The faith-flavored identity of New York City was decided on the frontiers of social controversy in religious places like the evangelical Protestant churches of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
Early settlers in the area held private Sunday services in their homes or took a wagon trip to the Dutch Church in Bushwick. The center of social life revolved around these gatherings and at other churches as they were founded. It is likely that each Dutch family, each with “its own retinue of jolly Negroes,” as a historian put it, rotated Sunday services between their houses. In the 18th Century some Lenape Indians also converted to Christianity. Already we see some of the elements of controversy about New York City identity that would crescendo into a full fight in the 19th Century.
Is New York City a mono-ethnic Dutch Calvinist or English Protestant Anglican/Episcopalian city? Not for long. What is the role of religious faith in the making of urban identity? It seems to be a pretty large role because as the population grew, the religious groups gained strength and diversification. But both the population and religious increases were fraught with controversy, particularly in regard to full acceptance of African Americans and new immigrants and religious diversification.
In its earliest years Williamsburg stepped out of a religious identity rooted in New York City’s traditional denominations like the Dutch Reformed and Anglican (Episcopal) churches.
In A History of the City of Brooklyn Henry Reed Stiles says that the first place of public worship in Williamsburg was the Methodist Episcopal Church which was organized in 1807. The congregation then built a Greek revival-style building in 1837. The Methodist denomination was a quite controversial evangelical offshoot from the traditional state-support Anglican Church in England and established six other churches, including the Eighteenth Street Methodist Church at which the noted photojournalist Jacob Riis converted to evangelical Christianity in 1874. The Methodists’ open air evangelism among the lower classes scandalized many church goers among the elite classes. Worse, lay Methodists and Baptists in England were noted for their organizing efforts in the trade unions. Methodist women like hymn-writers Lydia Cox of Williamsburg and her friend Phoebe Palmer pushed women forward as leaders in the evangelical movement.
Then, in 1828 the Reformed Dutch Church of Williamsburg was founded as an alternative to the freer liturgical ways of the Methodists. An English-culture high church with its more formal liturgies was organized in 1837 in the form of an Episcopal church. Another religious difference also arose among the evangelicals of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
The Methodists inclined toward “sprinkling” - a few drops of the head of the congregant - as a proper baptism. However, some believed that there should be a more robust symbolism of a new start to life so they preferred a full immersion to represent the cleansing of Christ. When they looked at the East River, they imagined John the Baptist at the Jordan River. This group formed the Williamsburg Bethel Independent Church in 1839 which became the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg. Such differences were a part of a national trend toward a denominational consciousness. Economic trends also contributed to a religious diversification among evangelicals.
The Panic of 1837 collapsed the land prices in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. However, as it happened later in Harlem during economic crashes, African Americans got a rare opportunity to pick up affordable housing. Real estate dealers were more willing to wave their discriminatory policies in order to move goods that whites weren’t buying. Williamsburg and Greenpoint became one of the two main centers of African American settlement in Brooklyn.
The Sabbath (Sunday) school movement in Williamsburg and Greenpoint was also growing rapidly as a counter to developments like the industrialization of child labor. The Sabbath school leaders insisted that child laborers should at least get one day off a week so that they could get religious and secular education. One effective teacher Lydia N. Cox was also a popular hymn writer for the schools and recruited the help of an even more famous Brooklyn hymn writer Phoebe Palmer who wrote the music to “Blessed Assurance.” As the Sabbath schools grew, churches were spun off to accommodate the increasing demand for Sunday services.
Recognizing that it was becoming an urban, industrial settlement, Williamsburg, named after its surveyor who became the first superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, incorporated as a separate town in 1840.
Typical of evangelicalism, as the population became larger and the churches became more diverse, their unity was tied together by common meetings to debate issues, multi-denominational mission societies, and revival meetings. Even within the same ethnic group, evangelicals needed places where they could discuss their differences. The tremendously popular Second Great Awakening caused many public meetings in New York City about how to” get right with Jesus” and be a better neighbor. Toward the end of the awakening, several ecstatic movements were spun off into different theological directions.
Because the evangelicals were used to hearing about these new ideas in large joint public gatherings, it is not surprising that in Williamsburg there were masses of locals from the various churches gathering together during 1843-1844 to debate whether Jesus would soon touch down in his Second Coming. A few years earlier, Charles Finney, the most famous evangelical preacher in America, had told evangelical leaders in New York City that “If the church will do all her duty, the millennium may come in this country…” Now, an upstate New York movement sparked by the teachings of William Miller caused a flurry of excitement in Williamsburg streets when Miller allowed that Jesus’ coming (“the Advent”) could be in that year. Other local pastors denounced the speculative setting of dates based on abstruse numerological calculations. The eschatological predictions didn't come true, but some took Miller’s ideas as the foundation for new religious movements like the Seventh Day Adventists.
The evangelicals from the different denominations also joined to establish the Williamsburg Bible Society in 1845 in order to promote the distribution and reading of the Bible, and soon kicked off a missionary society for evangelization. They also established a Williamsburg Temperance Society to promote healthy usage of alcohol (over the course of the 19th Century the temperance movement in NYC divided between those focused on prevention of alcoholism and those in favor of prohibition of the alcoholic beverages). This was a period when evangelicals praised strenuous involvement in helping the poor, abused and downtrodden in many ways.
For example, one successful coal trader named Sylvester Tuttle worried about the conditions of the poor in Williamsburg. A local reporter reported that Tuttle, a member of the evangelical Methodist church on Fifth Street who also helped to build St. John’s Methodist Episcopal Church on Bedford Avenue, had a “strong religious feeling, which became the controlling element in his character.” Consequently, Tuttle was personally very involved in helping the very poor and homeless who came to the North Third Street Mission.
Williamsburg Christians also promoted the distribution of Bibles to African Americans, particularly among those former and escaped slaves from the South. Slave-masters forbade their slaves from reading the Bible, fearing the social leavening effect of its story that all humans are descended from the same origins in the Garden of Eden. Noted scientists like Joseph and John LeConte, who graduated from what became Columbia University’s medical school, admitted that African Americans might be human but as “children of the human race,” they should not be frustrated with books too advanced for their understanding. The slave issue would dominate Williamsburg-Greenpoint evangelicals attention in the coming years.
Also see previous features on A Journey through Williamsburg and Greenpoint religions:
Illustrated Explorer's Guide to Williamsburg & Greenpoint. Think of Brooklyn Community District 1 as a city with over 173,000 people in 2010;
Surprising truth about Billburg & Greenpoint: thick with religious faith and practice. There are over 300 religious organizations in the area; and
The Jews of Williamsburg & Greenpoint. About 61,000 Jews live in the NYC community district of Williamsburg-Greenpoint.
The evangelical Christians of Williamsburg-Greenpoint. There are sixty-four evangelical Christian congregations in Williamsburg-Greenpoint.
Next week: Slavery and evangelicals in Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
For further reading:
Carroll S. Rosenberg, Religion and the rise of the American city: the New York City Mission Movement, 1812-1870, 1971.