A History of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church
Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, since its inception in 1843, has been grounded in and nourished by a solid base of Trinitarian theology expressed in Reformed worship, preaching, Christian education and ministry to its members, the surrounding community, New York City, and the world at large. Begun in a sparsely settled Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan Island, the congregation went through several mergers with other Presbyterian assemblies as it followed the trend of city growth northward. In 1864 it settled on 55th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. Under the leadership of Dr. Charles S. Robinson, the congregation outgrew its facilities and several years later moved to 53rd and Madison where it became known as Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (MAPC). Continuing growth included many who were living in the emerging Upper East Side of the city. Under the influence of these members, the congregation established its first outreach ministry, the Good Will Chapel on East 82nd Street, to minister to the ever-increasing numbers of European immigrants living in that area. The chapel offered worship services on Monday and Thursday evenings by the minister from Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, and included a lively Sunday church school and other forms of outreach ministry. At one point, a minister and three callers served about 600 people.
In 1858, another congregation, the downtown Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, established a similar outreach ministry on the corner of Madison Avenue and 73rd Street. Named The Phillips Church, it was built on a plot of land given by James Lenox, famous New York City citizen and staunch Presbyterian. Opportunities for increased ministry in this rapidly emerging portion of the city led to conversations between MAPC and the Phillips Church which resulted in the merger of the two in 1898. The Madison Avenue and 55th Street property was sold with the proceeds used to build a new sanctuary on the Madison Avenue and 73rd Street site. Construction began in 1889 with the demolition of the Phillips Church sanctuary. The three-storied church house behind the sanctuary was left standing and was incorporated into the new and current sanctuary structure. The building still bears the inscription of its original name over the 73rd Street door. The newly merged congregation took the name Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and began its ministry at this location upon the completion of the sanctuary in 1901.
The first several years of the newly merged church’s life were marked by difficulty as the leadership of the two former communities adjusted to the reality of becoming one new congregation. This was further exacerbated by the transition of several ministers, financial hardships, and the search for a new pastor willing to take on significant challenges. The leadership was intent upon calling a conservative evangelical pastor, but could not find one it could afford. In 1905 the congregation called Henry Sloane Coffin, Jr., a young pastor who had grown up in New York City and was educated at Yale Divinity School and St. Andrew’s Divinity School in Scotland. Mr. Coffin was then engaged in a successful urban ministry in the Bronx and ready for a larger congregation and its challenges. Having grown up the son of an affluent New York attorney, and a member of a successful business and merchandising family, Coffin, who had initially considered professional Y.M.C.A. service, discovered in seminary a passion for the emerging social gospel movement and its insistence that the Christian message minister to people’s physical as well as spiritual needs. True to Reformed principles, he was also a staunch advocate for insuring that theology be informed by the new knowledge emerging out of science as well as the critical study of scripture. He accepted the challenge of a call to MAPC for the staggering sum of one dollar a year on the provision that the church’s leadership would be open to his innovative vision for ministry. The leadership’s acceptance of his pastorate signaled a willingness to minister more aggressively among the people living to the east of what is now Park Avenue—then a ditch that was the main line track-bed of the New York Central Rail Road—intending not only to minister to their needs, but also to incorporate them into the membership of the congregation. Though the church continued its support of the satellite ministry of the Good Will Chapel on east 82nd Street, the new pastor had a broader vision for the future of MAPC.