Founding and First Half Century
In 1890, distinguished preacher and church leader Edward Judson initiated construction of Judson Church as a memorial to his father Adoniram Judson, the first American Protestant foreign missionary.1 The church was affiliated with the Northern (now American) Baptist Churches denomination. In the 1950s, it became dually-aligned with the ABC and the denomination now known as the United Church of Christ.
Edward envisioned the Judson Memorial as an institution to serve the growing population of Italian immigrants in Lower Manhattan through health, nutrition, education, and recreational programs, as well as vibrant worship and religious instruction.
Backed by John D. Rockefeller and other prominent Northern Baptists of the time, Edward Judson commissioned the leading artisans of the day — architect Stanford White, stained glass master John LaFarge, and sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens — to create a splendid edifice where the immigrants of the South Village and the aristocrats of Washington Square North could meet on common ground. They designed an eclectic Lombardo-Romanesque style building which would be familiar to the Italian immigrants, while using the finest terracotta, limestone, marble, and stained-glass work that would also appeal to the aesthetics of the affluent.
It soon became apparent that the established rich were none too keen on rubbing shoulders with the immigrant poor, but Edward Judson's dream that is Judson Memorial Church persisted. His basic model of a church is still followed today, albeit in ways he would not have imagined! He did foresee that financial troubles would follow when he was no longer able to raise money from his rich friends; therefore in 1912, Edward persuaded the New York Baptist City Society (the local denominational organization) to assume responsibility for Judson’s finances, property, and program leadership. It was not until 1973, when its innovative ministries (see below) had attracted a new and growing congregation that the church incorporated itself and resumed ownership of its property and responsibility for all its finances and program.
Although it declined in membership after Edward's death in 1914, the church continued to offer distinctive healthcare and outreach ministries throughout the 1920s and '30s under ministers A. Ray Petty (1915-26) and Laurence Hosie (1926-37). Of particular importance was the work of Dr. Eleanor A. Campbell, who co-founded the Judson Health Center in 1920 in the Judson House behind the church;2 within four years it became one of the largest health care facilities in the nation. In 1950 the Judson Health Center moved to Spring Street, where it continues today as an independent entity. (This model of pioneering a service program but spinning it off to other management when it becomes established has been followed by most of Judson’s projects.)
During the depression and early years of World War II, the congregation shrank; the next minister assigned to Judson by the Baptist City Society, Renato Giacomelli Alden, led a mostly Italian-speaking congregation (1937-1945), and thereafter (1945-49) the City Society provided seminarians to preach to the dozen or so Sunday worshippers who remained.
New Directions Starting in the 1950s
After the Second World War, a young and visionary minister, Robert Spike (1949-55) together with Dean R. Wright, the Baptist minister to students at NYU (1948-52), started to rethink and redefine what a church could and should be. They were followed by Howard Moody (1956-92)3 who developed the vision further to its present understanding – basically that the role of the church is to be a faith-based institution that responds to the societal issues of its time and place by working and advocating for progressive change – with special attention to the needs of people that many mainstream churches tend to overlook or find “undeserving.”.
This approach led the church in the 1940s-‘60s to sponsor an interracial, international residence for students (1949-68), and to open the first drug-treatment clinic in Greenwich Village (1960-62). In the 1960s-70s, Howard Moody and Judson’s program associate Arlene Carmen operated an abortion counseling and referral service before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, and the church pioneered a low-cost abortion clinic afterwards. In the 1970s-80s, Moody and Carmen created a “ministry of presence” with street prostitutes.4
Also during the 1960s-‘80s, Judson participated actively in the local and national movements for civil rights, peace, women’s rights, and gay rights. During the 1980s, when Lee Hancock was associate minister (1980-85), Judson ran several health-care-related programs, and more notably, was one of the few churches to acknowledge the AIDS crisis, operating a support group for those with HIV-AIDS and their caregivers, and providing funerals for those who died of AIDS when other churches were turning them away.
Also starting during the late 1950s and continuing to the present, Judson has become known as a home for innovative, often avant-garde, artists in many genres - dance, painting, theater. In the 1950s-60s, it ran an Art Gallery at which several now-famous artists (Claes Oldenburg, Allen Kaprow, Yoko Ono etc.) found a place that would show their unconventional works. Associate Minister Al Carmines (1962-81), in addition to his standard pastoral duties, was specifically hired to work with the arts. Under his leadership, Judson became one of the three founding venues of “Off-Off Broadway” theater, and later housed the Judson Dance Theater collective that is now recognized as the creators of post-modern dance.
Carmines himself wrote some 30 musicals that were produced at Judson, often using large volunteer choruses (because Al insisted that “everybody can sing”); a half dozen of his shows transferred to commercial theaters for extended runs, winning Obies and wide acclaim.5
Worship styles at Judson have also evolved over time. Starting with a standard Baptist service, under Spike’s leadership the congregation adopted a service order modeled on the Scottish Presbyterian ritual, which they felt was more theologically grounded. But in the mid-1960s, with the ferment of the experimental arts all around, Judson relaxed a lot of the formalities, while keeping the basic outline on most Sundays.
An “agape” service replaced the formal communion on first Sundays, with an informal bread and cheese brunch around tables and the ritual of communion using the food and drink already at hand. Secular songs that express the theme of the day are often used both for congregational singing and performed music. Other formats are used from time to time, as the clergy find appropriate. Al Carmines taught the congregation to sing out heartily, and that is one tradition that is still joyfully observed today.
The New Century – Restoration and Continuation
After Howard Moody’s retirement in 1992, he was followed by ministers Peter Laarman (1994-2004) with Louise Greene, associate (1996-98) and Karen Senecal, associate and then minister (2001-05). They all continued the church's tradition of hospitality to the arts and work in social justice programs, particularly in the area of economic and worker justice.
Laarman also led the church in dealing with issues of deferred maintenance created by Judson's aging buildings, finalizing a series of building and restoration projects that were completed in March 20066
Current minister Donna Schaper (2006-present) is dedicated to providing "spiritual nurture for public capacity" for Judson's growing congregation, which now numbers approximately 250. Under her leadership, Judson has begun several new programs – the experimental “Community Ministry” training program, the recession-addressing “Bailout Theater,” and has taken a leading role in the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC (See separate tabs on these and other current Judson programs.)
Judson is proud of its history, but much more interested these days in shaping the present and looking to the future. See the rest of this website for additional details.