Project Canterbury


The Torch Passed to Us


DECEMBER 23, 1934


Fifth Avenue at Tenth Street


Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2014

IN HOME GATHERING seasons when we come together in families, we are not conscious of any high purpose or uplifting intent. We are simply glad to see one another. Boys and girls back from school, young married people with their children coming home to their grandparents' roof--on such high holidays when we meet, friends and relatives together, it is in all simplicity, to take one another as we are and to enjoy that which we have.

It is the same with a spiritual family, is it not? We are glad to be together, and to enjoy that which we have. And as in the family circle, when someone asks, "How goes it? What has happened?" someone else is likely to answer with an immediate bit of experience, of interest to the whole family because it is true; so may I tell you something which has just happened, of interest within our spiritual family because it is true?

A young man and a young woman, members of the Roman Catholic Church, were married a number of years ago. For reasons of which we cannot be the judges, the marriage was a failure and without chance of becoming otherwise. Plainly God no longer joined these two together. They went to the priest. The priest was understanding; but he held out to them the laws of the Church. They went to their lawyer. He also possessed understanding, but could offer nothing beyond a legal answer. One of them turned to a friend. That friend advocated a solution--but was it right?

These two young people stood, as many of us have stood again and again, at a cross roads with several ways to go. One cannot long lack a plan of action; something has to be done. Yet permanent changes in human relationships affect destinies. How can one be sure? It was not a question of the easiest way, but of the right way.

Late at night, the husband was passing this church. He stepped in, attracted by the light. In the words of a prayer left in the pews for those who come here in the night hours, and through the peace of the place, he found a conscientious answer. Later, he told the friend. And that friend, who had never heard of the Church of the Ascension, has since become one of its most understanding supporters.

[3] This is spiritual adventure. And this is the keynote of what has been happening in the Church of the Ascension for a hundred years or more, in one form or another. Spiritual adventure--. If I might venture a moment of personal reminiscence, I should add that it was spiritual adventure also which gave us our start together. A handful of men on the Vestry, a church materially in bad repair, a decimated congregation which, aside from those few men, was able to provide scarcely a thousand dollars of support--yet because of something inherent in the tradition of the Church of the Ascension that handful of men felt in this church an assurance for the future, and a unique opportunity for the spread of God's Spirit. So they offered to underwrite the present rector for two years and see what would happen. Could anyone fail to respond to the sheer adventure of a spiritual appeal like that? And they, strengthened by other like-minded men, have kept it a wide open spiritual adventure ever since.

A symbol of the attitude of these men was the counsel given me by the then Junior Warden. It concerned the form of the administration of the Holy Communion. This officer of the church appreciated the concern of many, on hygienic grounds, regarding the Common Cup; and was sensitive moreover, to the feelings of those many people who, in the words of Leighton Parks, possess a "refined repugnance" to its use. He said to me, "I prefer the old fashioned use of the Cup. I know you believe in the practice of intinction, communicating only the wafer touched with wine, the Cup being reserved in the hands of the priest as a symbol. Although personally this is not acceptable to me, I would strongly advocate the practice of the method of intinction at the Church of the Ascension. You should begin that way. It will settle the matter now, and undoubtedly in a place like this will result in the receiving of Communion by countless people who otherwise would be excluded."

No personal preference, nor any personal prerogatives of office or of influence have ever been thrust to the fore here, to impede the progress of our adventure. And it is natural that the people of the church have felt, shared in and contributed to this adventurous spirit, in an ever-growing common worship. That is what has happened to us all. This open-mindedness has attracted open minds. This freedom in God's House, where every place may be anyone's place, [3/4] where the Communion is offered to all, where there are no barriers of theology or social privilege and no tradition of vested rights, this utter openness and trust which we have found here, has called forth a response of imaginative understanding from our hearts. How many congregations would welcome a perpetual light on the altar of their church, to shine as a symbol of God's care, as a warm welcome to the stranger, as evidence that his seeking has been anticipated? Not confusing a symbol with dogma, you have identified it with the known love of God. At the same time and with the same impulse you have opened the doors of your church to remain so by day and by night, that an open pathway from the sidewalk to the altar may welcome everyone at every hour to the peace and strength of things unseen.

Such corporate spiritual adventure and progressive enlightenment, men moving as a body to make an institution expressive of such a spirit, is not common you will own. One would be more than human could he entirely restrain his feeling about it. So I confess to dwelling on it, not long ago, perhaps with an undue exuberance, in the home of one whose family has been identified with the Church of the Ascension since it was built--the first church on Fifth Avenue --nearly a hundred years before; a family whose contributions in art and taste and singular spiritual insight have been of the backbone of its spiritual progress. My exuberance was forthwith reduced to proper proportions by the remark: "You needn't be astonished that the Church of the Ascension has come back. It has always come back."

So it has. And with good reason. For the free and adventurous spirit is the most characteristic of all traditions in this place. And that living free tradition is more responsible for what has happened in the last ten years than we may at once appreciate. We have indeed had a "torch passed to us"--the greatest endowment that a church can have, the living endowment of a free tradition, which in every generation is bound to win the support of loyal people. For in such freedom, a cogent faith can live.

This free tradition we inherit from Percy Stickney Grant, and his congregation. By a later generation we ourselves would like to be appraised by the best that we have done. And it is the good of the years from 1892 until 1924 that outshines anything else. Nor could any fair minded people, lacking all the facts, come to any other judgment. [4/5] Let me tell you a story characteristic of the strong years. I received a letter about a year ago, saying in effect:

"I entered your house the other day, and found myself in your study. The furniture was strange, and I hurried out before anyone asked me what I was doing there; for I knew my friend had gone. Twenty years ago I made a failure of life, went to Dr. Grant, was understood, lifted up, put on my feet. He gave me his door key--'Whenever in the years to come you may need me, walk in,' he said. For nearly twenty years I went straight; then in the face of overwhelming odds went under. But I knew where I could get on my feet again. . ."

So the letter went on, in a form that it may be fair some day to publish, telling a life story which would eclipse any human-interest article I have ever read. That door key gives us a symbol of what Dr. Grant and his congregation stood for. Think of him; the rector of a small church of mill operatives in Fall River. To him at that moment the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue in New York must have looked like a great opportunity--and even ministers are sometimes ambitious! He declined the call because places of privilege could then be bought and sold in God's House, an ancient practice for which he could see no defense. His straight decision raised him in the respect of the strong congregation who wanted such leadership. They agreed to support their church, demanding no tangible return. And Dr. Grant came. He made that door key a symbol of the social outlook of the Church of the Ascension. Fifty-two separate organizations pioneering in social betterment grew up within the parish under his leadership, making the social gospel of Jesus plain and effective in a day which did not yet know what "social service" was. But this new social insight and sympathy, first made evident among the churches, spread with an amazing rapidity until now in the community the adult and efficient welfare institutions, settlement houses, boys' clubs, Y.M.C.A., and the like, have taken over the functions first initiated by enlightened congregations. But those who for the first time cleaned up the atrocious prisons system of Blackwell's Island, abolished the dark cells, launched paroles; who went to Albany themselves to effect legislation--these parishioners supporting Dr. Grant were, in truth, pioneers.

But did this far-sighted congregation, moving ahead in such spiritual [5/6] and practical adventure, create all this power de novo? Not at all! They took the torch of a living free tradition passed to them by Winchester Donald. Dr. Donald was a graduate of Union Theological Seminary--not an exclusively Episcopal institution, and on that account unacceptable even today to certain bishops as preparation for the ministry of the Episcopal Church. We rejoice in the early influence of that institution upon the Church of the Ascension; for its scholarship stands unsurpassed by any graduate school in the country and its non-sectarian emphasis combined with a Presbyterian tradition of the ministry, valid and old as our own, offers refreshing and enlightened leadership in preparing men for the ministry.

Let me read to you Dr. Donald's opening words to his congregation on Palm Sunday, as he assumed the rectorship, April 2nd, 1882:

"I shall endeavor with whatever power and skill and wisdom and grace God shall give me to make this parish a fountain of spiritual blessing to all who shall come up here to worship--to all who can be touched by its several hands. To render a service to mankind, to confer a benefit upon souls, to this end was this parish established: for this cause God has kept it alive. Out of what it has been must come all that it is to be. Its wish is to be to this neighborhood and town a felt force, working in all measures that seek to make men better. Its glory is not in the magnificence of the gifts its past records, not in the commanding influence it exerted at a time when the bold and wise and firm assertion of the principles it championed was necessary to the preservation of the Episcopal Church from a rigid, unbending sectarianism; its true glory is its promise to consecrate its present life and powers to the tasks which, growing out of new conditions, are crowding at our doors."

How contemporary this sounds today! It might have been written for our own times.

Dr. Donald in 1882 found this neighborhood become virtually a missionary district. Fashion and the great families had moved uptown, and the region below 14th Street had become largely a region of underprivileged homes. But Dr. Donald inherited also a strong social tradition and a great prestige. The Chapel of the Comforter on Ninth Avenue, and Ascension Memorial Church on 43rd Street were children of the Church of the Ascension, supported by this congregation for the spiritual and material benefit of the people of those slum areas.

[7] Perhaps the greatest contribution of Dr. Donald and of his congregation, however, to the developing tradition of the Church of the Ascension was made through their sensitiveness to the need of beauty in worship. Neither he nor his people confused bareness with simplicity. It is hard for us to imagine this church as it used to be--gloomy black walnut altar, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer scrolled on either side. Flowers also were taboo, though a concession was made at Christmas time in favor of certain evergreens. The puritan view of those days readily identified beauty with dangerous High Church and Romish tendencies; when the new chancel was at last completed there were said to have been rumors in the diocese that Donald was flirting with Popery. Yet Dr. Donald himself and his people knew what they were about, and even by criticism and misunderstanding they were not deterred. We owe to them the beauty of our church, and some part at least of the rare spirit of reverence which pervades it.

Mr. Royal Cortissoz who knew the creators of this beautiful chancel has told us how Stanford White, young and hesitant, once asked the help of John La Farge in his choice of a career, as painter or as architect. La Farge advised the latter. Perhaps Fate had a hand in it, as Mr. Cortissoz suggests; for later these two men came together with their diverse powers and between them produced a great harmony in beauty.

La Farge told Mr. Cortissoz--who told us, at the hundredth anniversary of the Church of the Ascension--how the problem of the landscape setting for the Great Ascension painting troubled him. He would not go to Judea, for to paint the literal portrait of a place was, he felt, out of the question. He found the solution in Japan, of all places in the world. . . I must give you his own words:

"I saw before me a space of mountain and cloud and flat land which seemed to be what was needed. I gave up my other work and made thereupon a rapid but very careful study, so complete that the big picture is only a part of the amount of work put into the study of that afternoon. There are turns of the tide which allow you at times to do an amount of work incredible in sober moments. When I returned I was still of the same mind. My studies of separate figures were almost ready and all I had to do was to stretch the canvas and begin the work."

Perhaps it is playing with my own fancy; but I can believe that Winchester Donald, conscious of the great responsibilities to the [7/8] underprivileged which he had inherited, conscious of the free spiritual tradition which he had received and must pass on, felt that these needs could not be adequately met, save through the heightened meaning of worship which beauty can bring. Certainly he was generations ahead of his day in discovering what we now are learning, that social service is not a substitute for religion but a natural expression of it. I believe he feared the lessening of that awareness of God in the hearts of people which makes them become aware of their brothers also. Such was the torch passed to him--to lighten people's moral and physical distress; but he carried it to heights of spiritual ascendency as well, and it still shines across the years.

But that torch of brotherhood he had not lighted himself. He caught it from the hands of John Cotton Smith and his congregation. From 1859 on, a flood of immigration swelled New York City with four hundred thousand additional people. These newcomers lived in shacks and tenements unspeakable in squalor and poverty. It was for them that the congregation purchased and cleared a block at 43rd Street and Ninth Avenue, and erected model tenements there, at a cost of $43,000. As a center of worship, recreation and help for these people, the Ascension Memorial Chapel, costing $10,000, was built among them and administered by the congregation of this church. Three other missions were established near other trouble centers in the city. In the year 1870 alone, $68,000 was spent for chapels, schools, hospitals and direct relief to the poor.
Under Dr. Smith's leadership the people of the Church of the Ascension also gave the beautiful Episcopal church still standing in Ipswich; presented a chapel to Kenyon College; helped found Griswold, a divinity school in Iowa; substantially assisted Bishop Whipple in his work for the Indians in Minnesota. . .

One wonders whether the same high moral tone of these great missionary enterprises influenced the younger generation of Dr. Smith's flock. I happened to come across an amusing glimpse into the proprieties of the day in Mr. Barrett's observations regarding the Brown family. James Brown, he writes, " . . . is traveling in Europe, with his son Clarence, who, from appearance, gives indication of becoming a very fast young man. Last summer he could have been seen any fine day, either on the road or in the Central Park, with fashionable ladies, driving tandem."

[9] But wide as were his humanitarian interests, the great contribution of John Cotton Smith to the free tradition of this place lay in his fearless insight into what would make the truth of the Bible endure. Assuming the leadership of the Church of the Ascension in 1859, the year The Origin of Species was published, he went out with an open mind to meet what science had to give. Apparently without prejudice he accepted literary, historical and scientific interpretation of the Bible. He found it of value not for literal fact but as a unique expression of God's Spirit. Bound by no presuppositions or theological premises, he saw in the heights and depths of the Bible narrative not an inerrant hand of God, but the unerring spirit of God speaking through a people of singular spiritual insight. "What is true is safe," said John Cotton Smith. The issue of fundamentalism was settled in this parish before the Civil War. Here in the middle ground of our history we find our spiritual tradition still strong and free. Our protestant faith in the Episcopal Church bases the ordination of its ministers upon Scripture. Its foundations rest upon an intelligence at one with that underlying wonder which science can only enhance.

But from whom did John Cotton Smith, pioneer in his generation, take the torch? From Gregory Thurston Bedell, the second rector of the parish, known as the "great pastor". He and his people had also a sensitiveness to deplorable social conditions. They opened a school to 250 children of a disreputable and hopeless neighborhood at "Five Points" on Mulberry Street. In those days when transatlantic travel and transatlantic imagination were equally uncommon, the significance of $3000 given to famine relief in Ireland betrays an awareness not to be overlooked. If John Cotton Smith advanced the cause of educational institutions, this too was in line with a tradition which he inherited; for under Dr. Bedell the people of the Church of the Ascension presented Kenyon College at Gambier, Ohio, with a superb Tudor hail; and gave Aspinwall Hall at Alexandria Theological Seminary, of which liberal evangelical school Bedell was a graduate. In sixteen years, from 1843 to 1859, the church gave away $125,000 in charitable enterprises alone. It was Bedell's work to solidify a new congregation which had moved into their new church on Fifth Avenue during the year of his coming. For the first rector, Manton Eastburn, had no sooner completed the building of this church than he was called [9/10] to be Assistant Bishop of Massachusetts and rector of Trinity Church, Boston. The first Church of the Ascension, built in 1827 under Manton Eastburn, was "a chaste Greek edifice" on Broadway and Canal Street. When it burned, in 1839, Manton Eastburn, still in the early thirties, gathered his people about him to build again. At length, after several months delay, the present church was begun in 1840, and consecrated the following year. It stood in a neighborhood which was an "ideal of quiet and gentle retirement". Fifth Avenue was paved only up to Twenty-third Street. This church, like the congregations of those south of it, was allowed to stretch chains across the Avenue during service to prevent the passing of carriages with their rattle on the cobble stones.

Manton Eastburn was a liberal evangelical preacher, loyal to the uses of the church, recognizing the centrality of the Holy Communion, and yet never enslaved by tradition or custom. A strong advocate of personal religion, he was still a great user of tradition, which is the higher loyalty to it. There is a rather delightful story linking the generations from his time to our own told me by the subject of it, Dr. Harry Peirce Nichols. Dr. Nichols was a lad in the Sunday School of Grace Church, Salem, some seventy-five years ago. Manton Eastburn would come from Boston to catechize and confirm. According to Dr. Nichols he still has reminiscences of a pate sensitive because of Bishop Eastburn, who went up and down the aisles of the Sunday School tapping down the heads of the boys and girls at the mention of the word Jesus in the Creed . . . Rigid he was in regard to certain observances; but free as to the spirit. At the consecration of Trinity Church, Phillips Brooks said of him:

"He was one whom all men honored, whose strong moral force impressed the young and old, and whose sturdy independence was like a strong east wind."

His strong personality was really an east wind and the strong sweep of it has come down through the years, invigorating and refreshing --through the days of Bedell, Smith, Donald and Grant--sweeping before whatever is nonessential and divisive, allowing the wind of the spirit to blow where it listeth--the unaccountable secret of free communion between God and man, cherished within an historic church.

[11] So today we see the torch of a century given to us. Truly, the words of Winchester Donald show the truth at work, that "out of all it has been must come all that it is to be".

So today, as we catch the light of that torch still shining from the past to help us on our way ahead, I would in all humility express for myself the hope voiced in the prayer of John Milton,

"what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the highth of this great argument. . ."

My hope for the congregation, for you my friends, rings down through the whole of our church's history in the words of Manton Eastburn as he left this place to become Bishop of Massachusetts,
"While I would gratefully acknowledge the hand of God in all my past enjoyments in the midst of you, permit me also to place upon record my deep sense of the universal kindness and love with which my labors have always been cheered, both by my vestry and congregation, and to express the fervent prayer of my heart, that the choicest temporal and spiritual blessings may continually descend upon them from on high."

Our common hope, yours and mine, for this House of God today is that it may carry on the spiritual power of a free tradition. This is the adventure which lies open before our worshiping fellowship. In different forms and different modes it has been the adventure of this church from the first--to make known to men in changing times the enduring Spirit of God.

The same hope was voiced by my immediate predecessor:

"Their hands they hold across the altar rail,
From various need reached toward a common hope
In scraps of prayer and errant thought they grope
A solace for their souls that will not fail.
O piteous hands! Poor, puny hands! too frail
Were you outstretched by emperor or pope,
To grasp the titan world, with sin to cope,--
Gnarled, jeweled, soiled, thin, palsied, pale.
God fill these hands--of you they ask an alms.
The world has given, but the hands still plead;
The world has taken, you alone can fill.
O Love divine, heap with hid gifts these palms.
O Christ's sweet love, supply each bowed soul's need--
A human clasp moved by a heavenly will."

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