Author Archives: Meredith Levin

Exotic Travel, Biblical Geography and Tragedy in 1904: The Lewis Bayles Paton Papers

Among the many collections of personal papers held at The Burke, there is a small cache of materials belonging to Biblical geographer Lewis Bayles Paton and his first wife, Suvia Davison Paton. The Patons traveled throughout the Middle East in the early 20th century and Lewis led the American School for Oriental Study and Research in Palestine (based in Jerusalem) from 1903-1904. I was particularly interested in the documents written by Suvia Davison Paton, as they are mostly personal correspondence and diaries from her travels in Europe and the Middle East. Such travel accounts are invaluable in helping historians reconstruct Americans’ experiences abroad over 100 years ago but they are also poignant since they record how places change over time and how they remain the same despite the passage of many decades. Below are some anecdotes from the letters and diaries of Lewis and Suvia that really resonated with me. They offer a window into the lives of intrepid theologians and travelers in the early 20th century.

Lewis Bayles Paton in the early 1930s

Suvia’s description of a June 1890 visit to the Blue Grotto at Italy’s island of Capri is remarkably similar to the experience of a 21st century traveler on the island. Suvia and her husband visited Capri from Naples, traveling by ferry the 26 miles from the mainland to the island. “We were taken to the blue grotto first & left the steamer in row boats to enter the grotto as it is only 3 ft. high at the entrance. Everyone was obliged to get down in the bottom of the boat as we passed through the grotto but the grotto is 40 or 50 ft. high in the centre. A dozen boats were in it at the same time as all the passengers entered the cave & only 3 are allowed in one boat beside the boatman.”

Some years later, in the early 20th century, while they visited Venice, Italy, Lewis and Suvia attended Sunday morning mass at the Scotch Presbyterian church and she describes a quaint, intimate service: “About 40 people were present. The Scotch minister and his wife are earnest people & very pleasant. Afterwards there was a communion service to which we were all invited. 25 remained. The minister passed the one silver goblet of wine & a small plate of bread. It was a simple but impressive service which we all enjoyed. It reminded us of the gathering of the disciples in an upper chamber.”

When Lewis and Suvia journeyed to the Middle East in June 1903 so Lewis could continue his studies and lead the American School for Oriental Study and Research in Palestine, they landed first in Beirut. Geopolitics have changed significantly since the Patons’ arrival, as both Lewis and Suvia describe Beirut as being a city in Syria. Lebanon didn’t even exist as an independent nation! The Patons spent time in Damascus, Beirut, Smyrna, Palestine, and Egypt, visiting ancient sites like Jericho, the Sea of Galilee, and the Cedars of Lebanon.

A letter from Lewis to his mother-in-law from Cairo in January 1904. Their hotel boasted electricity and an elevator!

A flower collected and pressed by Suvia in Haifa in February 1904.

According to Lewis’ Report of the Director, 1903-04, written for the Managing Committee of the American School of Archaeology in Palestine (which included representatives from both Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University), his own studies were “devoted chiefly to the topography of ancient Jerusalem. I investigated all the archaeological remains that were accessible, and obtained a large collection of excellent photographs. …At the request of the Trustees of Hartford Theological Seminary [where Paton taught] I took advantage of my residence in Jerusalem and my trips to other parts of the country to make a quite complete collection of objects illustrating the life of the Bedawins and of the Fellahin. This collection is now on exhibition in the Museum of Hartford Theological Seminary, where it is open to the inspection of the public.” One wonders where these artifacts are today!

Lewis and Suvia led a very full life during their time in Jerusalem, participating in archaeological excavations and socializing with other scholars and diplomats residing in the region in this period. Tragedy struck in March 1904 when Suvia fell off the horse she was riding near Amman, Jordan and died shortly after, never regaining consciousness. Lewis touchingly records the incident in his report to the Managing Committee:

“Late in the spring, just before the end of the School year, we planned a tour in company of Dr. Masterman of Jerusalem, to make a more thorough study of ‘Araq el-Amir, then to visit Amman, Jerash, Pella, the Decapolis, and to return by way of Beisan and Nablus. We had gone as far as Amman, and were just starting on the road to Jerash. It was a cool, cloudy morning, and we were riding slowly over a level, grassy spot, when suddenly, without any warning, and without uttering a cry, Mrs. Paton fell from her horse. Her head struck on a sharp stone, and she never regained consciousness. We were able to move her to the Amman station on the new pilgrimage railway from Damascus to Mecca, and to take her in a train to Damascus. She died on the train within two hours of Damascus, and I was obliged to bury her body in Damascus. She was the constant companion of my travels, and whatever success may have attended the work of the School during the past winter is due to her enthusiasm and brave willingness to put up with the inconveniences of life in Palestine.”

It must have been so shocking and so awful for everyone involved, particularly Lewis, to have lost his beloved young wife suddenly and unexpectedly. Their young daughter had already gone back to the United States several months earlier but one feels, even more than a century later, so much sympathy for the family at such a devastating loss. The Paton collection at The Burke includes several carefully snipped and pasted obituaries and newspaper articles documenting Suvia’s death.

Lewis Bayles Paton went on to marry two more times before his death in 1932 and he enjoyed a successful career teaching and writing on diverse theological subjects. Anyone interested in Biblical geography, Western perceptions of the Middle East in the early 20th century, or personal travel accounts from a pair of adventurous Americans, should look to the Paton papers for illumination.

Missionary Research Library Pamphlets: 3,000+ Now Available Online!

Global in scope and including materials from as far back as the 18th century, the Missionary Research Library (MRL), housed at the Burke Library, chronicles world history and the efforts of Protestant missionaries both in the United States and abroad. The MRL contains over 20,000 pamphlets (among other items) and now, thanks to the hard work and dedication of Columbia’s Libraries Preservation and Digital Conversion staff, more than 3,000 have been fully digitized and are freely accessible online!

An outcome of the World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh, 1910, the MRL was founded in 1914 by John R. Mott (with funding from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) in connection with the Foreign Missions Conference of North America. In 1929, the MRL was housed in the Brown Memorial Tower of Union Theological Seminary, its Board of Trustees composed of FMCNA (later DOM-NCCCUSA) and UTS members. In 1976, its unique collections, the documentary heritage of Ecumenical Protestantism, were transferred into the care of the Burke Library.

The MRL Archives contains collections of named missionaries’ papers and institutional records within 12 geographic divisions:

Series 1. Africa
Series 2. Near/Middle East
Series 3. South Asia
Series 4. Southeast Asia
Series 5. East Asia
Series 6. China
Series 7. Japan
Series 8. Korea
Series 9. Latin America
Series 10. North America
Series 11. Australia and Oceania
Series 12. Ecumenical/World Mission

The digitization work will continue this year as we look forward to sharing even more pamphlets from the MRL collection with the world. For anyone interested in MRL, please see the finding aids for the 12 archival series and Columbia’s catalog, CLIO, for individual pamphlets within the collection.

“Our Spiritual Industry Will Go on Uninterrupted…”: The Construction Fire at Riverside Church, 1928

In an earlier blog post about Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Union alumnus/professor and the founding pastor at The Riverside Church, I described his ministry to American servicemen and women during WWII despite his fierce commitment to pacifism. The Burke’s collection of Fosdick’s papers covers most of his adult life and prolific career as a leader in liberal theology, spanning the first six decades of the 20th century. Given the significance of The Riverside Church in Fosdick’s life and work, there is a substantial amount of material in his papers relating to the church’s history. One of the more fascinating stories (among many) is the enormous construction fire in 1928 that delayed the church’s opening.

Financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s vast fortune, construction on The Riverside Church began in 1926 and by the end of 1928 great progress had been made. A published photo taken on Dec. 18, 1928 in the January 3, 1929 issue of The Church Monthly shows the 300-foot steel framework of the church’s massive tower (that would still rise another 100 feet) ready to be encased in Indiana limestone.

Just three days after this photograph was taken, however, a fire broke out on the night of December 21, 1928 that set the entire wooden scaffolding inside the church ablaze, calling out hundreds of firefighters and thousands of aghast spectators to the scene of the conflagration. The fire was so large and so intense that it could be seen miles away across the Hudson River in New Jersey (the below image is from the same issue of The Church Monthly, Jan. 3, 1929).

The Fosdick papers include a clipping from the UK’s Daily Mail from December 24, 1928 that reports:

“In bitter winter weather more than 100,000 people gathered round the flaming building as hundreds of firemen vainly tried to subdue the blazing cauldron. Fanned by an icy wind, the flames fed on a forest of timber scaffolding and spread to the framework of the 400ft. Tower, which would have carried the world’s finest carillon from a famous English foundry. The woodwork disappeared like matchwood, while a pillar of fire shot hundreds of feet into the air. As streams of water were pumped into the flames it quickly froze into icicles, hampering the firemen in their work.”

According to Fosdick’s 1956 autobiography, The Living of These Days, the cause of the fire was a carelessly strung electrical wire that wrought enough damage to delay construction and the church’s opening by a full year. Luckily, because the fire started at night, no one was injured or killed; had the flames erupted during the day, when hundreds of construction workers were busy inside, the casualties could have been catastrophic. Two other photos from the same issue of The Church Monthly show the smoldering ruins of the church’s interior and the charred skeleton of its once mighty tower.

 

In his Sunday sermon following the fire, Rev. Fosdick addressed his parish from the pulpit of the Park Avenue Baptist Church (Riverside’s predecessor): “You will understand without my going into details that the church is involved in no loss in this matter save loss of convenience and time. This postponement of our entrance into our new building is a source of great disappointment, but it is the part of a Christian congregation, as of a Christian man, to face such exigencies with fortitude and good-will. In the name of the ministers and responsible officers of the church I wish publicly to express the appreciation which we feel for the outpouring of sympathy and good-will from every side.” The Fosdick papers include sympathy notes, cards, and records of donations from well-wishers around the globe including letters from Scotland, Greece, Japan, Switzerland, Canada, and a heartfelt note from Dean Howard Robbins of Riverside’s Morningside Heights neighbor, The Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Given the fire’s size and proximity to Union Theological Seminary, it is no surprise that UTS sustained some damage.  Rev. Fosdick and then President of UTS, Henry Sloane Coffin, exchanged letters in January 1929, in which Coffin declined Fosdick’s offer to pay for the damages. Fosdick declares himself “not easy in conscience about the Seminary having to carry the reimbursement of individuals at 99 Claremont Avenue who lost possessions during the fire” and urges Coffin to reconsider the church’s offer. There are no records, however, in the Fosdick papers to suggest that UTS ever accepted any financial recompense from The Riverside Church following the fire. One tangible (and lasting result) of Riverside’s fire was a change in New York City building laws requiring that scaffolding be made of metal rather than wood to prevent another disaster of the size and scale of The Riverside Church construction fire of 1928.

If you are interested in Rev. Fosdick, The Riverside Church, or liberal theology in the 20th century, I encourage you to explore the Burke’s collection of Fosdick papers. I certainly plan to dig deeper so stay tuned!

The U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Riverside Church in WWII

Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Union Theological Seminary graduate and professor as well as the founding pastor of Riverside Church, was a pioneer of liberal theology, an outspoken opponent of racism and injustice, and a fierce pacifist. The Burke Library is very fortunate to have been the archival recipient of Rev. Fosdick’s personal papers, some 67 boxes containing sermons, lectures, correspondence, drafts, reviews, and bibliographic material spanning his life and career. (For more information on the Fosdick collection at the Burke and a link to its finding aid, see here.) Given Rev. Fosdick’s importance as an American theological leader for more than half a century, the papers in his archive are all fascinating and worthy of examination but for the purposes of this post I chose to focus on his support of American servicemen and women during WWII in spite of his pacifist objections to war.

Having witnessed the horrors of WWI firsthand on a visit to the European trenches under the auspices of the Y.M.C.A., Fosdick returned to the United States with an altered view of his theology and an impassioned commitment to a lasting peace. In a 1921 sermon, “Shall We End War?”, Fosdick preached that “we cannot reconcile Christianity with war anymore,” as war continued to divide rather than unite the world. Fosdick continued to rail against war from the pulpit, refining his pacifist stance and leading the swelling Protestant anti-war movement in the 1920s and 1930s. His pacifism reached its apotheosis on November 12, 1933, when he delivered an impassioned sermon from the Riverside Church pulpit, “Unknown Soldier,” concluding dramatically by declaring, “I renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will I sanction or support another!”

Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, courtesy of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection. The New York Public Library.

When WWII erupted in 1939, Fosdick remained a steadfast pacifist, and even after the bombing at Pearl Harbor in 1941, when anti-war sentiment plummeted in the face of patriotic support for American involvement in the war, Fosdick never abandoned his pacifism. In spite of his moral opposition to the war, however, Fosdick and the entire congregation of Riverside Church opened their doors to the U.S. Naval Reserve’s Midshipmen’s School, based at Columbia University, from 1942-1945. In the Fosdick papers, one sees an incredibly warm, respectful correspondence between Rev. Fosdick and Captain (later Commodore) J.K. Richards, the Commanding Officer of the Midshipmen’s School, as the two men discuss how best to support the midshipmen and even what it means to be in the military but not to idealize war.  In one of his earlier letters to Rev. Fosdick, dated March 15, 1943, Captain Richards describes his thoughts on soldiers’ views of war:

“We, of the military, have never idealized or glorified war. Having been trained in war, it is to us a grim, harrowing tragedy; but to safeguard the doctrines of Democracy and our way of life is a sacred trust. Called by our Country to its defense, it becomes a “Sacred Cause.” And we further believe that those of our citizens, who sacrifice themselves for those principles we hold to be self-evident, should be idealized.”

Captain Richards goes on to implore Rev. Fosdick “to help guide and fortify our young fighters; so that when this war is over the peace won will be a proper peace.” In 1944, after receiving a check for $2,000 from Captain Richards to support the church’s community efforts, many of which were aimed at the midshipmen, Rev. Fosdick wrote gratefully:

“We are so happy here to be of use to you, and would so gladly do it from our own funds that we all of us feel as if you ought not to contribute to our budget. Nevertheless, of course, a check of this kind is very convenient in these days when we are trying to carry on a piece of work that sometimes strains our resources, so that I suspect our gratitude will, as last year, overcome our embarrassment. I do want you to know, however, that the privilege of serving the Midshipmen’s School is a very dear treasure to all of us here at Riverside Church. A finer group of men never were gathered together, and anything that we can do for you we do with all our hearts.”

The folder with materials on the Midshipmen’s School in the Fosdick collection also includes letters to and from members of the public who are interested in Riverside’s services for the midshipmen (particularly the Saturday night dances held in the church’s gymnasium) and even clergymen who question how Fosdick, as a staunch and vocal pacifist, could permit the military to use the church, particularly for their graduation exercises. In a letter to Rev. Donald R. Lemkau of Little York, Illinois, dated Dec. 7, 1942, Fosdick defends Riverside’s hospitality to the midshipmen, whom he describes as “grand fellows, the pick of our homes, schools and churches,” and a “magnificent body of American young men; many of whom of course have been fighting and are still fighting a difficult battle in their own consciences with reference to participation in the conflict.” He also refers to a statement published by fellow theologian Dr. Lathrop in a recent issue of Fellowship, “where a pacifist minister must say not, This is my church, but, This is our church, and must recognize the right of his non-pacifist brethren to their judgment.”

At the conclusion of the war, the Midshipmen were so grateful to Riverside for being their home away from home throughout the war that they inscribed a message of thanks at the back of the nave to commemorate the kindness and hospitality shown to them during such a difficult period. Rev. Fosdick, in spite of his unwillingness to support the war itself, was a compassionate and devoted servant to those who served in the war, ensuring that Riverside Church, founded on ecumenical principles, was a sanctuary to all during the trying years of the 1940s.

I encourage anyone with an interest in liberal theology, Riverside Church, or Rev. Fosdick himself, to spend some time with this archival collection. I certainly plan to dig in deeper in the near future so stay tuned for more blog posts on one of Union’s most illustrious alumni!

 

Greetings from the Burke’s Interim Head, Meredith Levin

Now that we are all immersed in the hectic daily routines of the academic year, I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself as the Interim Head of the Burke Library. It is my pleasure to work with the wonderful Burke staff, UTS faculty, and students this year, and I look forward to meeting many of you in the next few months.

I come to the Burke from just across Broadway (and a few blocks south), where I have been the Western European Humanities Librarian at Columbia’s Butler Library since 2014. I consider myself a true humanist and am delighted to be surrounded by such brilliant archival collections and incunables here at the Burke. I have a B.A. in English Literature (with a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies) from NYU, an MS in Library and Information Science from LIU, and an MA in Italian Studies, also from NYU. In my regular role as a subject librarian at Columbia, I collect materials (print and digital) and offer research support for students, faculty and scholars in French and Italian language and literature, Comparative Literature, European history from the Renaissance to the present, and the history of science, technology and medicine.

I am thrilled to be here and eager to learn what makes the Burke special to each of you and what you think we might do better. Feel free to stop by my office on L3, call me (212.851.5611), or email me (mjl2209@columbia.edu) with any questions, suggestions, or if you just want to say hello!

I wish you all a productive year and thank you for welcoming me into the warm UTS community!

Meredith