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From the Pastor: Practical Church History
By Michael L. Lindvall
A couple of years ago I got a phone call from a woman who introduced herself as the curator of the art collection of the Federal Reserve in Washington. (Who knew the Federal Reserve had an art collection?!) She also said that she was personally interested in the work of a late 19th- or early 20th-century portrait painter named John White Alexander. She was calling because her research had led her to believe that The Brick Church was in possession of what she intriguingly named “a lost John White Alexander.”
She described the painting – a full body portrait in oil of a clergyman in clerical garb named Henry Van Dyke. I told her that a painting just like the one she was describing hung in our church parlor, but that it was not signed – not by John White Alexander or anyone else. She asked if she could come to New York to view it.
She walked into our church parlor, took one look at the portrait, and said “That’s it!” I pointed out that it was unsigned. She asked if we could take it off the wall and have a look at the back. We carefully laid Henry face-down on a table only to see that the bottom nine inches of the painting had been folded back so that the canvas would fit into a too-small frame. And there, hidden for all these years, was the painter’s signature – “John White Alexander.” Thanks to several generous gifts, the church has had the painting restored, re-framed and hung again in the Living Room on the Third Floor of the Old Parish House. Now the name of the artist is visible for all to see and Henry Van Dyke is nine inches taller than he used to be.
Van Dyke was the Minister of Brick Church for nearly 20 years in the late 19th- and early 20th-century. His was a successful tenure by all accounts. He oversaw a dramatic redecoration of our church’s former sanctuary on Fifth Avenue and 37th Street. (It had been discrete Puritan off-white; he had it redone in the wild polychromatic fashion Victorians loved.) He altered the format of worship, introduced the keeping of Christmas, and reached out to the younger generation of New Yorkers. The church grew in numbers and faithfulness. All this is recalled fondly now, but there was doubtless some controversy then. (In fact, Van Dyke offered to resign twice.)
I rehearse this history to you, my congregation, (and to myself) to remind us of who we were and what that means about who are today and who we can yet become. The fact that Van Dyke led the church in liturgical renewal 120 years ago reminds us that the shape of worship does – and should – change. To encourage new mission, I have mentioned the considerable mission outreach efforts that New York Churches, including The Brick Church, made in the 19th century to newly-arrived immigrants – founding churches, schools and settlement houses. When we discuss the new Presbyterian hymnal just out or the “new” liturgy we often use from the 1993 Book of Common Worship, I remind our Worship Committee that the beloved (by some), crusty little 1906 Book of Common Worship, edited by Van Dyke, was met with anything but universal acclaim when it was introduced more than 100 yeas ago.
History weighs heavily on most congregations, The Brick Church especially. Well it should, for we can never know who we are or who we are called to be unless we understand who we were. History admonishes us when we recall past blunders; history encourages us when we remember past glories – glories often fraught with controversy at the time. Remembering history also reminds us that we ourselves will one day be the history somebody else is remembering.