The Story of the First Presbyterian Church

The Beginnings

While Presbyterian churches became commonplace in communities to the south and west, they were (and remain) scarce throughout New England in general and around New Haven in particular.

The Presbyterian immigrants from the British Isles who came to New Haven had to wait until 1885, when the Rev. James G. Rodger, a recent  graduate of Yale, gathered 23 worshippers for a Sabbath afternoon  service and undertook a presentation to Westchester Presbytery on the  subject of sponsoring the organization of a Presbyterian church. In 1886 the Presbytery Commission organized the First Presbyterian Church  of New Haven with Mr. Rodger as pastor and three individuals with fine Scots names, George Petrie, Archibald Gardner, and Alexander Gibson, as elders.

By 1889 membership had swelled to 107, “though this included absentees,” and they had undertaken to purchase the old Third Congregational Church building for $30,000. Soon, however, membership  dwindled, and the building was surrendered in favor of a vacant lot on the south side of Elm Street between State and Orange, where John Davenport’s homestead had stood in colonial times. Less than four  years after it had begun, James Rodger resigned his pastorate, because he was in ill health, and “a lack of harmony between the pastor and the congregation led both parties to agree that a parting of the ways was  in order.”

F.A.M. Brown and the Benedict Memorial

Soon attendance had dwindled to fifteen or twenty souls, who persevered in calling the Reverend F.A.M. Brown, from Little Falls, New York in 1890. Under his guidance services continued in a factory room on Elm Street, while a small chapel was constructed on the rear of the church’s nearby lot. Little could this tiny congregation foresee the trials of their successors, who would renew the church under very similar circumstances 65 years later.

Four Historical Snapshots

At each of the four Sunday services leading up to the 125th anniversary of the church’s foundation in February 2011, a little history was included in the worship: not in the form of a history lesson, but as chance to reflect on the church’s common past, on what the congregation might find in that inherited history that might inspire us, or challenge us, or simply give us cause for thought.

Each week a different member of the congregation looked at an aspect from a different period of those 125 years, and we sang a hymn from that era too.

1. The Early Days (Rona Johnston Gordon)

In the records of the church we have an account of the early days of the church, as over the course of a number of Sundays, an afternoon Presbyterian service was made available in the lecture room of the Congregational church on College street, to test the water and see if there would be interest in a Presbyterian congregation in New Haven.

We have an account of the first service: 12 people came together, heard the scripture read and preached, prayed a psalm and sang three hymns.  It is a simple and surely typical service, conventional, and yet made all the more moving by the list of name of the congregation: 9 men and 2 women.  Here are the roots of the First Presbyterian.

But no historical event takes place in a vacuum.  That small congregation, and the services that grew out of it, were immediately part of a wider history, a social history of Yale, an economic history of industrial New Haven, a political history of the USA under President Grover Cleveland.

And they were very much part of the history of the Presbyterian church in the USAPresbyterianism may not have had a significant presence in New England 125 years ago, but the congregation was immediately part of the structures of the Presbyterian church. We will mark not the anniversary of that first small meeting, but the anniversary of the approval for the organization of a Presbyterian church in New Haven, and that permission was granted by a commission sent from Westchester Presbytery.

And when we look at the broader context provided by Presbyterianism in the USA, we find something very different from our account of that ordered, peaceful, and communal first gathering. The Presbyterian church at the end of the nineteenth century was divided most publically. The issues were about scriptural authority and historical continuity, about the inerrancy of the bible and the content of the Westminster confession. A dispute between academics was being played out very publically, climaxing in the heresy trials at the the turn of the century.

Let me just quote from an account I found in the New York Times from December 24, 1882. In the first paragraph we get a sense of the profound issues at stake: “It is an immense undertaking to bring people of the great Protestant world out of the period of Bible worship into a rational and intelligent and reverent treatment of the book which is first and foremost in the whole of Christendom.”

In the last paragraph of that same article we get a sense of the impact of the dispute: “the ethics of the Briggs trial [the first of the heresy trials] is that it is doing more to disturb the sensibilities and instincts of Christian people than it is to guide and direct them to a clear and proper understanding of the place of the Bible in the modern world.”

I have a very strong memory from a history class as an undergraduate.  The professor suggested that once the medieval unity of the Catholic Church had been broken by the Reformation, it was inevitable that Christendom would continue to divide and splinter and fracture, and had then done so for the next five hundred years and we are still counting.  It was a daunting and haunting thought – that there could be no agreement; that differences and division were with us to stay.  Reformed Protestantism now for nearly 500 years has certainly done its part to contribute to that continuing division. That was the world into which First Presbyterian New Haven was born.

But as a historian we are taught not to judge, but to try to understand.  It is not important where I stand personally on the theological issues that divided the church 125 years ago.  And when I researched that dispute for this talk today, I found attempts to find a middle way, I found opportunities for individuals to voice their concerns and their positions, I found ill-tempered debate and friends who announced their intention to stand by each other through thick and thin, I found people who cared deeply, people in turn molded by their background and their experiences, and by their beliefs. I found regrets and changed positions; I found the stubborn and the hurt.  Division may indeed be inevitable, but to engage with that division is to find something profoundly human.

125 years ago the First Presbyterian congregation met to worship together on a Sunday, as a community of faith and with hope for the future; they then left that space to encounter the realities of the 1880s and 1890s, in their homes, in their daily life, and in the broader, divided world.  History may not repeat itself, but there are surely parallels for First Presbyterian New Haven today when we look back to that small, hopeful community that was very much part of the broader sweep of human events beyond its temporary walls.

2. The 1930s (Nancy Walker)

Our FIVE minutes for history this week takes us to First Pres, in the 1930s. After enjoying our own “roaring 20s” when our membership soared to over 500, in the 1930s, we experienced first hand the divisions Rona told us about last week: debates over Biblical authorship, authority and interpretation.

Those debates led to the abrupt departure of our pastor, Luther Long, who, with a few from our congregation, established a more fundamentalist Presbyterian Church in New Haven.  One of the issues Presbyterians debated vigorously in the 1930s involved the continuing viability of foreign missions. Perhaps some from First Pres were among the 2,000 Presbyterian women who, in September 1932, flocked to NYC to hear author Pearl Buck, address the question: “Is there a case for Foreign Missions?” The daughter and wife of missionaries, Buck’s answer was “yes,” but a weak “yes,” burdened with qualifiers. Most current missionaries, Buck felt, were incompetent, intolerant and ineffective (otherwise they were ok). Professor Wacker, at Duke University, writes that Buck called for “new-breed missionaries [who] would not try to change anybody’s religion” and “in place of [preaching] … hellfire . .. would bring practical talents in medicine, agriculture, education, [and] engineering, … seeking only to feed the hungry and to bind up the wounded.” 1

Buck’s sentiments were echoed in a report called Re-Thinking Missions, a Laymen’s Inquiry after One Hundred Years. Seven denominations, including Presbyterians, had charged the Commission to offer “recommendations as to the extent to which missionary activities should be changed.” Perhaps our congregation studied the report in 1932 and debated its conclusions. The Inquiry commissioners visited missions in India Burma, Japan and China, where my great uncle happened to be a missionary at the time.

Although the commissioners observed that some missionaries were “of conspicuous power, true saintliness and a sublime spirit of devotion” [I am sure they were referring to my great uncle] they also reported that “the greater number seems to us of limited outlook and capacity” overwhelmed by “a task too great for their powers and their hearts …”2 Like Buck, the Laymen’s Inquiry concluded, that foreign missions and missionaries had to change to keep pace with developments in American theological outlook. Ironically, the Commission reported as settled by 1932, debates that continue to divide our churches and nation. According to the report:

Western Christianity has … passed through and beyond the stage of bitter conflict with the scientific consciousness … over details of the mode of creation, the age of the earth, the descent of man … to the stage of maturity in which a free religion and a free science become inseparable and complementary elements in a complete world-view. [Christianity now] has little disposition to believe that …seekers after God in other religions are to be

The Commission called for mission work that moved toward “greater faith in invisible successes … by cooperat[ing] whole-heartedly with non-Christian agencies for social improvement…”4;   I wonder how Buck’s speech and the report on Rethinking Missions shaped the thinking of our congregation in the 1930s. Did we take time each week, as we do now, to celebrate the wide and varied missions the Presbyterian Church pursues both here and abroad? Did we wonder whether our mission money was wisely spent? Did we believe, as the Laymen’s Commission concluded, that we urgently needed to cut waste and concentrate personnel and resources in our foreign educational missions?  I also wonder how these debates affected the missionaries themselves. Did they feel the criticisms unfair and their work undervalued?

In my research, I ran across an outline of a discussion led by Karla Koll at the 2009 World Mission Advocates Gathering. That gathering discussed the same questions Pearl Buck and the Laymen’s Com- mission addressed in the 1930s: what is the function of mission abroad? How do we work in partnership with other religions? How can we be respectful guests and witnesses of God’s love? At base, these conversations are timeless, and appropriately so.

1 G. Wacker, Pearl S. Buck and the Waning of the Missionary Impulse, printed in Church History 72:4 (December 2003), pp.861, 863-64.
2 Commission of Appraisal (W. Hocking, Chair), Re-thinking Missions, A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years (Harper&Bros. 1932) (“Re-thinking Missions”) at 15.
3 Re-thinking Missions at 19.
4 Id. at 326.

3. 1960s and 1970s (Chuck Foreman)

During the 1960s and ’70s there was much interest in our church in the policies of our national government.  The first big interest was in civil rights, with an effort to pass the Civil Rights Act.  A number of members of the church went to the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, for which there was a whole trainload from New Haven.  That was when Martin Luther King gave the famous “I Have A Dream” speech.  At other times church members went to call on Congressmen to get their vote in favor of the act and eventually it passed.

About the same time, there was great turmoil in New Haven over the trial of Bobby Seale, the head of the Black Panthers.  He was accused in complicity in the murder of a member of that group in New Haven.  A national rally was planned for the city by his supporters and people were expected to come from all over the country.  There was fear that there would be riots.  The shops on the Green were boarded up.  Troops with tanks were stationed on the streets near the Green.  The churches were faced with the question of whether they would lock their doors or would welcome the demonstrators.  Our church took a vote and by a narrow majority voted to welcome them and let them sleep in our building.  I do not think any of them came because Yale University adopted the same policy and provided not only sleeping space but food for the demonstrators.  The result of this was that the rally, which filled the Green, was entirely peaceful and good natured.

One other national policy was of special concern to us.  That was the nuclear arms race.  A demonstration of over one million people was held in New York calling for a nuclear freeze.  Our church was well represented there.  The freeze seems by now to have been accepted by our government.  There was also an effort by many churches and other groups to make a long ribbon of peace to be wrapped around the Pentagon in Washington D. C.   Various families in our church made sections of the ribbon with their own words on their section.  We had one section that was surely unique saying “make the world safe for triplets.”  This was, as you may guess, produced by a family with triplets.  A large delegation from our church went as a group to Washington D. C. and theirs, combined with all the other ribbons were brought, stretched round the Pentagon several times.

We were, as you see, a very active and dedicated congregation.

4. The Last Three Decades (Bruce Peabody)

The last three decades–our most recent history–have shown the validity of the vision of the original founders of this congregation.

These are years of long-term settled pastorates–Blair Moffett from 1979 to 1996 with Mary Thies from 1981 to 1996, and then Maria LaSala and Bill Goettler from 1998 through today. Blair and Mary left here to be co-pastors of the Presbyterian church in Stamford, not due to any theological disputes or pastor or congregation unhappiness. These long pastorates continued the trend which started with Douglas Nelson, who was pastor here from 1955 to 1978. So for the last 55 years–not just the last 30 years–the permanent pastors here have generally presided over a settled church.

One of the most recent interesting events was the search for new pastors after Blair and Mary’s departures. As the Presbytery requires after long-term pastorates, starting in 1996, with the departure of Blair and Mary for their new positions, the Church was led for two years by interim pastors. The role of the interim pastor is a difficult one, specifically designed to force the congregation to examine itself and try to figure out what the congregations’ needs and desires are for the coming years–not just accepting business as usual but really focusing on a vision of what the church should keep, should change, and should aspire to.

When this evaluation process was started in 1996–15 years ago–I was part of it, as were many people here today. (Raise hands!) It was a fascinating process; some of the conclusions that were reached were:

–This is not a big church, in part because Presbyterian churches are not native to New England and so are few and far between and in part because there are many wonderful other local congregations in this area. It is a church with members passionately devoted to attending worship and leading the congregation in the Presbyterian way. There is room to grow.
–Many members and worshippers here are from elsewhere in the United States and in the world, where there are more Presbyterians.
–This is an educated congregation, very verbal and very interested in not only the Word but in the World.

What is amazing to me, when I thought about it this week, was that these are the same terms which we heard describing the original worshippers who founded this congregation in 1885.

So in many ways the circle is unbroken and we have attained and retained many of the dreams which the original members surely had. We have learned as part of this Anniversary celebration that this congregation has grown and shrunk, built big buildings and small buildings, had balanced budgets and been broke, had more children in the church family and fewer children. But clearly God has been present with this congregation in the past, is present currently, and will be present during our next 150 years.