October 4, 2019 In the News
Madison Avenue Baptist Church: Socially Engaged Historic Church Shares Wisdom and Humor

For at least the past year, the image above has been floating around on social media. The sign expresses a great sentiment, but our staff had no idea that this was from our local Madison Avenue Baptist Church and that the church has an ongoing program of posting  poignant, very funny messages each week on its marquee board.

The church located at 219 Madison Avenue between 30th and 31st Street has posted some real gems that elicit chuckles and smiles from those passing by and hopefully impart some sobering life lessons at the same time. Parish administrator Brian Crowson selects the quotes and puts them up each week. A former professor , he looks at his work as a way of continuing his teaching and changing lives.  The subjects can range from the traditionally religious, ethical, and practical to hilarious runups of current social behavior: “Actions speak louder than Like buttons.”

The church has posted many great signs, but perhaps our favorites are:

Seeing such wonderfully inventive signs, we decided to look at the church’s past and present.  We knew we’d find lots of interest. The church was founded in 1839 as the Rose Hill Baptist Sunday-school and Church and met in homes during its first years. In 1849 a permanent meeting house was built on Lexington Avenue and 30th Street. This church still stands (it is now the First Moravian Church) and is a notable example of harmonious Romanesque architecture.

In the early 1860s, congregational leaders decided to build a spectacular new structure on five lots at 31st Street and Madison Avenue and, accordingly, renamed the church Madison Avenue Baptist Church. The new structure was on a grand scale with formidable bell towers, and it could hold 1,200 people.  However, shortly after being built, the church started to falter financially for a variety of reasons, including the uncertainty of the Civil War that was beginning. Joining with another Baptist congregation,  Madison Avenue Baptist was saved.

The city kept growing and by the 1920s “skyscraper churches” were appearing across the city. So, it was no surprise when the Madison Avenue Baptist Church entered into an agreement with developer Morris H. Rothschild. He would build a 17-story residential hotel on the church property (leased  to him for $30,000 annually), and in turn the church would be tucked into the base of the new Roger Williams Hotel (now The Roger  New York), where it remains today. BTW, here is an interesting side fact: The Roger Hotel was named in honor of Roger Williams, a Rhode Island abolitionist who founded the first Baptist Church in America.

The innovative sign program of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church is clearly in line with the overall spirit of today’s congregation.  The church’s 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.”  Her flock today is committed to supporting New York’s diverse community. It has been running a Sunday afternoon meal and shelter for the homeless since the 1980s, and started ministries to people with AIDS at Bellevue Hospital in 1992. It also partners with many organizations in New York City and abroad, including New York Cares, St. Peter’s Church, Hope Lodge, and the Bowery Mission.  Clearly, Madison Avenue Baptist church is another great New York institution to be cherished.

Here are some other sign favorites, but If you want to see a larger gallery of the church’s compelling signs click here

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