professional orchestral accompaniment. While head of the organ departments at both the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School of Music, Dr. Weaver was listed among the one hundred most important organists of the 20th century (as was Mr. Bingham). John Weaver's hymn tunes, arrangements and service music are prominent features of The Presbyterian Hymnal. A member and former President of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians and a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy, he served on the committee to develop The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990).

Upon Dr. Weaver’s retirement, the church was blessed again to secure the talents of Dr. Andrew E. Henderson as Director of Music and Organist, and his wife Mary Huff, as Associate Director of Music and Organist. Dr. Henderson continues in the tradition of Bingham and Weaver with his gifts as organist and choral conductor, which are evident not only in the church’s weekly liturgical life, but also in the Sunday afternoon concerts of the Saint Andrew Music Society and the Saint Andrew Chorale. Mary Huff has quickly established herself as a specialist in early childhood music education and as an outstanding director of children’s choirs.