The Cathedral of St. John the Divine: A Metaphor for American Christianity

Like the unfinished Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, American Christianity is always shifting its form.

| May 2014

Christianity takes an astonishing variety of forms in America, from churches that cherish traditional modes of worship to evangelical churches, megachurches, and apocalyptic churches—congregations ministering to believers of diverse ethnicities, social classes, and sexual orientations. Nor is this diversity a recent phenomenon, despite many Americans’ nostalgia for an undeviating “faith of our fathers” in the days of yore. Rather, as Stephen Cox argues in American Christianity (University of Texas Press, 2014), Christianity in America is a revolution that is always happening, and always needs to happen. The excerpt below, from chapter 1, uses the ever-shifting construction plans of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine as a metaphor for the ongoing evolution of American Christianity.

On Amsterdam Avenue in New York City stands the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in the world. Designs for the church were drawn in 1887. Work began in 1892. But the structure remains unfinished.

The first fourteen years were slow—“not entirely,” it was said, “because of a lack of money.” There were also problems with soils and materials: the church, built in a medieval style, was supposed to be constructed entirely of stone, like the medieval cathedrals, and that wasn’t easy. In 1906 the building consisted of a crypt, one chapel—about the size of a country church—and a granite arch 150 feet high. Tourists asked, “To what ruin does that arch belong?”

In the next year, unpredictably, new life came to the ruin. More chapels appeared, radiating from a beautiful chancel. Enormous granite piers arose, prepared to support the great tower that was planned for the crossing of the nave and transept—a tower 425 feet high, with a bulk that would dwarf every other feature of the church, as the church would dwarf every other religious structure on the continent.

Then, suddenly, the building committee fired the architect and for no known reason commissioned a Gothic church of a radically different design. The new architect, Ralph Adams Cram, was daring and original. He spent the rest of his life trying to convert one type of church into another type of church while creating an organic unity between the present and the past.

Cram never solved that problem. “We ourselves,” he said, “shall never be called upon to complete the work unless some miracle happens.” It didn’t. At Cram’s death, in 1942, St. John the Divine was nowhere close to being finished.