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Practical church history

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO I got a phone call from a woman who introduced herself as the curator of the art collection of the Federal Reserve in Washington. (Who knew the Federal Reserve had an art collection?!) She also said that she was personally interested in the work of a late 19th — early 20th century portrait painter named John Alexander White. She was calling because her research had led her to believe that Brick Church, the congregation I serve in Manhattan, was in possession of what she intriguingly named “a lost John Alexander White.”

She described the painting — a full body oil portrait of a clergyman in clerical garb named Henry Van Dyke. I told her that a painting just like the one she was describing hung in our church parlor, but it was not signed — by John Alexander White or anyone else. She asked if she could come to New York to view it.

She walked into our church parlor, took one look at the portrait, and said, “That’s it!” I pointed out that it was unsigned. She asked if we could take it off the wall and have a look at the back. We carefully laid Henry facedown on a table only to see that the bottom nine inches of the painting had been folded back so that the canvas would fit into a too-small frame. And there, hidden for all these years, was the painter’s signature: “John Alexander White.” The church had the painting restored and re-framed. Now, the name of the artist is visible for all to see and Henry Van Dyke is nine inches taller than he used to be.

Van Dyke was the minister of Brick Church for nearly 20 years in the late 19th and early 20th century. His was a successful tenure by all accounts. He oversaw a dramatic redecoration of the church’s former sanctuary. (It had been discrete Puritan off-white; he had it redone in the wild polychromatic fashion Victorians loved.) He altered the format of worship, introduced the keeping of Christmas and reached out to the younger generation of New Yorkers. The church grew in numbers and faithfulness. All this is recalled fondly now, but there was controversy then. In fact, Van Dyke offered to resign at least twice.

I rehearse history to my congregation (and to myself) to remind us of who we were then and what that means about who are today and who we can yet become. The fact that Van Dyke led the church in liturgical renewal 120 years ago reminds us that worship does — and should — change. To encourage new mission, I remind church members of the considerable mission outreach efforts New York churches — Brick included – made in the 19th century to newly arrived immigrants by founding churches, schools and settlement houses. When we discuss new hymnals or the liturgies in 1993 Book of Common Worship, I remind my worship committee that the beloved (by some), crusty little 1906 Book of Common Worship edited by Van Dyke was met with anything but universal acclaim when it was introduced.

History weighs heavily on most congregations and well it should. We can never know who we are or who we are called to be unless we understand who we were. History admonishes us when we recall past blunders; it encourages us when we remember past glories, glories often fraught with controversy at the time. Remembering history also reminds us that we ourselves will one day be the history somebody else is remembering.

m-lindvall.jpgMICHAEL L. LINDVALL is pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City.

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