A church on Madison Avenue between 30th and 31st streets brings inspiration and smiles to those who walk by. Once a week, the Madison Avenue Baptist Church at 129 Madison Avenue puts a new quote up on their marquee board. It can be anything from a quote by a well-known person to one that makes people stop and think. Often, it will elicit a chuckle, like a recent one “All dogs are therapy dogs. A majority of them are just freelancing.”
The church was founded in 1849 in what was formerly the Rose Hill section of Manhattan, where it was originally erected on Lexington Avenue and 30th Street. In the early 1860s, Jeremiah Milbank (developer of canned milk with inventor Gale Borden) and other congregational leaders decided to rebuild a spectacular new structure on five lots at 31st Street and Madison Avenue, renamed Madison Avenue Baptist Church.
The senior pastor, Reverend Susan Sparks, is a trial lawyer turned standup comedian and Baptist minister. She uses humor, healing, and spirituality in her sermons and has been featured in O (The Oprah) Magazine, the New York Times, and on such networks as ABC, CNN, CBS, and the History Channel. She did a TEDx Talk on the power of laughter called “Laughing Our Way to World Peace.”
The signs are managed by the parish administrator, Brian Crowson who selects the quotes and puts them up each week. Crowson has a PhD in history and was previously a history professor at the University of Tennessee, as well as a researcher on the James K. Polk papers. His wife, Susan Crowson, tells Untapped Cities that managing the signs “keeps him teaching. We’ve always talked about how signage can change lives. When I first came to New York City, I was a parishioner at Grace Church. They had a sign board on 10th and Broadway and I always made sure to check out the latest posting. (It was always a biblical verse). I love that Brian has taken thoughts from all walks of life to promote thought and engage a passer by.”
According to its website, the church is committed to supporting New York’s diverse community. They have been running a Sunday afternoon meal and shelter for the homeless since the 1980s, and started ministries to people with AIDS at Bellevue Hospital since 1992. Today they also partner with many organizations in New York City and abroad, including New York Cares, St. Peter’s Church, Hope Lodge, and the Bowery Mission. In 1993, the church became a charter member of theAssociation of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists “made up of American Baptist Churches and organizations committed to being inclusive of all persons without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity.”
In 1930, the Madison Avenue Baptist Church leased its land to be turned into the Rogers Williams Hotel (now The Rogers New York). Within the new structure, space was allocated for a sanctuary for the church. The original name was selected in honor of Roger Williams, a Rhode Island abolitionist who founded the first Baptist Church in America. With the complete renovation and rebranding in 2012, the hotel name lost most of its reference to its religious affiliation, but the facade to the church and its stained glass windows remained. This part of the building is undergoing additional work, so scaffolding blocks the viewer from appreciating the full facade but the quotes on the marquees remains.
Next, join us on a tour of historic Murray Hill in October!