On September 21, 1845, Rev. William R., Williams preached a sermon entitled “God’s presence in his sanctuary,” welcoming congregants back to their new edifice at 12 Oliver Street—or 3 Henry Street, depending on whom you ask. This was already one of New York City’s first Baptist churches, and it would continue to make history by serving every surrounding immigrant community. It would be the first church in the United States led by a black woman, and it would welcome predominantly black congregants near the heart of a bustling Chinatown, carrying a unique version of the message of hope and inclusion for all who walked through it doors.
When English Baptists first arrived to New York City in 1709, they immediately went to work building places of worship. One of those institutions was Fayette Street Baptist Church, so named because it was built on what was then known as Fayette Street. New York silversmith William Smith Pelletreau described the two-story church as “a small wooden building in a style of the most primitive simplicity.”
As Baptist culture grew in the early 1800s, so too did the church. In 1819, Fayette Street became part of Oliver Street, and Oliver Street was extended from Bancker Street (now Madison Street) to Chatham Square. Pastors and congregants decided to rename the church Oliver Street Baptist Church.
The church’s congregation grew, but in the 1840s, a devastating blow hit its members. In 1843, the building burned down in a fire that left it in ashes. It was rebuilt over the next two years. Accounts differ on the lead architect behind the new church; 1844 church minutes indicate a little-known architect named Issac Lucas was behind the design, while the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission attributes the design to the experienced and respected architect Minard Lafever, adding that Lucas was project superintendent. Lafever had just finalized a project a short three years earlier, in which he invoked the Gothic Revival style of the Reformed Dutch Church on Washington Square. However, if he was behind the new church, he opted for the traditional Greek Revival style for Oliver Street Baptist Church, a decision that would bring the church notoriety in the years to come.
As the church grew, it built relationships with other Baptist churches and organizations in the city, including the Baptist Mariners’ Church. This network consisted of ten missionaries with members from 16 countries, and they were especially interested in serving impoverished immigrants in the city. This value intrigued the congregants of Oliver Street Baptist Church. They met on November 15, 1851 at the Oliver Street Baptist Church during a financial meeting. Though their encounter was brief, their initial bond would influence the church down the road.
Meanwhile, the church was also facing challenges near its grounds. As it went through a series of name changes, the community that surrounded it went through its own set of changes. By 1850, the densely populated Five Points neighborhood was notorious for crime, poverty, and disease; The New York Times eventually dubbed it the “first slum in America.” In late December 1852, the Union Missionary Society met to discuss “the blighted and condemned region of the Five Points” and how “to accomplish the reformation of the wicked, and to supply the necessities of the destitute.” In line with its Baptist missionary roots, the church maintained a mission-driven presence in the community, focusing heavily on reaching out to troubled youths, reforming alcoholics, and trying to deter impoverished residents from a life of crime.
While addressing the dire conditions of the neighborhood, the church found itself facing another challenge: a swanky, modern competitor called the Madison Avenue Baptist Church. Built in 1859 on Madison Avenue and 35th Street, it was described by the New York Sun as a “large and expensive church.” It was reportedly beautiful, and with good reason; it cost $122,000 to build, or about $3.7 million today, and thus landed the church’s congregation in deep financial debt.
Madison Avenue Baptist Church turned to the Oliver Street church for help, and its congregants agreed to give it. They contributed almost $80,000 towards their debt and agreed to merge with Madison Avenue Church. Mariners’ Temple purchased the Oliver Street building, and the Oliver Street Baptist Church parishioners moved their choir books and bibles uptown.What started as a partnership devolved into a decade-long battle. The Sun reported that Oliver Street requested the deed to the other church’s property, to which Madison Avenue brought “a suit of ejectment against the Oliver street church folks.” A bitter court battle ensued. Congregants would sing praises to God and worship to their Savior on Sundays, and on weekdays, duke it out in court. Judge Theodore Sedgwick eventually ended the church duel and ruled in favor of the Oliver Street Baptist Church. His decision prompted the full congregation’s return to their old home—now Mariners’ Temple on Oliver Street—and a renewed focus on the complicated and changing neighborhood.
The return was daunting for the pastor and congregants. The neighborhood had become even seedier, and crime and poverty tore at its streets. In the 1880s, Rev. Dr. J. F. Avery had taken over, and told The Sun in an interview that the church was “bending its energies to the relief of all forms of suffering in the tenement houses.” Rev. Avery made good on the church’s promise and reportedly provided food for destitute residents, supplied families with grocery money, and ran soup kitchens for immigrant families. At the time, his church was serving largely Italian and Jewish immigrants, as well as more established Americans who’d fallen down on their luck.
During the late 1880s, the rapidly changing demographics of the neighborhood caused the direction of the church’s outreach to change, too. In 1870, Chinese presence in the area—which began just east of Five Points—totaled a population of 200. By 1900, the number had risen to more than 7,000, effectively beginning what the city now knows as Chinatown. Their arrival was not seamless—Chinese immigrants clashed with the Italian community, but this didn’t deter their continued migration to the neighborhood. The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was a blow to new immigrants who had relatives in California; Mariners’ Temple responded to the tragedy by holding a charity event for the grieving community, and prepared for the inevitable influx of more Chinese residents.
The New-York Tribune reported that the event included “singing by Mrs. Fung Y. Mow and other Chinese women and children in costume, a male quartet, Chinese instrumental music and a display of moving pictures.” The church’s outreach to the Chinese immigrant community continued into 1910, when the institution opened the Chinese Rescue Mission in September of that year.
As maps were redrawn, the church’s address changed to 8 Oliver Street/3 Henry Street, but its location and beauty remained the same. The church, lauded for maintaining its architectural roots of the Greek Revival period of the 1830s and 1840s, was declared a public landmark in February 1966. After two public hearings, both of which had no speakers in opposition to landmark status, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission released a one-page document defending their decision, noting that:
On the basis of a careful consideration of the history, the architecture and other features of this building, the Landmarks Preservation Commission finds that Mariners Temple has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.
The church’s historical significance didn’t stop at the landmark designation. In 1983, Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook was appointed pastor of the Mariners’ Temple Baptist Church, becoming the first African-American woman in the 200-year history of the American Baptist Association to be named pastor. Her appointment drastically shifted the church’s demographics. Now the church is home to predominantly black people—a very different community from the English immigrant inhabitants of its early days, and the Chinese residents who followed. In line with the new congregation demographics, the church welcomed jazz legend Lionel Hampton, who in 1989 performed hits “A Closer Walk with Thee” and “Love Lifted Me,” the New York Amsterdam News reported. The church was a regular campaign and dinner stop for former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. Today, a black woman, Dr. Hentietta Carter, still runs the church. She has been the pastor for 13 years, and indicated a commitment to the church’s roots in history-making. In 2007, she told the New York Times that she had a method of not only banging open the door, but also leaving it ajar for followers.
The inevitable changes within and around the church have persisted today, and the parallel communities that shape it are perhaps more evident today than ever. Just across the street is Chatham Square, where a monument to Qing Dynasty hero Lin Zexu overlooks the bustling area of Chinese restaurants, vendors, and markets. The juxtaposition of a centuries-old church adored by the English and Black residents of New York City perhaps seems like an oddity, but Rev. Williams might have envisioned this from his pulpit 174 years ago.