The organization that is today the Council of Churches of the City of New York had its beginning in 1895 as the New York Federation of Churches and Christian Workers. It is the oldest ecumenical council of churches with a continuous existence in the United States.
On March 18, 1895, a paper on the poor of New York City – “What Are the Churches Going to Do About It?” – was presented to an alumni meeting at the Union Theological Seminary. Discussion of that paper prompted an organizing meeting which was held May 13 at the United Charities Building. A subsequent meeting on October 21, at which the Constitution was adopted and officers elected, was followed by the first public meeting on December 2, 1895. Dr. Walter Laidlaw (of the Collegiate Church) was chosen May 25, 1896, to be the first Executive Secretary.
After discussion as to whether the new Federation would get into the settlement house business, the following statement was adopted on March 30, 1896:
“The Federation shall be an interdenominational instrument for sociological ills investigation in the City of New York, contributing the directive information it accumulates to the churches of the districts investigated, to the co-operating churches in the Federation, to the various denominational church extension committees, and to the charitable organizations of the City. The Federation further shall charge itself with the supervision of the supply, by existing agencies, of the needs disclosed in districts investigated; with the stimulation of the creation, by denominational means, of new when existing agencies prove inadequate; and with such other work as time and opportunity shall dictate.”
It became an organization of denominations and agencies and was incorporated in 1901 as “The Federation of Churches and Christian Organizations in New York City.” Board Membership was most diverse denominationally, from all boroughs and included a representative from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Plans were laid for a million dollar fund raising effort to support the development of a staff of 35.
The Federation worked extensively with the 1900 Census data which was collected according to the boundaries of the New York State Assembly Districts. Foreseeing problems develop in data comparison and analysis as a result of the 1905 Assembly redistricting, Dr. Laidlaw published an article in 1906 calling for the use of smaller census enumeration districts that would retain their boundaries from Census to Census. He persuaded the Census Bureau, in 1909, to adopt this method for use in New York City in the 1910 Census. The Bureau then extended its use, as well, to other major cities – Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis – and, ultimately, to the entire nation.
In the 1920s, the organization’s name was changed to “The Greater New York Federation of Churches” and its offices moved to the Masonic Grand Lodge Building on West 23rd Street. The Greater New York Federation aided in the organization of the Queens Federation of Churches in 1931 and the two organizations shared office space until 1946.
On October 15, 1943, “The Protestant Council of the City of New York” was formed by the consolidation of The Greater New York Federation of Churches with the Brooklyn Church and Mission Society (which was organized in 1829), The Metropolitan Federation of Daily Vacation Bible Schools, and The Interdenominational Committee on Released Time. The Protestant Council’s ecumenical work was organized by Departments – Pastoral Care (supervising youth ministry and chaplains in City hospitals and prisons), Radio and Television (developing and coordinating the placement of over 35 weekly broadcasts), Christian Social Witness (advocating for good public policy and working to meet the needs of the poor, particularly in the area of affordable housing) and Church Planning and Research (continuing the original purposes of research analysis and assisting denominations in church growth). Additionally, the Council operated “borough division” offices to relate to local congregations in the City’s Boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx and Staten Island.
In the 1960s, the Protestant Council undertook concurrently two separate million-dollar fund raising campaigns – one to build the Protestant Chapel at JFK International Airport and the other to build and sponsor the Protestant Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. The award-winning film, Parable, a mime representation of the ministry of Christ as a circus clown, was commissioned and first presented as the centerpiece of the Protestant Pavilion. The Family of Man Medallion was struck and presented at a distinguished annual banquet recognizing many national and world leaders, beginning with President John F. Kennedy in October 1963. The event continued until the 1980s honoring (among others): Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Menachem Begin, Anwar el-Sadat, Helmut Schmidt, Jose Lopez Portillo, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. In 1968, the Protestant Council renamed itself “The Council of Churches of the City of New York.”
The Council reorganized itself again in 1989, returning to its core functions – public policy analysis and advocacy on behalf of Christian denominations, and catalyzing (but not operating for the long-term) specific programs of direct assistance. The Board of Directors, in the current design, is comprised of the Bishops and executives of member denominations and the president and CEO of each of the independent borough councils of churches. It is a leadership forum for the Christian community of New York City.
In a perspicacious act, two years before the infamous events of 9/11, the Council of Churches of the City of New York brought together the New York Board of Rabbis, the two Roman Catholic Dioceses and the Imams Council of New York to form the Commission of Religious Leaders of the City of New York. This body, formed to address local public policy issues, has worked successfully in addressing issues of police brutality, and the lack of affordable housing for the homeless and low-income.
In response to the needs following the 9/11 attack, the Council of Churches, working with Church World Service and the Commission of Religious Leaders, brought together the New York Disaster Response Interfaith Task Force which worked to develop the Care for the Caregivers Interfaith Project which was supported by the September 11th Fund.
The Council is currently focusing on a number of initiatives to improve the health of the City’s neighborhoods. We will be working to bring congregations together to address the educational, economic, housing, and safety challenges that present themselves, in varying degrees, in the myriad neighborhoods that comprise the City of New York. The Council is updating and developing additional data resources to enhance the ability of local cooperation among congregations, community organizations and the City administration.
Historical Names Council Presidents Council Executive Directors