THE ORIGIN OF THE FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH, NEW-YORK
[We are happy to inform our readers that we have made arrangements for the continuance of these Historical Sketches of the origin of New-York Baptist Churches, in the style of the two which have now appeared, till we shall have included all our present churches in the city. Most of them will probably be from the pen of Dr. Dowling. The churches will be numbered according to the chronological order of the public recognition, omitting in the enumeration those churches which have become extinct. We have also made arrangements for similar sketches of the Baptist Churches in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities - Ed.]
In a former sketch of the origin of an individual church, of which the writer is pastor, we adopted as our motto, the significant query of the prophet -- “Who hath despised the day of small things?” In that sketch, we were called to contemplate a principle of the divine economy upon a comparatively small scale -- the growth of a single church of Christ, in the course of less than ten years from a weak and faltering company of twenty-two believers to a strong and numerous body of nearly five hundred members. Such has ever been the history of God’s dealings with his church in the world. The principle of which we speak was enunciated by our blessed Lord when he said -- “The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard-seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” And the same principle was illustrated in the prophetic vision of the Babylonian monarch, by “the stone cut out of the mountain without bands,” which eventually “smote the image, became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.”
The transition is an easy one from the history of a single church, to the history of the collective Baptist churches of New-York city as a striking exemplification of this feature of the divine economy. One hundred years ago! how brief, in the retrospect, appears a single century! yet, in that time, how vast the changes which have occurred in our new crowded and mighty city, and how proportionably striking has been the change in the ecclesiastical position and strength of the churches of New-York! Then Episcopacy was, as in the mother country, the established religion of the land, and here, as there, a pampered and stall-fed hierarchy took good care to shear well the sheep, caring but little what became of the lambs. Then Methodism, which new numbers its thousands of pious and devoted adherents, had not yet crossed the Atlantic, though its distinguished and zealous founder was industriously planting its seeds in his native land.
Passing by the evangelical churches of other communions, of which but a few can boast the honors of a century of years -- one hundred years ago, and instead of thirty Baptist churches, and nearly ten thousand Baptist members, as at present -- a single company of less than a dozen Baptist members, were all that assembled in the midst of obloquy and scorn, to worship God, alternately at the houses of two of their members. These two were Mr. Jeremiah Dodge, who in the year 1745 had removed from the Baptist church in Fishkill, and Mr. Joseph Meeks, who in the same year put on Christ by baptism, administered during a visit to the city by Rev. Benjamin Miller, of New Jersey, who afterwards became pastor of the Scotch Plains Baptist Church at its organization in 1747'. From this little company of baptized believers originated the First Baptist Church of this city, now the powerful and influential body under the pastoral care of Rev. Dr. Cone. It is worthy of record, however, that several years prior to the establishment of worship at the house of Mr. Dodge in 1745, attempts had more than once been made to introduce the scriptural ordinance of believer’s immersion in this city, and a Freewill Baptist church had been established, but became extinct after an existence of eight years. The first of these attempts of which any record has been made, was by the Rev. Mr. Wickendon of Providence, R. I., who commenced preaching in New-York in I709, and who had the honor, like his Master Christ and the apostles, to suffer persecution for the truth’s sake. He was thrown into prison, where he continued three months for the offence of having preached the gospel without a license from an officer of the crown. Probably he might have been dealt with more leniently, if he had failed to attack the doctrine of a state church and of infant baptism as subversive of the simplicity and the purity of the church of HIM who said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” In 1712, a more successful attempt was. made by the Rev. Mr. Whitman of Connecticut, who for some years preached the gospel at the house of Mr. Nicholas Ayres, a gentleman and a scholar, who himself afterwards became a preacher of the gospel, and officiated for several years as pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Newport, R. I.
In 1714, the first baptism of believers according to the apostolic model, occurred in this city. Mr. Whitman had the pleasure of baptizing twelve persons upon profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ ; five women and seven men. The five women, for fear of the mob, were baptized at night. Mr. Ayres and the other six men were to have been baptized upon the same occasion. For this purpose, they were standing by the water side, when with a force and power similar to the application of that passage of scripture -- “the just shall live by faith” -- which drove Luther from his penance on “Pilate’s stair-case” -- the words came with irresistible effect into the mind of Mr. Ayres -- “No man doeth any thing in secret when he himself seeketh to be known openly.” He felt that he was guilty of moral cowardice in thus seeking to conceal Christ’s own ordinance under the cover of night, and on the instant resolved that he would not be ashamed of Jesus, but that he would be baptized in the face of day. The six brethren who stood by his side acquiesced in his determination, and the great Head of the Church honored them in this public acknowledgment of allegiance to Christ and of love to his cause. The protection of Governor Burnet was sought and obtained. The Governor himself witnessed the baptismal scene, and as he gazed upon this administration of the primitive ordinance of baptism, the force of the truth compelled him to exclaim -- “This is the ancient manner of baptism; and in my opinion, is much preferable to the practice of modern times.”
In 1728, this little Freewill Baptist Church erected a small place of worship, towards which they sought the aid of the church in Providence, R. I. The record of the subscription made by that venerable church in compliance with their request will be regarded in these days of temperance, as a curious relic of the olden time. It was as follows -- From Mr. Brown, one pound; from various other individuals, thirteen barrels of cider. In 1832, after a chequered history of about eight years, this church dissolved. The number at the time of the dissolution was twenty-four, some of whom subsequently united with the First Calvinistic Baptist church soon after its establishment.
From the year 1745 to 1750, the little body who met for worship at the dwellings of Messrs. Dodge and Meeks enjoyed the ministerial labors of Mr. John Pine, a licentiate of the church in Fishkill, when they were deprived of his services by death. From 1750 till 1753, they enjoyed the labors of the Rev. James Carman, of New Jersey, whose preaching was blessed to the conversion of some souls, and a few were baptized, till the total number of members was thirteen.
The year 1753 is a new era in their history. In that year they applied to be received as a branch of the Scotch Plains Baptist church, and an arrangement was made that the Rev. Benjamin Miller, the pastor of that church, should preach and administer the Lord’s supper to them once a quarter. Soon after the commencement of Mr. Miller’s labors, in consequence of the increasing congregation, the little church obtained the use of a rigging loft in William-street, then called Cart and Horse-street, where they continued to worship for about three years, when, in consequence of the owner declining to rent it longer, they were again driven to assemble for worship in the dwelling house of Mr. Meeks.
Brighter days, however, soon dawned upon this faithful and persevering little band of disciples. Gradually, but slowly, they increased in numbers and in ability, till at length they were enabled to purchase a lot and erect. a small place of worship in Gold-street, then called Golden Hill, which on the 14th of March, 1760, was for the first time opened for the worship of God.
Up to this date, and for two years later, they retained their ecclesiastical relations, as a branch of the Scotch Plains Baptist church. It was now time, however, that they should take their stand as an independent church of Christ, in the great city where they had for many years been as a light shining in a dark place.
(1) On the 19th of June, 1762, this important step was taken. On that day they were publicly recognized as an independent Gospel church, under the name of the First Baptist Church of New-York. Suitable religious services were held on this occasion, conducted by the Rev. Messrs. Benjamin Miller and John Gano, the latter of whom was immediately chosen pastor of the church.
It has been a question whether the origin of the First Baptist Church, New-York, should be dated 1745, or 1762.
The Rev. William Parkinson prepared a Jubilee Sermon to be preached in the year 1812, of which he says -- “It may be termed its jubilee year, being the fiftieth since its constitution.” This, of course, is reckoning from the year 1762. This is the year given in the minutes of the New-York Association.
The Rev. William E. Locke, in his Centennial Sermon for the Scotch Plains Church, preached in 1847, says -- “The first church that sprung from this was the First Baptist Church in New-York city. * * * In the year 1758 the number of Baptists in New-York had increased to thirteen, and being advised to do so, united themselves in church relationship with this church, and were recognized as a branch of this body,” &c.
On the other hand, the Rev. Dr. Cone remarks, in his Centennial Sermon, which was preached in 1745 -- “This may with propriety be called the Centennial Anniversary of the First Church, since the brethren and sisters who worshipped in brother Dodge’s house, in 1745, supported the cause, obtained preaching, had the ordinances of the gospel administered, and received converts into their fellowship by baptism, before the Scotch Plains Church was constituted. They also purchased ground, erected a meeting house, called a pastor, &c., as an independent body.”
Without presuming to settle this question, I will only say that where there is evidence that a body of baptized believers have united together in covenant relationship for the maintenance of the word and ordinances among them, they are to be regarded as a church of Christ.‘ The public acknowledgment of such a body, by appropriate religious services, does not, properly speaking, “constitute” them a church, but only acknowledges or publicly recognizes the fact that they have so “constituted” themselves. Such a service should be called a “recognition” and not a constitution.
Mr. Gano continued for twenty-six years to preach the gospel and administer the ordinances to this church with ability, zeal and success. The meeting house was soon enlarged to the size of 52 feet by 42, but still was too small to accommodate the increasing congregation. Mr. Gano “was no common man. He was endowed with strong powers of mind, and had been blessed with a good education. In the pulpit he was animated and affectionate; sound and clear in his views of divine truth, and skilful in arresting and retaining the attention of his audience. He was easy in his manners, had great knowledge of men, and possessed uncommon tact in accommodating himself to times and places and circumstances, without ever losing sight of his ‘high vocation.’ It was a saying of his -- we must always act in character and it was his happiness, by grace divine, uniformly to maintain the character of a faithful servant of the Most High God. The church continued to increase .in number and influence until the war of the Revolution, during which period the members were every where scattered abroad. -- The ordinance of baptism was administered by the pastor, April 28th, 1776, and not again until September 4th, 1784. Mr. Gano was a firm patriot and a brave man. In the struggle for national existence and the establishment of civil and religious freedom, he could not but take an active part. He removed his family to Connecticut, but determined to remain in the city himself until the enemy entered it. He was invited to become Chaplain to the Regiment, commanded by Colonel Charles Webb, of Stamford, but declined the appointment. He, nevertheless, so far complied as to visit the Regiment every morning, and preach for them every Lord’s day. He was anxious to remove the furniture from his dwelling, but his efforts were frustrated: the British shipping took possession of both the North and East Rivers, and he was obliged to retire precipitately to the American camp;
“The enemy entered the city the next day, after a little skirmishing, and the American troops were driven to Haerlem -- then to Kingsbridge -- -and at last to White plains, where Washington had collected a large part of his forces ; and where, says Mr. Gano, ‘we had a warm, though partial battle; for probably not a third of either army was brought into action. My station, in time of action, I knew to be among the surgeons; but in this battle I somehow got in the front of the Regiment; yet I durst not quit my place for fear of damping the spirits of the soldiers, or of bringing on myself an imputation of cowardice. Rather than to do either, I chose to risk my fate.’ His soldierly bearing upon that occasion, in the presence of the enemy, elicited much praise from the officers in their after .conversations, and greatly increased their respect for their Chaplain, whose personal courage had been so severely tested. Mr. Gano continued with Col. Webb’s Regiment until the period expired for which the men had enlisted, and they returned to their homes. He took this opportunity to visit his family, where he found a letter awaiting him from Colonel Dubosque, then stationed at Fort Montgomery, on the North River. He immediately set out for the Colonel’s quarters, and at the earnest solicitation of General James Clinton, with whom he there met, he accepted an appointment as Chaplain, and continued in the service until the close of the war. After the British evacuated New-York, he returned to the city and collected together ‘about thirty-seven members of the church out of above two hundred.’ The meeting-house which was much disfigured, having been used as a store house and stable for horses, was repaired; public worship was resumed; ‘the Lord looked graciously upon his people, the congregation was large and attentive, and many were brought to bow the knee to King Jesus!’ In two years the church again numbered more than two hundred members. In 1787, a proposition was made to Mr. Gano to remove to Kentucky, with the prospect of increasing his usefulness, and relieving himself from pecuniary embarrassments. He called a church meeting and laid before them the facts in the case: but he says, ‘they treated it all as chimera, and with all possible coolness left him to determine for himself.’ He immediately determined to go. As soon as his intention was made known, ‘the church offered to raise his salary, and very affectionately urged him to tarry.’ He would gladly have complied with their wishes, but it was too late; he had entered into engagements which could not be broken. He continued to preach for the church until the 4th of May, 1778; in the afternoon of that day, he administered the Lord’s supper, and in the evening took his final leave of them in a very affecting discourse from Acts 15-29, Fare ye well!”
At the time of Mr. Gano’s settlement in 1762, the First Baptist Church numbered twenty-seven members. At his removal in 1788, it numbered over two hundred. Since that time, the church has passed through a chequered history of over sixty years, and at present consists of more than six hundred members. The history of those years has been so fully detailed in an interesting historical discourse to which we are already much indebted, which was preached by the present able, venerated, and beloved pastor, and published in the Baptist Memorial for February and March, 1847, that we shall close this sketch by simply enumerating the pastors who have since successively been settled over this venerable church, the parent of the Baptist churches in the city of New-York.Rev. John Gano, from 1762 to 1788.
Benjamin Foster, D.D. from 1788 to 1798.
Rev. William Collier, from 1800 to 1804.
Rev. Wm. Parkinson, from 1805 to 1840.
Spencer H. Cone, D.D. from 1841 to the present pastor; and may God long spare his valuable and useful life!
[From The Baptist Memorial and Monthly Record, 1849, Volume VIII, pp. 111-118. Scanned and formatted by Jim Dvuall.]
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