Presbyterians, led by their activist pastor, John Rodgers, were active participants in the political events that led to the War of Independence. Preeminent were three lawyers, Trustees of the Wall Street Church: William Livingston, William Smith Jr., and John Morin Scott. Merchant Alexander McDougall, another church member, was the street leader of the group of sailors known as the “Sons of Liberty,” who demonstrated against the implementation of the unpopular Stamp Act of 1765. Loyalists named the rioters a “Presbyterian junta.”
McDougall was arrested twice in 1770, and he made himself a political martyr by refusing bail. His supporters escorted him ceremoniously to jail and turned his internment into political theater. Since he was the Clerk of the Board of Trustees of the Wall Street Church, their meetings took place in jail in January and February of 1771. After being incarcerated for a total of five months, McDougall was acquitted. He was made responsible for the defense of the city in 1775 once war became inevitable. He rose to become a major general in the Continental Army and was a delegate to the continental congress.
The Trustees of the Presbyterian Church were spending so much time on political matters that many of their meetings had to be adjourned for lack of a quorum. They met last in January of 1775, and the Session met for the last time in December of that year. With the dispersal of the civilian congregation, the New York church ceased to be active. George Washington and his force were defeated in the Battle of Brooklyn and retreated, and the British arrived in New York in August of 1776. The occupying troops caused serious damage to the Presbyterians’ Wall Street building, using it first as a barracks and then as a stable for their horses. The Brick Church building became a hospital.
Pastor John Rodgers was a prominent figure both within the church and in the community during this period. The British put a price on his head. He would later serve as a chaplain in the Continental Army. A dynamic preacher, Rodgers normally spoke without notes, but written versions of some sermons exist. Two came to light only in 2003, one dated to January 1776 and the second to July of that year. In them he exhorts the young men of his congregation to fight for liberty: “Let a spirit of patriotism fire your breath,” he wrote and, “Many have already dressed themselves in military array and taken the field, choosing rather to risk their lives in the cause of liberty, than to resign their privilege and live in slavery.” He later sent a copy of a sermon that he delivered in 1783 to George Washington. It shows him openly favoring the federalist argument that was before the nation’s founders at that time, stating it as “indispensably necessary that the federal union of these States be cemented and strengthened.”