Places that Matter

Judson Memorial Church

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Jedediah Baker
Jedediah Baker
Gwynneth C. Malin
Michelle Thompson
Michelle Thompson
Gwynneth C. Malin
Gwynneth C. Malin
Michelle Thompson
Zachary Mosely
Church dedicated to social justice and community arts
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Written by Gwynneth C. Malin for Place Matters with contributions from the Judson Community

For over a century, Judson Memorial Church has served members of the surrounding Washington Square Park community and those beyond with a committment to social services, social justice activism, and community arts. Through regular Sunday services, arts incubation, and progress social initiatives, Judson finds its most potent realization in its commitment to fighting for LGBTQ and reproductive rights, racial equality, immigration reform, climate advocacy, and community health.
 
In 1888, Reverend Edward Judson chose this block on the south side of Washington Square Park as the location for the Judson Memorial Church.  He believed that this site would be “a strategic position” for the new church because it marked the boundary between wealthy and working-class neighborhoods.  Throughout the nineteenth century, the Washington Square area, the Ninth Ward, was referred to as the “American ward,” because of its small number of foreign-born residents. However, in the 1890s, a major demographic shift began to occur in the Ninth Ward as newly arrived European immigrants moved into the neighborhoods south of Washington Square Park. Gradually, wealthy families, who had been living on the north side of the park began to relocate to neighborhoods further north in Manhattan. About the new location Judson wrote, “it is close to a large tenement-house population, and also yet within reach of a most respectable and aristocratic neighborhood, from which it is hoped many will come to engage personally in Mission work.”  
 
In 1889, Judson took a two-month leave of absence so that he could focus exclusively on fundraising for the new building. A fundraising brochure featured a rendering of the proposed church building, showing its elegant façade and tower.The Judson Memorial Church benefited from the philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller, who committed $40,000 toward the construction of the new church building. After this initial gift, Rockefeller and Judson had a long professional relationship, documented in their correspondence, and Rockefeller remained a major support of Judson’s work throughout his ministry. 
 
On June 30, 1890, Reverend Judson inaugurated the church’s commitment to the neighborhood. Despite the ninety-degree weather, several hundred people were present at this ceremony to launch the construction of the new church. Judson laid the cornerstone, which contained a copy of the Burmese Bible translated by his father, Adoniram Judson, the first Baptist missionary to Burma. Judson, a strong advocate of immigrant evangelization, intended that the new church building serve as a memorial to his missionary father and continue his legacy by having a powerful impact on the Italian immigrants who lived in the neighborhood. The press reported that the new church would be “a striking and imposing one.”  
 
While under construction, the church generated attention. The bell tower was built gradually, layer by layer, as the necessary money was raised, creating a dramatic physical barometer of the success of the Church’s fundraising efforts. The New York Evangelist reported on October 30 1890 that the Judson Memorial Baptist Church was one of the most noticeable structures under construction in the city.  “Its walls of light brick and richly molded terra cotta have been rising slowly for many months,” The Evangelist recounted, “and have now reached a height that gives some notion of the imposing front that the great structure will present… Thompson Street’s shabbiness will be almost glorified by this piece of architecture, and it is fitting that the magnificent site overlooking the most beautiful of New York’s public squares should be occupied by a structure worthy of the place.”  
 
Judson believed that the new church building would be both “monumental in its character” and provide what was needed “in order to teach truth and do good in lower New York.” The choices Judson made, including approving the dramatic architectural style for the building, hiring the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, and engaging John La Farge for the stained glass windows, demonstrated Judson’s far-reaching intentions to create a visual spectacle in the neighborhood.  
 
Plans for the new building included two residences, a Children’s Home and Young Men’s Building.  For Judson, providing social services at the church was essential. The church building would house both religious services and social welfare programs, including a health center, an employment service, sewing and cooking classes, a community woodpile, and the delivery of fresh milk from New Jersey farms. Many activities, such as public drinking fountains, food and flower distribution, medical services, and outdoor singing of Gospel hymns, extended beyond the church walls into the surrounding neighborhoods.  Recently arrived immigrants from southern Italy comprised the main population served by the Judson Memorial Church’s social welfare programs.
 
A drawing from a fundraising brochure shows the church drinking water fountain with immigrants filling pitchers, which they would then carry back to the tenements.  At this time, many of the city’s poorer residents did not have access to clean drinking water and Judson, along with other religious leaders, intervened. These immigrants needed water and the church supplied it to them, through a private fountain drawing on public water mains. This fountain is still extant, although not operational.  
 
Judson Memorial Church’s strong tradition of service to the community began with Edward Judson’s ministry from 1881 to1890 (at the Berean Baptist Church) and from 1890 to 1913 at the Judson Church.  This mission continued in the 1920s with providing medical services to the poor and in the 1930s with social justice work and union organizing. Beginning in the 1950s, under the leadership of Reverend Robert Spike, and continuing in the 1960s through the early 1990s led by Reverend Howard Moody, the church sponsored a wide range of innovative programs for under-served populations.  Among these programs were counseling and treatment for drug addicts, temporary housing for runaway teens, a counseling and referral service for prostitutes, a program which assisted women with access to abortion, and medical resources for people living with HIV/AIDS.
 
The church is well-known for supporting a radical arts ministry. When church members polled local artists to determine how to best assist the arts community, it became clear that visual and performing artists needed space in which to show their work. The church responded by making its space available for art exhibitions, rehearsals, and performances. Artists would have the freedom to experiment in this space without fear of censorship.  
 
In 1957, the church offered gallery space to Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine, then unknown artists.  In 1961, Robert Nichols and Chuck Gordone founded the Judson Poets’ Theater, which laid the foundation for “off off” Broadway theater.  In the 1970s, Reverend Al Carmines, himself a musical theater performer, wrote and staged full-length musicals, which were presented free of charge at the church.  On July 6, 1962, a group of young choreographers who had studied with Robert Dunn at the Merce Cunningham Studio showcased their recent work at Judson in a performance called "A Dance Concert #1," which was open to the public and free of charge.  With this initial concert, the Judson Dance Theater began.  It provided a venue for dancers and choreographers such as Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, and Yvonne Rainer to show their work.  
 
Space was essential to the artists and to the church community.  About the church real estate and its financial value, Edward Judson wrote: “There is no more solid property known than real estate in lower New York.  It does not fluctuate; only gradually rises in value. The worst thing that could happen to us would be the invasion of Washington Square by business and this would only increase the value of our property.”  In 1925, New York University purchased the Judson hotel and tower from the New York City Baptist Mission Society. From 1933 until the 1980s, the hotel and tower buildings served as a residence for NYU students. In 1999, the New York University Law School purchased two lots in back of the church, on one of which the Judson House had stood.  The contract between NYU and Judson included a condominium space granted to Judson, now used for church offices and as a multi-purpose meeting space.  
 
Judson Memorial Church continues to be a visible and vital player in the Greenwich Village community, through its artistic work, political activism, religious services, and social justice work. Every Monday night, all year long, if you walk along the block of Washington Square South at Thompson Street, you will see a line of dance enthusiasts waiting to enter the Judson Memorial Church.  Monday nights at “the Judson,” sponsored by Movement Research, continue to be a chance to see the latest works in progress created by local, national, and international dance makers.  Admission is free of charge.  Today, under the leadership of Reverend Dr. Donna Schaper, the church is active in environmental justice, gay rights, harm reduction, immigration rights, reproductive justice, and world peace. The arts ministry continues on site in the church building through the Monday night dance series and the Judson Arts Wednesdays program.  More than its real estate, what seems of most value to the Judson Memorial Church today is its small and active congregation, which remains dedicated to continuing the fight for social justice through a community of faith.
 
(September, 2016)
 
SOURCES
 
Articles
 
Julie L. Sloan “John LaFarge and the Judson Memorial Church,” The Magazine Antiques (1998): 300-308.
 
Books
 
Joan Jacobs Brumberg. Mission For Life: The Story of the Family of Adoniram Judson, the Dramatic Events of the First American Foreign Mission and the Course of Evangelical Religion in the 19th Century.   New York: The Free Press, 1980.
 
Mindy Cantor. “Washington Arch and the Changing Neighborhood,” Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993).
 
Primary Sources -- Articles
 
“Current Events,” The New York Evangelist, October, 30 1890, 8.
 
“In Adoniram Judson’s Memory: Laying of the Cornerstone of a New Baptist Church,” The New York Times, July 1, 1890, 8.
 
“The Cornerstone Laid: Peculiar History of the Judson Memorial Church,” The World, July 1, 1890, 1.
 
“The Weather,” The New York Times, June 30, 1890, 5.
 
Primary Sources – Archival
 
Letter from Edward Judson to John D. Rockefeller, October 29, 1909. Rockefeller Foundation Archive, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York.
 
Minutes of the Berean Baptist Church, February 1, 1889, Judson Memorial Church Archive, Fales Library and Special Collections, Bobst Library, New York University.
 
New York University Women’s Residence: The Judson. University Archives, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University
 
Supplemental Financial Statement of Our Conditions up to January 1, 1899. Judson Memorial Church Archive, Fales Library and Special Collections, Bobst Library, New York University.
 
The Cornerstone of the Judson Memorial Baptist Church Edifice.  Judson Memorial Church Archive, Fales Library and Special Collections, Bobst Library, New York University.
 
Additional Sources
 
Email exchanges with Judson Memorial Church staff and volunteers via Molly Martinez, Senior Administrator, February 13, 2016 and February 16, 2016.
 
Email exchange with Adjunct Reference Archivist, Emily Chapin, at NYU University Archive, February 25, 2016.
 
Finding Aid to the Collection.  Judson Memorial Church Archive, Fales Library and Special Collections, Bobst Library, New York University. 
 
Judson Memorial Church website.  http://www.judson.org/ Accessed January 15th, 2016.