The First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica was organized in 1662. Its membership for the most part had come from Halifax, Yorkshire, England. They had settled first in Hempstead, but moved to Jamaica in 1656. They brought with them the Town Meeting of New England, and centered everything in their lives and government in and around the church. In the church they held their town assemblies, their school, their courts, and in some cases the town prison. The Jamaica church served all these purposes at one time or another. The first building in which these features of the civic life were housed is said to have been built of logs and to have stood on the east side of Beaver Pond.
The membership soon outgrew its quarters and the people agitated for a new stone church, to be built of the funds in the town treasury. Such a building was erected by taxes levied on the town in 1699. The stone building stood in the middle of the main street about at the head of Union Hall Street. It was the storm center of many struggles. The first one began in 1702. Lord Cornbury, Governor of the Province of New York, in his zeal for uniformity of worship, seized the church, locked out the Presbyterian minister, and inducted into office a clergyman of the Church of England he had brought from London. Wiser counsels prevailed, however, and the case was taken to court, where it was adjudicated in favor of the Presbyterians. The decision was regarded as a decisive defeat for the party which sought to create an established church in America.
As early as 1666 Jamaica became a horse-racing center, and attracted crowds from far and near. Beaver Pond, Union Course, Hempstead Plains offered wonderful racing bills. It is related that as many as a thousand horses raced in a season on the Hempstead Plains. The vast throngs which followed the races attracted the attention of George Whitefield, called the greatest evangelist since the Reformation, by his admirers.
Whitfield was invited to come to Jamaica by the church, and he accepted its invitation in 1740, and again in 1762. The crowds that came to hear him compelled him to preach in the open air. He stood under an apple tree on a spot which became the sit of Union Hall Academy. Thousands hung upon his word. He swayed the multitudes with the magic of his eloquence. His coming, however, divided the denomination into two schools, one calling itself "The Old Lights" and the other calling itself "The New Lights." "The Old Lights" held out for a stately, dignified, traditional service; "The New Lights" favored an enthusiastic evangelism. The breach was healed after the older generation had passed on.
The Rev. George McNish was called to the pastorate in the spring of 1710, and remained in charge until his death in 1723. He was succeeded by the Rev. Robert Cross, who was called to a church in Philadelphia in 1734; and after a prolonged debate in the synod was transferred to the new field in 1738. The Rev. Walter Wilmot was installed in April, 1738, and remained until his death in 1744. In October, 1745, the Rev. David Bostwick was ordained as pastor, and remained ten years, being appointed by the synod to act as missionary in the South in 1755. During his absence, Messrs. Cumming, Horton, Daggett and Park were directed to fill the pulpit. In 1753 the town, by an almost unanimous vote, ordered the sale of the meadow and upland belonging to the Presbyterian Church, and the setting aside of the money thus obtained as a perpetual fund for the support of the pastor. The Rev. Dr. Elihu Spencer was graduated at Yale in 1746. He came to Jamaica in 1756, and remained until 1760, when he became chaplain to the New York troops engaged in the French and Indian war. His successor was the Rev. Benoni Bradner, who remained only a year on account of a divided congregation. The Rev. William Mills, of Smithtown, was the next pastor. With him begins the keeping of the extant minutes of the Church. At that time twelve persons were recorded as being in full communion. In 1764 this number was increased materially through a revival in religion. One of the converts was Mrs. Elizabeth Everett, who died in 1840 at the age of ninety-five, having been a communicant for almost seventy-five years.
At Mr. Mills’s death in 1774 the Rev. Dr. Matthias Burnet was called and ordained in 1775. During the war of the Revolution, the Scotch Highlanders occupied the gallery, and some of them had their children baptized in the church. Dr. Burnet, whose wife was an Episcopalian, was the only Presbyterian minister in the county, and being a recognized loyalist, was allowed to preach throughout the war unmolested After the war his British sentiments so displeased the congregation that he was obliged to resign the pastorate. He died in New York City in the early fifties. Elias Baylis, and aged elder, while walking out to hear the news of the Battle of Long Island, on August 28, 1776, was arrested by a Tory neighbor and taken to British headquarters. His detention in the church followed. His blindness caused the officer to order his release, but a declaration of his sentiments soon changed the order into transportation to the Provost in New York. He had a sweet voice and could sing whole Psalms and Hymns from memory. He was released from the prison ships after two months, and died on the East River Ferry on his way home.
Other patriots of the Revolution were imprisoned in the church and after a short detention taken to the prison ships in Wallabout Bay. Because of the part the church played in the war, and the conspicuous service its members rendered to the cause of liberty, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a bronze marker on the building in 1922 to commemorate their signal devotion.
Its congregation turned out in force when 1,200 inhabitants of Jamaica led by Domine Schoonmaker, of the Dutch Church, marched to Fort Greene Park to resist the enemy, who had kept them in military servitude for seven long years. This old patriotism burns low in all the churches, ready to burst into flame whenever the country calls, as it did in 1861, and again in the days of the World War.
In 1791 the trustees began to function under the laws of the Republic, and to keep their own minutes apart from the town records.
Dr. Burnet was succeeded in the pastorate by the Rev. George Faltoute, a French Huguenot, and one of the original trustees of Union Hall Academy. After preaching with his usual vigor in the morning he died on Sunday evening, August 21, 185, having officiated as pastor for twenty-six years. During his pastorate the old church which had stood for one hundred and fourteen years, was replaced by a new structure. Some of the stones from the old building were used in the foundation of the new edifice, which was dedicated on January 18, 1814. Its feature was a much admired steeple, one hundred and two feet high. It was afterward lowered on account of damage sustained in a hurricane. In the spring of 1846 the house was enlarged by an addition of thirteen and a half feet, making it ninety feet in length and forty-four feet wide. It contained one hundred and forty-four pews.
When the old church was pulled down on May 24, 1813, a custom of burials was called to public attention. The ground under the church and especially in front of the pulpit was dug up, and the remains of those who had been buried there were gathered together, put in a box, and conveyed in a procession headed by the section, Jeffrey Smith, to the town cemetery. In olden times it was customary to bury clergy beneath the pulpit, and the persons of consequence beneath their pews, while the inferior class was buried in the church yard outside. Hence the epitaph:
Here I lie outside the church door,
Here I lie because I’m poor
The further in, the more they pay;
But here I lie as snug as they.
The Rev. Mr. Poyer in his sermon in this church, May 10, 1719, on the death of his wife Frances, referred to burials in the church and said: "And even here in this church, where we now are, the graves on which some of your feet are, should put us all in mind of what we must expect."
A burial in the yard of Christ Church cost 12s; but in the church it was much dearer. Dr. Field in 1781 paid five pounds for laying his wife in the church; for her grave, one pound 12s; taking up floor, 12s; for four carriers, 12s; funeral bell, 3s; pall, 4s; inviting, etc., 18s.
A notable incident in the history of the building was the effort put forth for the education and religious training of the slaves emancipated in December, 1822, at which time great numbers of blacks were gathered in and around Jamaica. A Sunday school was held every Sunday at 3 o’clock, in the gallery, following a school for white children at one o’clock. Many persons volunteered to teach, and one or two prominent persons subscribed money. At the outset fifty colored persons were gathered in the school, and the number was increased as the months went by.
Indeed, the Church took a leading part in establishing the Sunday School in America. At a time when churches generally frowned upon the movement, the Jamaica church saw the advantage of training children in the way they should go. Five other Sunday schools were organized in the hamlets around Jamaica. From them grew the churches at Springfield, Woodhaven, Rosedale and St. Albans.
The first temperance society in Jamaica and the second in America was organized by the Jamaica church in 1829. The members bound themselves by a religious vow to refrain from intoxicating beverages. The officers were President, Van Wyck Wickes; Vice-Presidents, Eliphalet Wickes and Nathan Shelton; Secretary, Elias W. Crane; Treasurer, James Rider. The W.C.T.U. succeeded the society in 1874, meeting in the church parlors.
Dr. Henry R. Weed, fresh from Princeton, and a member of its first graduating class, was Mr. Faltoute’s successor. His ordination took place on January 4, 1816. He was the first to condemn the common practice of the period to serve ardent spirits to persons in attendance at funerals, and refused to baptize the children of those who were not communicants. In 1816 began his Bible class, which developed into two Bible schools before 1822, when he resigned the pastorate to accept a call to Albany. The Rev. Seymour S. Funck, who was graduated from Columbia College in 1819, and had studied theology in the Seminary of the Reformed Dutch Church at New Brunswick, was the next minister, ordained on March 6, 1823. Upon his resignation in 1825, owing to dissatisfaction, the Rev. Dr. Asahel Nettleton was installed. He remained only a few months on account of ill health, and was succeeded by the Rev. Elias W. Crane in October, 1826. His ministry continued until his death in 1840. On May 5, 1841, the Rev. James M. Macdonald was installed as his successor. At the close of his pastorate in 1850, when he accepted a call to New York, the Rev. Peter D. Oakey became pastor, and officiated for twenty years. He was succeeded by the Rev. Lewis Lampman, who ministered to the flock for eighteen years, and was followed in 1888 by the Rev. J. H. Hobbs.
1834-The Church-House erected.
1846-The Church edifice enlarged.
1862-The Bi-centennial celebrated.
1869-The Chapel was built.
1882-The Women’s Missionary Society organized.
1885-The Chapel enlarge.
1901-Ushers’ League formed
1912-The celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the organization of the church.
1916-The Men’s League organized for the purpose of more aggressive work in behalf of men.
1918-Proclamation of the Armistice. The church bell was rung with vigor amid great popular rejoicing.
During the World Was the trustees of the church, with the endorsement of the congregation, turned over the chapel to the War Comp Community Service for the use of soldiers and sailors in uniform. It was used as a dormitory. During this period the Bible School held its sessions in the church edifice. The edifice was placed at the disposal of such organizations as the Red Cross, the Y.M.C.A and the Armenian Relief.
1920-Church was moved to Clinton Avenue and the Church House moved to a plot directly behind the Chapel. The cornerstone was given to the trustees by John Donaldson of Richmond Hill.
The copper box together with the coins of the nation were the gift of Mrs. Caroline Hendrickson Burtis, a member of the Board of Trustees.
At the laying of the cornerstone a service was held. Among the speakers were the Rev. George C. Fort, pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church; the Rev. R. K. Wick, pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church, and the Rev. Dr. J. Milton Thompson, Moderator of the Synod of New York, and pastor of the Russell Sage Memorial Church, Far Rockaway. Frederick Auryansen, President of the Board of Trustees read the historical document. The Rev. William H. Hendrickson, pastor of the Spencer Memorial Church, Brooklyn, and the Rev. Andrew B. Wilson, closed the services.
In the evening the speakers were the Rev. James Denton, of the Yaphank Presbyterian Church, a lineal descendant of the Rev. Richard Denton. Dr. Edgar Dubs Shimer, an elder in the church, and Associate Superintendent of the Public Schools of New York. Dr. Archibald C. MacLachlan, an elder of the church and Principal of the Jamaica Training School for Teachers.
THE BOROUGHS OF BROOKLYN AND QUEENS
COUNTIES OF NASSAU AND SUFFOLK, LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK
1609-1924 by HENRY ISHAM HAZELTON
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