By Archibald C, Mackenzie,
An outline sketch of a denomination that is one of the foremost in the metropolis - past history and its present prosperity, its many fine churches and its notable leaders of religious thought.
It was not until the second century of New York's history that the Presbyterian church, as a church, was established within the limits of the metropolis. Dr. Briggs has traced and recorded several earlier occasions when pastors of the denomination visited Manhattan Island - the earliest in 1643, when the Rev. Francis Doughty came there from the Massachusetts colony; but 1706 is the commonly accepted date for the beginning of regular services after the Presbyterian form of worship.
Even then the worshipers - a few families from New England and from the mother country - had no ordained head. Nor were they wholly free from persecution. Nominally, at least, religion had always been free in New York, but in 1707, when the Rev. Francis McKechnie came from England and was about to hold a Presbyterian service in the old Dutch chapel on Garden Street, he was stopped by the governor, Lord Cornbury, and a few days later was arrested as a disturber of the public order.
This was the last display of official hostility, however. In 1716 the congregation, then newly organized as a part of the Philadelphia presbytery, was allowed to hold services in the City Hall during the building of its own house of worship. This first Presbyterian church, which has long since disappeared, was in Wall Street. A second, rendered necessary by the congregation's growth, stood at the corner of Beekman Street and the Boston Road- the present site of the towering Times office - and was called the Brick Church, in distinction from the parent edifice, which was of stone.
For more than a century - a century that began before the Revolution and ended after the civil war, that saw thirteen struggling colonies become earth's mightiest republic, and the village on Manhattan Island grow into the metropolis of the New World - the pulpit of the Brick Church was filled successively by two of the most remarkable figures of the denomination's history in New York. The first of these was Dr. John Rodgers, the friend of Washington, whose ardent adhesion to the patriots' cause was punished by the dismantling of his church during the British invaders' armed occupancy of the city. The second was Dr. Gardiner Spring, who died in 1873 after a memorable pastorate of sixty three years.
In the days of the old Brick Church. just after the Revolution, it was the custom after service to take up a collection in tin platters, upon which each member of the congregation placed a copper penny. Penny contributions are no longer the rule of the Presbyterian church. In New York it is notably the church of the wealthy. Its annual revenues may be set at a million dollars. It stands high socially and intellectually. It is strongest in the finest residential districts of the city. It spends great sums in charities and missions, and among its sixty church buildings are some of the finest in the metropolis.
Next to the Fifth Avenue church in the extent of their membership are the Central, on West Fifty Seventh Street, and the Fourth Avenue. To the former, which was President Cleveland's church during his residence in New York, Dr. Wilton Merle Smith came as pastor four years ago from the First Presbyterian Church of Cleveland. Dr. Smith is a young and well equipped minister, a graduate of Princeton and the Auburn Seminary, and a son of Judge Boardman Smith of the New York Supreme Court.
The latter is best known as Dr. Howard Crosby's church, so long and so thoroughly was its late pastor's individuality impressed upon it. His recently installed successor, the Rev. John R. Davies, is a man still young, the story of whose career gives earnest of great things to come. Born on the borders of England and Wales, he came to America a penniless boy, whose first employment was in a Scranton iron foundry. He struggled hard to secure an education, and succeeded in working his way through Lafayette, where he graduated with honors, and through the Princeton Seminary, earning his own support while he studied. In the pulpit of the Presbyterian church at Tyrone, Pennsylvania, he showed gifts that attracted attention, and led to the call to his present important post.
The Central and the Fourth Avenue Churches are nearly equal in age. The one dates from 1821, when it was organized by the Rev. William Patton, with but four members, who met in a room on Mulberry Street. The other began its existence four years later, its first building being on Bleecker Street, whence it moved to its present site, at Fourth Avenue and Twenty Second Street, in 1854.
Two Presbyterian churches that stand among the most important of the denomination are Dr. Parkhurst's, the Madison Square, and the West Church, just left pastorless by the resignation of Dr. Paxton. Dr. Parkhurst's name has become widely known through his daring leadership of a new civic crusade. He is as able and forceful as he is original. He was born of Puritan stock at Framingham, Massachusetts, fifty one years ago. After graduating at Amherst he studied theology in Germany, and returned to America to become a teacher, and afterwards pastor of a Congregational church at Lenox, whence he came to New York thirteen years ago.
Dr. Parkhurst is an erudite scholar. His first published writing was upon "The Latin Verb Illustrated by the Sanstkrit;" but in later years he has turned from dead languages and patristic literature to the practical and the contemporary.
With the retirement of Dr. John R. Paxton, due to impaired health, the denomination loses perhaps its foremost pulpit orator. Of Dr. Paxton's life and personality a sketch appeared in MUNSEY'S MAGAZINE two years ago (November, 1891). His successful ministry at the West Church, whose handsome entrance fronts upon Bryant Park, began in 1882, when he came to New York from Washington to succeed Dr. Thomas Hastings, who had been elected to a chair in the Union Seminary.
The Presbyterian church is notably well represented in the new residential district west of Central Park. To three important churches in that quarter - the Rutgers Riverside, the Park, and the West End - there is now being added the beautiful structure which the Fourth Church - Dr. Joseph Kerr's is building at the corner of West End Avenue and Ninety First Street.
The West End Church, at Amsterdam Avenue and One Hundred and Fifth street, was consecrated only twenty months ago. The congregation was organized in 1888, with a newly graduated student from the Union Seminary as its head. His leadership has been so successful that today his church ranks among the four or five largest of the denomination in New York, reckoning almost a thousand members - one of whom, it may be mentioned, is Dr. Briggs. This is a remarkable five years record for a man who was in his twenty eighth year when his ministry began, as was John Balcom Shaw. Last year, when he received the D.D. degree both from his own alma mater, Lafayette, and from Hamilton College, it was said that he was the youngest divine who had ever been so honored.
Of the Park Church Dr. Anson P. Atterbury has been pastor for the past fourteen years. Numerically the congregation is a comparatively small one, but its new building at the corner of Eighty-Sixth Street and Amsterdam Avenue is one of the finest Presbyterian churches in the metropolis.
The Rutgers Church, at Seventy-Third Street and the Boulevard, is also a handsome though not a very large church, its basilica-like interior being particularly noticeable. Its name was taken from Colonel Henry Rutgers, who almost a century ago gave land for its original building upon Henry and Rutgers Streets. Thence the congregation migrated to Madison Avenue and Twenty-Ninth Street. Its fortunes were at a low ebb when, nine years ago, Dr. Robert Russell Booth Was called to its head and guided it to the field it now successfully occupies. Dr. Booth is one of the veteran leaders of Presbyterianism - born sixty three years ago in New York, and educated at the Auburn Seminary and at Williams College, of which latter he is now the senior trustee. For many years he was pastor successively of the old Mercer Street and the University Place Churches, the latter becoming under his ministry one of the most important bodies of the denomination. III health forced Dr. Booth to leave it. He went to Europe, and returned with strength to undertake a new pastorate at the Rutgers Church.
Another is the Madison Avenue Church, at Fifty-Third Street, whose head, Dr. Charles L. Thompson, came to it after occupying several important pulpits in the West, besides the editorial chair of a religious journa. Dr. Thompson's is one of the few Presbyterian churches that have made all their sittings free, and it is his purpose to make it " the People's Church."
Then there is the First Church (Dr. Howard Duffield's) upon lower Fifth Avenue, a successor of the old church in Wall Street; the Church of the Covenant (Dr. James H. McIlvaine's) at Park Avenue and Thirty-Fifth Street; the Harlem Church (Dr. Ramsay's) upon One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Street, near Madison Avenue; and several others of almost equal importance.
Nor can mention be omitted of the Union Theological Seminary, at Fourth Avenue and Sixty-Ninth Street, which is still the foremost training school of Presbyterianism, in spite of the "strained relations" that have come between it and the official power of the denomination. With such a leader as its president, Dr. Hastings already mentioned as Dr. Paxton's predecessor at the West Church - and such men to fill its chairs as Dr. Briggs, Dr. George Lewis Prentiss, Dr. John Hopkins Worcester, Dr. Marvin Vincent, and Dr. Francis Brown, it is hard to see how it can fall from its position.
Into the controversies that have brought about the issue between the Union Seminary and the governing body of the church it is impossible to enter here. It has always been a characteristic of the Presbyterian church to fight out its battles with the zeal and keenness of the old reformers. It is no new thing for it to hold, as it does today, two schools of doctrinal thought. It is a symptom not of approaching extinction, but of abounding intellectual life, which not even a disruption like that of 1741 or that of 1837, should it actually come, can dissipate or extinguish.
It may be said that Presbyterianism in New York, at its beginning, was an offshoot from Philadelphia and from New England, where it was already strong. In the latter its place has since been taken by the Congregational system. In the former it has maintained and increased its strength; but though in point of numbers the Philadelphia presbytery stands first among the divisions of the church, that of New York today excels all others in material wealth and importance as well as in intellectual activity and eminence.
Originally published in Munsey's Magazine. December 1893.