Title: Important Ecclesiastical Gathering at Jamaica, L. I.
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: January 9, 1862
Publication information: Brooklyn City News 9 January 1862: 2.
Source: Transcribed from a digital image of the original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00243
Contributors to digital file: Ashley Lawson and Brett Barney
cropped image 1
IMPORTANT ECCLESIASTICAL GATHERING AT JAMAICA, L.I.
Something Unprecedented on this Continent—A Thriving Institution Celebrates its 200th Birthday—Remarkable Collection of Queens and Kings County's Oldest Families—A Long Island Historic and Antiquarian Discourse by Rev. Jas. M. McDonald, of Princeton, N. J., &c.
OLDEST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN AMERICA.
Probably the most interesting, and in some respects important ecclesiastical celebration ever known on Long Island, is one now being held at the beautiful village of Jamaica, Queens county—the exercises of which commenced on Tuesday last, were actively kept up yesterday and to-day, with a probability, we understand, that the affair will be closed either this evening or to-morrow. It is in honor of the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the first Presbyterian church on the American Continent, which is the church at Jamaica, established 1662—the first nursling planted on these shores, and now become the venerable parent and grandparent, in some sort, of some five thousand five hundred goodly offshoots!1
The celebration we allude to is held in the old Presbyterian edifice in Jamaica, built in 1814, on the foundation stones of its predecessor, built in 1693. The occasion has collected together, in a sort of friendly, historic and religious gathering, all the pastors, elders, old families, and their descendants of this ancient church—the children who have moved away and grown up, and all the old living communicants, and indeed all who are identified with Presbyterianism, as far as may be, in this section of the United States. Especially have the western portions of Queens County, and fragments from the bordering region of Kings, come forward to be represented together at Jamaica the past three days. The old names of Jamaica, Rockaway, Hempstead, &c., loom up in force. There are the Dentons, Everitts, Higbies, Creeds, Newtons, Baylises, Lambersons, Ryders, Millses, Herrimans, Smiths, Coes, Rhodeses, Carpenters, Wigginses, Carmans, Fosters, Onderdonks, Simonsons, Fosdicks, Messengers, &c., &c. There are the venerable Dr. Shelton, so well known in Queens County as a physician, and Senator James Ryder; and of both these gentlemen their estimable and hospitable families.2
The whole affair is deeply significant, in connection with the early history of this end of Long Island. As one link of a chain holds together all the rest, and cannot be separated from them, the old Long Island reminiscences and antiquarian facts, (some of them of more than ordinary importance,) ventilated yesterday and the day before in the exercises at Jamaica, really deserve to have been collected and put in a volume, as giving the clue to all departments of our early history, for the use of that part of Queens and Kings counties, at any rate.3 But as such formal record is not likely to be had, we will make a brief abstract of the proceedings, for current use, if no further.
TABLETS OF RECORD.
The Presbyterian society of Jamaica, have lately put up two handsome marble tablets, in the walls of their church, one on each side of the pulpit, on which are inscribed the names, with dates of the period of ministry, and death, of all their clergymen, from 1666 down to the present time. These tablets, make a kind of biography and chronology of the society for a couple of centuries, from Rev. Zachariah Walker, at the date above mentioned, down to Rev. E. W. Crane, who died in 1840.4 The putting up of such tablets would be a very good custom for some other of our old churches.
OPENING EXERCISES—VENERABLE BOOKS.
At the opening of the exercises on Tuesday, the prayer was made by the Rev. Nicholas Everett Smith. The Scriptures were read out of a Bible considerably older than the beginning of the Revolutionary war, and the hymn was recited out of an antique "Sternhold & Hopkins," printed in [1714?] , before the lyric Watts was born.5
The Rev. Mr. Oakey, the present pastor of the church, then made a brief address of welcome to all those who had gathered together.6 He spoke of the tablets above alluded to, of the religious, social, historic, local, and antiquarian nature of the meeting, which was in some respects unprecedented on this island, or perhaps in America. The past and present were represented here. On the tablets were the names of nineteen ministers, in regular succession; but there were others now living, who would in due time have their names inscribed thereon.
DISCOURSE OF THE DAY.
Next came the main event of the occasion, a historic and antiquarian discourse, (and more than that) from Rev. James M. McDonald, formerly of Jamaica, now of Princeton, N.J.7 The general theme of the discourse was announced to be "the relation of the permanent to the transient, or the gains over losses in history." The text was Ecclesiastes, 1st and 4th:
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever.
We cannot do justice to this beautiful and valuable discourse, but will merely transcribe a few portions, perhaps without furnishing the due connection. The transient nature of earthly things was dwelt upon, and yet human institutions maintain, in one way or another, the rule of inheritance. Removed as we are from old Egypt, Greece, &., we find engrafted to-day on our own affairs all that is valuable belonging to them; such for instance as the family institution. Forms change, but the substance remains. Progress is surely made, no matter if it be slow. The very decay of the past contributes to our own vigorous life.
A rapid birds-eye view was given of the condition of the world at the time of the outset of this Presbyterian church, 200 years ago—with little thumb-nail sketches of England, Russia, Holland, France, Louis XIV, Cromwell, the Stuarts, &c. In America, religion was in embryo. John Elliot's Indian testament had been printed here, but no English copy of the Scriptures had yet been printed.8 Jamaica had been settled in 1656; Hempstead about twelve years before. The Dutch church at Brooklyn existed.9 (Query—Is not this, now the Joralemon street church, really the oldest society, coming down in an unbroken line, now on the island?)10
At the first establishment of Europeans here, they found a tribe, or branch, called the Yemakah Indians—from whence the name of the town was afterwards corrupted to its present form.11 The aborigines here were soon subdued by Capt. Underhill and others, and the settlement increased apace.12 But how very humble the appearance of it in that day. The houses were one story, of logs, covered with thatch. In imagination, one of these houses was entered, and curiously scanned. The food was such as venison, fish, clams, &c. Bread was scarce. For dinner, Indian pudding was a common dish. The old gun, a flint-lock, stood in the corner, ready for killing the grim wolf or wild cat—or, if need, the prowling savage. The costume of the goodman and goodwife and their family were described—something very different from the dress of to-day, as may be imagined. The man's dress was composed largely of leather and skins. No cotton, and no fine broadcloth. Everybody went armed.
The settlement had already about 435 inhabitants. They were of superior stamp, English, Huguenots, Scotch, and some from Germany and Holland. Imagine a group of them conversing in some one's house, of a summer evening, or winter night. Some had been in Cromwell's battles—others in the great movements on the Continent. One had seen the execution of the ill-starred Charles the First.13 Some had seen a witch burnt—and then they all told stories of witchcraft.
Then the scene of a Sabbath morning was curious enough, from our modern point of view. Abraham Smith beats the drum to call the people together for the meeting, which now, (1693) is held in quite a handsome stone church.14 The solid townsmen arrive, dressed in small clothes, with silver buckles, and wearing three cornered cocked hats, some with ruffles at their wrists and swords at their sides. Some of the women are in brocade with hoop'd petticoats. Yet there was no gaudiness on the sabbath—the apparel was plain, though rich. Still they keep on arriving—and all this while "Abraham Smith beats the drum." In the church as the exercises commence, an hour-glass, filled with sand, is put beside the preacher, to give him note of the passing time. The attendance of the people and their families is compulsory.
Daniel Denton, who wrote the earliest History of New York, (published in London, 1670, and valued by American Antiquarians,) was the town clerk of Jamaica.15 The records he kept of the town still exist, though dimly legible in parts. During the seven years following 1680, there were 27 marriages, 71 baptisms, and 23 burials.
The discourse then glanced at the causes which led our forefathers to emigrate here. Considerable space was given to the local outrage attempted, from 1703 to nearly 1730, in ousting the Presbyterians from their church, parsonage, and glebe land, by the party of the church of England, led on by Gov. Cornbury. It ended, however, in the resumption of their rights at last by the Presbyterian Society. Jamaica, it was claimed, has been eminently and distinctly Presbyterian from the beginning.
The celebrated Whitfield preached here in 1740, and again in 1764.16 It was mentioned that one of the last converts made by this celebrated religionist died in 1840, an aged lady of 93 years, having been a communicant to this church for the 76 preceding years.
And now since the inauguration of this first Presbyterian Church, how rapidly have its doctrines spread and grown in America. There are now 8,000 churches, 5,500 ministers, and 775,000 communicants—more than double all those existing in the entire of Great Britain and its provinces. The church property in this country is valued at fourteen and a half millions of dollars.
The discourse, in drawing toward a close, said that no gulf ever really separates one generation from another. The speaker took a cheerful view of life, and of human affairs—encouraging all to hope through the present crisis of the nation.
(We have not been able at all to do justice to this sermon. It ought to be printed in a volume, for permanent preservation.)
WEDNESDAY'S AND TO-DAY'S PROCEEDINGS.
There was a meeting yesterday, at the Church, of the clergymen, elders, families, vistors, &c. Reminiscences were given by Elder Dr. Shelton, who has been an officer of the church the past 40 years.17 Rev. Messrs. Chase, Higbie, and Everett spoke.18
Rev. Dr. Krebs preached a sermon last night; but our space forbids us to make a report of it.19
To-day, the celebration continues, with formal and informal proceedings, of an appropriate nature. The Lord's Supper is arranged to be administered this afternoon. The Jamaica Church has sent out some twenty-five or thirty ministers; many of these are represented here. Rev. Mr. Breed represents the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and Mr. Reeve that of Long Island.20 The family list of those present at this celebration would almost make a history of this [end?] of our island.
A CONCLUDING REMARK.
Thus have closed, or rather will close (for they are yet going on while we publish our report), these most interesting exercises. They are really worth the attention of the Long Island public, including our good people of Brooklyn; and from points irrespective of the ecclesiastical history of this quarter of our island. They expand into larger proportions. They seem to indicate a sample and contribution of the foreground so needed for our country's history—our past. For who shall say, looking back over this island, with all the stirring, eventful, most romantic and rapidly progressive incidents of its life, occupying now nearly two hundred and fifty years of by-gone time, but that the needed foreground we speak of, will soon be fully supplied? And what are we about this day but making the grandest history?
1. The First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica was organized in 1662, and the church building served a number of municipal purposes for the town. A new stone church was built in 1699 (Whitman’s date of 1693 appears to be incorrect) with tax revenue. Some stones from this building were used in the foundation of its replacement, which was dedicated on January 18, 1814. [back]
2. Nathan Shelton, M.D. practiced medicine for more than fifty years in Jamaica and was an elder in the Presbyterian Church for more than forty years. Senator James Rider represented the First Senatorial District of New York, having been elected to the Assembly in 1854. He was a deputy of the Sons of Temperance organization and a deacon in the Presbyterian Church. [back]
3. Several more detailed accounts were, in fact, collected and published as an appendix to James M. MacDonald's Two Centuries in the History of the Presbyterian Church, Jamaica, L. I. (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1862), 264–329. [back]
4. Rev. Zachariah Walker was the first pastor and licentiate of the Jamaica church (which was of an informal Presbyterian persuasion). He served from 1663 to 1668. Elias W. Crane, a Princeton-educated minister, was installed as pastor of the Jamaica church in October 1826, where he remained for fourteen years, until his death. [back]
5. Whitman likely refers to Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins’s 1562 work, The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Collected into English Meter, which is known as the first Psalm-Book, a metrical version of the Psalter used in public worship. The work has been frequently criticized for a lack of poetic feeling in its verses. "Watts" is probably Issac Watts, an English theologian and hymnwriter, known as the "Father of English Hymnody." [back]
6. Rev. Peter D. Oakey was the successor of Rev. James M. McDonald, mentioned below. He served in the ministry for twenty years. [back]
7. Rev. James M. McDonald was installed as minister of the Jamaica church in 1841, after Elias W. Crane’s death. He served until 1850, when he was transferred to New York. [back]
8. John Eliot translated various religious texts into the Massachusetts dialect of the Algonquian language. His translations of the New Testament and the Old Testament were issued in 1661 and 1663, respectively, [back]
11. This assertion is incorrect. The name—which alternately was spelled “Jameco,” “Jemeco,” or “Yemacah”—derives from a word used by the indigenous peoples meaning “place of the beavers.” [back]
12. In 1644 Captain John Underhill led forces against a group of American Indians, killing about 120. Today he is best known as the head of a militia responsible for the "Mystic Massacre," in which settlers attacked a village near what is now Mystic, Connecticut, killing about 400 Pequot. He later led other attempts to find and kill surviving members of the tribe. [back]
13. Charles I was King of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1625 until 1649, when he was tried for high treason and executed. [back]
14. An Abraham Smith is included in a list of men who petitioned Governor Peter Stuyvesant to settle in this area of Long Island and whom Peter Ross calls “the first citizens of Jamaica” (549). James Madison MacDonald reproduces town records from January 30, 1662 which state: “The town do give Abraham Smith 30s. for beating the drum a year.” Another, from January 29, 1663, reads: “It is voted by the town, that Abraham Smith shall have 30s. a year for beating the drum upon Sabbath days, and other public meeting days." See Peter Ross, A History of Long Island: from Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1902), 1:15; and James Madison MacDonald, A Sketch of the History of the Presbyterian Church, in Jamaica, L.I., (New York: Lewitt, Trow & Co., 1847). [back]
15. Daniel Denton wrote A Brief Description of New York, Formerly Called New Netherlands With the Places Thereunto Adjoining, Likewise a Brief Relation of the Customs of the Indians There, published in 1670 and intended to promote the region to Englishmen considering settlement in the area that had been recently acquired by the English from the Dutch. [back]
16. Whitman presumably refers here to the Reverend George Whitfield, a clergyman of the Church of England, who arrived in North America in 1738. He was known for preaching at highly attended gatherings throughout the colonies. He died on September 30, 1770. [back]
17. Nathan Shelton, M. D. (1784–1864) practiced medicine in Jamaica for over five decades. [back]
18. "Chase" is a blunder for "Crane." Rev. Elias N. Crane (1827–1895), who was at this time pastor of the Presbyterian Church in New Vernon, N. J., was the son of Rev. Elias W. Crane (1796–1840), who had been a pastor at the Jamaica Church. Rev. Daniel Higbie (1816–1867) was pastor at the Second Presbyterian Church at Washingtonville, NY, from 1858 until his death. "Everett" (also spelled "Everitt") may refer either to Rev. Benjamin S. Everett (1832–1910), who was born in Jamaica and was currently pastor at the Presbyterian Church in Blackwoodtown, N. J., or to Rev. Nicholas Everitt Smith (1820–1890), another Jamaica native, then pastor at the Reformed Dutch Church in Brooklyn. Both spoke at the meeting. See Chambers, Rev. Theodore F., Proceedings of the Centennial Anniversary of the Presbyterian Church at Sparta, N. J., (New York: The Williams Printing Company, 1887), 52; Murgatroyd, Rev. E. R., Annals of the Village and of the Presbyterian Church of New Vernon, N. J., (Morristown, N. J.: The Jerseyman, 1893), 34; and Scheaeffer, Rev. Casper, Memoirs and Reminiscences together with Sketches of the Early History of Sussex County, New Jersey, (Hackensack, N. J.: n.p., 1907), 149. [back]
19. Rev. John M. Krebs (1804–1867) was pastor of the Rutgers Street Presbyterian Church in New York City and served in several capacities on the Presbyterian Church General Assembly and Princeton Theological Seminary boards. [back]
20. Rev. William P. Breed, pastor of the West Spruce Street Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, was a regular correspondent with the New York Evangelist as late as 1881. Rev. William B. Reeve (1812–188) was pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Quogue, a village on the southern shore of Long Island. [back]