The History of the Presbytery: The Beginnings


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The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York was formally established in 1716, but in the previous century public worship according to the Presbyterian way had been conducted from time to time for the benefit of those who brought this tradition with them.

 England during the seventeenth century had strong Presbyterian groups, and was each year sending many shiploads of colonists to the New World. Much of the church life established in Connecticut was essentially Presbyterian, and some of these church people crossed Long Island Sound, establishing in Southold, Southampton and other towns, churches which are Presbyterian to this day. Bermuda, called Somers Islands, had many Presbyterians, and these were closely allied with the colony of Virginia when there were strong Presbyterian tendencies. Into the colony of new Amsterdam came families from all these settlements, and they wanted to worship.

The Dutch Reformed Church there, although closely akin to the Presbyterian, held itself aloof because of intensity of conviction on matters that seem of minor importance today, and also maintained the barrier of language. Not until 1652 did the Dutch church call as assistant minister one who could preach in English as well. It was before that time that Presbyterian services in English were conducted in what is now New York City.

Francis Doughty came with a group of parishioners to Manhattan Island in 1643. A year earlier he had been given the right to establish an English colony in Mespat (near Newtown) Long Island but he and his people were driven to Manhattan by the outbreak of an Indian war. For five years he conducted services, receiving some support from the Dutch, but whether or not he used their church or met in a house, is not recorded. He also preached in Flushing. Records show that he had some difficulty in collecting his stipend, and also that he encountered sharp divisions of theological opinion in his flock, as he had in Taunton, Mass., before coming to New York. Therefore, he fled to Maryland where he preached to the Puritans for many years.

About the same time came Richard Enton, who had pastorates in Connecticut, and then in 1644 moved with some of his flock to Hempstead, Long Island, where he established what is still known as Christ's Presbyterian Church. In 1657 a letter from the Dutch Church to the Classis of Amsterdam states: "At Heemstede, about seven Dutch miles form here, there are some Independents; also many of our persuasion and Presbyterians. They have also a Presbyterian preacher named Richard Denton, an honest, pious, and learned man. He hath in all things conformed to our church. The Independents of the place listen attentively to his preaching, but when he began to baptize the children of such parents as are not members of the church, they sometimes burst out of the church."

The town of Jamaica contained many families of Puritan descent, and Richard Denton came from Hempstead to hold services for them from about 1656. In 1662 regular preaching was established, and soon a church building erected. The town and church were in one sense a unit, the board of magistrates acting as church officers, and the town providing a house and a farm for the minister. Formal organization was effected in 1672.

Town and church were practically one in Newtown also, where preaching began in 1652, and a building was erected in 1671. This was paid for by a tax of forty pounds levied on the citizens, and paid one-half in corn, and the other half in cattle.

Lacking definite records we can only infer that in New York City also there were held such informal services as are reported to have been conducted in a home in Westchester about this time, where two laymen gathered a group of friends, one of them reading a sermon and the other leading in prayer.

The English took the colony in 1664. In 1678, Governor Andros reported: "There are religions of all sorts, one church of England, several Presbyterians and Independents, Quakers and Anabaptists of several sects, some Jews, but Presbyterians and Independents most numerous and substantial." This was for the whole colony and not for the city alone. The chief problem seemed to be the scarcity of Presbyterian ministers for the different groups that came together. The great charter of 168304 granted liberty of conscience and protected the religious rights of the Puritans as well as of the Dutch, but with the coming of Governor Fletcher in 1692 troubles began. Described as a "covetous and passionate man," he did everything possible to establish the Church of England as the only church. Lord Cornbury, who succeeded him as governor, was especially vigorous against the Dissenters, taking over the church, parsonage and farm at Jamaica for the exclusive use of the Church of England. The parsonage and farm were not recovered until 1724 and the church until 1728. The church in Newtown was also taken over for use by the Church of England from 1704 to 1708.

John Miller, Chaplain of the British forces, returning to England in 1695 reported the following dissenting (Presbyterian) churches: Jamaica, Hempstead and Newtown in Queens, eight or nine in Suffolk, one in West Chester. In New York, in addition to two or three Dutch Calvinist churches, there was a Dutch Lutheran congregation, a French church, and a Jew's Synagogue. In Richmond there was "a meeting house" for 40 English, 44 Dutch, and 36 French families. Kings was cared for by three Dutch churches. All these were in addition to the parishes of the Church of England. In 1703, the population of New York was 4,436.

In 1707 there came to the city of New York, Francis Makemie, known as the apostle of American Presbyterianism. He was a native of the North of Ireland, and had with great difficulty managed to get to Glasgow to attend the University, because Presbyterians were not admitted to the irish colleges. After his graduation he returned and was ordained by the Presbytery of Laggan about 1681. Shortly thereafter he came to the New World and did pioneer work in Maryland and Virginia, and was one of the seven ministers who formed "The Presbytery" in 1706, the first formal organization of the Presbyterian Church in America.

Early in 1707 he was commissioned to proceed to Boston, and also to join in the ordination at Freehold, N.J. of John Boyd, the first Presbyterian minister to be ordained in this country. On his way from there to Boston he and his associate John Hampton stopped in New York and were urged by the little group of Presbyterians to preach to them and lead them in worship. Lord Cornbury refused to allow Makemie to preach in the Dutch Church, claiming that he was not properly licensed, and so a meeting for public worship was held in the house of William Jackson, at the lower end of Pearl Street. This was a gathering of ten or fifteen people only. A sermon was preached and a little child baptized.

The following day he was arrested at the order of the Governor and thrown into jail, where he languished for two months before being released on bail. He was charged not only with not having a license from the Governor, but "with intent to spread pernicious doctrines and principles to the great disturbance of the church by law established and of the government of the province." The trial was long drawn out, Mackemie quoting the laws of England, Lord Cornbury insisting on his supreme authority. When the jury received the case he was acquitted, but made to pay all the costs, including the fee of the prosecutor, an equivalent of several hundred dollars. The next legislature, however, made it impossible for any such thing to happen again.

It is interesting to read Lord Cornbury's description of Makemie in a letter to the Board of Trade in London, written just after this incident: "I entreat your Lordship's protection against this malicious man who is well known in Virginia and Maryland to be a disturber of the peace and quiet of all places he comes into; he is a jack of all trades, he is a preacher, a Doctor of Physick, a merchant, an attorney or counsellor at law, and what is worst of all, a disturber of governments."

This whole matter served but to rally the group of Presbyterians and their friends and informal meetings continued. Some "Dissenting Minister," whose name is unknown to us was asked to be their leader in 1709, but no further record of him appears. The hopes of this faithful group were realized in 1716 when there was organized what became the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, but commonly known for many years as the Church in Wall Street.

The story of this enterprise is written in the Minutes of the Church of Scotland and the names of the prime movers are recorded. Thomas Smith and William Smith were Englishmen of some standing, the latter a Judge and member of the King's Council. Patrick McKnight was a well-to-do merchant from the North of Ireland. Gilbert and William Livingston were among the founders. But none exercised a more dynamic influence than John Nicoll, a graduate of Edinburgh University, and a physician of recognized eminence. With Scotch vigor and stubbornness, he bore down all opposition and surmounted every difficulty. He took the financial responsibility for twenty years, and left the new church free of debt; although at great personal cost to his own purse. He undertook a hazardous trip to Scotland to secure financial assistance, and the formal recognition of the new enterprise, and throughout his life considered this infant church his very life.

A private house was the first meeting place of this newly organized congregation. The Minutes of the Common Council, dated August 7, 1717, read: the house known as Venoo's house situate in the Eastern part of the City is recorded as Publick Meeting House for the Congregation of Dissenting Protestants called Presbiterians, for the Publick Worship of Almighty God."

For a time the group depended on visiting ministers but the difficulties of travel were so great that such a plan could not work. They therefore issued a call to Rev. James Anderson of the Presbytery of Newcastle, Delaware, who in December, 1717 became the first Presbyterian pastor in New York City.

Almost immediately after his installation Mr. Anderson addressed a letter to Dr. Stirling, "principal of the College of Glasgow."

"This place, the City of New York, where I now am, is a place of considerable moment & very poplous consisting as I'm informed of about 3000 families or housekeepers. Its a place of as great trade & business, if not more now, as any in North America. In it are two minrs, of ye established church of England, two Dutch minrs, one French minr, a Lutheran minister, an Anabaptist & also a Qwaker meeting. The place did att first intirly belong to the Dutch; After the English had it endeavours were used by ye chief of ye people who then understood English toward the Settlement of an English dissenting minister in it, & accordingly one was called from New England, who after he had preached sometime here, having a prospect & promise of more money then what he had among the dissenters, went to old England, took orders from ye B. of London & came back here as minister of the established church of E: Here he yet is, has done and still is doing what he can to ruin the dissenting interest in the place. Afterwards endeavours were used again & again by the famous Mr. Francis McKemine, Mr. Hampton, Mr. McNish & others toward the Settlement of a Scots church in this city, but by ye arbitrary management & influence of a wicked high flying governour, who pre-deeded his excellency Brigadeer Hunter, our present governor (may ye Lord blesse & long preserve him) that business has been hitherto impeded & could never be brought in a likely way to bear.

"The last summer, I being providentially here, & obliged to stay here about businesse the matter of a month, att the desire of a few especially Scots people, preached each Sabbath. Tho' there were a pretty many hearers, yet there were but few yt were able & willing to do anything toward the setting forward such work, a few there were who were willing to do their uttermost, but so few that I had then but smll grounds to suppose that anything effectually could be done. Some time before our last Synod, a call from this small handful with some few others yt had joyn'd them, came to the presbytry of Newcastle desiring a transportation of me from Newcastle to New York, which the Presbytry referred to ye Synod then in a little time to sit. The Synod, having a prospect of getting Newcastle supplied by a young man one Mr. Crosse, lately come from the North of Ireland, transported me hither. The people here who are favorors of our church & perswasion, as I've told yow, are yet but few & none of the richest, yet for all, I am not without hopes yt with Gods blessing they shall in a little time encrease.

Some are already come to live in the city & more are expected whose langwage would not allow them to joyn with ye Dutch or French Churches, and whose consciences would not allow them to joyn in the service of the English Church. The cheif thing in all appearance, now wanting, with Gods blessing & concurrence to render us a growing flourishing congregation, is a good large convenient house or church to congregate in; Some proposals are now sett on foot toward the building of one, but building being here very coastly & convenient ground to build such a house upon being yet more coastly, & the handful of people yt are having their hands full to doe toward the necessary Support of their minister we shall not be able to goe through with the building of such a house as the place requires without the assistance of our friends: The crying necessity of having the Gospell & Gospell ordinances dispensed purly in our langwage here, This seeming to be the time for carrying on such a work, while things are So moderate att home, & while we have such a wise moderate governour here, Together with the hopes of the growing of our interest & the hopes of some assistance from our friends & brethren att home, att least in building, were cheif considerations moving the Synod to transport me hither & begetting a willingness in me to comply with the Synod's act.

"I believe by this time yow smell my drift. I don't know how to begin to beg any more att your door least I should bereckoned (to use our own Scotts word) missleard. But if any of your Substantiall Merchts or some other Synod could be prevailed upon to contribute toward the building of a Scots church here Oh! how acceptible would it be to religion & our interest in the place. Severall of our Scots merchants trade hither & I doubt not more will when before now they have come, they understanding neither Dutch nor French were obligded either to stay att home or goe to ye church of E; or worse which has been ye occasion of some mischiefs Wickedness & inconveniences, which I hope in a great measure if this work of God succeed here, shall hereafter be prevented. I am afraid I have wearied yow."

This adoitly worded church extension appeal called attention to what was always the first imperative need of a new congregation, a meeting place. For such capital expenditures, outside assistance has almost always been necessary, and the First Church was no exception. An appeal was made to the Synod in Philadelphia for assistance, and in 1719 that body voted that "a tenth part of the neat produce of the Glasgow collection be given to the Presbyterian congregation of New York toward the support of the Gospel among them." It is interesting to record that 18 pounds of the Scotch gift came from the parish of Dalmeny and two hundred years later this was returned by a member of the First Church with 100 pounds interest. The Legislature of Connecticut also sent some financial assistance.

The New York group were doing their best. For $875. they bought lots, 80 feet front and 120 feet deep about where 14 Wall Street is now situated, and raised money for a building. Until this should be ready they secured permission to hold services in the new City Hall, recently erected on the site where the Sub-treasury stands. The lower floor housed the jail, the upper floor the Assembly, the City Council, the Court, and a library. Here the Presbyterians worshipped until they moved to their first church building in 1719.

Transcribed as is from the book.

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Website: The History
Article Name: The History of the Presbytery: The Beginnings
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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