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Preaching and Passion: The Brick Church Pulpit in History

If you walk through Brick Church, you can’t escape the portraits. Rooms and hallways are populated with formal figures from the past, in poses from serious to debonair. From these notable senior pastors, we profile three below. Please give them a nod and a thank-you when you pass them next.

Rev. John Rodgers

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 Church 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.

Rev. Gardiner Spring

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. Rev. Henry van Dyke

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.

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