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Title: Splendid Churches

Creator: Walt Whitman [unsigned in original]

Date: March 9, 1846

Whitman Archive ID: per.00598

Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle 9 March 1846: [2]. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of the original issue. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the journalism, see our statement of editorial policy.

Editorial note: This piece is unsigned. However, Whitman was the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle when this editorial was written, and it was first attributed to Whitman by Cleveland Rodgers and John Black in Walt Whitman, The Gathering of the Forces: Editorials, Essays, Literary and Dramatic Reviews and Other Material Written by Walt Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1846 and 1847 (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1920). The piece was also included by Herbert Bergman in Walt Whitman, The Journalism. Volume I: 1834–1846 (New York: Peter Lang, 1998). The Whitman Archive editors agree that the style and content of the piece are consistent with other known Whitman writings of this period.

Contributors to digital file: Ruth L. Bohan, Hannah Fink, and Kevin McMullen

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Grace Church, in New York, was consecrated on Saturday last, according to announcement.1 The ceremonies are said to have been very imposing. The crowd was fashionable, and in numbers sufficient to resemble a rout among the very choicest of the city elegants.

We are impelled to say that we do not look with a favorable eye on these splendid churches—on a christianity which chooses for the method of its developement a style that Christ invariably condemned, and the spirit which he must have meant when he told an inquirer that he "could not enter into the kingdom of heaven."2 Grace Church inside and out, is a showy piece of architecture, and the furnishing of the pews, the covering of the luxurious cushions, &c., appear to be unexceptionable, viewed with the eye of an upholsterer. The stainless marble, the columns, and the curiously carved tracery, are so attractive that the unsophisticated ones of the congregation may well be pardoned if they pay more attention to the workmanship about them, than to the preaching.3 Is this good? Is the vulgar ambition that seeks for show, in such matters, to be spoken of with any other terms than censure?

Ah, who does not remember some little, old, quaint, brown church in the country, surrounded by great trees and plentiful verdure—a church which a property speculator would not own, as an investment, if he had to pay the taxes on it? Is that to be compared for a moment with the tall-spired temples of our great cities, where "the pride that apes humility" is far more frequent than the genuine spirit of Christ?4 And we must say that for such reasons, we regret to see every new putting up of a gorgeous church. The famous religious buildings of Europe, built without our modern pews, and on a scale of massive simplicity and grandeur, crush in their silent largeness the souls of the supplicants who kneel there, and are no doubt conducive to make one realize a little of his own nothingness compared to God and the universe. But the comfortable pews, the exquisite arrangements, and the very character of the architecture of our modern churches, (it may be that Trinity, in New York, will be an exception)5 lift man into a complacent kind of self-satisfaction with himself and his own doings. We hope our remarks will be taken with the same feeling of sincerity in which they are written.6


1. Episcopalian Grace Church was the first major commission of American architect James Renwick, Jr. (1818–1895), who the following year would win the commission to design the Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington, D.C. With its distinctive white marble exterior and Gothic Revival design, Grace Church occupied a dramatic site at the bend of Broadway and East 10th street in one of New York's most fashionable neighborhoods. For a brief history of the church, see [back]

2. The citation, from Matthew 5:20, reads in full: "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Gothic architecture was, of course, not developed until centuries after the death of Christ, who therefore never commented on it directly. Whitman's objections centered more on the ostentatiousness of the building's design and furnishings than on the specifics of the designs themselves. [back]

3. As one of more than a dozen Gothic Revival churches built in New York during the 1840s and 1850s, Grace Church stood apart both in its size and in the profusion and delicacy of its decoration. Tracery refers to the intersecting system of decoration in the upper part of a window, screen or panel in Gothic architecture (John Fleming, Hugh Honour, and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture [Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1975], 287–288). [back]

4. The quoted phrase derives from the poem "The Devil's Thoughts," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first published in the Morning Post and Gazetteer, September 6, 1799 (No. 9569). [back]

5. Trinity Church, the third Episcopalian church built on the site at Broadway facing Wall Street, was also Gothic Revival in character and design. It would be dedicated on May 21, 1846, just two months after Grace Church. The architect was the British-born Richard Upjohn (1802–1878), one of the leading Gothic Revival architects of his day and a committed ecclesiologist. Despite Whitman's hopes to the contrary, Trinity Church exhibits many of the same architectural features as Grace Church, although the overall effect is more subdued, owing in part to its construction in brownstone rather than marble. On the significance of Upjohn's architecture see especially William H. Pierson, Jr., American Buildings and Their Architects: Technology and the Picturesque: The Corporate and the Early Gothic Styles (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1980), 159–171. [back]

6. Whitman continues his critique of religious structures like Grace Church in "Splendid Churches," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 30, 1846 (The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Journalism, ed. Herbert Bergman, vol. 1, 1834–1846 [New York: Peter Lang, 1998], 309–310). [back]


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