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A History of the Schenectady Patent in the Dutch and English Times
14: The English Church

The Editor

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[This information is from pp. 389-398 of A History of the Schenectady Patent in the Dutch and English Times; being contributions toward a history of the lower Mohawk Valley by Jonathan Pearson, A. M. and others, edited by J. W. MacMurray, A. M., U. S. A. (Albany, NY: J. Munsell's Sons, Printers, 1883). It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 974.744 P36, and copies are also available for borrowing.]

[Copies of this book are available from the Schenectady County Historical Society.]

[The original version uses assorted typographical symbols to represent footnotes. To improve legibility, the online version uses the form (page number - note number.)]

St. George's Church (Episcopal)

This church was the natural outgrowth of the English occupation from 1664, to the Revolution. There were many immigrants from England and the New England colonies and many discharged soldiers turned settlers. There were always considerable garrisons of British regulars or New England militia more particularly during the French wars. Where they had married Dutch wives their families were usually brought up in the Dutch communion, this was especially true of those whose business carried them away with the troops to Oswego or beyond trading, during a large part of the year. English chaplains doubtless had many hearers among the inhabitants. After the peace in 1754, at the close of the old French war, few troops were stationed here, and those of the inhabitants who desired to hear preaching in the English language such as the English, Scotch and New Englanders were forced to build a church for themselves. Paucity of numbers and of means delayed this for years, though the foundation was commenced in 1759.

The old church still stands — transepts have been added in same style of architecture. Unfortunately the old sounding board has been removed from over the pulpit but the general quaintness of the interior leas been preserved.

The following letter in answer to some inquiries addressed to the late Archbishop Tait by the Bishop of Albany, quotes some data from records of the "Society for Promotion of the Gospel in Foreign Parts" pertinent to the early history of this old church.

"S. P. G. House, 19 Delahay St., Westminster,
November 24, 1882.

Mem. for Major MacMurray, U. S. A.

Schenectady.

We have no "sketch, map, or diagram" of the town of Schenectady — the only information here, likely to be useful is contained in the following extracts: —

I. From the Petition of the European Protestant Inhabitants of the town of Schenectady and Province of New York."

"Your Petitioners from Sundry parts of Great Britain and Ireland have mostly since the commencement of the late war settled in this remote part of His Majesty's Dominions, where they have had no opportunity of hearing the gospel preached there being no established church nearer them than sixteen miles.

"They have from their small ability and great desire to become like other Christians, with much perseverance almost finished a small church for publick worship, but being unable to support a Clergyman, renders all their endeavours abortive.

"Your petitioners therefore humbly pray the Venerable Society will grant them a mission and enable them to compleat the work begun, or other assistance out of their great wisdom they please."

[This petition is dated "Schenectady March 23, 1765" and signed by 55 persons. It will be noted that they speak of having "almost finished" a church, Maj. MacMurray (in his letter to the Bishop) states that a church was built there in 1759.]

II. From the Report of the Society, for 1766.

"Upon the Representation of Sir William Johnson in his letter of Oct. 8, and of Dr. Auchmuty in his letter dated Oct. 24, 1766, together with the petition of the Protestant Inhabitants in communion with the church of England in the town of Schenectady about 17 miles from Albany, the Society have engaged to appoint a missionary to that place, it appearing that there is but one Clergyman in all the extensive county of Albany, and that the church people of Schenectady have purchased a glebe lot and by Subscription, chiefly amongst themselves, erected a neat Stone church."

III. From a letter of Sir William Johnston to the society, dated:

"Johnson Hall October 8, 1766.

"Some members of the church of England settled at the town of Schenectady purchased a lot there and by subscriptions chiefly amongst themselves, erected a neat stone church and …… petitioned for a missionary …… In the meantime the Dissentors claimed a principal property thereon because some of them had been promised the use of it when it did not interfere with the service of the church of England — not content therewith they have done all in their power to obstruct the work and draw of the members threatening to pull it down. The Governor, at my instance has promised his protection but unless something is immediately done for these people the next generation must become dissentors and all future hope of the increase of the church will prove abortive, neither is that town the only one where such practices are carried on."

IV. From a letter of Rev. Dr. S. Auchmuty to the Society, dated

"New York, October 24, 1766.

"The enclosed petition was sent to me a few days ago, with a request to forward it to the Society, Schenectady is a growing village about 17 miles beyond Albany. The people that have signed the petition are (the most of them) respectable in those parts and have exerted themselves in building their church. There is not one Church Clergyman in all the extensive county of Albany except Mr. Browne, whose usefulness I have informed you is little, little indeed. It may not be amiss for the Society to give the petitioners some encouragement provided they set about purchasing a glebe house etc."

V. From letters from Rev. William Andrews to the Society.

"Schenectady, March 15, 1771.

"The first time I preached here was on Sunday the 6th of January last and since that I only baptized 5 children, buried 1, and administered the Sacrement to 20 communicants …… I have preached twice every Sunday …… in the evening I catechise the children — several of whom are Dutch. 24 June 1771, The number of my people I believe may be about 80 grown up persons who attend regularly and devoutly, besides some of the other Denominations come at times. My church is particularly more filled in the winter time, as several of them are Indian traders or Batteaumen, who, when the Mohawk River is open, proceed in those kind of vessels to Fort Detroit and even to Mishillimackanac in sloop which is reckoned upward of 1000 miles from here."

The Rev. William Payne, D.D., Rector of the church, preached an historical sermon November 12th, 1882; the following extracts give an outline of the growth of this church:

"In tracing out the history of the building, we must go back nearly to the beginning of the preceding century. The memories of the old French war, in which the inhabitants of this town suffered severely, had hardly begun to fade away, and there was not the first thought of that Revolution which, seventy years afterwards, resulted in our independence of the mother country. The smoke of the Indian wigwam still arose all along this Mohawk valley, and the cry of the wolf and the panther could be heard on its hillsides and in the forests. Though fears of another savage invasion had mostly subsided, yet the Old Fort, near by the spot where we are now assembled, was still standing, stocked with arms and surrounded by the pickets or palisades, within which the early settlers had been accustomed to find refuge in case of alarm.

"At this early period, the Rev. Thomas Barclay, missionary of the English church at Albany, visited Schenectady, and so far as I can ascertain, was the first Episcopal minister who held service in the place. Writing to London, to the society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign parts, by which he had been sent over, he says, under date of 1710: 'At Schenectady I preach once a month, where there is a garrison of forty soldiers, besides about sixteen English and about one hundred Dutch families. They are all of them my constant hearers. I have this summer got an English school erected amongst them, and in a short time I hope their children will be fit for catechising.' 'Schenectady,' continues Mr. Barclay, 'is a village situated upon a pleasant river, twenty English miles above Albany, and the first castle of the Indians is twenty-four miles above Schenectady. In this village there has been no Dutch minister these five years, and there is no probability of any being settled among them. There is a convenient and well-built church, which they freely gave me the use of. I have taken pains to show them the agreement of the Articles of our church with theirs. I hope in some time to bring them not only to be constant hearers, but communicants. * * From New York to the utmost bounds of my parish there is no minister but myself.'

"Two years after Mr. Barclay left Albany, where he was succeeded by the Rev. Mr. Miln, and he by other missionaries, till 1746. These gentlemen doubtless often crossed the pine plains to minister to the few churchmen here, though I do not find on our records any mention of their visits or acts. The Dutch pulpit became regularly occupied by its own pastors, and the English people who were the feeblest of the two, seem to have been brought under its predominating influence, instead of vice versa as Mr. Barclay so fondly anticipated.

"In 1748, the Rev. John Ogilvie came to Albany as rector of St. Peter's. And the same year arrived in Schenectady a layman, who, from the love he bore to the principles and usages of the English church, and the zeal he showed in promoting them, has been called the father of this parish. I refer to Mr. John W. Brown, whose memory is appropriately preserved by a tablet on these walls. He is said to have come from London, and was only twenty-one years old at the time of his arrival here. Through a long life, till the day of his death at the age of eighty-seven, he was the steady friend and unwavering supporter of this church. From him probably it received its name, St. George being the patron saint of his native country.

"The earliest baptism, by an Episcopal minister, on our parish register is that of a daughter of Mr. Brown, in 1754, by the Rev. Mr. Ogilvie, who performed the same office for another child of Mr. Brown in 1759. It also records the baptism of three other children of Mr. Brown by Dutch ministers — the Revs. Thomas Frelinghise and B. Vrooman.

"That year — 1759 — the erection of the church edifice seems to have been undertaken; for under date of that year our parish books still preserve, among other items of disbursement, to 'Richard Oldrick and Horseford, for digging the foundation of the church, £4. 3s. 9d.' Amounts for drawing timber, and work of the like kind, are mentioned from that date onward. The woodwork was done under the superintendence of Mr. Samuel Fuller, who also became the builder of Johnson Hall. He was master of the king's artificers, and came to this vicinity from Needham, Massachusetts, with Abercrombie's army. To obtain the necessary assistance for fulfilling his part of the work on the church, he went back, in 1762, to Needham, and engaged several carpenters; and besides having their regular wages while here, they were to be allowed a specified sum for the seven days it would take them to come from Needham, and also for the same number of days for their return. It was several years before the building was completed for occupancy and use, though as early as 1767 we find sums collected for pew rents among the treasurer's papers. These papers also show the names of persons who subscribed for the erection of the church, with their respective amounts.

"At that time lived in the Mohawk Valley Sir William Johnson. (393-1) He was a major-general in the British service, and general superintendent of Indian affairs in North America. The English church had in him a warm friend. He not only contributed liberally himself to the erection of this building, but also obtained subscriptions from his friends in various parts of the colonies — at one time £61 10s. from the Governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and other distinguished gentlemen, while attending a treaty of peace at Fort Stanwix. Sir William was also of great service to the church here, in procuring for it missionaries from the Venerable Society in England, which seems to have consulted him in most of its appointments to this region of country. Through his co-operation the wardens obtained from the Governor of the colony a charter for their church in 1766, and Sir William was requested to act as one of the trustees. He was a frequent worshipper in these walls, and tradition says that his pew, which was on the south side, was distinguished by a canopy. The church, as it then was, according to a ground plan of it in one of the old books, had two doors — one on the west end, and the other on the south side (the arch of which still remains), with a communion table against the east wall in the middle, and directly in front of it two desks for reading and preaching; and only a part of the church was finished with pews.

"During those years the building was used more or less by the Presbyterians, who had none of their own. (394-1) I have before me a curious statement on this point, said to have been found among the papers of a Mr. Alexander Kelly, a member of that body. He says: 'Betwext 1760 and 1770, the Episcopalians and presbyterians agreed & build a Church Betwext them, The Former to goe in at the west Door the Later at the South Door when the Church was Finesht John Brown Belonig to the English Church went to New York & get it Consecrated under the Bishop unknown to the presbyterians, The presbyterians highly ofended at this John Duncan James Wilson James Shuter Andrew & Hugh Michel Andrew McFarland & Wm. White & Alexander Merser purchest a lot From a Gentelm in New York Colected money in varies places To Build a Church. The Dutch Inhabitants Seing How they were Served advanct very Liberal in money Boards plank Nails Hinges & paint The Church was built about the year 1770.'

"Mr. Kelly's representation of the case must be as faulty as his orthography. To prove this, it is enough to state two facts — one, that there was no bishop in this country till 1784, thirty years, after this alleged transaction; and the other, that the church was never 'consecrated' till nearly one hundred years later, by Bishop Potter, in 1859. The long and short of the whole story is, that the Presbyterian party was disappointed in not getting permanent possession of the building, to which they had no claim except that they had kindly contributed to its erection.

"As connected with this part of the ecclesiastical history of Schenectady, I take the liberty of quoting from a note on the subject, received from my esteemed friend, the Rev. Dr. Darling: 'One of the oldest members of my church (Presbyterian), when I came here, informed me that the south door was walled up after the Presbyterian exodus, 'and the Lord put a curse on the mortar, so that it would not stick;' though, as she had no prophetic credentials, you may prefer to account for it in some other way.'

"It was to matters of this kind, I suppose, that Dr. Darling's predecessor, the venerable Dr. Backus, referred in his historical sermon, preached in 1869, when he said: 'Ritualism and evangelicism long contended here for the mastery.' One of the champions in that contest was this same Mr. Kelly — Sandy Kelly, generally called — who, when a pitch-pipe was introduced into the Presbyterian worship, rushed down the aisle and out of the door, crying, 'Awa' with your box o' whistles!' What would he have said and done, had his evangelic ears been shocked by the noble organ which now vies with that of St. George's in improving the ritual of God's house?

"While the church was being built, the Rev. Thomas Brown, who succeeded Mr. Ogilvie at St. Peter's, Albany, and after him the Rev. Harry Monroe, seem to have ministered now and then to the church people here, baptizing their children and burying their dead, until the arrival of Mr. William Andrews. This gentleman had been for some time catechist among the Mohawk Indians. He was a native of Great Britain. He returned home in 1770, when he was ordained by the bishop of London, and appointed missionary at Schenectady. He may be considered the first resident minister, or rector, of St. George's. Mr. Andrews opened a grammar school here in 1771; but the labor attendant on this and his parish broke down his health, and he relinquished the mission in 1773, and went to Virginia. (395-1)

"Mr. Andrews was soon succeeded by the Rev. John Doty, a native of Westchester, and an alumnus of King's (now Columbia) College. It was now the eve of the Revolution. Not long had the new incumbent been proclaiming within these walls the gospel of peace, before the sounds of war were echoed from Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. The rupture between the colonies and the mother country was to try the souls of all, but of none more than the clergy of the English church, who were sustained by the bounty of its society at home, and whose ordination vows would not allow them to disuse the liturgy, with the prayer for the king and royal family. Like many of his brethren, Mr. Doty suffered between a sense of duty and the pressure of the times. He was arrested, and kept in ward for a while. On being released, he left for Canada; and divine service was suspended in the church during the remainder of the war.

"When the independence of the States was established, and peace declared in 1782, the few sheep which Mr. Doty had been forced to abandon were almost entirely scattered. The church edifice had become dilapidated, the windows were broken out, and desolation reigned within and around. I have been told by those who remember those times, that it became a resort even to the swine, which were then allowed to run in the streets of this Dutch city. As soon, however, as the little remnant of church people recovered their courage and strength, they took measures to restore their house of prayer, and liberal offerings were made for the purpose, especially by Mr. Brown and Mr. Charles Martin, for a long time the faithful treasurer of the society. Soon after, in 1790, the parish was admitted into union with the Convention of the Protestant Episcopal church, which bad become duly organized. But it was some time before it could enjoy the services of a settled clergyman, depending upon those of Albany and other neighboring towns.

"In 1798, the Rev. Robert G. Wetmore became rector, in connection with Christ church, Duanesborough; and from that day its affairs moved on in uninterrupted order and with increasing success. At the first election of the corporation, Charles Martin and John Kane were chosen wardens. In a register book, then begun, there is a rude pen-and-ink sketch, by Mr. Wetmore's own hand, of the church as it then was — a little, oblong, stone structure, fifty-six feet long (about half its present length) by thirty-six feet wide, with three windows on each side (the old south door being walled up), and in front a small wooden steeple, crowned by a low bell tower with a cross upon it. It contained thirty-six pews (about one-third of its present number), and no gallery, except across the west end, which was reached by a stairway within the church in the north-west corner. The pulpit, with a long flight of stairs, was against the east wall in the centre, with a reading desk in front, and a clerk's pew in front of that, and the altar, with rails, on the north side — an arrangement similar to that still existing in the old church at Duanesborough.

"Mr. Wetmore resigned in 1801, and some years elapsed before his place was regularly supplied. Meanwhile the services of neighboring clergy were occasionally obtained, and several improvements made in the church edifice. At a meeting of the vestry in 1804, 'Charles Martin and John W. Brown represented to the board the necessity of taking down the steeple, on account of its being in a decayed situation; and proposed to obtain by subscription a sum adequate to the erecting a new steeple.' Messrs. David Tomlinson and Wm. Corlett were appointed the committee, and the result was the wooden tower (which was taken down twelve years ago) and the beautiful belfry and spire which crowned it, and which were deemed worthy of preservation.

"The foundation of that tower was laid by a young man who had then just arrived in Schenectady, and who, though born and reared a New England Congregationalist, soon attached himself to this church, and afterwards became most intimately identified with all its changes and improvements — David Hearsey.

"The next rector was the Rev. Cyrus Stebbins, who, having been a Methodist minister at Albany, was ordained with special reference to this parish, by Bishop Moore. He was here from 1806 to 1819, but I do not find that any alterations were made in the church edifice during his incumbency.

"For a year or two after Dr. Stebbins' resignation, the services were kept up, with much acceptance to the congregation, by Mr. Alonzo Potter, as lay reader, then tutor of Union College, and afterwards the Bishop of Pennsylvania. A tablet to his memory has been placed by the trustees of the college on the walls of St. George's.

"In 1821, the Rev. Alexis P. Proal was called to the rectorship, and he continued in it till 1836. During those fifteen years, several substantial additions were made to the church property. A house with lot, belonging to Ahasuerus Wendell, was brought for a rectory by the church's side on the north; and more sittings being found necessary in the church, side galleries were erected, running from the west to the east wall.

"Dr. Proal was succeeded by the Rev. Aldert Smedes, during whose rectorship of three years a radical change was made in the church edifice. Increased accommodations being required, the vestry debated whether to pull down the old building and erect a new one, or to enlarge. The latter course was adopted, for which we may well be thankful; for, apart from the loss of the charm of age and historical associations, a new structure would very likely have proved an abortion. It was a period in the history of ecclesiastical architecture in this country, when ignorance and false ideas prevailed on the subject. In place of that which, though simple and rude, was not unchurchly, there might have been entailed upon the parish some monstrosity, perhaps a wooden Gothic building, such as those times often gave birth to. From that misfortune we were saved by the wisdom and right taste of those who had the direction of matters; and so, in the spring and summer of 1838, two transepts, or wings, were added to the old nave. But, alas! the former chancel arrangement was discarded, and in lieu of it arose a huge three-decker — a pulpit large enough for several, and desk of corresponding size, with a communion table in front. Under the pulpit was a hole, where the clergyman could go and change his surplice for a black gown between the service and the sermon. Thirty pews were gained on the lower floor, besides many others by continuing the galleries around the new transepts; and the graceful arch over your heads was shut out of sight by a floor, making the whole upper ceiling flat. Another important event in the history of the parish during Dr. Smede's rectorship, was the purchase of the house next south of the church, called the Peek house, where the Sunday school met and the sexton lived. The garden was added to the burial ground."

Notes

(393-1) At Fort Johnson, near Tribe's Hill, before he built Johnson Hall, Johnstown, where he died in 1774.

(394-1) [This church is on part of the site of British barracks which extended along the Rondweg (Ferry street) from Union street to the "Queen's New Fort," at Front street. It was immediately under the walls of this citadel of the town and close to the palisades along Ferry street.

All British regiments had chaplains; the English those of their faith, the Scotch, Presbyterians. The regulations of the war department then as now required very strict attendance at divine worship by the troops, thus having services in which citizens and army followers were welcome to engage. Is it not probable that this was the origin of the joint use of the "English church" by both denominations of English speaking people? — M'M.]

(395-1) A glimpse of the state of the parish in Mr. Andrews' time is preserved in a letter then written by the wardens to the secretary of the Venerable Society. They complain of the difficulty of pledging a fixed salary for their rector, owing, as they say, "to the absence of many of the congregation (which must make the contributions casual and uncertain), who are Indian traders over the Great Lakes, and do not always return within the year.

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