History

This article is based on information written by Church Historian Marjorie Melikian.

In the Beginning

Our church’s early history is intertwined with the early history of Newtown. In the spring of 1652, when this area was still a Dutch colony, a small number of English immigrants from New England and Hempstead, Long Island, got permission from Peter Stuyvesant, the director of the New Netherlands colony, to begin a settlement in a wilderness north of an earlier abandoned one in Maspeth. These new settlers set up a tiny village at what is now Queens Boulevard and Broadway, the area of our present church. They named the town Middleburgh, after a city in the Netherlands that had been a place of refuge for oppressed English Puritans.

Original church members were mainly English dissidents, only allowed in by the Dutch because of their similar Reformed religion. They came for religious freedom, as well as the chance for a new and better life in this new land. The first settlers of Newtown brought with them a pastor, suffered greatly during the Revolutionary War, to immediately establish a church as the backbone of the community. (Rev. Moore's descendant, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote the poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas.") The church was an all-purpose thatched roof building that also served as school, town hall, and manse.

After a huge English naval force sailed into the harbor in 1664, the Dutch surrendered control of New Netherlands, although many Dutch settlers remained. Then others joined the Newtown settlement – French Huguenots, Dutch Reformed, Church of England adherents, and others. However, they worshipped together until the early 1700s in Newtown’s only church – ours.

Religious Freedom

As disagreements developed, our church became involved with early arguments for freedom of religion, tolerance, and separation of church and state. In 1657, New Amsterdam Governor Peter Stuyvesant clamped down on religious diversity by banning non-conforming religions. In response, thirty people, including people who owned land in Newtown, wrote a petition to the governor. This document, which later became known as the Flushing Remonstrance, protested the governor’s decision to ban religious meetings that did not conform to the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1681 Newtown petitioned the state government to be exempt from the tax leveled on all to pay a minister’s salary, since it wasn’t fair to those who didn’t agree with the preaching. They wanted a free will offering instead. The legislature passed it, but the governor refused to sign it and arrested two Presbyterian pastors we asked to preach.

On Sept. 23, 1715, the church received a charter from the Presbytery of Philadelphia and became the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown. We still own the book of records begun that year.

The American Revolution

England’s policies toward the American colonies became more and more tyrannical and oppressive. A Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on September 4, 1774 to discuss what to do. As a protest they pledged not to buy tea or other imports from British possessions until the British repealed the tax laws. They also advised towns to set up committees to correspond and assist in the protests.

FPCN suffered greatly during the Revolutionary War because many of its members opposed British rule. At the urging of the Continental Congress in 1774, the church formed a Committee of Correspondence to communicate with other groups in the colonies who opposed British imperial policy.

The American Revolution was called the Presbyterian War by some because so many Presbyterians supported it. The Tories and British hated what our church stood for. Some young Tories came one night with a saw and a rope and actually sawed off the wooden steeple of our church as an insult. The British took it over and used it as a prison and guard house, removing the pews. They moved our pulpit to the front of the town house and used it as a post to hitch their horses. An English soldier accused of desertion was jailed in our church and later hanged from a nearby pear tree. Finally they tore down the church and used the wood to make huts for soldiers camped in back of Gen. Howe’s headquarters a couple blocks away.

After the war, only five members were left to start up the church again. But it rose to begin again. And someone saved our book of records from 1715, kept safe through British occupation, although with some pages from the war years cut out. In 1787 our members built a new church, which came to be known as the “Old White Church.” This building lasted until 1928, when it burned in a fire. The bell from that 1787 church was moved to our current brownstone sanctuary.

Recent research of our church records indicates that DeWitt Clinton attended FPCN and that his children were baptized in the church. Clinton was mayor of New York City, governor of New York, and a U.S. senator. He was responsible for the building of the Erie Canal, which opened up New York state to the midwest and made New York City into a great seaport. Clinton had a luxurious summer home in Maspeth.

Other Churches

FPCN members have left the church to form other churches in the New York area. In the early eighteenth century, settlers from Newtown and other areas of Long Island helped found Presbyterian churches in and around Hopewell, New Jersey. Several FPCN members founded the Union Evangelical Church of Corona. An African American church in Corona (in Queens, New York) was for a time affiliated with FPCN; during that time, this church was called the Second Presbyterian Church of Newtown.

Our members have been through several wars since then. They have also survived smallpox, other epidemics, earthquakes, Civil War demonstrations, and even slavery right here in Newtown. Our pastor during the Civil War, Rev. John Knox, supported the formation of the African country of Liberia, and was a mentor to one of its founders.

Our Present Church Building

We are now in our fifth church building, built in 1895 through the generous gift of John Goldsmith Payntar. Payntar was born in Newtown and spent his first 18 years here. There were several Payntars who were members of our church in the early 1800s, during the time of Rev. John Goldsmith. Payntar most likely was named in his honor.

He died in August 1891 and his will directed that $70,000 be used to cover the cost of building a new church, with any remainder put into a permanent fund for the maintenance of the church. Once the fund exceeded $10,000 it was to be used to buy an organ.

The church, which was built on the other side of the street from the Old White Church, originally had a huge steeple that doubled its height. The words "Payntar Memorial" are inscribed above the main entrance of the sanctuary. The Sellers & Ashley Company was paid for the stained glass windows, and the design is believed to be by Benjamin Sellers, who worked for Tiffany before starting his own business. He designed windows for several Presbyterian churches.

Twentieth-Century Change

Newtown remained a small town with farms until the late nineteenth century, when developer Cord Meyer started building several one-family houses in the heart of Newtown. Meyer used his political connections to change Newtown's name to Elmhurst. Many local institutions, such as Newtown High School, the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown, and the Grand Ave.-Newtown subway station (odd since the station was built well after the name change), still use the old name.

In 1924 our beautiful church was threatened when the city decided Queens needed a thoroughfare. The plans for Queens Boulevard ran right through our church. Previously it had been only two lanes.

At first they thought about leaving the church as an island in the middle of the road, but they eventually realized they needed to move it. So in 1924, all five million pounds were eased onto greased logs, and rolled, using hand winches, back about a half block onto a new foundation. It took a year to move and was done so slowly movement was imperceptible. It was considered a marvel of the times. At the same time the manse was also moved back about a half block, and turned around to face Seabury Street. In 1931, a church house was built behind the sanctuary. This new building had an auditorium with a stage, several classrooms, and a full kitchen. It is still used today.

During the pastorate of Rev. Dr. Howard Northacker, the church saw many changes. When he came in 1919, the First World War had just ended. Newtown was moving out of its sleepy farm village status. Railroads and bridges opened up Queens and people began to pour in. Builders began to buy up land. In 1929 came the Great Depression. World War II followed some years after. By the time Dr. Northacker retired in 1960, the church had grown tremendously.

The End of the Cemetery

Prior to this becoming a Presbyterian Church in 1715, almost everyone in our church had been buried in the old town cemetery at what is now a city playground on 56 Avenue and 92 Street, next to Newtown High School Athletic Field. But around 1822, land was donated for a cemetery next to the Old White Church.

This cemetery existed until 1958 with many members from 1822 through 1929 buried there, including Pastors Fish, Horton, Pumroy, and Goldsmith, Content Titus (one of our first three Elders), Phillipe Duvineer (who began the Deacons Fund for service to the poor), plus U.S. Senator James Lent (1830s). With the exception of Rev. Goldsmith and Sen. Lent, the others were all relocated from the town cemetery to honor them by being next to the church.

After the 1880s there were few new burials, with none recorded after 1929. For 30 years after the last burial, few came to visit the old graves, and the property was subject to much vandalism. In 1898 the church complained of cows and horses from the nearby Horsebrook Creek area getting into the cemetery. From the 1920s through the 1950s there were problems — vandals knocked over stones, defaced others and opened vaults, raiding the graveyard every Halloween and causing $6,000 damage one year. Trash was dumped there and it was becoming a nuisance to the church.

With no new income and too much to pay for upkeep, session approved the sale of the property to a real estate firm. In a note, the church’s lawyer advised that no attempt be made to stand fallen stones or repair them, since then the church would be required by law to move those stones, which would cost extra money. The church seems to have followed his advice, since only nine of the actual stones were moved, and those were mostly newer burials, which were also required to be moved by law.

The sale was approved by the Presbytery, the Supreme Court of New York, and the Department of Health. The church was paid a meager $187,500 for the property (compare that with the $1,000,000 offer for the church property), which was to be used to cover current expenses. Upon that site directly across the street from the present church now sits an apartment house. It is to be wished that somehow the church could have held onto its cemetery, as it did its church, and done more to preserve the stones which are part of its heritage and history. It was a great loss for little gain.

Attempts were made to contact any known relatives to see if they wanted to move the bodies elsewhere, and some were. For the remainder, 21 bodies and unidentified remains from six feet of earth of the entire cemetery were moved to Evergreen Cemetery, a beautiful old cemetery in Brooklyn, where most were buried in a common grave. Only the nine most recent burials have separate stones, and those are laid flat, sunk into the earth. A 4' x 6' x 5' gray granite monument was erected which bears the church’s name. The lot number is 51 Prospect Hill. The site is not far from the office, near the western wall.

An International Church

From its earliest days, Newtown has had inhabitants of several nationalities. When Rev. Charles L. Sorg became pastor in 1964, there was also a large Scottish, English, and German population. A change in immigration law in the 1960s resulted in Elmhurst becoming one of the most multicultural areas in the country. As Elmhurst became the most ethnically diverse community in the world, FPCN became the spiritual home of people from over 40 countries. In the 1980s, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, and New York Newsday published articles that featured FPCN's multicultural congregation. Today, the church retains its cultural diversity.