The multi-fold response of Williamsburg and Greenpoint evangelicals to the boom in population, diversity, and industry can been in the history of Throop Avenue Presbyterian Church, which started on the edges of Williamsburg that is now classified as a few blocks outside of Community District 1.
Looking back from the vantage point of 1899 after a lifetime as a pastor in Williamsburg, John D. Wells recalled that he had seen the whole history of the development of the Protestant churches in Williamsburg. “My memory,” he told an audience at Throop Presbyterian, covers the change from the village of Williamsburg to the city” and then as “part of the city of New York.”
During the boom years of the Civil War, his church, the South Third Street Presbyterian Church of Williamsburg, foresaw that the vast increase in the population with its national diversity and poverty and the increase in industrial enterprises meant that an English-speaking middle class church would need to change with the times. The residents of neighborhood had already become a majority of German-speakers. Additionally, his congregation had helped to increase the racial diversity of the area by investing in the African American community.
The church leaders noticed that southeast Wiliamsburg was becoming a frontier of sorts, with a mix of poor, the wretched and immigrants scattered in an almost rural environment. In order to reach out beyond their comfortable pews, the congregation decided to try to plant a church in the area. They proceeded like other evangelical churches had done in the 19th Century by first founding a Sabbath school. They found an empty storefront on Throop Avenue and Ellery Street. The idea was to gather in newly arrived immigrants, the poor, and youth to be taught by staff and volunteers from the South Third Street Church. Then, after gathering commitments from a critical mass, they would launch a church out of the Sunday school, probably using the same space. Storefront churches have been a hallmark of Williamsburg and Greenpoint for well over a hundred years. The Williamsburg Presbyterian Church founded at least four churches in this manner, including one in Greenpoint.
It took about ten years and a move to Hopkins Street, one block southeast of today’s Community District 1, but finally the Third Street Church thought that the situation was right for a church plant.
In the evening of January 28, 1862 Pastor Wells wrote in his diary about the moment, “First consultation with Brother James about organizing a church on Throop Avenue.” On June 6th a church plant was organized. By 1867 the congregation had grown enough that it revamped the building from a storefront Sunday School building into a chapel, later enlarging it two more times.
Many Germans had also started moving into the area, so the Sabbath school worked to help a group of them to start the German Presbyterian Church in 1868.
In 1873 a visionary pastor. Lewis Ray Foote, arrived to take charge. He discovered that the area was like living on an urban frontier. He recalled in 1899 that it was a “forlorn section of the city” in which “only the poor and wretched abided in the area before on.” The pastor was open-handed in reaching out to people outside of the church, and the response was quick growth. He promoted the founding of Mt. Olivet Sabbath School and Church in Bushwick in 1882. However, the church on Throop Avenue quickly filled up again. One national evangelical leader proclaimed, Throop Avenue church sure knows “how to reach the masses.”
So much so, that it needed a new building, which it built in 1889. The new building was a few blocks closer to downtown Brooklyn, a fact that made it convenient for middle class Presbyterians in Williamsburg to move out to “the suburbs.” The Williamsburg Bridge not only brought many new settlers to the shores of the East River, but also quickened the move of middle and upper classes to suburban Brooklyn, particularly Bushwick, and to Queens, particularly to Maspeth and Elmhurst.
The Throop Avenue church opened the storefront-turned-chapel on Hopkins Street, to many groups who needed cheap space to start up their enterprises. It housed several more German organizations including the German Baptist Church and the German YMCA. An African American church also met there for awhile. In fact one of the larger donations which the Throop Street church made in its early years was to support African freedmen after the Civil War. The church was also a strong supporter of missionaries around the world, particularly China. However, there were some signs that the early Twentieth Century would be troublesome for the evangelicals of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
Immigration meant that churches had to move faster to accommodate new cultures and languages while the original congregation might not be willing or able to make those changes. Other stressors were the cycle of economic crises and growing inequality. Theological divisions were also taking their toll, and opponents of the large role of evangelicals in the city were growing in strength. In 1894 a dark cloud hung over Brooklyn that seemed symbolic of troubles to come. The massive Brooklyn Tabernacle, the largest wooden structure in the United States, burned down for the third time, possibly by arson. The event cast a pall over the evangelicals of Brooklyn. Its pastor who was one of the cutting edge evangelical leaders among the older generation emerged from the disaster a broken man. Still, at this point the Brooklyn religionists didn’t forsee the terrible success of the coming Twentieth Century modernism -- successful in its creative culture, but terrible in its crises.
By 1899 Throop Presbyterian had much to be optimistic about. It had around 2200 adult members, several sister churches, and a network of churches and ministries of various denominations that it had helped. The legendary hymn writer Fanny Crosby dedicated "Our Joyful Song" to honor the Sunday School leader at Throop. But a pastoral speaker took the occasion of the church’s jubilee celebration to sound an alarm. He pointed out that social problems were growing and that there was a deterioration of morality among the capitalist class in Manhattan. He asked the congregation to stand up against the “wicked monopolies and trusts” and the “great cleavage between the rich and the poor.”
The German evangelical churches too faced some particular problems that challenge immigrant churches. There was a growing clamor from the second generation for the use of English and other Americanized worship practices. The trend started in 1878 at the German Evangelical Lutheran St. Peter’s Church on Bedford Avenue in the Flatbush-Crown Heights area. Toward the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century English worship styles avalanched over the first generation’s objections. On October 10, 1903 a reporter for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle observed, “The past five years have witnessed the development of English Lutheranism.” With fifty-one congregations the Lutherans were the second largest Protestant group in Brooklyn, the paper noted.
Other churches also had to respond to the migration of their middle and upper class members out of the Williamsburg and Greenpoint area. Several churches sold their buildings to new groups, particularly to new immigrant groups and to Jews for synagogues. In 1904 the German Evangelical Church moved and sold its building on Hopkins Avenue to the Brooklyn American-Roumanian Church. Some churches merged. In one unsuccessful merger negotiation, the leaders of the Ross Street Presbyterian Church and the First Reformed Church of Williamsburg told the The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in November 1904 that their move was “owing to the shifting population of the district.”
The small number of Messianic Jews and their allies in Williamsburg had an outsized influence in the church at large. They encouraged a successful effort in May 1916 to have the Presbyterian Church USA to petition the U.S. government to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
The Williamsburg and Greenpoint evangelicals’ dream of a new Jerusalem would come true but only after a horrible war and the slaughter of the innocents.
In two weeks "Hispanic evangelicals gather and launch churches in Williamsburg and Greenpoint"
Also see the other features in our series "A Journey through Williamsburg & Greenpoint religions" --