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A Historic City Church Looking To The Future

 

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A Brief History

An illustration of one of the earliest meeting houses of the “Congregation of Dissenting Protestants called Presbyterians.” This building, built in 1719, was located at what is now 14 Wall Street. The congregation met three years prior in a house at 144 Pearl St.

The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York celebrated its three hundredth birthday in 2016. From its first home in 1716 in a small building on Wall Street in the center of the young city, it has grown and prospered to become a landmark on lower Fifth Avenue. Throughout its history, whenever there was a choice to be made, it has taken its stand on the side of tolerance and open-mindedness.

On a January Sunday in 1707, Francis Makemie, the Scots-Irish clergyman who was instrumental in establishing the Presbyterian Church in the colonies, preached publicaly to a small group in a private home in New York. This unlicensed act gave grounds for his arrest; it was the Anglican Church that had the right to hold public worship. Makemie was acquitted and moved on, but what he had set in motion took permanent shape when, a few years later, in 1716, a group of about eighty New York dissenters organized themselves into a congregation of the Church of Scotland. They raised funds to buy a property and build a simple structure on the north side of Wall Street east of Broadway. The first worship service in the “Church on Wall Street” was held in 1719.

Division between the more conservative Scots and more progressive English members inhibited growth until the congregation was revitalized by the First Great Awakening, an evangelical movement of the 1730s and 40s that rejected past rigidity and strict doctrine and emphasized a theology of personal conviction, the direction that Protestantism would take. The Wall Street Church was enlarged in 1748, and a steeple and bell were added. Still more meeting space was needed when the congregation grew to three hundred, and in 1768 the “New Church,” or the “Brick Church,” was built a little further north, at the corner of Nassau and Beekman streets, near the site of the present City Hall Park. The single church held services at two sites.

The First Presbyterian Church on Wall Street.

The War for Independence divided Presbyterians, whose churches in the colonies were independent from Europe, from Anglicans, whose church structure bound them to England. Most Anglicans supported the King and Parliament; most Presbyterians opposed. The influence of the dissenters on political events leading to the revolution was sufficient for the War, “the Presbyterian rebellion.” The Reverend John Rodgers, pastor of the Wall Street Church from 1765 until 1811, was a zealous patriot, and a large proportion of male members of the congregation served in the Continental Army. Most families with sympathies for the colonial cause sought safety out of the city during the seven years, 1776 to 1783, when British troops occupied New York. The church buildings were vacated.

When the British left the city after the War was over, they left the Presbyterian structures badly damaged. But with differences now settled, the Anglicans loaned their chapels for worship while repairs were made. The Brick Church reopened in 1784 and the more badly damaged Wall Street Church, the following year. More importantly, the state of New York made the Presbyterian Church the first religious organization to receive a charter, and this permitted it to be incorporated as the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York. Its informal name, “First Church,” is appropriate. At that time, the Wall Street-Brick Church was New York’s only Presbyterian choice for a house of worship, but forty years later there were several dozen. The Wall Street Church and its satellites had split into separate bodies, and other churches had organized, merged and split. In 1811 the structure on Wall Street that still housed “Old First” was found to be structurally compromised, and it was totally rebuilt. In 1835 came the Great Fire that destroyed much of lower Manhattan, the city of New York as it existed in that day.

Rebuilding favored commercial rather than residential interests, but the population was already shifting north, and Old First at its downtown location had suffered from declining membership. The church decided to follow the population uptown to the flourishing neighborhood near Washington Square, and a new church was built in the Gothic style on Fifth Avenue between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets. The eighteenth and nineteenth Century burial vaults were transferred as well and relocated under the new church’s north lawn. Open building lots still lay across the street. The congregation moved into its new home in 1846.

Within the same decade two other Presbyterian churches were established in the affluent neighborhood: the University Place church at Tenth Street and University Place and the Madison Square church a Twenty-fourth Street and Madison Avenue. The Madison Square church made news when its crusading pastor, Charles H. Parkhurst, successfully took on Tammany Hall and the corrupt city government in the 1890s.

But once again the city refused to stand still, and at the beginning of the twentieth century the wealth that had supported the three churches was moving on north, this time up Fifth Avenue. They responded by consolidating, merging as equals in 1918. This produced the rather cumbersome legal name of the present institution: “First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York — Founded 1716, Old First, University Place, Madison Square Foundation.” No one church absorbed another, and the individual histories of the three were absorbed into the history of the new First Church. The Fifth Avenue structure was chosen to house the new church.

The Church House in the early 1960s.

First Church was once more in the news when Harry Emerson Fosdick, a central figure in the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy” of the time, filled the position of “preaching minister” in the newly consolidated church. In giving him the pulpit, it was again endorsing a position that looked to the future and not the past. Fosdick’s sermons packed the church from 1919 until 1924, when conservative elements in the national church forced him to leave.

First Church has continued to support progressive causes. In the nineteen thirties it endorsed the ordination of women. It was a pioneer in pre-school education in the fifties and then in the education of mentally ill children. In the sixties its pastors supported the election of the first Black moderator of the national church’s General Assembly. In the nineties it led in the struggle to include all, regardless of sexual orientation, in every level of church responsibility.

The hope that First Church would no longer need to follow the population in its migration through the city has been realized. First Church still stands in the spot where it came to rest in the mid-nineteenth century, a fixed point in the Greenwich Village neighborhood that has changed and then changed again. When the mayor closed the city below Fourteenth Street after the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, its location made it a refuge for those in need of comfort. Its pastor, Jon Walton, opened its doors to all who came looking for reassurance.

The doors remain open and welcome to all. First Church on Fifth Avenue is a visible marker of an institution whose reputation for progressive thought and action continues, as it has for three hundred years, to the present.


DELVE DEEPER INTO OUR HISTORY AND HERITAGE

Read A City Church: The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York by Dorothy Fowler and Donna Hurley. This second edition published to coincide with First Presbyterian’s 300-year anniversary chronicles the church and city’s evolution from 1716 through 2016 reconstructing the past of an historic city church and recounting its ministry and mission in a changing world.

Learn more about the church’s origins and development, key church events and milestones, including decisions that have changed the direction of the church, transitions in programs and leadership, and the periods of change and renewal that have enabled it to prosper for over three centuries.

The book incorporates material from church archives and interviews with key figures. Historic photos and color illustrations of the church’s more recent history are spread throughout the book. To order a copy, please call the church office at 212.675.6150.