First Church: Presbyterian

(University Place, Mercer Street, Madison Square)
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The establishment of the First Presbyterian Church of New York in 1716 and the earlier beginnings of services and church activities of Presbyterians in this area has been described in Chapter I of this book.

The first regular place of worship of this congregation was on the north side of Wall Street in the very center of the life of the community at what is now known as No. 14. Many of the early pictures of New York taken looking up Wall Street at Trinity Church at the westerly end show the tall spire of the Presbyterian church on the right.

The traditional zeal of Presbyterians for the defense of their particular views was evidenced very early in the history of this new church. A group of members found themselves in continual controversy with their minister, and in 1721 voted to withdraw and form a separate congregation. They received authority from the Common Council "for a meeting house for a congregation of dissenting Protestants called English Presbyterians for the Public Worship of God." This group never had a church building but met in different private homes. They called to be their pastor the young Jonathan Edwards who at nineteen years of age had just graduated from Yale. He declined the call, however, although he preached to them for eight months after which he returned to Connecticut. Shortly thereafter the congregation disbanded and most of the members returned to the First Church. The name "English Church" did not represent an incorporated body at any time.

Other difficulties developed, however, due apparently to a lessening of zeal for spiritual matters. There was little activity in the church and the sanctuary itself was allowed to fall into sorry disrepair. However, in 1740, the famous evangelist, George Whitefield, came to New York for a series of spiritual meetings. The only building open to him was that of the Presbyterian Church on Wall Street. This he crowded with those who wanted to hear his preaching and a true revival of religion followed. One of the results of this revival was the restoration, amounting to practically a rebuilding, of the church edifice including the addition of galleries. In order to secure funds an appeal was sent to various churches in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, many of whom responded.

This congregation had difficulty also regarding matters of church administration. Apparently the affairs of the congregation rested almost entirely in the hands of the trustees and there does not seem to have been any election of elders and the organization of a session until 1750, following a period of somewhat bitter discussion on these matters.

The problem of music was also a matter of sharp disagreement from the early days. The congregation divided as to whether to use the old version of the Psalter, Rouse's, or the new version, Isaac Watts'. The progressive element carried the day and it was decided to adopt the latter. The conservative element believing this a matter of conscience felt compelled to withdraw from the church and form a separate congregation in 1756. This was the beginning of what is now the Second Presbyterian Church, but at the time of the split it did not become a part of the Presbytery of New York but of the Associate Reformed Church, a separate denomination. It, however, was commonly known as the Scotch Presbyterian Church.

The next division of the congregation was a much happier one. By this time the church on Wall Street had grown so vigorously that the building was over-crowded. Moreover the families living in the northern part of the city, which was then below the present City Hall, wanted a church building of their own. This led to the establishment in 1768 of the Brick Church on Beekman Street. A similar development following the growth of the city ogled to the establishment of a third congregation, known as the Rutgers Church on Henry Street in 1798.The story of the beginnings of these two churches is told elsewhere. These three congregations continued until 1809 to be technically one parish with a collegiate ministry, and it was not until that date that the Presbytery of New York enrolled them separately, each with its own minister.

The outbreak of the Revolution brought a time of testing and trial. Presbyterians in New York as else-where were almost unanimously on the side of freedom for the colonies and the pastor of the First Church, Rev. Dr. John Rodgers was a loyal patriot and friend of George Washington, and for a time chaplain in the Continental Army. When the British troops occupied the city they proceeded immediately to commandeer the premises of the Presbyterian churches and they used the First Church building for a riding school and later for barracks. The congregation was dispersed and could not hold services until the eviction of the British troops on November 27, 1783. They returned to find the church edifice badly damaged and it could not be re-opened for worship until June, 1785. The record states that the cost of repairs was $7,000.

The separation of this country from England made it possible to bring to a satisfactory completion a long-standing difficulty about the incorporation of this church. As early as 1720 the church officers applied to the King's Council for a charter of incorporation. This petition the Council and the Acting Governor was disposed to grant, but the Vestry of Trinity Church voiced opposition, and so the request was refused as was a similar request in 1766. In view of this set-back, the title holders were compelled to seek legal protection and relief. This was effected by having the property conveyed to the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and that body on August 15, 1732 executed, under seal, an instrument declaring the property held by the Assembly for the use and benefit of Presbyterians residing in or near New York. The act of interference on the part of Trinity Vestry in 1720 was amply atoned for by its successors in office two generations later. In 1784 the Presbyterians returning to the city after the close of the Revolutionary War found their houses of worship damaged and rendered untenable by the British soldiery. Trinity Vestry promptly offered St. Paul's and St. George's chapels for their accommodation, until such time as the cleansing and renovating of their own buildings could be effected. Furthermore, the Vestry donated a house on Beekman Street, the annual income from which was about $500, for the use and benefit of the oldest Presbyterian minister living at the time in New York. Not until1784 was the church incorporated, the newly formed State of New York granting it a charter as the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York.

The old church building on Wall Street was antiquated and inadequate and a new edifice was dedicated in 1811. During the process of erection the congregation worshipped in the French Huguenot Church on Pine Street. Much of the materials in the old building were utilized in the construction of a wooden edifice for the housing of the newly organized Spring Street Church. This new building of the First Church remained an architectural ornament tot he city until 1834 when it caught fire and was largely destroyed. Most of the furniture, including the Bible and Psalm Book of Dr.Rodgers, was saved and within a year the church edifice was rebuilt.

Before long, however, the northerly movements of population, which have continued to mark ecclesiastical history, brought the congregation of the First Church to a decision to seek a new location. The cornerstone of the new church on Fifth Avenue between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets was laid in 1844, and the church dedicated in 1846. The Wall Street building was sold for $3,000, to the First Church of Jersey City, and the sale included not only the building and all its furnishings, including stoves, chandeliers and carpets, but also the iron railing on the east side of the edifice and the stone wall connecting the church and the railing. The materials were carried over the Hudson Ferry in carts at a charge of 5c a load, the number of loads being 7,456.

In 1893 the Chapel and Sunday School rooms on West Eleventh Street, adjoining the church building were constructed, and in 1895 the house at 12 West 12th Street was secured.

In 1918 there was carried out one of the most significant and successful church mergers in history. Two blocks from the First Church was the University Place Church, and a little more than half a mile to the north was the Madison Square Church, both of them strong congregations with splendid traditions. These three united as the First Presbyterian Church, the corporate title being "Old First, University Place, and Madison Square Foundation."

This consolidation included an agreement to continue the fostering of the various mission enterprises of the uniting churches, _ Emmanuel Church, Bethlehem Memorial Church, Madison Square Church House, and also support of the Madison Square Boys Club, an independent organization.

The First Church secured wide publicity because of the preaching there of Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick as a special preacher and not as a pastor. This situation brought on an extended controversy in the entire denomination.

The churches merging with the First Church brought interesting traditions. In the words of Dr. George Alexander "The genesis of the University Place Church was unique. It had no infancy, no early struggle for existence. Like Athena, it sprang into being, mature and fully equipped." On November 29, 1843, a group of influential men met in a home on Washington Square and pledged themselves tot he erection of a Presbyterian Church. They secured lots on the southeast corner of University Place and 10th Street and engaged Richard Upjohn, the architect of the Trinity Church, to design their new edifice. This University Place Church was dedicated in 1845. Its first pastor, George Potts, had been for eight years the minister of the Duane Street Church. An era of influence and strength followed. Shortly thereafter the mission work which developed into Bethlehem Chapel was inaugurated.

The Mercer Street Church, three blocks away, had a history somewhat like that of University Place. On October 8, 1835 a group of Presbyterians signed a petition asking to be taken under care of Presbytery. Meetings were held in the lecture room of New York University, and shortly a church was erected on the west side of Mercer Street near Waverly Place. It is interesting to note that this church more than a century ago tried to be definitely a community church. Among their statements of program were the following:

The propagation of Christianity rather than a sectarian form of it. The coalition of all Christians admitted in carrying on plans of evangelism.

No sooner was the new sanctuary completed than large numbers crowded into it from all parts of the city. They were received into its fellowship and took part in administering its affairs even though they had had little acquaintance with each other. In ten years nearly eight hundred were enrolled in its fellowship.

This church also had a fine missionary spirit that gave great impetus tot he early days of the New York City Mission Society. Most of the organizers of the Protestant Half-Orphan Asylum were Mercer Street People. It was largely from the membership of this church that there came the movement for the establishment of Union Theological Seminary. There was also established what was known as the Dry Dock Mission, which later was fostered under the name of the Emmanuel Church, and continues until the present time.

At the time of the reunion of the New and Old School churches, a union meeting of Presbyterians in the vicinity of Washington Square was held to celebrate this event. Members of the University Place and Mercer Street churches who were present talked over plans for the merger of these two congregations, and this was carried through, and on September 16, 1870 Presbytery completed the merger with the name of the University Place Church.

When the Mercer Street congregation moved to the University Place Church, their building was used by the undenominational Church of the Strangers.

The Madison Square Church, the third partner in this merger, dated from 1853 when certain members of the Central Church which was effecting a consolidation with the Pearl Street Church decided to establish a church in the vicinity of Madison Square, at that time the upper part of the city. A site was secured at the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 24th Street. While the church building was being erected, worship was held at Union Seminary Chapel on University Place and later at Hope Hall at Broadway near Waverly Place. The organization of the church was effected March 3rd, 1853 and the church building dedicated December 1854. It remained in this location until 1906 when it moved directly across the street to the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 24th Street, where it remained until its merger with the First Church in 1918.

During the sixty-five years of its separate existence, the Madison Square Church had a tremendous influence on the life of the city. Its ministers were outstanding leaders, Dr. Parkhurst becoming perhaps the most famous churchman of his day because of his zeal and courage for social reform, the record of which is given elsewhere. There were many of New York's most prominent citizens in its membership. The church was always concerned with missionary work. Two of the enterprises is established, the Adams Memorial Church and the Madison Square Church House are now happily united.

The ministers of the First Church: James Anderson, 1717-26; Ebenezer Pemberton, 1727-53; Alexander Cumming, 1750-53; David Bostwick, 1756-63; Joseph Treat, 1762-75; John Rodgers, 1765-1811; James Wilson, 1785-88; John McKnight, 1789-1809; Samuel Miller, 1793-1813; Philip Melancthon Whelpley, 1815-24; William Wirt Phillips, 1826-65; William M. Paxton, 1866-84; Richard D. Harlan, 1886-90; Howard Duffield, 1891-1918; George Alexander, 1918-30; Thomas Guthrie Speers, 1918-28; Phillips P. Elliott, 1928-32; Julius Valdemar Moldenhawer, 1927-48; John O. Mellin, 1947_.

The ministers of the University Place Church: George Potts, 1845-64; Alfred H. Kellogg, 1865-70; Robert R. Booth, 1870-83; George Alexander 1883-1918.

The ministers of the Mercer Street Church: Thomas H. Skinner, 1835-48; Joseph C. Stiles, 1848-50; George L. Prentiss, 1851-58; Walter Clarke, 1859-60; Robert R. Booth, 1861-70.

The ministers of the Madison Square Church: William Adams, 1853-74; William J. Tucker, 1875-79; Charles H. Parkhurst, 1880-1918.

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Website: The History
Article Name: First Church: Presbyterian
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: From my collection of books: The Presbyterian Church in New York City by Theodore Fiske Savage; published by The Presbytery of New York 1949
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