A Brief History of the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church
by Raymond Wong and Jim Lawrence
Hidden behind the textured gray concrete walls at the corner of Lyon and Washington Streets in San Francisco stands the Swedenborgian Church as it has been since 1895. Before we take you inside the church, perhaps it is appropriate to say a few words about Emanuel Swedenborg, whose theological writings provide the spiritual foundation of the church. Swedenborg was born in 1688 and departed from this world in 1772 at the age of 84. A renowned scientist and reforming theologian during the Age of Enlightenment, Swedenborg was the son of a Lutheran bishop; and he never formally left the Lutheran Church. However, his far-reaching theological conclusions pushed him toward the edges of conventional eighteenth-century Christianity, and he even endured a heresy trial in his native country for his controversial religious ideas. The result of the trial was deadlocked, and they issued a non-decision in the end. It was not until almost two decades after his death that the first organized Swedenborgian church was established in England in 1790, mostly by Anglicans and Methodists who felt that Swedenborg's penetrating insights called for the establishment of an entirely new church.
Foremost among Swedenborg's ideas is a central perception that all life is spiritual and all things reveal something essential of the divine. He also believed that the world was entering a new phase of spiritual potential during his own lifetime, which he called a "New Age". Out of his own extensive and frequently clairvoyant revelations came a new rational understanding of Christian theology and its pertinent laws of spiritual truth. Swedenborg's ideas were especially championed by American Transcendentalist thinkers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Sr., Bronson Alcott, and by English Romanticists--William Blake, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlysle, to name a few. In the past century, Helen Keller, D.T. Suzuki, Jorge Luis Borges and William Butler Yeats were among dozens of significant minds who have drawn explicitly upon Swedenborg's religious insights.The New-Church Comes West
By 1795, the organized Swedenborgian church had become established in America; by 1850, nearly one hundred of such churches had spread across the eastern seaboard all the way to the middle west. Also in 1850, the first Swedenborgian clergyman arrived in California--in fact, right here in San Francisco. His name was John Doughty, an energetic attorney devoted to Swedenborg's "heavenly doctrines". He rode by horseback all the way from New York to the west coast. In fact, he was captured along the way by Plains Indians and narrowly escaped to safety by running away at night on a bareback pony. Two years later in 1852, John Doughty founded a Swedenborgian congregation in San Francisco and, over the course of thirty years, built two separate churches on two different blocks of O'Farrell Street in San Francisco (neither of the two churches is still standing today). In 1932, the original congregation merged with the new Lyon Street congregation.
The present gem of the Swedenborgian Church at Lyon and Washington Streets in San Francisco was planned and designed by a talented and remarkable young artist-theologian from Boston named Joseph Worcester, who took a trip west in 1865 to improve his health. He was the son of Thomas Worcester, founder of the first Swedenborgian Church in Boston. While on his extended trip, Joseph Worcester met John Muir in Yosemite and thus began a friendship that would last for decades; together, they both shared a rare appreciation of the truths within nature. Encouraged by a group of promising local citizens, young Worcester went back to Boston for more advanced theological education. He was subsequently ordained by his father, Thomas Worcester, and returned to the City by the Bay in 1867 to become the minister of the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church.
The Artist-Pastor's Enchanting Legacy
Joseph Worcester possessed a rare ability as an art and architecture critic. He served on the boards that reviewed the architectural plans for the new campuses of both University of California in Berkeley and Stanford University in Palo Alto. His closest friend William Keith, the great California landscape artist, joined him and sat in his congregation for thirty years. Keith revered Worcester's advice on his own paintings that were in progress. Worcester was fond of hosting private soirees on art and architecture; many of the young men who sat at his parties became a Who's Who of Northern California's most renowned architects. Among Worcester's architectural accomplishments was a home on the Piedmont ridge which he designed in the early 1870s, now identified by architecture historians as the first full-blown arts and crafts structure in California. We must not forget Mr. Bernard Maybeck who, as a draftsman, drew up most of Worcester's building plans, including plans of the new church, and later became a well-known architect himself for his work with redwood shingle homes in the Berkeley hills across the bay. When he first saw the beautiful home on the Piedmont ridge designed by Worcester, he declared it to be an outstanding architectural revelation. Worcester's second self-designed home on Russian Hill in San Francisco, now remodeled, became a haven for artists and architects who gathered there for work and pleasure; it also became prominent in the history of Bay Region Tradition architecture.
The chapel of the new church at Lyon and Washington Streets was planned by Joseph Worcester; it embodies his preference for both simplicity and integrity. He realized his dream church by pooling the talents and skills of his friends and associates --artists, painters, and architects. A. Page Brown, designer of the San Francisco Ferry and Crocker buildings with whom Worcester had developed a rapport, guided the overall progress of the project. Bernard Maybeck drew up the plans and played a key role in designing the interior. A.C. Schweinfurth also played an important role in the design of the new church. Willis Polk was the sole designer of the adjacent Parish House. Last but not least, Bruce Porter, the prominent San Francisco artist and a member of the congregation, contributed sketches of the exterior design, taken from a small chapel in northern Italy.
Rather than a grand entrance from the street, the sacred precinct offers instead a humble portico that beckons the weary pilgrim in from the dusty streets of life. Turning inward, a walled-in garden offers the first glance of the oasis of spiritual refreshment. Proceeding further in, a person will see the full view of the garden that features a small sunken pool and trees from all over the world--Japanese maple, a majestic cedar of Lebanon, an olive tree from Palestine curving over the wall in the back corner, a yew from Ireland, and, among others, two splendid redwoods. Worcester wanted to honor the Spanish Mission heritage; hence wrought-iron grillwork is used in arched windows, Spanish knee-tiles grace the roof, and a cross from the Mission San Miguel stands sentry in the high-walled garden. The exterior of the chapel is made from over-fired bricks. In laying the brick work, Worcester wanted the mortar so "pointed" that each brick should cast a distinct shadow. When he failed to get the bricklayers to understand his concept, Worcester, ever the perfectionist, did the "tuck-pointing" himself. Within the bell tower is a column of Italian Carrara marble, and underneath the tower is a specially constructed window of Medieval glass taken from Westminster Abbey in London after repairs.
Inside the church, it conveys at once a sense of the holy, as well as the nurturing comfort of a simple home. A huge fireplace warms the modest dimensions of the nave which is almost as wide as it is deep. There is no paint or gilt, just the comforting wood tones of nature. The chapel dispenses with the strictness of pews and offers the seeker a sturdy rush-seated chair instead. Arching overhead are structural beams of madrone with the bark left on, conveying the sacred peace and serenity of a forest. Four murals by William Keith line the north wall; they depict the four seasons of Northern California and thus offer to worshipers the unending cycle of life. The stained glass, by Bruce Porter, replicates a garden scene. As the dove depicted on the glass drinks sustenance from the water bowl, so is the worshiping congregation to drink spiritual sustenance from the Word of God.
Once the church was completed, along with the parsonage next door at 2121 Lyon Street which was not open to the public, the artist William Keith hired Willis Polk to design the house adjacent to the chapel to ensure that a fitting structure bordered the western edge of the grounds. The house was subsequently willed to Rev. Worcester, who in turn deeded it to the congregation. The church rented out this house for rental income until 1947 when, due to growth of the congregation, the house was finally opened to the public and used for parish activities. Today it is known as the Parish House, and is used for fellowship, spiritual growth groups, Sunday school, and the church offices.Decades of Growth and Prosperity
Rev. Joseph Worcester died in 1913 after serving his congregation for 46 years. In addition to his remarkable legacy guiding the Swedenborgian Church at the corner of Lyon and Washington Streets, he also left behind a thriving ministry to orphaned children and to former convicts. As a bachelor who never married, he devoted his entire creative energy to his ministry. Indeed, he proved difficult to replace. From 1913 to 1929, the parish struggled through a succession of ministers, characterized chiefly by the brevity of their stay. Members of the congregation were so used to and completely devoted to Worcester's rare ability and style that they had a difficult time accepting any others as their minister. However, in 1929, a young and energetic pastor arrived with his equally energetic wife: the Rev. Othmar and Mrs. Margit Tobisch. At long last, another pastorate was to begin that would carry the church beyond the long shadow of Worcester. Only one person was present when Rev. Tobisch's first worship service began; but by the end of the service, a full half dozen had showed up. The Tobischs' knew that their work was cut out for them.
For the next 41 years, Rev. Othmar Tobisch steered the congregational life through the Depression and War years, the prosperous Fifties, and the tumultuous Sixties. The first highlight of this long tenure was the merging in 1932 of the three Bay Area Swedenborgian parishes, two in San Francisco and one in Berkeley, into one Society. The O'Farrell Street church sold its wonderful neo-Gothic building and combined its members into the life of the present Lyon Street church, while the Berkeley church maintained its own building and parish life. Rev. Tobisch served as Pastor on both sides of the bay. A second highlight was the extension of the Parish House when, in 1959 and 1960, the what is now called the Garden Room was built; it became the most heavily utilized room in the Parish House. Occurring at the height of the modernist period, the room features clean lines and large plate-glass windows looking out into the main garden. The post-war years were characterized by considerable strengthening and growth as the Tobisch ministry reached full stride. Though already somewhat popular for weddings, within a few years this ministry tripled the number of weddings. More than 200 couples a year were celebrating their vows in this increasingly famous church.
During the Fifties, the Berkeley parish took advantage of opportunities presented by rapid suburban sprawl. They brought in their own full-time minister and built a new church in El Cerrito. Nonetheless, the two parishes, San Francisco and Berkeley, remained yoked until 1990 when, after nearly six decades of functioning under one governing structure, the Society voted to split into two separate parishes as a more efficient way to conduct the two ministries separated by distance and different personnel.
Rev. Tobisch is remembered especially for his leadership role in planning and coordinating the first and only worldwide convention ever held for Swedenborgians from all branches of the church. It was convened in London in 1970. Two weeks after its conclusion, while still in Europe, Rev. Tobisch suddenly passed away, concluding the second 40-plus year pastorate in the life of the congregation.The Church in the Modern Era
The San Francisco Swedenborgian Church was ably guided through the decade of the Seventies under the leadership of the Rev. Erwin Reddekopp, who with his wife, Lisa, helped the busy church maintain a steady course. Rev. Reddekopp retired in 1979, when Rev. Edwin Capon and his wife, Esther, arrived to take over the rein. Rev. Capon had served as the President of the Swedenborgian seminary in Boston for over twenty years and brought a scholarly approach to the venerable church. The Eighties under his guidance brought another decade of continuing health in a bustling church. To meet the challenge of growth, the church had since 1986 utilized the services of Associate Pastors. So, when Rev. Capon retired in 1990, the congregation chose to continue with two ministers; hence, the Rev. Rachel Rivers and the Rev. James F. Lawrence were called as co-ministers.
In the 1990's, the church was increasingly productive, with a continuing growth in congregation and in the number and variety of programs sponsored by the church. To accompany the choir, which was also growing in size and popularity, a new state-of-the-art digital pipe organ was installed in time for the centennial year of the church.
In June of the year 2001, Rev. James Lawrence left the Lyon Street church to become the Dean of the denomination's seminary which was moved from Newton, Massachusetts, to Berkeley, California, thus becoming a part of the Pacific School of Religion and the highly regarded Graduate Theological Union. Rev. Rachel Rivers continues as the solo pastor of the Lyon Street church in San Francisco. She bears the responsibility of planning and conducting the church activities and programs. She also regularly calls upon distinguished speakers and also members of the congregation itself to guest preach at the worship service on Sundays.
As we have now entered a new century, the congregation continues to flourish, and it is expanded that the church will be dedicated as a National Historical Landmark. It is breathtaking to look back at the changing scenes and to survey the flow of life that has passed through the ministries conducted upon the consecrated ground at the now-famous church in the City by the Bay. Countless thousands have turned to its quietly evocative beauty and the spiritual vision that called it into being. More than 10,000 spiritual services of one kind or another have been held within its confines, and the word seems to spread ever-wider. Today, we are looking forward to a full and promising future--to a new century of ministry to all who are drawn in from the busy street of their daily lives to find inner peace and to contemplate a universal revelation of God.