First New Jerusalem Temple in Philadelphia (1817)

stricklandtemplesm1.jpgOn January 1, 1817, the New Jerusalem Temple, the first New Church place of worship in the city of Philadelphia, was dedicated at the south-east corner of Twelfth and George [now Sansom] Streets. The building was designed by William Strickland, a member of the New Church who would go on to become the most famous Philadelphia architect of his day. This illustration of the temple (above) was engraved by Strickland himself.

Later accounts of the New Jerusalem Temple in New Church publications (e.g. New Church Life 1932, 431) indicate that it was built according to the doctrine of “correspondences” described by Emanuel Swedenborg, and modeled after the Nunc Licet temple described in True Christian Religion 508:

“One day a magnificent church building appeared to me; it was square in plan with a roof like a crown, with arches above and a raised parapet running around . . . Later, when I got closer, I saw there was an inscription over the door: NOW IT IS PERMITTED. This meant that now it is permitted to enter with the understanding into the mysteries of faith” (TCR 508).

As yet no early sources have been found that name the Nunc Licet temple as the inspiration behind the design of the New Jerusalem Temple. The building was made possible by William Schlatter, a wealthy merchant and devoted member of the early Philadelphia society. The society wanted a church, but did not have the financial means. ”Mr. Schlatter, with a liberality indicative of his ardent zeal in the cause, resolved, in the year 1816, to undertake the construction of such an edifice out of his own private funds” (The Newchurchman, April 1841, 166). Schlatter’s letters indicate that he was interested in the doctrine of correspondences, but an answer to the question of whether correspondences played a role in the design of the church will require further research. It is believed that the first New Church place of worship in the world, the New Jerusalem Temple in Birmingham, England (1790), was built according to correspondences, and it is known that members of the Philadelphia society were in contact with members of the New Church in England. Furthermore, it may be significant that the texts read at the dedication of the Philadelphia temple concerned the dedication of Solomon’s Temple from the First Book of Kings, and the description of the Holy City New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation.

William Strickland, the architect, was a member of the Philadelphia society. He charged no fee for his work on the temple. According to his biographer, he had become a Swedenborgian in 1813 “because of the example and influence of his friend William Kneass, the secretary of the Philadelphia group” (Agnes Gilchrist, William Strickland: Architect and Engineer: 1788-1854, 1950, 23). Kneass and Strickland both became members of “The American Society for Disseminating the Doctrines of the New Jerusalem Church,” which was formed on December 25, 1815. In October of 1816, the society adopted a resolution to publish a periodical entitled The New Jerusalem Church Repository. The second issue of this journal contained Strickland’s engraving of the new temple, as well as a description of the building and the dedication ceremony. The description is very detailed, and includes the layout of the interior, of which there are no known drawings:

“This edifice is situated on the south-east corner of Twelfth and George streets, one of the most respectable and conspicuous parts of the city, being built in the form of a parallelogram, forty-four feet by fifty, and in the Gothic style. Both of the exterior sides and western front are similarly arranged, containing a large door in the centre, ten feet by sixteen, together with two recessed blanks, rising from the basement or floor line of the church; corresponding to, and immediately over, these blanks, are small windows, in the form of a cross.

The walls are composed of brick work, rough cast, and jointed, in imitation of free-stone, capped by a bold cornice and frieze, extending round the building, and supporting a parapet, embattled over the doors and recesses. The whole crowned by a surbased dome and lantern, which diffuses a strong, but soft and agreeable light throughout the body of the temple.

The interior arrangement is simply composed of four rows of pews, capable, with some benches around the walls, of containing three hundred persons, with a centre aisle, leading from the western door, up to the chancel, in front of the pulpit. The side aisles separate the pews from the outside walls, and form a passage around the church.

The eastern end of the church contains the pulpit, vestry room, and library. The organ-loft is immediately over the pulpit, the whole being comprised between the circular line of the dome and the end wall. In the centre of this wall, and between the library and vestry rooms, is a Gothic recess, ten feet wide, in which the pulpit and reading desks are elevated about five feet from the floor of the church; which recess is divided into three compartments, and separated by mullions, that divaricate at the springing, and terminate in pointed arches, intermediately pierced with tracery. The whole flanked by paneled wainscoting and clustered columns, supporting a cornice and pinnacles, also pierced with tracery. The choir is situated on each side of the organ-loft, over the vestry room and library, which is eleven feet in height, being ornamented on the segment of the circle with pierced panels, and relieved with purple drapery, as a back ground.

The dome is decorated with raised vertical panels, a band round the sky-light, together with a cornice and frieze, well executed in stucco, being partly supported by the side walls, and intermediately by four large clustered columns, twenty-one feet in height.

The lantern, or sky-light is ten feet in diameter, of an octagonal form, and upwards of thirty feet from the floor of the church. It has glass on the top, as well as the sides, admitting a great body of light into the dome, which is thence reflected throughout the church. The utility and convenience of lighting a place of worship in this manner, does not alone consist in the uniformity and steadiness of effect produced by the total exclusion of the direct rays of the sun, but combines a facility of ventilation of the most important character to every large congregation of people.

The building was designed and superintended in its structure by Mr. William Strickland, a young architect of the most promising talents, and who, upon this occasion, gratuitously devoted his services to the Church. An engraving of this edifice, intended as a FRONTISPIECE to the first volume of this work, executed by that same gentleman, accompanies this number of the Repository” (The New Jerusalem Church Repository, April 1817, 122-123).

Strickland designed so many public buildings in Philadelphia that in time he became known as the “city architect.” His works include the Second Bank of the United States (modeled after the Parthenon), the Merchants’ Exchange, the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street, and the Chestnut Street Theater.

A letter written by Schlatter in March of 1817 provides a contemporary account of services in the newly-completed building, and a glimpse into his feelings about his role in the endeavor:

“It affords me great consolation to inform you we go on in Peace and Harmony and are increasing in number, & our Temple is crowded in an afternoon that many are obliged to go away—if I could have foreseen this circumstance I certainly would have made the Temple larger, but really I feared we should not be sufficient to fill the house as you know a large place of worship & small congregation has a discouraging appearance and effect on the members as well as the Strangers who attend, but the Lord will provide himself with another Temple if necessary, and perhaps the circumstances of our being so crowded and not having room for all that wish to come may be the very cause of inducing many to be more anxious to come and to read the books. If a large house had been necessary, I doubt the Lord in his wise providence would have instigated me to have built it at the time for I am convinced he governs and regulates the concerns of our little society in a wonderful and hidden manner or it would not go on in harmony and peace” (William Schlatter to Wm. Bantou, March 18, 1817).

The life of this building would be very short. Financial difficulties caused it to pass into the hands of the Museum of the Academy of Natural Sciences in the 1820s (see an engraving dating to this period by C. G. Childs, Views in Philadelphia and Its Environs), and by 1841 it was demolished to make way for a private residence. Although the building and society did not last very long, individuals from the group continued to meet, eventually joining with others to form the “First New Jerusalem Society of Philadelphia” in 1840—the future society of Rev. William H. Benade.

Illustration: From The New Jerusalem Church Repository, April 1817; frontispiece.

January 24, 2007 | Posted by: Kirsten Gyllenhaal in New Church History Fun Fact