Charles C. Burlingham and St. George's Church, New York

Article excerpt

Lay men and women, serving on vestries, can loom large in the histories of their churches, but they seldom are associated with them by the public. Such recognition typically falls to clergy-"Dr. Peale's Church"-if only because they often hold their positions longer than most vestrymen and from the pulpit are the church's daily face to the world. But sometimes a vestryman, serving at the rector's side, adds his imprint to the church's name and face, and in New York's St. George's Church, on Stuyvesant Square (2nd Avenue and 16th Street), this has happened twice: first, with J. P. Morgan, a warden of the church from 1885 to 1913, and then with Charles C. Burlingham, a warden from 1934 to 1959.

Of the two, Morgan, because of his bank, is the more famous, but in parish history not just because of his money. When in 1881 the vestry debated removing the church to Madison Avenue at 70th Street, to follow its congregation uptown, Morgan supported the decision to stay put and minister to the immigrants who were replacing the neighborhood's old New York families and turning the single-family houses into crowded tenements. Moreover, he had an active role in hiring the new rector, William S. Rainsford, brought in to reorganize the parish and to make St. George's a great urban church with myriad social and religious programs designed to reach all people, but especially the poor, illiterate, and ill-housed. To that end, under Rainsford and Morgan, St. George's in 1883 became the first large Episcopal church in the city to abolish rented pews,' and soon, through its programs, became the most important "institutional" church in the country, a leader in the Social Gospel movement. And among those it reached with its programs, many remembered Morgan not only as a banker on Wall Street but also as a churchman with a hand in their lives on Stuyvesant Square. Even fifty years after Morgan's death in 1913 an elderly taxi driver, dropping a passenger at the parish house, could exclaim: "Why didn't you say you meant Morgan's church?"2

Burlingham's later role in St. George's history, though less powerful and less often recalled, is in some respects more interesting because based not at all on the power of money. In his career as an admiralty lawyer Burlingham achieved comfort and financial independence, but was never rich, and never sought to be. His great case, lasting from April 1912 to December 1916, was defending the White Star Line against claims for loss of life and property in the sinking of the Titanic. He argued it up to the U. S. Supreme Court and then, as directed, started again in the Southern District Court in New York. Finally, after four and a half years and before the court reached a decision, he won a settlement: White Star to pay $664,000 on claims totaling roughly $18,000,000, less than four percent of the potential liability. The case won him a national and international reputation and established him as a leader of the New York admiralty bar. More personally, it gave him financial freedom to devote more time to public affairs.

He had always played a role in efforts to reform the city's government, to moderate Tammany Hall's one-party rule, and in particular, to end Tammany's corruption of the city and state courts: patronage in the appointment of clerks and judges, the frequent buying of judgeships, and warping of court decisions. After the Titanic case, he worked more continually in reform movements of all kinds and in 1933 was a leader in the Fusion movement that elected La Guardia to the first of three terms as Mayor of New York. For most of those twelve years, though Burlingham, now usually called "CCB," held no official post and sought none, he was an advisor to La Guardia who consulted him almost daily on every sort of issue. As one of La Guardia's biographers wrote: CCB "had a world of experience, and mature wisdom to match. His judgment was as sound as could be had; he coveted no office, was entirely self-sufficient, and had received all the honors he needed in his full life. …