Project Canterbury

Cathedral Building: An Index of National Character

By the Honorable Elihu Root.

New York: no publisher, [1922]

At the Bishop's Meeting, held in Carnegie Hall, November 20, 1922, BISHOP MANNING said:

"Much has been done, but there is much that still remains to be done. There is no one whose words carry greater weight and are listened to with greater attention in the community, in our country and beyond, than the gentleman who is now to speak to you, and who, I am delighted to tell you, speaks upon this particular subject by his own choice. I do not even trouble to mention his name. I simply present to you the First Citizen in the United States."


"Ladies and gentlemen, I should not have gotten up on that introduction but the Bishop told me to."

Cathedral Building

An Index

of National Character

MUCH has been done, yet the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is a long time in building. I have seen the plans for the complete structure. They are most inspiring. They fill the soul of an American with a glowing feeling to think that the genius of an American architect can visualize such a structure for the future of his country.

Many of us can never see the completion of the structure, but I, for one, would like, if I could, to say some word that may hasten on the laying of one stone in the wall.

The Cathedral is not like an ordinary church. This is a country of small churches, many of them are very beautiful, but an ordinary church is an Episcopal Church or a Catholic Church or a Presbyterian Church, while a great Cathedral, with its vast spaces, its universal symbolism, its appeal to historic instinct, gives an unmistakable impression of the faith of a people, and holds out its arms to all the world. It is Christian, and it is a perpetual illustration of universal Christianity.

I do not think the building of this Cathedral is solely your matter; it is primarily yours, because you have undertaken it, and you are to be the trustees of that great influence upon the world; nevertheless, it is an influence for the nation, and upon the nation, for the world, and upon the world, and it is a matter for all of us, not limited to a single diocese, or to whatever race or creed. The building of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is a matter that ought to be of solicitude and pride for us all.

I saw a statement the other day about a group of foreign architects who came to America and travelled about through our principal cities, and as they were about to return, they were asked what they found that was admirable in American architecture. They agreed that the thing they found especially to admire was our great business buildings, the wonderful banking houses and railway stations, which were far superior to anything to be found in the Old World.

Is that our measure? Is that the limit of our expression?

After the three hundred years of liberty which we have enjoyed upon these shores, with all the growth and strengthening of individual independence that comes from the practice of liberty, with all the idealism and passionate love of liberty and of justice, that have inspired our people, after all this, is the measure of our expression to be found in stately and noble banking houses or railway stations?

The architecture of a people reflects more fully and truthfully the spirit of the people than any other art. Architecture, true architecture, always reflects the purpose of the structure, and, taken together, the buildings that are erected in the course of a people's life, reflect their wants, their needs, their tastes, their aspirations, and in the stones is written the character of the people.

From the Pyramids of Egypt, from the wonders of Greek art still surviving in the ruins on the Acropolis, from the Thirteenth Century Cathedrals of France and England, you read the character of the people of the time when the buildings were set up. Is our character to be truthfully recorded by the achievement of banking houses and railway stations?

Architecture is a supreme means of expression, expression that will carry itself into the minds and souls of others. That is the most difficult thing in the world. Thousands of speeches are made and fall upon dead ears. Millions of pamphlets and journals and books are published and are read with careless eyes and forgotten; and the vast multitude of mediocre and commonplace ideas, spoken or written, make no impression. Even art has but a narrow appeal, except in architecture. A great painting is now and then produced, but few see it. A great poem is now and then written, but few read it. A great cathedral, manifest in its purpose to be a monument to faith and hope and reverence, and the spiritual side of life, speaks to the millions as they pass to and fro, and to the generations of the centuries that succeed, and it speaks in a voice that will impress itself upon the simplest and the humblest soul and shed light by the faith and reverence that it manifests. Is there no message to the world that we have to express? Is there nothing on the spiritual side of America to be expressed, after the wonderful exhibition of patriotism, of courage, of service in the great war? Have the people who mourn those dead boys that lie in the battlefield cemeteries of France no spiritual message to convey to the world, nothing that cannot be said by banking houses and railway stations? Faiths are dying all over the world. In the place of old and simple faith, the grossest materialism is taking control. In the place of contentment and brotherhood among simple people, hatred and envy, passion and resentment can be seen in every land. We can see them here among ourselves; men are moved, not by attraction, not by kindly consideration, not by affection, but by dislike, and the desire for revenge, to hurt somebody, to overcome somebody. It is a part of the consequences of the war. The world did not indulge for four long years in killing and not have evil consequences follow. Never before in our life has there been a world that so much needed some message of hope and faith which will reach the hearts of men as this world of ours today, and have we, the good people of America, no message to give but that which can be built into railway stations and banking houses?

I wish, I strongly desire, I warmly hope, I confidently trust, that without more delay our people, you and all the people about you, of whatever denomination, will bestir themselves to build that great and noble Cathedral.

Build it as a protest against brutality and hatred and wrong.

Build it, not solely for the Diocese of New York, but build it for all our brother men living in the world.

Build it as a testimony that the lessons that came to us from our Cod-fearing fathers have not been forgotten.

Build it as a contribution of America to the spiritual life of mankind. And thereby help to save our own souls.

Project Canterbury