The First Presbyterian Church of Newtown (FPCN) is the oldest Presbyterian church in New York City and the fourth oldest Presbyterian church in the United States. The first building in 1652 was a combination church, town hall, parsonage, and courthouse located on present-day Broadway around Dongan Street in Elmhurst. The Quakers, in Flushing, did not build their meeting house until 40 years later. The Presbyterian church in Jamaica was founded in 1656.
FPCN traces its origins to the village church in what would later be called Newtown. In 1652, English settlers founded the village of Middleburgh on western Long Island. The settlers sometimes referred to the village as New Towne (later spelled Newtown) to distinguish it from an earlier abandoned English settlement in the same area. They soon built a town church erected on land purchased from Native Americans. This church building also served as school, court house, town hall and a home for the minister.
John Moore was the Newtown church's first minister. (Rev. Moore's descendant, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote the poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas.") On Sept. 23, 1715, the church received a charter from the Presbytery of Philadelphia and became the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown.
The Newtown church was an early advocate of religious freedom in America. When Rev. Moore died in 1657, New Amsterdam Governor Peter Stuyvesant clamped down on religious diversity by banning non-conforming religions. The Remonstrance for Religious Freedom was signed by several people from Newtown, Jamaica, and Flushing. In 1681, Newtown's citizens voted that their church should be supported by free will offerings, not by taxes as was customary.
Church members protested when the New York Assembly passed the Ministry Act of 1693. Under this act, New Yorkers were to be taxed to support a minister in each county. Suspecting that the Assembly was trying to force the many non-Anglicans in Queens County to support a minister from the Church of England, the Newtown church asked two members to ask the Assembly to exempt Newtown. The Assembly agreed to exempt the town, but the governor refused to recognize the exemption.
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.
When the British captured Newtown during the war, they made life miserable for FPCN's members. British troops imprisoned many church members, removed the church pews, used the church as a prison, and later demolished the church completely, salvaging a part of the pulpit for a horse post.
Four years after the Revolution ended, the congregation erected a new church building, later dubbed the Old White Church.
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.
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.
During the nineteenth century, FPCN became one of the largest churches on Long Island with a distinguished line of pastors. One of them was the Rev. John P. Knox, a southerner who served during the Civil War. He was one of the founders of the nation of Liberia and helped organize one of the first universities in sub-Saharan Africa.
John Goldsmith Payntar, a member of the church, left $70,000 in his will for the erection of a new sanctuary for FPCN. The current brown stone sanctuary was dedicated in 1895. The words "Payntar Memorial" are inscribed above the main entrance of the sanctuary. FPCN continued to use the Old White Church as a Sunday School until 1928, when the White Church suffered serious damage in a fire. It was demolished the following year.
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 the 1920s, FPCN's sanctuary was moved back 125 feet to accommodate New York City's plans to widen Queens Boulevard. This was an engineering marvel, since the church building weighed five million pounds. During the widening, the sanctuary lost its steeple. 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.
As late as the 1960s, FPCN's members were primarily of European descent. After Charles Sorg became minister in 1965, the percentage of FPCN members from Asia, Africa, and Latin America increased dramatically. 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.
The celebration for FPCN's 350th anniversary began in 1995, when FPCN celebrated the 100th anniversary of its sanctuary. Under the guidance of the recently formed Historical Committee, the church began consolidating its archives and documenting the church's history. We had a special weekend celebration of the 350th anniversary on Oct. 12-14, 2002. In addition, a Sunday School concert took place on Sun. Oct. 20. Prior pastors, Presbytery leaders, local church pastors, and politicians celebrated with us.