Monday, September 24, 2012

Historic American Churches

By  Katherine Hoffman.

The Alamo

Churches where gentleman ad­venturers married Indian maid­ens; churches where ardent young pa­triots inflamed one another to heroic love for freedom and equality; churches where grim Puritans sat in judgment upon witches, and showed that con­science unallied with tolerance was even less lovely than tolerance unallied with conscience; churches where, to wonder­ing Indians, cassocked priests or frocked ministers preached a gospel of peace which their brethren, with firearms and fire water, soon proved to be a myth; churches that were emergency forts where courageous handfuls withstood great odds; churches where famous com­manders laid aside the sword and be­came merely good men, wardens, vestry­men, and the like—surely romance is written large upon I he old churches of America.

They are in various stages of preserva­tion and decay, these buildings where of old the colonists of Spain or of Eng­land worshiped, and where the patriots of America foregathered. This one is a mere stone ruin, rendezvous of bats and owls; on that the trim white steeple seems to have lost no line of austere grace, no uncompromising crudity of color, since the day of Sir Christopher Wren himself. This one is a museum; in that, Sunday after Sunday, the same services are held that men listened to a hundred years ago. Here a slab let into a modern wall is the only reminder of the former uses of the site, and there, unimpaired by time, the same wood and stone that were the objects of pious veneration a century ago make the same appeal they made then.

It is, rather the fashion, when one recalls the old churches of America, to dwell upon the New England ones where revolution was fostered and whence alarums were sent. But there are other which have a history scarcely less thrill­ing and somewhat less hackneyed. The mission church of the Alamo, in Texas, is one of these.


It was begun on the Rio Grande in 1700. In those days the church in the Southwest was a very militant body, and he was a short sighted architect who built an edifice for worship alone. Those who came to pray sometimes remained to fight, and a church had to be a fort as well. The church of the Alamo was a very excellent fort, and in emer­gencies its priests were soldiers as well as clergymen.

After being moved three or four times, in 1744 the church was placed permanently on its present site in San Antonio. It had its share of early ad­venture, but not until 1836 did it win its greatest renown. The American settlers of Texas had risen in revolt against Mexico, had declared their inde­pendence, and' had driven the garrison of San Antonio beyond the Rio Grande. Santa Anna, the Mexican president, led an army to suppress the rebellion, and Houston, the Texan commander in chief, fell back before his superior force. But Travis and Crockett, two fa­mous frontiers­men, refused to retreat from the despised "greas­ers," and with a hundred and eighty three nice they occupied the Alamo.

Santa Anna marched into San Antonio on Feb­ruary 22, with about four thou­sand men; and demanded the surrender of the Americans, informing them that if they attempted resistance quarter would be refused them. Travis replied with a cannon shot. The Mexicans thereupon surrounded the Ala­mo, which at that time was enclosed by a thick adobe wall, since demolished; and for twelve days a close investment was maintained, with a constant exchange of rifle and cannon fire, which did much more injury to the besiegers than to the besieged. Finally, on March 6, Santa Anna ordered an assault, and by sheer weight of numbers the Mexicans forced their way over the wall and into the building. The defenders fought des­perately as long as one of them was left to fight. A monument to the men of the Alamo was afterwards erect­ed in Austin, with the inscription: "Thermopylae had three messengers of defeat; the Alamo had none."


Surviving all the later changes of time, though it had some share of early wreck, is old Trinity, the most famous of New York churches, and the richest of American church organizations. It stands on lower Broadway, ironically looking down Wall Street. Its brown stone spires point the way skyward to any of the hurrying throng who has time and inclination to look in that direction. Its yard, where famous names are upon the old stones and me­morial tablets, makes a spot of conven­tional peacefulness in the most crowded, rushing neighborhood in America.

Old Trinity was first built in 1696. It faced in the opposite direction then, and had a river view instead of its pres­ent "change alley" outlook. Enlarged in 1737, and destroyed by fire in 1776, it was rebuilt in its present form in 1787. In colonial days it stood in the heart of the settlement. Its churchyard was a favorite resting place for the churchgoers after service. It was the fashionable church of the town, but it was also a good, old fashioned, neigh­borly one, where gossips met after morn­ing prayers, and where lovers had their pious rendezvous according to the an­cient village custom. Here George Washington, at the close of the war, gave thanks for its victorious termina­tion, and here the whole town thronged to witness the funeral of Alexander Hamilton after the unfortunate meet­ing at the foot of the Palisades.


St. Mark’s Church, 2nd Avenue and 10th Street, New York

On the outermost point of Star Island, one of the Isles of Shoals, lying off the New Hampshire coast, is a small church built of stone, to weather the northern tempests, and crowned with a wooden vane and steeple. This is the old Gosport church, famous among the northern fishermen for more than two ­centuries, though it has had no startling place in history. It was built in 1695 out of the timbers of a Spanish galleon wrecked on the treacherous northern coast. This first building went to pieces church in 1720, but it was rebuilt. Just after the Revolution the second church was burned by persons with a somewhat dis­torted idea of amusement, and then the present edifice was erected.

In Salem, on Essex Street, there is an old fashioned house of the dignified colonial type. A notice on its walls proclaims that it is Plummer Hall and belongs to the Essex Society, and that within there are relics of that historic Massachusetts county. If one goes seek­ing these, he will find the first built in the Massachusetts colony, now safely ensconced in the yard of Plummer Hall, out of harm's way. It is a very small, very barn-like structure, which the emigrants from England erected, scarcely larger than a bath house on a prosperous beach, and its style of archi­tecture is not entirely unlike that. It was built in 1634, and there some of the most famous scenes of early colonial his­tory were enacted.

St. Paul’s Church in New York

A minister of this church started the witchcraft fever which raged so destruc­tively for a while. His children, with some others of the town, afflicted with the restlessness and impishness common to their age, were held to have been bewitched. The children themselves found this view much safer and far more entertaining than the true explanation, and they were able to tell their parents who it was that affected them to the out­breaks of "nervousness" in which they indulged. The people thus accused were the first of the Salem witches. In the little frame building were held weighty discussions of the matter, though the trials themselves took place in an old house now happily con­verted into a curio shop.

Before the Salem witch­craft days Roger Williams had been the clergyman in charge of the First Church, as it was simply called. His parishioners, every man and woman of them easily able to discern errors of doctrine, be­gan to find his teachings far too kind and mild. It was from the First Church that he made his escape into Rhode Island before the pious breth­ren could treat him to a cure for heresy which would have been as drastic as their cure for witchcraft.

The First Church fell upon evil days later, and was used at one time for a barn, a pur­pose to which its architecture seemed to foreordain it, and again for a road house. It was rescued from its unhallowed career by the Essex Society.


The Old South Church, Boston

In Boston there is a church which marks the good old New England habit of revolt. It is King's Chapel, originally, as its name implies, a stronghold of loyalty to the crown and to the Established Church of England. Its corner stone was laid in 1747, and it was built of gran­ite from the Quincy quarries. But the establishment was not popular at the best among the Puritans, who had left home to escape its domination, and King's Chapel did not flourish. In 1786 James Freeman, the incumbent of it, became a Unitarian, and so started that strong move­ment towards a "ra­tionalistic" and radical belief. The church is still a Unitarian stronghold. It stands, like Trinity in New York, in the seething midst of mundane things, at the corner of Tremont and School Streets, a great hotel oppo­site on one corner and a mam­moth department store on another. In it are held not only the church services, but organ recitals by Mr. Lang, to which the whole city, irre­spective of belief, is glad to flock.

King’s Chapel, Tremont Street, Boston

Another ancient Boston church which is still used for its original religious pur­poses is Christ Church, more familiarly known to the readers of Mr. Longfellow as the "Old North Church." It is a curious, rectangular building, built in 1723 on the north side of the city. To reach it nowadays, one traverses the slums, and finds it looming before him in a: sort of court at the end of a blind street. It was in its steeple that the signal was rung which sent Paul Revere off on his midnight ride of April, 1775, so Christ Church may be said, in a way, to have ushered in the Revolution.

More active in preliminaries for that revolt against England was the Old South Church of Boston, now a museum among the railroad offices, banks, and business buildings of Milk Street. In it town meetings were held, and patriots talked one another into a state of ardor. It was within its walls that the tea party of 1773 was planned.

King's Chapel, Tremont Street, Boston, Massachusetts
The land on which this church stands was the site of the dwelling of Governor Winthrop. Benjamin Franklin was bap­tized there in 1706. But probably the most solemn scene the famous old church ever saw was Judge Sewall's public acknowledgment that he might have erred in the witch trials. He was the most implacable of judges, and before him the unfortunate victims of the Salem delusion had come for trial. Gallows Hill, in Salem, say many of the wretches whom he condemned go to their end. In 1696, an old, bowed man, no longer the stern Puritan judge, he publicly prayed for forgiveness for his action—if he had been mistaken in his judgment; and the Old South Church was the scene of this recantation.

Philadelphia had an active part in the early Revolutionary agitation, and her churches were not without their share of early renown. One of these, used alter­nately by the British and the American troops for a hospital, was Zion's Evan­gelical Lutheran Church, which stood until 1870. The foundation was laid in 1766, the Rev. H. M. Muhlenberg being the pastor. The church was built al­most entirely through the contributions of the poor, who made up most of its membership. It was a very fine church for those times, a substantial, square building of red and black brick, with a white vaulted roof. In 1777 the British took it by force, and used it as a hospital, removing its pulpits and pews. Later, when Clinton's army evacuated Philadelphia, the Americans seized it for the same purpose, and it was not restored to its congrega­tion until 1781.


The old church which the Jamestown settlement used to attend is a mere picturesque ruin now a lonely stone arch with the grass tall about it. It stood on the very site of which John Smith wrote at the beginning of the settlement: "A mighty tree was our church until we built a homely thing like a barn set on crotchets, covered with rafts, sedge, and earth; so was also the walls." In that rude structure Pocahontas was married to John Rolfe. Later a more imposing edifice was built—a stone church, with chancel and pulpit and pews of cedar, with two bells to summon the colonists to their worship. There the Governor was wont to go in great state, for Vir­ginia had not the Puritan scorn of out­ward show. He was attended by halber­diers in scarlet cloaks, and he sat in his own reservation in the church as became the king's representative in the new world.

Another church which the Southern people revere—there is more of it left for their reverence—is old Christ Church in sleepy Alexandria. It won undying renown by having George Washington upon its list of vestrymen. It is a quaint old structure of brick and mortar, built in 1773 out of the proceeds of a levy of three hundred and eighteen pounds of tobacco on the colonists of the region. They still show the pew where the great general sat when he was simply the good citizen and the church­goer.

Another church built out of the pro­ceeds of a tax which the W. C. T. U. would not hesitate to call godless, was old St. Philip's, in Charleston, South Carolina. A duty of twopence per gallon on spirits was imposed to defray the cost of its erection in 1670. It had such mishaps after­wards as the W. C. T. U. would doubtless regard as natural. The first building fell into bad repair, and another was put up in 1720. This was blown down by a gale. A third was built, an attractive edifice of rough cast brick, with an arched ceiling; and in 1836 this was burned. The present building was then built.

Plummer Hall, Salem, Massachusetts
Here and there in the South and the Southwest are the remains of the old Spanish missions. They are generally like the church of the Alamo in Texas, adobe buildings, half church, half fort. Some of them have had melodramatic histories. In St. Augustine, St. Joseph's Cathedral, a modern structure, on the site of an old mission, is practically a memorial to a band of martyrs. In 1572 all the priests connected with the mis­sion were exterminated by the Indians. With high and fanatic devotion, they had refused to defend themselves with any weapon but the crucifix.

In California there are similar mis­sions left standing, memorials to the abnegation of those who first sought to give the gospel of peace to the savages. In New England, too, where the peace­ful side of the gospel was not too much dwelt upon, there is one such site—that of the church at Natick, where the gen­tle John Eliot won the love of the In­dians of that colony in the middle of the seventeenth century. He left them with the conviction that they were Christian­ized, as perhaps they were, but accord­ing to the standards of those who followed him, and not according to those of the mild and loving old man himself.

From Junior Munsey, October 1901.

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