Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, was founded as a religious community in the late nineteenth century by members of a Christian denomination known as the New Church. Just a mile from the Philadelphia border, this small borough is home to some of the area’s most remarkable architecture, buildings that reflect the religious faith and vision of the community’s earliest residents.
Glencairn was built in Bryn Athyn by Raymond Pitcairn (1885-1966) in a style based on medieval Romanesque architecture. Pitcairn, who had no formal training in architecture, had previously supervised the construction of Bryn Athyn Cathedral, a Gothic- and Romanesque-style complex. The design of both buildings evolved gradually, relying on scale and full-sized plaster models rather than solely on predetermined architectural plans. Creative input was sought from the craftsmen themselves, who worked together with designers in the shops and studios that were built for them on the site. Glencairn, above all a home, was also designed to house Pitcairn’s outstanding collection of medieval objects, which were purchased as inspirational models for the artists who worked on the Cathedral.
The Pitcairns moved into Glencairn in 1939. Raymond died in 1966, and Mildred remained in the home until she passed away in 1979. The next year the building and its contents, including the art collections, were given to the Academy of the New Church schools. The collections of the Academy’s museum, located on the top floor of the campus library, moved to Glencairn and merged with the Pitcairn collections to create what is now known as Glencairn Museum. Glencairn serves as a museum of religious art and history, continuing the intellectual legacy of the museum of the Academy of the New Church.
Today Glencairn’s galleries provide visitors with the opportunity to explore the religious beliefs and practices of a variety of cultures and time periods. Objects in the Egyptian Gallery are organized around religious themes like Egyptian Gods and The Embalmer’s Art: Mummy, Myth and Magic. The Ancient Near East Gallery includes a scale model of the Tabernacle of Israel. The collection of Neo-Assyrian reliefs includes a large representation of a guardian spirit intended to magically protect the king’s palace. The Greek and Roman Galleries feature a life-size marble statue of the Roman goddess Minerva-Victoria. Glencairn’s internationally recognized collection of medieval stained glass and sculpture is ideal for learning about Christian beliefs during the Middle Ages. Objects in the Asian collection reflect the beliefs and values of East Asian Buddhism, as well as elements of traditional Chinese culture with its Confucian and Taoist influences. Many objects in the American Indian collection were used in daily life, demonstrating the ways in which religion permeated their lives.
Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn were both devoted members of the New Church congregation in Bryn Athyn. The origins of the New Church lie in the eighteenth century, with the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), a Swedish scientist, philosopher and theologian. Swedenborg was born in Stockholm, Sweden, the son of a prominent Lutheran bishop. He was educated at the University of Uppsala and went on to publish a series of books that established his reputation in Europe as a scientist and philosopher. Then, in 1743, at the age of 55, Swedenborg began to experience a series of religious visions. He shifted his focus away from science and philosophy and spent the rest of his life writing twenty-five volumes of systematic theology. To Swedenborg, the Bible is a unified system of theological thought, with no inherent conflict between faith and reason. However, true faith is not just a matter of belief, but comes from living a life of usefulness to one’s family, community, nation and church.
Most 18th-century Christian writers focused on the differences between ancient religions and Christianity, with Christianity being considered the only true religion. Swedenborg, on the other hand, wrote that the spiritual history of the world was a succession of five ecclesiae (“churches”), each one of which had a genuine connection to God and its own form of divine revelation. Swedenborg also maintained that the kingdom of God is spread throughout the entire world, and includes people from all religions and cultures. Swedenborg himself never attempted to found a religious organization, but New Church groups based on his writings began to appear shortly after his death. Swedenborg’s writings were well received in nineteenth-century America, and his ideas were familiar to leading intellectuals of the day.
In 1876, Rev. William Henry Benade (1816-1905), together with a small group of supporters, established the Academy of the New Church in Philadelphia. Over the next few years, their dream of a comprehensive system of religious education for the New Church was realized, and the Academy developed a Theological School for training ministers, a College, a secondary school for boys and a secondary school for girls. Benade, believing that “a good museum is a necessary adjunct of a good school,” founded the Academy’s museum just a few months after the first classes began. While traveling on a tour of Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land, he arranged for John Pitcairn (Raymond’s father) to purchase more than 1,000 artifacts from the ancient world. Benade initially set up a portion of the museum in a three-story house in Philadelphia, a building that also served as classroom space for the Academy’s college and theological school. The museum changed locations several times, but in 1912 the collection was moved to the nearby suburb of Bryn Athyn, where it was installed in a new building financed by John Pitcairn to house the Academy’s museum and library.
In addition to Glencairn’s art collections, formed when the Academy museum’s collections and Pitcairn’s collections were combined, Glencairn contains a wealth of original art in stone, wood, glass, and mosaic. These were created by Bryn Athyn craftsmen, inspired by the New Church beliefs that are present in the symbolic program created for the Pitcairns’ home. The major decorative themes illustrate one of the Bible’s most repeated commands: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The New Church teaches that every individual is our neighbor, but a community of individuals should also be considered our neighbor. Symbols of the four communities the Pitcairns hoped to serve during their lifetimes are repeated throughout the building— family, school, country, church.
Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn shared a belief in New Church ideas about marriage. Emanuel Swedenborg’s book Marriage Love describes marriage as a holy covenant, a heavenly and pure love. The Pitcairns saw their faith as being the key to their marriage, and made a point of reading the Bible and Swedenborg’s writings together every evening. In the Master Bedroom their teakwood bed, made in Bryn Athyn in the early 1930s, is carved with a pair of doves on each of the bedposts, a symbol of marriage. The base of the bed is carved with a prayer derived from their wedding ceremony: “Unite our hearts in love to one another and to Thee, Give us one heart—one mind—one way, Grant us knowledge to see Thy way and power to do Thy will.”
The Pitcairns had a large family of nine children. In New Church belief, the raising of a family is seen as an extension of the love between a married couple. The challenging job of parenting gives them the opportunity to strengthen their bond by joining together with God in the work of raising individuals who will one day make their own contributions to society.
The theme of family appears many times in the decorative program created for Glencairn, usually symbolized by a ram, a ewe, and their nine lambs. A ram and ewe are carved in stone above the front door with the names of the Pitcairn children around the arched doorway, each name accompanied by an image of a lamb. The Cloister features a large granite bench with facing seats—a ram on one side and a ewe on the other. The family is also represented by a ram, a ewe, and nine lambs created in glass mosaic on the wall above the first floor elevator door.
Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn both received a New Church education from early childhood, and continued to be involved with New Church schools in a variety of ways as adults. Before she was married, Mildred taught in the Academy of the New Church Girls School. Raymond was a member of the Academy’s Board of Directors from 1910 until his death in 1966, and Secretary of the Corporation from 1910 until 1952. Beginning in the 1940s, Raymond taught music appreciation courses to Bryn Athyn College students in Glencairn’s Great Hall, notable for its fine acoustics.
The goal of New Church schools is not merely to prepare students for future employment, but to prepare them for a life of spiritual purpose and service to others. The importance the Pitcairns placed on New Church education is plain to everyone who enters the Great Hall, which is dominated by an elaborately decorated glass mosaic on the large arch leading to the Upper Hall. This monumental mosaic, reaching up two stories to the third floor balcony, depicts the official seal of the Academy of the New Church. The seal consists of a shield divided into four parts, with four medallions representing the Boys School, the Girls School, Bryn Athyn College, and the Theological School. Many school events still take place in the Great Hall. The Academy seal is also carved in stone above the Chapel doorway and occurs in several other places in Glencairn.
The New Church teaches that the biblical admonition to “love your neighbor” includes not just individuals but larger units of society. The Pitcairns were very active politically. In a speech given in 1930, Raymond Pitcairn expressed the sentiment that “a civil and moral man is not necessarily a spiritual man, but a spiritual man must be a patriotic citizen.” Glencairn’s Upper Hall includes a stained glass window illustrating the balance of power between the three branches of the federal government—the Capitol building (the seat of the United States Congress) in the center, the White House on the left, and the Supreme Court building on the right. Beneath is a quotation from one of Swedenborg’s books, The Doctrine of Charity: “There shall be justice among them.” Swedenborg wrote that justice is one of the essentials of a successful society.
Also in the Upper Hall is a bust of Abraham Lincoln by George Grey Barnard, purchased by Raymond Pitcairn in 1929. Pitcairn admired Lincoln, seeing in him a president “who above all statesmen, heeded the admonition to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God” (Micah 6:8).
Glencairn features a family Chapel on the east wing of the fifth floor. Worshipers face east, in keeping with Christian tradition. A quotation from Swedenborg’s book, True Christian Religion, is carved in stone above the doorway to the Chapel: “Now it is permitted to enter intellectually into the mysteries of faith.” The New Church emphasizes that in order to understand their own faith, people should read and study the Bible for themselves, and not merely accept the authority of others.
The custom of family worship was common in Bryn Athyn in the early half of the twentieth century, and continues with many New Church families today. When the Pitcairns lived at Glencairn they held a worship service in the Chapel every evening after supper. The simple format would consist of singing, a reading from the Bible or a passage from Swedenborg’s writings, and a prayer.
The visual focus of the family service was a special cabinet containing the Bible. The Bible would be opened at the beginning of the service and remain open until the end. Glencairn’s cabinet is hand carved in cherry with images of the angels who stood guard at the Garden of Eden with flaming swords, and with intricate depictions of the four beasts of the Apocalypse described in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. These themes are repeated elsewhere in the Chapel in stone and mosaic.
Carved in stone on the left wall is a synopsis of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. On the right wall is the Lord’s Prayer in Greek, the language of the New Testament. For the New Church, these two texts provide universal precepts for leading a good life, a life of service to God and neighbor.
For more information watch our award-winning 30-minute documentary film, "Embracing the Sacred: The Story of Glencairn Museum," which features spectacular aerial photography, rare archival footage, and historic photographs.