Bicentennial Updates

A Journey of Faith, 200 Years of Our Living Church…

A committee of First Church Brooklyn members has been researching our congregation’s 200-year history in preparation for a year-long Bicentennial Celebration.  The congregation will learn about where we’ve come over this exciting journey through video presentations during selected Sunday services, as well as in a section of the weekly Sunday Bulletin. On Sunday, March 10th 1822, four men and six women swore an oath together in District School Number 1, on the corner of Concord and Adams Street in the Village of Brooklyn. Their idea was to organize a house of worship, and to found the only Presbyterian church in their settlement of 7,000 people. They swore an oath to covenant “with God, and each other, to walk together as Brethren and Sisters in the Lord, according to the Faith and form of Government of the Presbyterian Church in these United States.”   Congregations were segregated. Black parishioners usually were relegated to the balcony. Black ministers had begun to found their own churches, most notably the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church in the late 18th century.  Minister Samuel Cornish started a church in lower Manhattan in 1822––the First Colored Presbyterian Church. In 1827, Cornish got together with other Black leaders to launch Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper in the US. The paper called for the immediate abolition of slavery, as well as the abolition of property requirements for Black voters.  It also condemned fellow Presbyterians for excluding Blacks from church-connected academies.
Our church’s original dedication ceremony was on April 24th, 1823. And while it wasn’t the choir we have come to know, love, and revere – a small  church choir did in fact sing that day along with  the accompaniment of a “bass viol.” The tiny congregation persevered without a permanent minister (a situation that would prove to be familiar in the history of the church), until finally, a young Princeton Seminary graduate decided to throw in his lot with the steadfast parishioners in what was known as “The Brick Church on Cranberry Street.” A committee of FPC members has been researching our congregation’s 200-year history in preparation for a year-long Bicentennial Celebration.  The congregation will learn about where we’ve come over this exciting journey through video presentations during selected Sunday services and in this section of the weekly Sunday Bulletin. For instance – in 1816 Brooklyn, land was the only stable commodity in this changing world and once it was bought up, it could be parceled off for profitable gain. The district known as Clover Hill was renamed Brooklyn Heights, and acquired its own reputation as “America’s First suburb.” And perhaps to attract future homeowners, streets had sprung up with whimsical sounding names, like Pineapple, Willow, Orange, and Cranberry.
Recently, you’ve seen the press clipping about our Community fridge in Real Simple magazine. Similarly, in 1823, if you opened the Long Island Star, you would have read this about our church under Sanford’s leadership, “The new brick church is in the Gothic style and is very neat and commodious.  The pulpit and pews are in conformity with modern taste.  A steeple and clock will shortly be added and render the building an ornament and, we trust, an honor to the village. The congregation has appeared to spring from our rapid growth and prosperity.” And just as we’ll all be in our Sunday best this upcoming Easter, above is an illustration of what the ladies of those early FPC days may have been wearing when Joseph Sanford preached at our first Easter Sundays. First Church Brooklyn kids will be searching for Easter goodies on Easter Sunday, but in the beginning, as First Church Brooklyn grew, Sanford founded one of the first Sunday schools in Brooklyn, and insisted that parents send their children to save them from what he called “the weekly overflowing of the lava from the great volcano of vice and immorality in our immediate vicinity!”  There probably weren’t any egg hunts that year!
On Easter, thoughts often turn not only to the great gift of Christ’s miraculous resurrection but to our children. First Presbyterian has a longstanding devotion to its youngest worshipers. From Dick and Dottie Turmail’s First Church Since 1822, “First Church assumed full responsibility for the City Park Mission, a Sunday School which had been founded in 1848 for Navy Yard children. In 1862, a new building for the Mission was completed and called the City Park Chapel. The Mission was an affiliate of First Church and thus considered to be a branch church. The first full-time minister, the Reverend Charles Wood, began his long and devoted career at the chapel in 1867.”
The mid-1840s, during the ‘great schism” of the US Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn Heights was a dynamic landscape for its entire faith community. In 1844, a number of members of First Church Brooklyn withdrew to help found The Church of the Pilgrims. Later, others moved to the new-at-the-time Plymouth Church, which in 1846 bought First Church’s original Cranberry Street property.  For our part, First Church Brooklyn needed to expand and bought property further up the hill on Henry Street, our present location.
As we’ve seen in the news recently, current events and updates to legislation often bring out two very disparate and passionate schools of thought. The same went for the presbyterian church of Samuel Cox’s time in the mid-1840s – 1837 – 1854 to be exact. His liberal interpretation of his calling, along with his abolitionist convictions, was unpopular with the more conservative members of his church, the Old School Presbyterians, resulting in what is called “The Great Schism.” For approximately 30 years there were not one, but two First Presbyterian Churches of Brooklyn. Divisions like this occurred throughout the country. As one newspaper described it, the Presbyterian Church was like a hickory stick: it’s useful, but can split easily.
In a week when we are being treated to a total lunar eclipse, a gift of God illuminated by science, we harken again to FPC’s past. Our own former pastor Samuel Cox (1837 – 1854) believed that “…science and humanity and religion are all kindred and harmonious…Christianity favors them all.”  His commitment to higher education included co-founding what would later be called New York University. His personal love for learning extended to the study of astronomy, and he was the co-organizer and first president of the Brooklyn Astronomical Society
In a tumultuous week in the national news cycle,  when our country is seemingly divided on some major political and social issues, we look back to the American Civil War and how it affected our community, both the neighborhood and our faith practices.  In the years leading up to the Civil War, Brooklyn and New York were in the grip of religious fervor. First Presbyterian Church was holding prayer services every morning.
For our FPC Civil Wartime pastor, Charles Robinson, his writings would have more significance because of the times he wrote them in and the subjects about which he wrote them. Robinson would preach two significant eulogies during his time at First Presbyterian: one for a fallen soldier, and the other for a fallen President.
As the trees start to bloom in their late spring splendor, we harken back to First Church under the leadership of Dr. L. Mason Clarke (1897 – 1924). As winter has turned to spring, it was a time when the “before” Brooklyn – a Brooklyn Heights of quiet tree-lined streets, old families, and quiet good manners – was evolving into a Brooklyn that resembles the Brooklyn we live in now – energetic, productive, and multi-cultural. Dr.Clarke would lead First Presbyterian Church for over a quarter of a century, and among his great legacy is his effort towards the democratization of our church and helping our community evolve in its faith and thrive in our humane values. While he was navigating the spiritual health of our church, he also took care of the practical, freeing the church from debt and overseeing several major endowments that would enrich the building he preached in. More on that next week!
Dr. L. Mason Clarke, First Presbyterian Church’s pastor may have come to us after the Civil War, but, much as in today’s political climate, there were certainly still gaping differences of opinion within the country and our church.  Dr. Clarke challenged those within the Presbyterian Church itself who tried to shackle our Christian spirit, pushing back against the fever pitch of fundamentalism that was espoused by some church members following WWI. By the end of that war, many Presbyterians assumed that a liberal interpretation of the Bible had long since been accepted. However, that wasn’t wholly true and congregants were disheartened when a militant faction of the national church took up theological arms to preserve the faith as they saw it. These fundamentalists fought to drive modernists from seminaries and pulpits. Dr. Clarke spoke out against them.
Of late, many of the most newsworthy trials in our nation happen at in our backyard at FPC’s neighbors, Brooklyn’s Courthouses.  In 1929, the most galvanizing trial was at points south, in Tennesee where the teaching of evolution was being debated at the Scopes “Monkey Trial.”  Our progressive pastor at the time, Dr. Clarke, came down staunchly against those who fought progress, “I charge the assembly with being afraid of the light…with what is perilously near to blasphemy against the spirit of God who has always been leading men into a clearer truth.”