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.