The Riverside Church is situated at one of the highest points of New York City, overlooking the Hudson River and 122nd Street. It is 100 feet wide and covers two city blocks. Construction began in 1927 with the first service held on October 5, 1930. The Nave seats nearly 2,000 worshipers. The 20-floor tower, rising to a height of 392 feet, contains offices, meeting rooms, and the 74-bell Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon. The carillon’s 20-ton bourdon bell is the largest tuned bell in the world. The smallest bell in our carillon weighs 10 pounds.
Inside the Nave worship sanctuary, the strivings and aspirations of humanity shine through exquisitely detailed carvings, engravings, stained glass, and other iconography, a tribute to the artists, craftsmen, and architects and their dedication to the glory of God. The Labyrinth on the floor of the chancel has been adapted from the maze at Chartres, one of the few such medieval designs in existence.
The pulpit has welcomed speakers from far and near: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached his famous anti-Vietnam War sermon, “Beyond Vietnam,” from this pulpit. Nelson Mandela addressed the nation during an interfaith celebration welcoming him to America. Marian Wright-Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund spoke about the need to provide quality healthcare to all children; and the well-known Dr. Tony Campolo delivered a sermon concerning affluence in America.
The beautiful and intimate Christ Chapel, patterned after the eleventh century Romanesque nave of the fortress church of St. Nazaire at Carcassonne, belongs architecturally to an earlier period than does the rest of the church.
Riverside was conceived and built by John D. Rockefeller, with the intention that Rev. Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick be the senior minister. In the 1920s, Rockefeller belonged to a Baptist congregation, worshipping at the Park Avenue Baptist Church. Fosdick (a Northern Baptist Minister) had been preaching at the First Presbyterian Church when a controversy arose regarding his views on Fundamentalism, most notably captured in his sermon entitled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Due to this controversy, he left First Presbyterian and eventually agreed to serve at Riverside, with the caveat that its congregation be non-denominational rather than Baptist. Rockefeller agreed, and the congregation at the Park Avenue Baptist Church became the Riverside congregation.