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Tumultuous Times: Early Presbyterians in New York

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

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.

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