National Prayer Breakfast Site was Almost a Church

For sixty-seven years, Washington’s most prominent annual religious-political event has occurred not in house of worship but in a hotel ballroom. Yet the site of the Washington Hilton, where the National Prayer Breakfast has been held for at least the last three decades, was almost the home not of a hotel, but a of church.

In February 1953, when the newly-inaugurated President Dwight Eisenhower attended the first such breakfast, the site of today’s Hilton was known as Temple Heights. It was one of the largest undeveloped sites remaining in central Washington and occupied a commanding hillside location at the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, NW. Near the top of the hill stood Oak Lawn, a mansion built in 1873. The rest of the nine-and-a-half-acre site was grass and woods.

Aerial view of "Oak Lawn," Washington, D.C., site of Washington Hilton Hotel.

Aerial view of “Oak Lawn,” Washington, D.C., site of Washington Hilton hotel. Photographed between 1909 and 1932. National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/97505334/

Just a few days before the first prayer breakfast, Eisenhower had joined the National Presbyterian Church. The congregation dated back to the earliest years of the capital, but had received this name from its denomination only in 1947 in an effort claim a larger role for Presbyterians in American life. The fact that the new Republican president joined the congregation was a boost to Presbyterian pride. Two years later, congregation leaders began an earnest effort to secure Temple Heights for a new, landmark church.

National Presbyterian’s existing building was a Romanesque revival church completed in 1889 at Connecticut Avenue and N Street, NW. It was handsome and just around the corner from St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. It was, however, no rival to the mammoth national churches being built by Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (Washington National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception). It also lacked the educational and recreational spaces of new suburban churches as well as their plentiful parking. Many felt that a new building was urgently needed.

Like the founding of the prayer breakfast, the drive to build a new monumental church was part of a Cold War emphasis on the link between religion and American national identity. Few denominations saw themselves as more central to American history than Presbyterians and Temple Heights was a seemingly perfect location for a landmark church.

Proposal for National Presbyterian Church c. 1955, Adams & Woodbridge, Mills, Petticord, & Mills, Architects. Collection of National Presbyterian Church.

The architect’s sketch of the proposed building shows it looming like a medieval cathedral over the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, separated from the capital’s grit and politics by a verdant forest, but drawing many to worship in its walls. Such a church would clearly give Presbyterians a fitting platform for ministry in the nation’s capital.

The building’s clean, modern lines suggested the 1950s’ most famous cathedral project–the new cathedral at Coventry, England. As in Basil Spence’s design for Coventry, the windows of the nave were angled toward the altar to provide it with dramatic light. The clean, modern lines also echoed Coventry and bespoke the International Style and the machine age. But Presbyterian church’s massing owed more to the Gothic revival, with pitched roof and a tall tower next to the nave. As at Riverside Church in New York City, the church tower took the form of a skyscraper. From the hillside location, the upper floors of an office tower on the south side of the nave would have had clear views of the Washington Monument.

Congregation leaders worked through the year to secure the needed funds to buy and develop on the expensive site, but in the end were unable to do so. The Presbyterian proposal joined a long list of unfulfilled dreams for Temple Heights including a Masonic temple and a twenty-one building glass and concrete complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The lower portion of the site was sold off for office buildings in 1956 and the Hilton was built on the upper portion in 1965. Eventually, in 1969, National Presbyterian opened a new large modern church of modern design on a less prominent site on Nebraska Avenue near American University.

With the National Prayer Breakfast, Temple Heights is still a site of national religious assembly and influence, though not religious architectural presence. In American religious life the influence of religious groups is often not linked to their architectural place in the landscape.

Spaces that Shape: Architecture for Worship

In the summer of 2017, the Center for Worship and the Arts at Samford University produced a nine-minute video on understanding church architecture. It was used in Animate, their week-long summer program for teenagers and others. I provided the narration. I’ll be referring to it in a talk at a All Saints’ Episcopal Church this week, so I’m sharing it here for easy access. I hope you find it helpful.

They produced a teaching activity handout based on my notes. If you are interested, let me know, and I’ll see if we can track down a copy.

St. John the Evangelist, Philip Schaff, and Christian Unity

Today, December 27, is the feast day of St. John the Evangelist. While internal evidence in the Bible suggests otherwise, tradition identifies him as the son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the author of all five books in the New Testament ascribed to a John. As such his role in the New Testament is rivaled only by Peter and Paul. He is recognized in Christian art by usually being beardless or symbolized by an eagle or a chalice with a snake.

St. John the Evangelist represented as on the base of pulpit in Cordoba Cathedal, Spain, and in a rose window at St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.

Co-editing the works of the pioneering church historian Philip Schaff with my colleague Ted Trost, I learned much about the adulation John has received through the centuries. Schaff was born almost 200 years ago on January 1, 1819. Next week the bicentennial of his birth will be celebrated at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History, which he founded.

In his first book, The Principle of Protestantism (1845), Schaff wrote

John, the apostle of love, has not without reason been styled by the church the “Theologian” per eminentiam. For by the eagle flight of his believing speculation into the depths of God and his Word as existing before the world and then made flesh for our salvation, he may be said to have led the way to Christian theology in its bold and glorious course. His love is only the strong will-force of knowledge, his knowledge but the keen vision of love.

The whole history of the Church furnishes proof that the men who have exerted the greatest and most happy influence, the wakers of a new life, the pillars of the temple of God, have always been distinguished also above there contemporaries by a thorough scientific cultivation.

Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, trans. John W. Nevin, in The Development of the Church, edited by David R. Bains and Theodore Louis Trost (Wipf and Stock, 2017), 175-6.

Schaff cites a medieval Latin hymn in praise of John. In his St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology, Jeffery Hamburger translates it:

He flies like a bird without limit,
in that neither seer nor prophet
ever flew higher.
As much what would be fulfilled as what has been,
never were so many secrets seen
so purely by a pure man.

Cited in Development of the Church, 175

Schaff was an ecumenist, passionately concerned with the reunion of what he, following his German teachers, called the church of Peter (Roman Catholicism) with the church of Paul (Protestantism) in the coming church of John. He closes the Principle of Protestantism stating

The revivification of the spirit of John the evangelist, in the Church, will open the way directly for his second coming, to establish the Church absolute and triumphant, in which law and freedom shall both be perfect in one, and the results of all previous development appear conserved as the constituent elements of a higher and more
glorious state. To this refers the mystical sense of Christ’s word, John 21:22, where he speaks enigmatically of John’s tarrying till his second coming.

Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, in The Development of the Church, 190.

With such an emphasis on John–the beloved disciple, the theologian, the evangelist, the author of Revelation–as the embodiment of the coming church of the future, it is unsurprising that Americans would name him patron of their largest and most ambitious church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Its name was fixed in a 1873 charter when Schaff was in his prime at age 54. Its cornerstone was laid on this day in 1892 a year before Schaff’s death. Its structure, like the reunion of Christ’s visible church is still unfinished.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, New York. Crossing and choir (interior, 2009), Exterior from the south.

While for Schaff, the key attributes of John were knowledge and love, the traditional Anglican collect for this feast highlights the theme of the light of truth appropriate for this dark time of year in the northern hemisphere. The phrasing in the Church of England’s Common Worship captures it best.

Merciful Lord,
cast your bright beams of light upon the Church:
that, being enlightened by the teaching of your most blessed apostle and evangelist Saint John,
we may so walk in the light of your truth
that we may at last attain to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

International Church of Cannabis

Next week at the American Academy of Religion in Denver, I will once again have the privilege and pleasure of co-leading a tour of intriguing religious sites. One interesting place that we haven’t been able to include on this year’s tour is the International Church of Cannabis. That’s right, it is a church formed around the “lifestance” that “an individual’s spiritual journey, and search for meaning, is one of self-discovery that can be accelerated with ritual cannabis use.” Members of the church refer to themselves as Elevationists.

The Gothic-revival building the church occupies in the Washington Park neighborhood was built by in 1904 for the congregation of Trinity Lutheran.

Barnitz_Memorial_Lutheran_Church__So_Logan__E_Dakota
Barnitz Memorial Lutheran Church – So. Logan & E. Dakota [1910-1930?], Western History and Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library
The congregation soon renamed itself Barnitz Memorial Lutheran in honor of Lutheran pastor and missionary, Samuel Bacon Barnitz (1838–1901). Later it served for over twenty years as the home of Mount Calvary Apostolic Church.

After Mount Calvary left in 2015, the Elevationists purchased it and transformed it with the help of two artists. Los Angeles-based artist Kenny Scharf covered the doors and filed the front windows with a cosmic design. Spanish muralist Okuda San Miguel transformed the sanctuary interior with brightly colored geometric murals in his distinctive style.

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International Church of Cannabis, January 2018, Jeffrey Beall [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

International Church of Cannabis
Ceiling and rear wall, Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

A full gallery of photographs is available in a April 2017 HuffPost article.

On their website, the Elevationists advertise hours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons when the church is open to the public. Because Colorado law does not allow the public consumption of marijuana, cannabis may not be used during these times. That is reserved for member-only events.

Telling the History of Religion in Toronto through Congregations

Roberto Perin’s Many Rooms of this House: Religious Diversity in Toronto since 1840 tells the history of religion life in Toronto’s West End over a 160-year period. It offers a kind of composite biography of the many Protestant, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist congregations that have been centers of community life.  The book is stunning in its detail and scope. You can read my full review at Reading Religion.

A World Civil Religion

“A world civil religion could be accepted as a fulfillment and not a denial of American civil religion. Indeed, such an outcome has been the eschatological hope of American civil religion from the beginning.”

So wrote Robert Bellah near the end of his famous 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America.” I regularly read this text with students and always find Bellah’s vision of a “world civil religion” arresting. Even more so, his observation that “so far the flickering flame of the United Nations burns too low to the focus of a cult.”

I’m not surprised that Bellah thought that the UN could not do this symbolic work. But I am struck that that the UN figured so prominently in the social consciousness of his day that he thought it worth mentioning. Recently the U.S. President denounced “globalism” in favor of “patriotism” before the United Nations General Assembly. Bellah’s world was clearly different from ours

If a world civil religion with the United Nations as a focus were to develop, one of its sacred sites would surely be San Francisco, the UN’s birthplace. The UN already figures prominently in the iconography of one of the city’s sacred shrines, Grace Cathedral.

Entering this Episcopal cathedral by its main doors, one of the first things that draws a person’s attention is a mural commemorating the UN’s founding.

Founding of the United Nations 1945
Image from http://www.wescover.com

Painted by Polish émigré, Jan Henryk de Rosen (1891-1982), it depicts individuals involved in the founding of the UN above the city’s Ferry Building. They are flanked by representations of Peace and Victory. Tellingly however, Victory is depicted by a representation of the Winged Victory of Samothrace in its surviving, headless, form. This underscores that the founding principle of the UN is not victory, but peace. The quotation from the preamble to the UN charter underscores this point, “We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war . . .”

Just to the left of the mural a metal casting makes the UN’s religious significance more explicit.

20180825-0390

Potentially sacred verses of a global civil religion ring the UN emblem symbols of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Daoism, and Hinduism are arranged below.

Venturing further into the cathedral, careful observers may also see the UN symbol shining like a silver moon in a clerestory window honoring President Harry S. Truman.

20180825-0419

It is not surprising that the United Nations should be so celebrated in the city of its birth in a mainline Protestant church. As Heather Warren showed in Theologians of a New World Order, Protestant ecumenists were instrumental in its founding. Yet, I can recall only one church in which I have seen the United Nations flag displayed in honor, St. Luke’s Episcopal in Atlanta, Georgia. Grace’s sister Episcopal cathedrals in Washington and New York are among the many Protestant churches of the twentieth-century with expansive iconographic schemes celebrating the unity of humanity. Yet, as far as I recall, neither of them give a prominent role to the United Nations.

A world civil religion, especially one in which the United Nations plays a central role, seems to be something we are only able to explore in fiction. In the 1982 movie The Wrath of Khan, the Star Trek franchise introduced the UN-inspired emblem for the United Federation of Planets for the first time. It was a ritual redolent with civil religious meaning, the funeral of one who had given his life for his friends, Commander Spock.

Spock_funeral
Paramount Pictures image via Memory Alpha

Since then the Federation and its emblem and have been treated with more religious-like ceremony in Star Trek shows and films. The idea that the United Federation of Planets is the future fulfillment of both the United States and the United Nations is evident throughout the Star Trek franchise. Here perhaps we can see an image of the global civil religion Bellah imagined.

Gothic Churches and Gothic Literature

When the American Academy of Religion met in Baltimore in 2013, I was invited to speak on Gothic revival architecture in an arts, film, literature, and media session on “The Gothic.” I believe the topic was chosen because of Baltimore’s association with Edgar Allen Poe, and most of the other panelists were discussing Gothic literature. While all our papers were well received, I didn’t think we were successful in connecting the different senses of Gothic.

Thus while catching up on publications on church architecture, I was excited to discover a new book that promises to make this connection., Ghost Storeys: Ralph Adams Cram, Modern Gothic Media, and Deconstructive Microhistory at a Canadian Church by Cameron Macdonnell. I always find Cram facinating. I’m looking forward to reading this book.