A Brief History of First Church

The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York traces its birth to controversy and a prison cell in the days long before the First Amendment – a time when religion was politics. Its proud history has continued in this tradition, as First Church as often appeared in the forefront of controversial issues, leading the way in its community, city, and country.

Fire, as well as fiery preaching, played a significant part in the church’s history.”

On a January Sunday in 1706, Francis Makemie led worship for a group of immigrant Scots and Irish in a private home in New York. Makemie was a missionary – organizer from the Church of Scotland and was not welcomed by Anglican authorities in New York. His punishable crime here, however, was the performance of an infant baptism, an “unlicensed” act that infuriated Anglicans and provided grounds to jail him. His defense (and ultimate acquittal) became the rallying point for a “band of eighty” who organized a congregation in his support in 1716.
In spite of opposition from the Anglicans, the rebels eventually purchased a plot on the north side of Wall Street near Nassau Street. In 1719, thirteen years after Makemie’s first service in New York, a church opened for worship.
The dissenting protestants grew in numbers and their spirit of dissent persisted. In 1722, there was a brief rift in the congregation. The Scottish core remained with the rigid and dominating James Anderson. The English formed their own group and invited 19-year-old Jonathan Edwards, fresh out of Yale, to be their preacher.
Inside a year, Anderson resigned, the rift was healed, and Mr. Edwards moved on, continuing his path to becoming the guiding spirit of The Great Awakening.
In 1740, the fortunes of the Wall Street church were enhanced by another anti-establishment hero: George Whitfield, celebrated English evangelist and colleague of John Wesley. Only First Presbyterian allowed him to preach in New York during his American tours. His popularity so greatly increased membership that in 1748 the entire church was enlarged and thrived until the British occupation during the War for Independence.
English publisher and novelist Horace Walpole referred to the Revolution as a “Presbyterian rebellion,” because a high proportion of church members served in the Continental Army. The Sons of Liberty were referred to locally as the “Presbyterian junta” because a church trustee was imprisoned for forming it. Religion was still politics, and the issue was protesting colonists vs. Anglican British authorities.
The Wall Street church was closed for seven years during the Revolution. When the war ended, worshipers returned to find their building in ruins. It had been used by the British as a barracks and then a stable, and was irreparably damaged when the British burned New York.
Even without a building, the church persisted, and two important aims were realized in the immediate post-war period: the rift with the Episcopalians (no longer Anglicans) ended – Trinity even offered the homeless Presbyterian congregation use of its chapels – and the congregation obtained a charter. It became the first religious organization to receive sanction from the State of New York. In a very real sense, it was “First Church.”
Fire, as well as fiery preaching, played a significant part in the church’s history. The post-revolutionary building was dedicated in 1811, but fire took that within a short time. It was replaced, but in 1835 the Great Fire destroyed most of New York and changed the face of the city forever.
After the fire, Wall Street was rebuilt as a commercial area and the population moved north. After much debate, “Old First” decided to move with the population and acquired the present property on Fifth Avenue in the Village of Greenwich (now, Greenwich Village). The new building was dedicated in 1846. The 1992 restoration re-established its splendor.
From the beginning, this beautiful stone church and its spacious gardens became an enduring visual and spiritual inspiration in the city. But serene and green as it appeared outside, the next 150 years of First Presbyterian’s history were as tumultuous as its past.
The last half of the 19th century was an era of awakening social consciousness. The congregation turned its attention to worthy causes including homes for the aged, hospitals, the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, and loan relief societies. First Church has continued to assist these organizations as part of an ongoing mission of community outreach.
In order to strengthen the Presbyterian base in the residential neighborhood of Greenwich Village after World War I, three local churches chose to merge. The parties to the merger were First Presbyterian, University Place Presbyterian, and Madison Square Presbyterian. Thus in 1918, a new single church was created bearing the ponderous title: “The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, Founded 1716 – Old First, University Place and Madison Square Foundation.”
The three joined forces at the 12th Street building, dubbed “New York’s Presbyterian cathedral” by Charles H. Parkhurst, retiring pastor of Madison Square.
Parkhurst was a crusading civic reformer. He fearlessly took on Tammany Hall (“that lying, perjured, rum-soaked, libidinous lot”). His zeal for benevolence inspired First Church parishioners as well. Only his Anti-Saloon League provoked some dissension.
Upon the retirement of Parkhurst and Howard Duffield, of Old First, the consolidated congregation instituted a novel system for their pastorate team: Rev. George Alexander, of University Place, as pastor, Rev. Thomas Speers as administer, and the popular and liberal Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick (actually a Baptist) as preacher.
Fosdick’s sermons were so well attended that all pews were rented. According to tradition, one morning the center aisle marble floor cracked from the weight of the packed balconies (a crack that is still visible today). The Church Tower publication was established to reprint his sermons. But in May, 1922, Fosdick crossed a line that few dared touch in those days. He preached a sermon challenging the fundamentalists (many of whom were Baptists and Presbyterians) and asserting that The New Knowledge (Darwinism) was not inconsistent with the Christian faith. Suddenly, First Church found it had, in its pulpit, a major controversial figure.
William Jennings Bryan, fundamentalism’s leading exponent, was a member of the General Council of the Presbyterian Church. With a fiery speech at the 1923 General Assembly, he spearheaded a resolution that mandated the New York Presbytery to force First Church to conform to traditional church doctrine, as fundamentalists saw it.
At the 1924 General Assembly, fundamentalists were unhappy with the lack of “change” in Fosdick’s preaching. The delegates then struck a compromise: Harry Emerson Fosdick, the Baptist preacher, was to become a Presbyterian, and thereby “regularize” his position.
Fosdick refused, seeing the compromise for what it was: an entrapment by the fundamentalists. He saw that the moment he preached a sermon that the fundamentalists disliked, he would be brought up on heresy charges. The Session of First Church accepted Fosdick’s resignation in October of that year. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s last sermon at First Church was on March 1, 1925. Upon leaving, he praised the congregation for its loyalty, tolerance, forbearance, and friendliness. The Riverside Church then became his pastoral home, until his death in 1969.
Even after Fosdick’s departure, First Church continued to expose itself to adverse winds that ruffled its peace. In the 1930s, it supported petitions to ordain women. In 1960, it supported the election of an African-American to the highest office of the national Church. In the 1990s, it has faced the controversial issue of the sexual orientation of church leaders.