When it comes to religious sites, Old City is undoubtedly one of the most densely packed areas in Philadelphia, if not the country. So when the American Bible Society (ABS) moved to 5th and Market Streets four years ago after 200 years in New York City, the organization certainly felt it was in good company.
ABS was eager to be part of Old City’s historical narrative. “We’re tying faith to liberty,” explained Alan Crippen, chief of exhibits, programming and public engagement for ABS. “It’s a civic narrative. We want to tell the story of the Bible’s role in the founding of America.”
ABS moved forward with that intent last month when it began work on the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center (FLDC), a $60 million, 40,000 square foot museum on the first floor of the Wells Fargo building that aims to show how the Bible has influenced American history, from the founding fathers to civil rights leaders. Through its market research, ABS anticipates around 250,000 visitors each year, some from the 4.8 million that already come to Independence National Park annually and some coming just for the FLDC.
Bible societies flourished in the early part of the 19th century, including the Pennsylvania Bible Society, the first in the United States and still operating at its original location on Washington Square. Its mission was to offer affordable Bibles to the public and also provide them to prisons, hospitals, and shelters. Most were originally non-denominational without commentary or doctrinal notes.Later some Bible societies, including the ABS, branched out to include study guides, customized resources, and advocacy.
A companion project to the FLDC will be a self-guided tour of historic religious sites in the neighborhood, including those still in use as houses of worship, some that have been repurposed, and the locations of others where the buildings no longer exist.
Five Old City religious sites of major colonial importance are within a five-minute walk of ABS headquarters and still active as houses of worship: Christ Church at 2nd and Church Streets, Congregation Mikveh Israel at 4th Street near Market Street, Arch Street Meeting House at 4th and Arch Streets, Old First Reformed Church at 4th and Race Streets, and St. Augustine at 4th and New Streets. Important sites that are no longer extant include New Zion Lutheran Church at 4th and Cherry Streets and the New Building at 4th and Arch Streets, which was built to accommodate the preaching of George Whitefield, one of the founders of Methodism and close colleague of Benjamin Franklin. “All of the institutions have a narrative to tell and we’d like to tie them in to a faith narrative,” said Crippen.
Extend the radius just a few more blocks and there are even more sites, including Mother Bethel AME Church, Old St. Mary’s and Old St. Joseph’s Catholic Churches, Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church, and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, as well as Old St. Paul’s, now housing Episcopal Community Services.
ABS originally planned to create physical signage at each site and place markers on sidewalks to guide the participants along the tour. This raised concerns in the neighborhood about visual clutter in Old City, already filled with historical markers, guideposts to tourist sites, and other signage, plus the potential altering of the colonial flavor of the neighborhood. “We learned a lot about bluestone,” said Crippen, referring to objections to their plan to embed markers into sidewalks made of historic materials.
Those concerns led ABS to rethink how to map the route, focusing instead on a completely virtual method. “It would seem to satisfy all parties if we made it digital,” said Crippen. “The digital concept can liberate us.”
Although early in the planning stage, ABS is now envisioning a downloadable app that employs augmented reality (AR). “With AR, the streets of Old City will come alive and spark the visitor’s imagination. There are sites that are no longer extant,” Crippen explained, citing the aforementioned New Building. In 1740, it was the largest building in the city and also the first home of the University of Pennsylvania (then called the College of Philadelphia). The site, at the southeast corner of 4th and Arch Streets, is now occupied by the Wyndham Hotel. With the aid of historical architectural drawings and other images, “you can hold up your smartphone and see what the site looked like,” said Crippen.
A virtual tour with AR could also be offered online remotely, which Crippen sees as a way to further expand the FLDC’s reach to include worldwide visitors who might never travel to Philadelphia. “We would love to drive visitors to these sites, in person or virtual,” said Crippen.
Originally, the organization planned to work with local firm Blue Cadet, which ultimately declined to come on board. Negotiations are underway with another firm, and Crippen hopes it hasn’t delayed the project too much. The app and website’s launch is planned to coincide with the opening of the FLDC, which is slated for late 2020.
Another issue is the length of the tour, which originally called for a 90 minute walk to 30 sites. With many FLDC visitors coming from other historical attractions, consultants with tour guide experience opined that the time commitment would be too great.
But even as ABS resolves the technical and operational aspects of the tour, the issue of content, and who creates it, still needs to be addressed. While the sites and ABS are all religious institutions, there are many different religious and historical viewpoints among them. “We want to make sure Christ Church tells its own history with its own perspective,” noted Tim Safford, Christ Church’s rector.
“We want to be good neighbors,” Crippen asserted. “We’re attempting to build relationships. We’re sensitive to how they tell their own stories.” To that end, ABS staff have met with some of the institutions, including Christ Church, Mikveh Israel, and Old First Reformed Church to discuss the project and hear their perspectives. At this point, however, no formal method of input or approval has been planned.
Even with those assurances, some institutions remain uncomfortable about associating with ABS. In January 2019, ABS created the Affirmation of Biblical Community, an employee policy which bars individuals in homosexual or unwed heterosexual relationships, among others, from employment at the organization. “The actions they took in defining marriage indicate they’re not able to go in a direction that matches the diversity of all the congregations in the Old City district,” said Safford. “I believe they think they are doing their best work in not being sectarian, but ultimately their world view will affect what they do.”
Sites like Christ Church are proceeding, however cautiously. Safford feels it is a difficult choice between not participating and having someone else tell your story, or joining in and appearing to condone a stance your organization opposes.
Nevertheless, he sees merit in the project overall. “We think reviving this notion of religious heritage is very significant,” said Safford. “We’re hopeful that with ABS taking up the cause, it will bring people in so we can tell our stories.”