Keep up with the latest news on the leadership transitions and Mission Review of the Brick Church here.
“How The Brick Church Got Its Name”
By Barbara Meachin.
Some Presbyterian churches in New York are named for their seniority: First and Second. Others for their location: Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue. But only Brick Church is named for its building material. Why was a brick building so startling?
In the years before the American Revolution, Presbyterians worshipped in a modest wooden building on Wall St. The congregation lived nearby and walked to church. As the city grew, the Wooden, or Wall Street, Church congregation outgrew its building. So the session decided to build a second church for those who had moved northward to the edge of the city. They chose a small lot on the corner of Beekman and Nassau and erected a glorious brick structure in 1767. The first service probably took place on New Year’s Day, 1768.
Today a Pace University building sits on that land, just south of where the Brooklyn Bridge empties into Manhattan. It’s across the street from City Hall Park.
Eventually the two congregations under a single session split up. The Wall St. Church was the antecedent of First Presbyterian Church and The Brick Church became the official name of the Beekman/Nassau St. congregation. So you could say that First is either our mother or sister church.
Of course we didn’t stay in that location. When the neighborhood around City Hall Park changed, the leaders decided to remain a parish church that people could walk to. They built the next church on 5th Avenue and 37th St., then a residential area popular with the congregation. Once again the session chose bricks. This second building was completed just before the Civil War. Today Lord & Taylor occupies that site.
But Presbyterians kept moving. In the 1930s, the corner of Park Ave. and 91st St. was an appealing location in an area where many members lived. The third brick building for The Brick Church – our present church – was completed in 1940.
There have been two constants throughout this history that are likely to continue far into the future: dedication to serving the membership where they live, and doing so in fine brick buildings.
By Michael Lindvall
250 Years…is a long time. Several years ago, when the Session began to make plans for the marking of this milestone in the life of our congregation, we discovered several names for a 250th anniversary. We toyed with “sestercentennial” and “quadramillenial,” both real words but each a tad obscure, so we settled for the obvious. I remarked then, as I did in this column in the June issue of The Record, that churches should celebrate their past for the sake of their future. That is to say, we remember who we have been as a community of Christians so that we might better understand who we are called to become as a community of Christians.
The Celebration Committee quickly indentified what they named the “four pillars” that have long supported the way Brick Church lives out the Christian faith: “worship, fellowship, ministry, and education.” All four have been pillars of our life together for 250 years and will surely be so in the years to come. The challenge is to do each of them in a way that is both faithful to the Gospel and engages the changing world we are living in. This, above all, is the reflective task of an anniversary celebration.
We’ll do this at a series of grand events planned by the Celebration Committee, events which will stretch from mid- September of this month to the end of May 2017. These include four Anniversary Sundays spread over the year, an Anniversary Festival of Hymnody in October, a grand Anniversary Launch Party on Sept. 30, a celebratory Anniversary Evening on the first Wednesday in May (in lieu of the Congregational Meetings and Dinner) and lastly, an Anniversary Ice Cream Social on 92nd Street in late May (in lieu of the Annual Strawberry Festival). Three of the Anniversary Sundays will see guest preachers (I was asked to preach the first); all four will feature anniversary-related adult education seminars just before worship. There will be a remarkable new history of the Brick Church available for purchase, as well as anniversary paraphernalia, historical displays, a newly-commissioned choir anthem… I could easily go on, way beyond the word count allowed in this column.
And of course, the Church and School are engaged together in a singular fund-raising effort that you will learn more about when the effort “goes public” later this month in conjunction with the annual 2017 Stewardship Campaign. Suffice it to say here that the anniversary “Campaign for Brick” has three goals: important capital improvements to our buildings, new and creative mission outreach, and enhancing the endowment to strengthen our future.
All of this – special worship and music, guest speakers, anniversary neckties, parties and fund raising – all of it is in celebration of the past for the sake of an even stronger future. Our changing and increasingly secular world presents ever-changing challenges to the Christian faith we hold dear. In such times, we dare not retreat. This intersection in time is our opportunity to advance – to bear witness in this great city to the love of Jesus Christ, and to do so doggedly, winsomely and courageously.
“George Washington, Samuel Osgood and The Brick Church”
By Margaret Van Cott, Archives Committee
When New York City became the first capitol of the United States in 1789 the newly elected president needed a house for his family while residing here. A stalwart of the Brick Presbyterian Church happened to be living in a very stately mansion at 1-3 Cherry Street, and he offered it to President Washington. The church member (later Clerk of Session, President of the Board of Trustees and Elder) Samuel Osgood (1747-1813), was originally from Massachusetts, had previously studied theology at Harvard, been a colonel in the American Revolution, and was active politically. President Washington appointed Osgood to be the first Postmaster General for the new Federal government. Osgood’s second wife, Maria Bowne Franklin, whom he married in 1786 and by whom he had five children, was a member of the important Quaker Bowne family, and she was the widow of Walter Franklin, the previous owner of 1-3 Cherry Street.
Her first cousin happened to be the established Quaker cabinet maker .omas Burling. He was chosen to make furnishings in the Federal neo-classical style for the mansion, thanks to a grant from the congress, which detailed every item owned by the public in an Articles Furnished list. .e furnishings later went to Philadelphia to the next presidential mansion. Burling’s shop was a few doors down from the Brick Church, then called the New Church, on Beekman Street. It was convenient for Washington, Jefferson and Knox to drop by, and one of their visits there was recorded in a newspaper at the time. Burling privately made furniture for these men as well as for the Clinton family and for Robert R. Livingston, who administered the oath of office to Washington. Additionally Burling’s partner made furniture in the prevailing style, replete with Federal motifs of eagle, stars, laurel leaves and classical columns for the recently refurbished Federal Hall on Wall Street.
Going back to 1776, also known to General Washington was the minister, Dr. John Rodgers, of the New Church, which had become a jail and then a hospital in the hands of the British during the American Revolution. With the exception of a few loyalists, its members rushed from the city and did not return until the British departed on Evacuation Day in the fall of 1783.
A pillar for the Brooklyn Bridge now replaces 1-3 Cherry Street. Fortunately the Bowne stationers building can be visited in the South Street Seaport restoration, so a bit of history of the neighborhood remains. Sadly, the Brick Church and Burling’s shop on Beekman Street have long vanished. So too has the resting place for Samuel Osgood, who published on religious subjects, and was buried on hallowed ground in a vault in the yard of his church on Beekman Street.
John Rodgers was our immensely energetic first pastor. Coming from Delaware in 1765, he served both the Wall St. Church and the New or Brick Church. He led a two-hour worship service every week, with a sermon of about an hour delivered from memory. These were so emotional that both he and the congregation often ended up in tears. On alternate Sundays the congregation attended an afternoon service as well.
Beyond worship, Dr. Rodgers led prayer services, catechism classes and lectures and made frequent family visits that were not simply social calls but included catechism drills for the whole family. He also went door to door to raise money for the first Brick Church building.
Like many patriotic members, Dr. Rodgers left the city when the Revolutionary war broke out and regular church activities stopped completely. The British used our building as a hospital. He spent the war years as a chaplain to Continental Army units, to New York State bodies and as a visiting pastor.
After the war, Dr. Rodgers preached a famous sermon on Dec. 11, 1783 that elicited a thank you note from George Washington. We have that letter at the Brick Churh to this day.
His sermon was in the style of the day: quite long, but well structured and easy to follow. After opening comments on the biblical text, Dr. Rodgers says: “If you will please to attend, I will:
I. Point you to some of the great things our God has done for us; and for which we have cause to be glad this day.
II. Shew you how we ought to manifest this gladness.”
It is eloquent and heartfelt. No wonder Washington liked it.
(Note: A pdf of the sermon is available here).
Gardiner Spring, just out of seminary, accepted the call to Brick Church in 1810 after three others had declined. His was an era of uptown expansion of the city, social unrest, religious revivals, the War of 1812 against the British, passionate theological disputes about the nature of human sinfulness, and most profoundly, the issue of slavery. Dr. Spring tackled them all. He moved Brick Church to Fifth Avenue in 1858, instituted the first full choir and acquired our current church bell. He added prayer meetings, adult classes and mission-oriented Sunday Schools largely for the children of non-members, often poor, among many other accomplishments, while trying to remain moderate theologically and politically.
But as the slavery issue became increasingly prominent, the time for moderation passed. Today he is best known for the Spring Resolutions of 1861 in support of the Union after the South had seceded.
Henry van Dyke deserves our thanks not only for writing the text for Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee but for worship innovations that we take for granted today: celebrating Christmas Day as a church holiday, holding a special Good Friday service and adding the congregational Lord’s Prayer to regular worship.
He was called in 1883; a time when the church was not in the best of health. The building was not in good repair and membership was low. Young, lively and personable, he reinvigorated the Church. Besides preaching, leading the congregation, editing the Psalter and writing much of the Book of Common Worship, he wrote poetry and stories, the best known of which is The Story of the Other Wise Man. Dr. van Dyke was also a popular speaker and teacher. After leaving the Brick Church to teach and preach at Princeton, he served as a diplomat, posted by fellow Presbyterian President Woodrow Wilson as minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg just before World War I. Look him up and prepare to be humbled by his extraordinary resume.
Presbyterian worship in New York City began under the Dutch West India Company, which founded a trading post, New Amsterdam, in 1624. What mattered to the Dutch was trade, and New Amsterdam offered an ideal harbor for their worldwide mercantile empire. The North River, now the Hudson, led them to the riches of the interior.
In contrast, Pilgrims from England had arrived in the New World in 1620, seeking religious freedom. Of course, England coveted the lands which the Netherlands had claimed as the settlement of New Amsterdam. Presbyterians migrated south from Puritan control of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, again in pursuit of religious freedom. In 1642 Francis Doughty and Elder Richard Smith established a meetinghouse in what is now Elmhurst, Queens, and in February of the following year they moved to New Amsterdam and were for four years known as “the church within the fort.” In the Dutch city of New Amsterdam, Presbyterians were relativity unrestricted.
At the conclusion of the several Anglo-Dutch wars, New Amsterdam became New York. In the 1664 Articles of Capitulation, the Kingdom of England agreed to uphold freedom of conscience among other freedoms. However, in 1701 Edward Hyde, subsequently known as Lord Cornbury, became the governor of New York and New Jersey. In 1707 he ordered the prosecution of Reverend Francis Makemie, leader of the first Presbyterian Synod in America for preaching without a license. Makemie languished several months in jail before being acquitted.
Presbyterians in New York City first gathered for worship in 1706 in private homes until they built the Presbyterian Church, the Wall Street Church, on the north side of Wall Street, in 1719. In 1738 a movement now known as the First Great Awakening began, spearheaded by the “grand itinerant” preacher George Whitefield. The movement encouraged introspection and a commitment to a new standard of morality. It was ideal fodder for a Presbyterian, and it also incited division and rancor in the church between traditionalists and new revivalists.
There was political unrest around the city as well. The conclusion of the Seven Years War, aka the French and Indian War in 1763, left the British short of cash. The Sugar Act of 1764, Stamp Act of 1765, and the Townshend Acts of 1767, attempted to raise revenues, but these measures stepped on the toes of the American colonists and raised issues about “taxation without representation.” You know where that led.
In the midst of all the turmoil that was going on, The Brick Presbyterian Church came into being as a place of worship, reflection and solace for the citizens of the City of New York.
“From Pew Rents to Pledges: How We Support Brick Church”
You may have heard Presbyterians referred to as the “frozen chosen.” This is particularly unfair to Brick Church. We attract thousands to our steps to sing and usher in the Christmas season. We shout “Hallelujah” at the top of our collective lungs on Easter. We shut down our block on 92nd Street for hot dogs, banjo music and strawberry shortcake. We are not frozen.
All of this liveliness would be totally foreign to our founding forefathers and mothers. They considered it unseemly for the Church to commemorate special days in the Christian year unless mentioned in the Bible—which is silent on the subject of Dec. 25. This point of view stems from a strict interpretation of Calvinism (not endorsed by Calvin himself), brought by Scots Presbyterians and New England Puritans to New York. Brick Church upheld this tradition.
Our Anglican, Lutheran and Roman Catholic friends suffered no such prohibition, and celebrated heartily. This could be good news. After all, George Washington won the Battle of Trenton on the morning of Dec. 26, 1776 while Britain’s German mercenaries were recovering from their Christmas festivities.
We don’t know if Brick Church members celebrated Christmas at home. Dr. Rodgers, our first pastor, was a sociable person. “He lives in elegant style and entertains company as genteelly as the first gentlemen of the city,” wrote an acquaintance, and was “on the dinner and supper list of Mrs. John Jay.”
Not all secular social activities were acceptable. Whether to celebrate holidays or to lubricate daily life, intemperance was a problem for Rodgers-era elders and into the Gardiner Spring era. In 1818 the General Assembly recommended in a pastoral letter that “members of our church abstain even from the common use of ardent spirits.” Card-playing, theatre-going, the waltz and Sunday mail delivery did not agree with Presbyterian sensibilities.
As the 19th century progressed, social norms relaxed, Santa Claus arrived and Presbyterians began to thaw. Brick Church responded, though rather slowly. In 1867, a Brick Church mission held a Christmas Festival for more than 1000 people.
Dr. Henry van Dyke changed the old order forever. On Dec. 25, 1888, Brick Church celebrated Christmas Day with a worship service for the first time. In subsequent years, the service often included one of his stories or poems such as Keeping Christmas; which was published in 1905 and is still meaningful today (see next article). You can read The Other Wise Man, perhaps his best-known story, online at www.gutenberg.org/files/19608/19608-h/19608-h.htm.
Today, Brick Church’s Christmas celebrations draw hundreds of people from all over the city. The Park Avenue Tree Lighting & Carol Sing, held each December, began in 1946 to honor those who gave their lives in World War II. When the bugler plays Taps and trees light up for miles down Park Avenue, we know that New York’s favorite season has begun. At Brick Church, it is followed by the Candlelight Carol Service, the Children’s Christmas Pageant & Family Service, and Worship on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. What would Brick Church’s founders think of our Christmas traditions now? Some would strongly disapprove. But others might be ready to find joy in their faith, and perhaps slip into a seat late on Christmas Eve and pass a candle to their neighbor.
By Rev. Henry van Dyke, from In The Spirit of Christmas; Published Oct., 1905 by Charles Scribner’s Sons
It is a good thing to observe Christmas day. The mere marking of times and seasons, when men agree to stop work and make merry together, is a wise and wholesome custom. But there is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.
Are you willing to:
• Close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness— are you willing to do these things even for a day?
Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing to:
• Stoop down and consider the needs and the desires of little children?
• Remember the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old?
• Stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough?
• Bear in mind the things that other people have to bear on their hearts?
• Try to understand what those who live in the same house with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you?
• Trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you?
• Make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open—are you willing to do these things even for a day?
Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love?
Then you can keep Christmas.
And if you keep it for a day, why not always? But you can never keep it alone.
“From the Sidelines to the Pulpit: Presbyterian Women Step Up”
For nearly 2000 years, women were hard to find in prominent church positions. By the 20th century, Protestant denominations were opening their doors. The Presbyterian Church (USA) ordained its first female elder in 1930 and minister in 1956. Brick Church began appointing women as officers and clergy in the 1970s. But Brick Church women have always been highly visible philanthropists and volunteers. Here is a very small sample:
18th century widow’s mite. When John Rodgers was raising money to build the first Brick Church, he called as a courtesy on a poor widow whose daughter had died. She donated the money saved for her daughter’s dowry to the church. In 1788, Elizabeth Thompson bequeathed $900 for a Charity School that served poor children until 1810.
Summer escapes and significant philanthropies. As New York, the economy and Brick Church all grew, so did gifts from women. Mrs. John Crosby Brown donated her summer home as a fresh air vacation site for city girls in the early 1900s. Among many other gifts, Louise Whitfield Carnegie gave a $100,000 matching grant for our parish house. More recently, Helen Watson Buckner, Mary French Rockefeller (who also regularly sent a large roast turkey to the Fair Snack Bar) and Elita Cason Wadmond have given notable gifts.
Helping the poor. In the mid-1800s, the Dorcas Society made clothes for the poor, but evolved into an Employment Society that hired poor women to make the clothes instead. This group also focused on living conditions in the slums and employed a lay bible reader in the 1870s, Miss Margaret Griffiths, who visited workers in their homes.
25¢ lunches for working women. In the 1930s, our Fifth Avenue neighborhood attracted department stores that employed young women at modest pay. The Neighborhood Lunch Club, the brain child of Emma Miller, organized by Helen V.K. Devens and staffed by hundreds of volunteers, provided economical meals (25 cents for lunch). In its 20-year life, it served more than one million meals.
Women’s Association in action. In 1947, the formidable Geneva McIlvaine arrived to take over women’s work including the Women’s Association. She oversaw more than 30 WA committees and led bible studies. Mrs. McIlvaine, who attended worship services dressed in cap and robe, retired after 26 years of service.Carol Ann Mercer celebrated her 25th anniversary as Women’s Association Coordinator in 2014. The WA continues to attract hundreds of women for fellowship and service. Its marquee event, the Brick Church Fair,raised nearly $350,000 in 2015.
Historic officers and clergy. Brick Church’s “firsts” began in 1971 with the election of our first woman Elders: Eleanor Nash Starkey and Isabel Cunningham. They were followed in 1972 by Deacon Charlotte Terry Miller, in 1978 by Trustee Helen Watson Buckner and in 1979 by Assistant Minister Leslie Merlin. Since 2000, approximately 50%of our officers have been women along with five female clergy members.
The Record asked Leslie Merlin, Associate Minister of The Brick Church,December 1979 – August 1997, to answer this question:
What Was It Like Being First?
“When I went to seminary, in 1972, male counterparts repeatedly asked me whether I thought I would ever get a job. I had no idea. I had never met a woman minister.
People used to say, “You’re the first lady minister I’ve ever met,” or, “You’re too pretty to be a rabbi,” or, “Are you, like, a nun?” They don’t say any of those things anymore. Progress.
If anyone at Brick chafed at my presence I didn’t know it. This is a very polite group. The younger women seemed encouraged by my presence, and reached out in friendship right away. When I married, then brought forth three babies in five years, I noticed a distinct rise in temperature from the older ladies. That seemed understandable; my mother reacted the same way.
I started as the Christian Education/Youth Minister, an acceptable spot for a female on staff. After a few years I worked my way into the Pastoral position, which meant that I advised the Deacons! What a great group! In the 1980’s every social ill was on our doorstep and the Deacons took the bait every time. They launched outreach ministries in every direction. It was exciting and fulfilling for all of us.
The world was new. It always is.”
“Sunday School: From Memorizing to Asking Deep Questions”
By Barbara Meachin –
“Children were treated as smaller adults, little men and women who happened
to be dressed in bibs and pinafores.”
This sentence explains much of the difference between Christian education for children at our founding and today. There was no “Jesus Loves Me” or colorful illustrations of Bible stories. In fact, there was no Sunday School for members’ children at all.
Just like adults, children were expected to know and understand the foundation of the Presbyterian faith. They learned the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1648, 107 questions and answers designed to educate children and others “of weaker capacity” (according to a preface written by the Church of Scotland). Even so, we must respect their capacity for memorization.
The Shorter Catechism has a lot to recommend: it is thought-provoking, fairly easy to understand, and gets right to the point.
You may have heard of question #1:
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
A question about prayer provides an eloquent definition:
Q: What is prayer?
A: Prayer is an offering up of our desire to God, for things agreeable to his will, in the Name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.
How did 18th and early 19th century Presbyterian children absorb all this? The family had the primary responsibility for teaching. There was also a weekday class for children on the shorter catechism, and they were quizzed during pastoral home visits. In addition, our first pastor Dr. John Rodgers held Thursday evening lectures which were intended for older children but usually drew an overflow crowd of all ages.
By the mid-1830s, members’ children were learning the faith at Sunday School. They took part in devotional exercises, studied a passage from the scriptures and on the fourth Sunday of the month, focused on the shorter catechism.
1837 was a watershed year for Christian education at Brick Church: for the first time the idea arose of adding a small amount of play to the Sunday School’s rigorous program of study. Unfortunately we don’t know what kind of play was allowed.
Today Brick Church hosts one of the largest urban Sunday School ministries in the country. We average between 275-300 children registered each year, 2 years old through 7th grade with 100 volunteer teachers.
“Brick Church Headliners in History”
By Barbara Meachin
Most of us who walk through Brick Church’s doors will not feature in tomorrow’s history books. But some of our fellow members and co-religionists have made a difference in history. Here are a few of them.
He wasn’t a Brick Church member. He grew up a rather casual Presbyterian in the Midwest. Recalling his childhood, he said, “We were good Presbyterian boys when the weather was doubtful; when it was fair, we did wander a little from the fold.” But he was a good friend of our multi-faceted Dr. Henry van Dyke and other clergy. And his name was Mark Twain. His funeral took place at Brick Church on Fifth Avenue on April 24, 1910. The New York Times headline (above) captured the essentials.
Family of Revolutionaries
King George III called the American Revolution a “Presbyterian war.” He could have been referring to members of the large, prosperous Livingston family who risked their lives and property to support the revolution. Perhaps their exposure to Presbyterian committee work helped them organize the revolution and subsequent government. William Livingston was an organizer of the Sons of Liberty, member of the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, later General of Militia in New Jersey and then its first Governor. His brother Philip signed the Declaration of Independence. Another brother, Peter Van Brugh (PVB) Livingston, was a member of the Committee of One Hundred, President of the first Provincial Congress and Treasurer of New York, as was his kinsman and fellow church member Peter R. Livingston. Both PVB and Peter R were Trustees. Near the door to the chapel on Park Avenue is a stone from the Beekman St. church carved with PVB’s name and the date 1767.
Builders of Our Architectural Heritage
John McComb Sr. was the architect and builder of the first Brick Church on Beekman St. His son John McComb Jr. designed the New York City Hall, Alexander Hamilton’s country house, “The Grange,” in Harlem, and renovated and expanded the Beekman St. Church in 1822. McComb Jr. was a Brick Church member, Deacon and Trustee.
Leading 20th Century Diplomat and Statesman
John Foster Dulles, son of a Presbyterian minister, grandson and nephew of U.S. Secretaries of State, exerted global influence as lawyer, treaty negotiator, UN delegate, policymaker and Secretary of State under President Eisenhower. He also served Brick Church as Elder and Trustee. His resume is long indeed. After WWI, he opposed demands at the Versailles Peace Conference for punitive reparations from Germany. After WWII, he negotiated the Japanese peace treaty and was instrumental in organizing both NATO and SEATO to counter the threat of communist expansion. He also supported peace movements, helped draft the preamble to the UN Charter, and chaired the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
IBM’s Watson – The Person, Not the AI Chess Master
He was not a natural salesman, and his career path did not follow a straight line, but Thomas J. Watson became the face of IBM and the force behind its long dominance. His name and IBM were synonymous – no wonder the company named its leading edge supercomputer for him. He led IBM from 1914 until 1956, the year of his death. At Brick Church, he was an Elder, Trustee and donor of Watson Hall, among many other philanthropies. There are also Watson Halls at Lafayette College and Elmira College, near the small NY town where he was born.
Misbehavior, Moral Failings, and Church Governance
By Barbara Meachin
Stories about church governance are not usually found on Page Six, but Session minutes from our founding years would certainly have qualified. 60 – 80% of them concern the (mis)behavior and moral failings of our members! The Session investigated offenses against both morals and religion, holding trials with witnesses if warranted. In the 1768 trial of a woman accused of intemperate drinking (the most common charge), her character witnesses said that she took only a daily quart of beer with a gill of rum “to refresh Nature” but they had never seen her drunk. The Session dismissed her anyway until there was evidence of genuine repentance.
They also discussed the disappearance of a red and white handkerchief, blue silk stockings and a blue cloak later made into a coat and trousers for a person who was, presumably, not the owner of the cloak.
Members’ faith came under scrutiny as well. In 1820, Mrs. Maria Townsend was asked to renounce her belief that even sinners would be forgiven and allowed to enter heaven through the grace of God. Presbyterian theology of the day was far more focused on sending the wicked to hell. She refused to recant, began attending Trinity Church, and was excommunicated by our pastor Dr. Gardiner Spring (see illustration–right). She responded with a polite note.
This all seems extraordinarily intrusive today. But until the late 19th century, Elders were responsible for monitoring the congregation very closely. They visited members in their homes, tested prospective members on their knowledge of Presbyterian doctrine, and – at least in the early years – decided who would receive the token allowing them to take communion.
The current denominational structure and division of labor among Elders, Deacons and Trustees along with clergy has evolved over time but much remains consistent. Even in Dr. Rodgers’ day, there was a hierarchy of presbyteries and synods that led the denomination. In 1809 when Brick Church split from the Wall St. Church, we had a full slate of officers. As we saw, Elders assisted the clergy in encouraging correct religious beliefs and moral standards. Trustees oversaw finances and the Charity School. Deacons served the poor and needy. There were no term limits: many officers served for life.
Today we elect officers for staggered 3-year terms, voting at the Annual Meeting on a slate prepared by an All-Church Nominating Committee. The numerous committees that run the church are then assembled from elected officers and the general membership. The Brick Church congregation includes an amazing array of financial, legal, managerial, creative and artistic talent that has benefited our church and community. A quick look at our Annual Reports shows the range of committees and their members. In fact, 30 % of us have been an Elder, Deacon, Trustee or committee member. This essential work is also greatly rewarding personally and spiritually. If invited to serve, do say yes.
“Confirmation Transformed: Wrestling with Doubts, Learning to Pray”
By Barbara Meachin
Confirmation Is Not What It Used To Be.
“During the years Paul Wolfe taught Confirmation classes as Senior Pastor, we had no youth pastor, no seminary interns, no group discussions, and no Youth Sunday as we know it. The program consisted of formal weekly lectures and a test by the Elders at the end. The concept of bonding did not exist. Pizza was not available in the neighborhood for another ten years,” said Tom Robinson, Elder and Co-Chair of the Stewardship Committee.
The Session meeting left an impression on Grace Diggs, who was confirmed in 1967: “What I remember vividly was how formal and scary the interview with Session was. We also had a very long list of questions and answers we had to memorize. Confirmation and our first Communion took place at 7 a.m. on Easter, and there was no time to celebrate – many of us had to change into choir robes for the next worship service.”
The histories of Brick Church say little to nothing about confirmation. It is not a Presbyterian sacrament and is not mentioned specifically in the Bible. Each church seems to treat this coming-of-age ceremony in its own way and adapt it to the changing needs of its congregation.
Faith Formation And The Eternal Questions
Today, Rev. Adam Gorman says, “Confirmation is a time for the group to bond and tackle the challenges of faith formation together. We encourage open-ended questions about what the Bible means and wrestle with the answers.”
“Confirmands ask the same questions that many adults do: Is Jesus really the Son of God? If God has a plan, why are bad things allowed to happen? Can you still be a Christian if you don’t believe every Bible story?”
“We use the Bible as a lens through which to see the world, the lens of Christ. And through our belief in God and our relationship with Christ, the Bible and its stories help us to become better, kinder and more loving people.”
Sharing Food And Ideas
The class meets for two hours most Sundays of the school year and once a month participates in Takeout, a youth worship service. On regular Sundays, students spend the first half hour of confirmation class praying, eating and discussing their written reflections on the topic of the week as well as life’s recent highs and lows. Then they learn hymns and sing with Amanda Smith, Director of Children’s Music.
Learning To Pray
The second hour is devoted to the curriculum, spiritual practices and discussion. Topics include creation, Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, prayer, feeding the hungry, what it means to be a disciple of Christ, what it means to be Presbyterian and many more.
Rev. Gorman has included in the curriculum a practice many people don’t know about – the “squeeze” prayer. After Confirmands have discussed their week’s highs and lows, they gather in a circle and hold hands. Each person in turn prays out loud for the person to the left and squeezes their hand when the prayer is complete. Everyone has a chance to pray what is on their heart and to pray for their neighbor on their left. This intentionally helps them become more comfortable with prayer and teaches them how to pray for thanksgiving, petition and intercession.
Parents: The Greatest Influence
Despite this extensive program, “Parents and home are still the number one place where kids learn their faith,” Rev. Gorman says. “So parents can influence the family by their daily behavior and – of course – bringing their children to church.”
Rev. Dr. John Rodgers’ Sermon from Dec. 11, 1783
View the PDF here