“Inspiration is really a mental attitude of accepting input from a higher sense than your own person,” Woodstock Christian Science church member David Robertson told me in 2010 when I interviewed him for the church’s centennial. As a writer, I found that the parallel he made between creativity and prayer stuck with me.
Public events uniting the arts and spirituality will be offered this summer by the three churches closest to the center of Woodstock: Reformed, Lutheran, and Christian Science. All three have histories entwined with the arts community.
Robertson spoke about the influx of artists into the town in the early 1900s, and how the radical spiritual principles of Christian Science, then a new religion, were a breath of fresh air to many of the newcomers, with their open-minded attitudes and experimental approach to life. Clarence Bolton, known for the delicate style of his lithographs, was a church member and the first proprietor of The Nook, which later became the Café Espresso. In his 1940 article in the Christian Science Sentinel magazine, Bolton described how prayer guided his creative work.
Since I joined the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Woodstock in 2013, I have attended services in a building that was once the summer school of the Art Students League. The tall, north-facing windows of the former studio bring clear natural light into the simply appointed church sanctuary, located at 85 Tinker Street.
The public is invited to view this peaceful space, as well as the new reading room, at the church’s open house and art show on Sunday, July 9, from 2 to 5 p.m. Entitled “Creative Mind: Beyond Imagination,” the event will include a panel discussion on art, spirituality and history led by art historian Bruce Weber, an expert on Woodstock art. Thought-provoking quotes about creativity from Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the religion, will accompany the exhibit, which is curated by church member Penelope Milford. Live music will be provided by virtuoso fiddler Peter Halvorsen.
“We hope people will get a sense of the science of creativity,” Milford said, “how it can be understood as a process of connecting with the higher consciousness that’s accessible to us all.”
The two oldest churches in town were founded a century before artists began the pilgrimage to Woodstock, but these congregations have also embraced the arts, despite a few delays. The early European settlers of the region were Dutch, so the predominant religion in Ulster County in 1800 was Dutch Reformed, but intermarriage with English settlers had already produced a mostly English-speaking populace. By 1805, the residents of the town had obtained approval for a congregation. In 1867, the denomination dropped the word “Dutch” from its name, according to Bill Rhoads, a member of the Woodstock Reformed Church, which is located on the village green. The building with the tall, graceful spire has been painted and drawn many times by local artists. Clarence Bolton executed two lithographs of the church, which Rhoads, a retired professor of art history at SUNY New Paltz, called “formal and dignified views, sympathetic to the church as an institution.” In fact, said Rhoads, “Newspapers, especially the New York City papers, commented on how artists would often represent the church but rarely, if ever, attended it.”
Harvey Todd, pastor of the Woodstock Reformed Church from the 1920s to the 1950s, was in favor of temperance/ He often came into conflict with Hervey White of the Maverick art colony over “licentious behavior” at the uproarious Maverick summer festivals. However, the two men eventually collaborated, Todd inviting White to speak at the church in 1931. The pastor later became supportive of the arts community and even participated in a foundation of artists helping other artists in financial need after World War II.
In the past, Protestant churches lacked stained-glass windows and organs, said Rhoads, as both features were considered redolent of the Catholic church. Among the archives, he found a report that in the 1840s a music teacher was forbidden to hold a concert in the sanctuary. By the early 20th century, however, Woodstock churches did acquire organs and modest stained glass windows.
Today, art and music are heartily welcomed at the Reformed church, and some of the congregants are artists. In 2005, member Helen Chase put together a bicentennial art show with two dozen views of the church by Woodstock artists.
This summer, the Reformed church will host film and music events open to the public. On Saturday, July 15, at 7 p.m., the series “Movies with Spirit” will present a French film, Le Papillon (The Butterfly), about the relationship between a lonely girl and an elderly man who collects butterflies. The roving series, said founder Gerry Harrington, seeks to “awaken our sense of joy and wonder, inspire love and compassion, and evoke a deepened sense of integral connection with others and with life itself.”
The films are screened in places of worship and reverence across Ulster and Dutchess counties at 7 p.m. on the third Saturday of every month, with discussion following. Admission is free, and donations are accepted. See facebook.com/MoviesWithSpirit for a full schedule.
On Saturday, August 26, from 3-5 p.m., an outdoor concert, “Soulful Serenade,” will be held on the front porch of the Reformed church. The slate of musicians, still being formed, so far includes Praise B, the church band (Ken and Krista Cayea, Pam Grayboys, Karl Krause, Bill Pfaff, Jim Ulrich & Paige Wagner), and The New Zeitgeist, a husband-and-wife folk duo (Jen Reilly and Eddie Bluma). Church music director Krista Cayea said, “The music will range from folk to rock to bluegrass, all with an uplifting message.”
The second oldest congregation in Woodstock is Christ’s Lutheran Church, established in 1806. It is believed to be America’s first English-language Lutheran church, founded by descendants of refugees from war and famine in the Palatine region of what is now Germany.
The current church building was constructed in 1894 at 26 Mill Hill Road. Inside are four murals by Paul Wesley Arndt, who belonged to the Woodstock Artists Association during the Great Depression, when many local artists were employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the Federal Arts Project. Arndt was a student of Jean-Léon Gérôme in Paris and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. He became known for his murals on steamships, in public buildings, and in theaters around the country.
The Lutheran church sanctuary is open Wednesday afternoons and some Saturdays in summer, so visitors may view the paintings and the elegant wainscoting of the varnished wood interior.
Outside the back of the church, near Deanie’s Alley, a mural was painted in 2019 by Dominican-American artist and Woodstock resident Julia Santos-Solomon. Inspired by the view across the Ashokan Reservoir, with a color palette that recalls the Caribbean, “Woodstock Visual Peace” highlights aspects of our world worth cherishing.
Pastor Sonja Maclary said a summer concert series is planned, with dates and artists to be announced on the church website, https://christwoodstock.org.