Central Park is “a specimen of God’s handiwork” that its designer Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) said would heal “the hundreds of thousands of tired workers” of their “vital exhaustion,” “nervous irritation” and “constitutional depressions.”[i] As Vice President of the New York State Charities Aid Association, he circulated appeals to ministers asking that they send to the park their congregants who needed recuperation from stress and illness.
His and Calvert Vaux’s design of Central Park artfully and systematically provided vistas and paths that would make one feel like the special object of a loving God and a beautiful city. Olmsted said every path, rock, flower and tree had a functional purpose in the creation of a healing scene. The park would then revive “the poetic element of human nature” and exercise a “harmonizing and refining influence…favorable to courtesy, self-control and temperance.”[ii
In such a manner the New York City faithful etched their belief in God and compassion for the poor into the granite-like harshness of 19thCentury life. Olmsted constructed Central Park; Archbishop John Joseph Hughes erected St. Patrick’s Cathedral; Louis Klopsch vastly enlarged The Bowery Mission; Jacob Riis pioneered
a new faith-inspired documentary journalism; and Russian Jews established the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The recollection of the tremendous impact that the work of 19th Century religious New Yorkers still has on city life sets a high mark of accomplishment for believers today to try to surpass. Will the religious context of contemporary New York City provide the same resources and religious leadership as the city did in earlier times?
Olmsted was deeply affected by his social milieu. He admired his parent’s belief that landscape showed the love of God, Rev. Zolva Whitmore’s gardening, the religious revivals in high school and college, and the teaching of theologian Horace Bushnell.
The religious influence started in Olmsted’s teenage years. The Olmsted and Bushnell families were next door neighbors between 1836 and 1841 and remained good friends. When the leader of the Olmsted’s church tried to have Bushnell convicted of heresy, the Olmsteds supported their friend by joining his North Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut. There, the Olmsted family made a habit of listening to two of Bushnell’s sermons a day. So, the young Olmsted became very familiar with Bushnell’s theology.
However, not all of Olmsted’s early experiences of church were beautiful memories. His father inexplicably entrusted his son to a dubious education by idiosyncratic pastors. One pastor beat the students in wild fits while others pushed off education about the basics of Christianity onto bored older boys who were more concerned about bullying the younger kids than leading them into spiritual maturity. Olmsted hated the experience and the pastors. Further, his constant movement from school to school combined with the inconsistent quality of religious education left him desperate for some constancy and certainty of faith. He fairly tortured himself over his doubts about himself and God.
At a boarding school that had few good qualities to recommend it, at least in Olmsted’s eyes (the school was probably Ellington High School which had an excellent reputation), a religious revival converted the young boy to evangelical Christianity. Olmsted became on fire for the Lord and wrote about it to his father.
In an unfinished autobiography Olmsted recounts that his letters conveyed the news that “there had been a revival in the school; that I had experienced religion, that I had had a prayer party in my bedroom to pray for his conversion, and that I wanted him to read a certain tract…”[iii] His father reacted against his son’s telling him that he needed religious lessons and abruptly withdrew his son from the school and sent him to another.
Olmsted remained quite interested in developing his faith. Just before he tried his hand as a sailor onboard a ship to China, he latched onto a sermon “Unconscious Influence” by Bushnell that came to shape his landscape thinking for the rest of his life. In China he recorded another incident that shows how his faith was affecting how he related to others.
At a temple about twelve miles south of Canton, China, Olmsted quietly with his hat off watched the worshippers while his sea mates were rowdy disruptions. They complained about Olmsted’s behavior, “What are you taking your hat off for in a heathen temple?” Instead of falling into line with his companions, Olmsted respectfully received a deep bow from an old man at the temple and went with him on a tour of its religious elements.
Later, while hanging around Yale University about 1846, Olmsted went with his brother to a revival meeting after the prompting of their mother. He experienced another conversion. After he returned home, he wrote his brother about his reflections on the experience, “I feel, John, that God’s fever attended me in New Haven…I am much happier than ever before. My faith is much increased; it is surety.”[iv]
However, the aimless young man had so much uncertainty in his life that it had crept into his deepest psychology. He couldn’t be certain whether the conversion was from God or from his feeling of solidarity with his brother and friends who also were converted.
Olmsted discussed his doubts with his brother John and friend Charles Loring Brace who was also converted at the Yale revival. Olmsted wrote to Brace in February 22, 1846 that “I abhor infidelity” and that his “sheet anchor…is the truth of the Bible.” He said that he rested in “our consolation…[in] doing something for the good and help and salvation of our fellow sinners and the honor and glory of Christ…”[v]
The next month (March 26, 1846) he wrote about how answered prayer meant more to him than revivals and conversions. We can read between the lines that he wasn’t sure about his own conversion experience, but he still felt deeply connected to God.
A few days later (April 1, 1846), he wrote another friend that “I am full of doubts.”[vi] The uncertainty was both spiritual and vocational. He hadn’t gone to college because of an illness and didn’t know what kind of vocation he wanted. In the coming years he would try seafaring, farming, journalism and gold mining before he settled into his true calling landscape design. Combined with his uneven educational and religious path in childhood, Olmsted was experiencing psychological nausea. He turned to Bushnell for help.
Olmsted had made a habit of attending churches at which Bushnell was preaching and carefully studied his sermons. He wrote to his father that their pastor’s sermons “are not worth much without real, hard study.” Often, Olmsted would listen to the sermons read aloud and discuss them with his best friend Brace and other friends.[vii] Historian Charles E. Beveridge, the editor of Olmsted’s papers, concluded that Bushnell was one of the two most influential writers on the landscape architect.
The pastor dealt with many people of Olmsted’s generation who felt adrift. Bushnell felt that the problem was that Calvinism had overemphasized the depravity of children and their need for strict discipline. As a result, Olmsted’s generation was averse to pastors and the church and felt personally unfulfilled. The new successful capitalist economy was also creating more opportunities and stresses than many people could handle. Bushnell sent to Olmsted his new work Views of Christian Nurture as an antidote to the contemporary malaise. His pastoral discernment of the problems of the youth of his day certainly fit Olmsted’s experience.
Olmsted gained enough resolution to mention to a friend that he looked forward to hasten the world to the Millennium. On June 12, 1846 he wrote, “I want to make myself useful in the world—and to make happy—to help advance the condition of Society and hasten the preparation for the Millennium…” He also allowed that as the teacher he “got my hands full of Sunday School.”
A few days later he wrote his brother that he had had a heated conversation with notable agriculturalist and engineer George Geddes, to whom Olmsted would later dedicate a book, over Geddes’ and his wife’s Methodist theology, which was morally strict and revivalist. For several years Olmsted continued to think a lot about his faith. In 1847 he sent Brace pointed questions about Christianity. But by 1848 he came to an ambiguous conclusion.
In the end Olmsted believed as a Christian but lived with doubts. He never liked the emotionalism of revivalism and hated the dogma wars of the pastors. On March 25, 1848 he wrote Brace “I do believe that I am a Christian, that God did appear in the world as Christ.” However, he warned his friend, who was now enrolled at Union Theological Seminary, that seminaries can have a destructive effect on the heart. “I never knew the man that had graduated at a Theological Seminary that showed ordinary charity at his heart.”
So, Olmsted must have felt vindicated by news from home about a religious fight. In 1849, local orthodox Christian pastors charged Bushnell, the Olmsted family friend, with
heresy. As a result, the Olmsteds switched churches to Bushnell’s North Congregational Church. The son became more soured on the institutional church, though most of his close friends like Brace were convinced Christian church-goers. For a time he considered joining a Presbyterian church instead but ended up churchless.
And he was not really settled in his heart , though he could still rise to an occasion as a persistent and thoughtful advocate for faith in Jesus as he did right about the time he started work on a proposal for the competition to design Central Park in 1852.
Olmsted’s Christian apologetic[viii]
In that year Olmsted published a transcript of his attempt to persuade a skeptic to accept Jesus, the exemplary nature of Jesus mission, and the existence of God.
The conversation started as Olmsted and Mr. C., an Englishman of working class origins, were leaning on an England-bound ship’s gunwale. Olmsted remarked on how the whole of nature fit together “as if it were all designed together, and every part contrived with reference to all the rest…and does not that irresistibly impress you with the idea of a reasoning mind having constructed it for certain purposes of his own…?”
After a long debate over the existence of God, the nature of Christ, and the infallibility of the Bible, Olmsted asks his skeptical acquaintance to at least take up and follow the good qualities of the life of Christ, even if he can’t believe in his divinity. “Now what do we find! An earnest serious man, seemingly living only to do and be good…helping and healing the sick, and the disreputable, and the outcast, in season and out of season…,” Olmsted observed of Christ. “Just such a man as you would like to be yourself Mr. C., and only a great deal more so—a thorough-going brave man of the people, an out-and-out democrat, fraternizing with the very lowest classes and seeing and trying all sorts of life.” (208-237)
Olmsted ends with a caution, “I don’t want you to try to force upon yourself any belief that is unnatural, and which honestly appears illogical to you.” Olmsted went onto design Central Park based on the principles he outlined in his apologetic argument for Jesus Christ.
He wanted a park that would display the natural glory of God’s plan. A park should also welcome people of all classes and persuasions, just as Jesus welcomed all who came to him. The design would allow people of all faiths to enjoy the park in their own ways and would not force belief in God on anyone. Olmsted bolstered his aesthetic thinking through his interaction with the Hudson River School of painters.
Olmsted and the Hudson River School
The influence of the theologian Bushnell harmonized with Olmsted’s appreciation of the Hudson River School of painting. Olmsted received encouragement from Andrew Downing, America’s foremost authority on the landscaping art in the mid-19th Century. Downing started as a nurseryman in the Hudson River Valley and rose to become an oracle of picturesque and naturalistic landscape design that paralleled the aesthetic of the Hudson River painters. His Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening of 1841, Cottage Residences of 1842 (with other editions throughout the 1840s), and essays in the Horticulturist, which he began editing in 1846, started the foundations in America of the new field of landscape design.
Olmsted also thought that the Hudson River painters’ approach overlapped his own. Consequently, he recommended his good friend and distant relative Frederic Edwin Church to the Parks Commision of New York City. Writing to his friend, Brace, Olmsted supported the appointment as one of a person of a similar mindset and spirit to himself and Brace.
Church likewise brought Olmsted into his enthusiasms. In 1869 he called the landscaper’s attention to the destruction of the sublime beauty of Niagara Falls. For Church the falls were a post-Deluge sign from God that America would be blessed. His painting Niagara (1857) poises the onlooker directly over the cascading water with a rainbow arching dramatically down to the precipice.
Church himself was deeply religious like his mentor Thomas Cole. His paintings reflect the sentiment that we live in a divinely created universe that points the way toward humanity’s redemption. In the New World humanity can experience a little paradise regained. Church and most of the Hudson Valley School painted landscapes without religious titles and commentary so that God’s glory in creation would influence the viewer unmediated by commentary. Their approach seems quite parallel to the ideas of Bushnell and Olmsted about the power of a witness to the unconscious.
In 1858 Olmsted and Vaux were given the nod to proceed with designing Central Park. Now, Olmsted would have a chance to see if he could implant his theological ideas into a landscape.
For more on God in NYC Gardens:
[i] Rybzynski 2003, 177; Olmsted 1997a, 345.
[ii] Olmsted 1997c, 52; Hall 2002, 46.
[iii] Olmsted, vol 1, 106.
[iv] Martin 2011, 43.
[v] Olmsted 1977, 231.
[vi] Olmsted 1977, 236.
[vii] See Olmsted, vol 1, 72-74, 226, 296-297, 327-328; Edwards 180-182; Fein 1969, 41-43.
[viii] Olmsted 1852, Appendix A.
Charles E. Beveridge. 2000 Fall. “Olmsted—his essential theory,” Nineteenth Century. The journal of the Victorian Society in America. 20, 2, 32-37. http://tinyurl.com/66688aj pp. 1-6.
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Robert Lansing Edwards. 1992. Of singular genius, of singular grace. A biography of Horace Bushnell. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.
Albert Fein. 1969. Frederick Law Olmsted: His development as a theorist and designer of the American city. Phd dissertation, Columbia University.
Daniel Walker Howe. 1983 Sept. The social science of Horace Bushnell. The Journal of American History. 70, 2, 305-325.
Francis R. Kowsky. 1998. County, Park & City. The Architecture and life of Calvert Vaux 1824-1895. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Stephen O’Connor. 2004. Orphan Trains: the story of Charles Loring Brace and the children he saved and failed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Frederick Law Olmsted. 1997b. “Address to the Prospect Park Scientific Association,” in Writings on Public Parks, Parkways, and Park Systems, Vol 1. The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, eds. Charles E. Beveridge and Carolyn F. Hoffman. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
Frederick Law Olmsted. 1997c. “Park,” in Writings on Public Parks, Parkways, and Park Systems, Vol 1. The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, eds. Charles E. Beveridge and Carolyn F. Hoffman. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
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Scott Roulier. 2010. “Frederick Law Olmsted. Democracy by design,” New England Journal of Political Science, Iv, 2, 311-343.
Dorceta E. Taylor. 1999. “Central Park as a model for social control: urban parks, social class and leisure behavior in Nineteenth Century America,” Journal of Leisure Research 31, 4, 420-477.