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Consecration of Grace Chapel



Rector of Grace Church.,






McWilliams, White & Co., Printers, 170 and 172 Centre Street


Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2007

PROVERBS, XXII, 2.--"The rich and poor meet together; the Lord is the maker of them all."

OVER the chancel arch of the building which formerly stood a little to the northward of the spot upon which we are assembled this morning, and which was destroyed by fire on the eve of Christmas Day, 1872, ran the legend which I have chosen as my text. The words were a proclamation of the motive by which those who had reared that building were inspired, and a declaration of those principles of worship by which they aimed to be governed.

The first Grace chapel was reared in the year 1849 and it is at once interesting and instructive to trace the history of its inception. When the present structure, known as Grace church in Broadway, was consecrated just thirty years ago, its rector, the Rev. Dr. Thomas House Taylor, D.D., in the sermon preached at its consecration spoke as follows: "I would seize upon this occasion of joyous congratulation to lead you on from one good and glorious work to another, perhaps more really good, perhaps more truly glorious still. You have indeed provided for yourselves, and for the deathless spirits of your little ones, this place of prayer, in all its soothing and subduing associations of solemnity and beauty; and now I have come to persuade you to go on and provide for the spiritual and eternal wants of the poor, whom God has commanded to be always with you.

[2] "My object is to ask that you will give me the means of building and preparing for the most efficient and most immediate operation, Grace church chapel, a church in which the Word and sacraments shall be administered, and in which the sittings shall always be free to all who will use them for their souls' good."

The answer to this appeal was not a great while in taking visible form, and becoming a most successful reality.

A free chapel was reared, as I have intimated, upon the corner of Madison avenue and 28th street, and was intrusted first to the care of the Rev. Edwin Harwood, and afterward to that of the Rev. Henry E. Montgomery, whose laborious and successful ministry in this community is still a fragrant memory in the homes of many Churchmen among us. In the year 1856, the congregation worshipping in that chapel organized itself into an independent parish, thenceforward known as the Church of the Incarnation, which now, in turn, maintains its own free chapel (once ministered to by him who to-day assumes the charge of this), and soon after, Grace church proceeded to the erection of another and much more spacious chapel hard by this present site.

The second Grace chapel, with as large a number of sittings as the parent church, was speedily completed, and opened under the most successful ministry of the Rev. Robert George Dixon. That ministry verified the language of the text, as nearly as it has ever been verified in the history of the Church in this city. The congregation which Mr. Dixon gathered [2/3] about him, was one drawn exclusively from no one class or condition of life, but included both rich and poor, the man of substance and the day laborer, the woman of leisure and the woman who won her maintenance at the point of her needle.

Thus far, Grace chapel certainly realized its original design, and turned into honest reality the words of that legend which adorned it. But it was not a great many years, before it was found that the building, though cost and pains had not been spared in rearing it, was but ill-adapted for the uses of free church, or, indeed, any Church work, and was wholly wanting in those manifold conveniences, which the growth of Church life among us have made indispensable to the manifold forms of parochial activity. In the construction of the building everything had been sacrificed to a large auditorium. There were no conveniences for parochial and other societies, and even the accommodations of the Sunday-school, which were provided in the recesses of a damp and dark basement, were such as to discourage those most interested in its prosperity. The young men and women of the parent church who offered their services as teachers, found that their catechetical functions had to be exercised amid surroundings that recalled the catacombs, and in an atmosphere which seemed likely, to sensitive constitutions, to threaten the reenacting of the primitive martyrdoms. In a word, beyond the not altogether convenient arrangements of the main assemblage-room itself, much about the building was calculated rather to hinder than to foster growth and prosperity.

[4] When, therefore, the edifice was destroyed by fire, the first resolve of those upon whom fell the burden of its reconstruction was the resolve that the new Grace chapel should be a structure fully abreast of the demands of Church life and Church work in this age and in this city.

The result of that resolution salutes us in these our surroundings this morning. As we have placed the font at the threshold of this chapel, in token that baptism is the door and gateway into the fellowship of the Church of God, so have we placed Grace hall, the building through which we have passed on our way hither, at the threshold of Grace chapel, in token that the Church's godly training and nurture is the threshold of those sacraments and ordinances which she offers for the strengthening and refreshing of more adult life. We have felt that this work of teaching and training was not to be thrust underground or done in a corner. We have felt that, amid all the competitions of that secular education which is going on about us, it demanded the best appliances and the most generous provision of every suitable, tasteful, and approved help. We have felt that those, too, who were willing to labor, to plan, and to contrive for the bettering of poor children, for the relief of the sick, for the succor of the neglected and destitute--to do, in a word, the work which has been done for the past eight years by the various societies connected with this parish--were entitled to every convenience and accommodation which their blessed work demanded. And feeling this, we have aimed, in the [4/5] building which immediately adjoins this, to provide such appliances and conveniences, according to the best models, and in ample and generous measure.

And so, too, in this chapel itself. It has been felt by those who have reared it that a free church ought to be no less costly or spacious, or richly adorned, than if it were designed for the use of those who, through an ownership of the sittings, are supposed to acquire a certain right of property in the house of God. It would have been easy, when the former edifice was destroyed by fire, to have parted with its site at a very considerable advance upon the original cost, and to have erected, in a less expensive neighborhood, a much cheaper structure. But it was felt that this would be an economy too dearly purchased; and instead, therefore, of any diminution of outlay, there has been a considerable increase. Additional land has been acquired, the service of skilled architects and superior mechanics has been secured, and the whole work, which has involved an expenditure of nearly $100,000, has been done with the very best materials, and with a constant reference to honesty, thoroughness, and beauty of result. Whatever else may be said of this building, it may safely be said that we offer to God, this morning, nothing that is cheap or mean or inferior. This edifice, placed as it is at one of the most central and commanding points in this great city, may safely challenge comparison with any others which have lately been reared in the Diocese.

[6] Yes, this much we may say, and saying it must needs regret that we can say no more. If there has been, to any ear, a sound of boastfulness in what has thus far been uttered, I venture to predict that before I have done you will own that I have approached these services and this duty in a very different spirit. It is a duty from which I would gladly have been excused, and from which I had hoped to have been relieved. But having been bidden to it by a voice which I may not disregard, I have no option but to speak of our enterprise of this morning, and of its relations to the work of the Church in this community, and among our American people, in terms at once honest, explicit, and unreserved.

Let me say, then, at the outset, that the erection of free chapels, in connection with parish churches which are not free, is a part of our modern and American system of expedients. I shall not undertake, this morning, to trace the rise and growth of what is called the pew system beyond our own shores, or to explain its origin amid other surroundings. It is enough to say that in England, where it has been known for many generations, and where some of its worst abuses have ripened to maturity, it has always existed with qualifications, largely unknown among ourselves, and that to-day, in the Church of England, it is as verily a decaying and vanishing usage as is the use of the whipping-post, or the imprisonment of men for debt. Unfortunately, however, this cannot be said of it in the United States, where the tendency, if it is marked enough to be detected in any [6/7] particular direction, is in the direction of the wider prevalence of the pewed system. I know that this is not the case in our own Church, where (as I believe is true in Minnesota) there are whole dioceses where there is scarcely a church or chapel which is not free. But in communions outside the Church, as among the Methodists, the pew system has certainly gained ground in cities, while, at the other ecclesiastical extreme, the churches of the Roman obedience have, many of them, pews which are let and sub-let to two or three series of tenants.

And, among ourselves, while there has been progress, that progress has not been rapid, and the growth of a sounder sentiment in the Church at large has, on the whole, been painfully slow. As it should be in all great reforms, the clergy have been in the advance, and too much honor cannot be given to men who have committed themselves to the free church movement with a noble disregard of every personal consideration of comfort or security. But the clergy have not been largely followed by the laity, nor is it, perhaps, greatly surprising. The success of the free church movement in England has been achieved, it should be remembered, under different conditions and amid very different surroundings from our own. English society is a society substantially of fixed classes and of sharply-defined social lines. Men hold their place in it mainly by virtue of hereditary considerations quite outside of any purchased precedence in the house of God. Indeed, so firmly fixed are those lines, and so potent in separating [7/8] classes, that when men come to the house of God they are anxious--the loftiest often even more than the lowliest--to forget and obliterate those lines by every means in their power. A friend of mine, visiting a crowded church in the East End of London, which is the Five Points neighborhood of that great city, reached over the shoulder of some one near him in the throng which gathered in its porch, and in accordance with a vicious custom not yet wholly extinct in England, dropped a shilling in the hand of some one whom he had observed with his back to him busily seating strangers. The supposed verger turned at once and faced him, and he recognized in him one of the first noblemen in England. In other words, a man of high rank came to the services mainly that he might forget his rank, and busy himself as the servant of the lowliest stranger that sought entrance there.

But with us, the condition of things is very different. In America there are no fixed classes, but there is, in every generation, a large class who are struggling for social precedence, and who are willing to buy it at any cost. And for this class the pew system seems to have been especially contrived. To buy a place in a conspicuous church, and have that place, itself, as conspicuous as may be, this is a title to a certain recognition which, however hazy and indefinite it may be when you undertake to analyze it, is not indefinite in its actual results. And so it comes to pass, that many churches are composed almost exclusively of persons of one class, or, at any rate, of [8/9] those of ample means, if not of great wealth. I may not pause here to ask how such churches manage to read and to hear some passages in the Epistle General of St. James, and I know it may be answered that, even in such churches, there is abundant hospitality to strangers, and that that hospitality is exercised generously and unmurmuringly from one year's end to another. I presume there are many churches in New York in which there are no free sittings, and yet in which, as in that to which it is my own privilege to minister, the strangers who are welcomed to its pews on any given Sunday may be counted by hundreds. But I am speaking of the general working of a system, and as to the results of that system, it seems to me no candid mind can really be in doubt. I was conversing, not long ago, with a singularly intelligent layman, resident in a neighboring city, whose statements, volunteered without a single leading question, or indeed an observation of any sort on my own part, were certainly worthy of note. Himself a Churchman, though nurtured a Unitarian, he had enjoyed exceptional opportunities for observing the history and progress of congregations of the most various and diverse creeds and traditions. As the result of such observation, he stated as his belief that at the present ratio of decrease, the most stately and costly church edifices in the city of his own residence, would be within the next twenty-five years virtually empty of worshippers. Crowded together as they had been during the past ten years in a district where land was most costly; and where were to be found [9/10] only the residences of the wealthy, the region had come to be described with a significant sarcasm as the "Holy Land." But no pilgrimages were made to it from other and less favored regions. The churches were filled, or rather barely half-filled, with representatives from the classes living immediately about them. The charges for sittings and, more than all, the general atmosphere of these churches excluded absolutely all persons who labored with their own hands for their living, and scarcely less those of limited means who form that vast middle class which, as it is the most numerous among us, so is it the most powerful in all great religious and social movements. It was the conviction of this witness that, unless the present pew system was abandoned, many of these churches would, themselves, have to be abandoned, and he instanced the case of one costly and splendid edifice, lately erected, which has already been closed, partly, it is true, because it has proved to be almost impossible to conduct public services within it so as to make those services intelligible; but also because there was really no congregation to occupy or to sustain it. In other words, it was his conviction that what is known as the pew system was rapidly contributing, in that community, at any rate, to the steady decline, if not to the absolute abandonment of all habit of attendance upon public worship by large masses of people.

I am aware that in New England (and it is of a New England city that I have been speaking) there are other causes which may be alleged as having been [10/11] more or less operative in producing such results. But it is not possible to account for them wholly by attributing them to the growth of unbelief, or to an increasing indifference to religious sanctions. There has been as much, if not more, of both these in England, during the last twenty-five years, as there has been among ourselves. Indeed, the teachings which have been supposed to produce such results have emanated from English cities and English universities, rather than from our own. But, during that time, it is idle to deny that, especially in the Church of England itself, there has been a marked, in many cases a vast, increase in the number of public services, and in the numbers of those who are it attendance upon them. And it is equally idle to deny that that increase has been synchronous with the growth of free churches, and with the partial or complete removal of the restrictions upon the use of the sittings at certain specified services in others that are not free.

These facts, I take it, speak for themselves. If they have any meaning at all, they mean that our present system of pewed churches is a mistake, and that, if it had any seeming warrant in the exigencies of other days, it must sooner or later give way before the graver--may I not truly say--the sterner exigencies of our own. I know that there are many pewed churches among us that are still thronged and prosperous. If, for instance, I were content not to look beyond the walls of the edifice in which I myself minister, I might easily dismiss all anxiety for the [11/12] welfare of the Church at large. But a few churches occupying a central position, and with means and ample accommodations, are no criterion of the vast majority that are otherwise circumstanced.

And the misfortune with these, as indeed with all pewed churches, is that they work to the disadvantage of the Church at large in two ways. In the first place, as I have indicated, they tend to exclusion, and to the perpetuation, in the last place on earth in which it ought to be known, of a spirit of caste, and in the second place, they act injuriously upon the growth and prosperity of all free churches around them. It is fundamental to the well-being of any congregation that it should include within its worshippers all sorts and conditions of men. But this will never largely come to pass--it is well to face the situation frankly--this will never largely come to pass, while it is possible for certain classes to pass by the doors of a free church, for another in which they can purchase certain privileges--a certain preeminence, by a certain money expenditure. So long as this continues, free churches, as a whole, will languish, struggling for existence, or else depending for their maintenance upon those who are without.

And so, while I believe that we have done here the best that could be done under the present circumstances, I cannot flatter myself that such temporary expedients are in the line of the Church's highest ideal. We have done well, in that we have not reared this edifice in an obscure neighborhood, of mean proportions, or of cheap materials. But the Church of [12/13] our affections will do better, nay, best, when it resolves that, instead of pewed churches supplementing themselves with free chapels, all churches shall be free, and when, in God's house at any rate, the sound of buying and selling, of hiring and leasing, shall be forever silenced.

I know well that, in the way of such a reform, the obstacles are many and serious. There is the prejudice of life-long habit and training, there are the rights of property, there are the very practical questions of maintenance and support.

To overcome these difficulties and to solve such problems will be the work not of a day nor of a year. No great revolution--and, surely, this involves a great revolution--was ever successfully accomplished save through the gradual education of the popular mind; and the advocates of free churches have sometimes alienated as much sympathy and support by their acrimonious impatience, as they have won by their single and self-sacrificing devotion.

But, meantime, the movement is destined to grow and spread, and ours it is, especially, who are not formally identified with it, to help and not to hinder it. It has been my own habit to preach a sermon annually in the parish church of which I am rector, in behalf of this free chapel, and I have been accustomed, on such occasions, to present some of the arguments for the universal adoption of the principle of free churches. Of course, the adoption of that principle, when the time shall be ripe for it, will involve something of friction, and something more [13/14] of collision with wonted traditions; but, by the abandonment of pews (themselves one of the most questionable features of both pewed and free churches alike, as they exist among us), by the adoption of chairs in their stead, by the multiplication of services at such hours as shall meet the convenience of different classes of persons, and, above all, by the strenuous inculcation of the Apostolic doctrine in this matter, a sounder sentiment and practice will come to prevail, while individual rights will be preserved, and individual wants will be adequately provided for.

Toward this end, it is my earnest prayer that the building which we give to-day to God may be a wholesome and helpful contribution. Under the charge of him who has been called to be its minister, and who has elsewhere made of a free church so thoroughly prosperous and successful an enterprise, I venture to believe that we may look for results worthy of his past record, and of the opportunity which is here presented to him. For one, I shall rejoice to learn from his example how much better and more fruitful than any other is that system which makes a church free and open to all sorts and conditions of men, and which recognizes no rights of property within its walls, save His whose, by Divine right, is most of all the holy house which is hallowed to His worship and honor, even as it is called by His holy name!

May He accept, then, the gift which we lay at his feet to-day; and may he inspire us all, ministers and people alike, with a deeper and heartier desire to see and recognize our duty to his cause and kingdom in [14/15] the world, and seeing and owning it, gladly to surrender every prejudice, every prepossession, every selfish interest that may stand in the way of the doing of it!

[16] ANY number of copies of this sermon will be furnished, gratis, upon application to the Rev. W. N. DUNNELL, Corresponding Secretary of the Free Church Guild, 292 Henry Street, New York.

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