Through videos, a 200-year-old Brooklyn church explores the history of abolition and activism


‘The Presbyterian church is like a hickory stick’ said a 19th century newspaper, ‘useful but easily split’

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

The gospel choir at First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York, is ranked among the best in New York by WLIB. (Photo by Jim Johnson)

DECATUR, Georgia —  “On Sunday, March 10, 1822, four men and six women swore an oath together in district school #1 on the corner of Concord and Adams Street in the village of Brooklyn,” reads Collette Foster, a member of First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, New York, in a video series celebrating the congregation’s bicentennial. “Their idea,” Foster continues, “was to organize a house of worship and to found the only Presbyterian church in their settlement of 7,000 people.” Today, “First Brooklyn,” as members call it, now registers 228 members in a borough with a population of nearly 2.6 million. In its first few decades, the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn swelled to 600 members before it split in a schism. For a period of 30 years, there were, as a result, two “First Presbyterian” churches of Brooklyn. The membership quickly recouped under an abolitionist pastor, the Rev. Samuel Cox, and boasted a membership of 800 in the early- and mid-1800s.

The founding members “swore an oath to covenant with God and each other, to walk together as brothers and sisters in the Lord, according to the faith and form of government of the Presbyterian Church.” The series, entitled “A Journey of Faith,” draws a connection between the faith required to start and sustain a church with that needed to navigate life in a growing American city. Mary Robinson and Erik Brogger, a married couple and ruling elders in the church, researched and wrote the script for each of these videos, which run an average of 10 minutes each.

Chris Neuner is the church’s media and technical director. (Photo by Jim Johnson)

Each episode explores a specific era in the history of the United States and Brooklyn, relating these to particular challenges faced by the church. In PBS documentary-style, producer Chris Neuner, the church’s media and technical director, features images of session records, published sermons, city documents, old maps, architectural drawings, sepia-tinged photographs, oil portraits of former pastors and calligraphy-printed tracts to illustrate the films. These primary records show a congregation thrust into the center of a world full of constant change and contradiction.

The story of the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn shares so much of its conflicts and resolutions with the wider Presbyterian denomination and with the democratic experiment of America that a viewer would be hard-pressed to argue, as many Christians today believe, that the sermons and the witness of a congregation can be ahistorical and apolitical. Core theological questions and practical concerns are lifted up in every era that echo those facing new worshipping communities and established congregations today.

The first video covers the period in which Brooklyn transitioned from a small hamlet into “America’s first suburb.” The 10 founding members raised money in just 13 months to build and dedicate a building before finding a new Princeton seminary graduate to serve as their minister.

The village and congregation struggled through the financial hardships left in the wake of the War of 1812, weathered the yellow fever epidemic, saw farmland parceled off into lots organized into a grid system and experienced the shortened commutes across the East River of a newly invented steam ferry.

A diverse group of speakers narrate the brief but broad history of the place where their church first witnessed to the gospel. Jane Francis, who has served on several church committees over the decades, delights in sharing a detail that church ancestors took the time to include on the record about neighborhood livestock: “Something had to be done about the swine problem on Hicks Street.” Her chuckles reveal that so much and yet not much at all has changed in the work of a church responding to the gospel in its particular neighborhood.

Subsequent videos explore the effects that cholera, child labor, and the Civil War had on the spiritual and physical realities of the congregation. Ruth Cheng, a young student, tells the story of the congregation’s second minister, the Rev. Joseph Sanford, who after losing his young wife started the first Sunday school in the area to address “the weekly overflowing of the lava from the great volcano of vice and immorality in our immediate vicinity.”

Later in the series, the “immoral volcano” is recast not just through the lens of personal piety but by acknowledging the systemic abuses of poverty like domestic violence, sex trafficking and child labor that affected U.S. cities in those early years.

In 1827, New York state abolished slavery. Within a few years, First Presbyterian Church called “the most outspoken abolitionist as pastor, Rev. Samuel Hansen Cox,” who was targeted in riots and his house ransacked for his abolitionist views. “What grieves me so much is to see so many ministers of the gospel engaged in the matter — inspiring, countenancing and endorsing the outrages of the mob.” But the spoils of slavery surrounded and infiltrated the congregation through the increasing wealth of the neighborhood and the harbor full of goods imported from Southern plantations: cotton, sugar, tar and turpentine.

“The fruits of slavery were ubiquitous,” said Marta Nelson, former clerk of session. Zuri Turrell, a young adult and new member of the congregation, asked, “How then could one begin to unstitch the tightly woven fabric of racism?” Nelson responds: “That would remain an unanswered question and it would continue to follow First Church into the future.”

The video does not shy away from this question as it discusses the major movements of the nation’s history and how they impacted Brooklyn Heights, considered a “residential district” of Wall Street. Narrators consider how early church members might have reaped the rewards of progress from the invention of electrical devices and the transcontinental railroad while displacing thousands of Native Americans and sacrificing the lives of Chinese rail workers to the cause of American westward expansion during the “so-called Gilded Age.” For First Church, “it would be a time of critical self-examination,” as the Rev. Adriene Thorne describes the 35 years between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century, “when the church would lose its choir, its pastor and, for a brief time, lose its way, only to find a new pathway and reconceive itself as a church that is more than windows and wood but also a sanctuary of the spirit, called to expand to the Brooklyn streets.”

Narrators of these videos, church members of all ages, races, genders and sexualities, reflect on the ways their church did and didn’t preach the good news in a particular place and time. Brogger and Robinson mine the primary material to illustrate the highs and lows of a congregation who, according to its website, “was established in Brooklyn in 1822 and has been in continuous existence ever since.”

The congregation does not forget to celebrate the humor in its history. One example: the time the Rev. Dr. Norman Seever, a pastor and amateur boxer, preached a sermon sporting a huge shiner suffered during the bout. Seever quoted 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight.” Or the erudite wit of Cox, a Latin and Greek scholar, who wore a hat with “Golgotha” inscribed under its brim so that when someone asked him why, he’d answer, “it means the place of the skull.”

One local newspaper reported on the congregation’s schism that divided the congregation into the First Presbyterian and what became the “Old School Presbyterian” congregations by editorializing: “The Presbyterian church is like a hickory stick … useful but easily split.” The scripts also explore the pathos experienced by the church’s members, sharing eulogies written on Easter Sunday after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated or the obituary for a fallen Union soldier whose sword was inscribed with the words: “First Presbyterian Church.”

The last of the videos which are set to drop monthly throughout the spring will take viewers through the next 100 years, covering the Great Migration, the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, the Cold War and beyond. The most recent video, which spanned the mid-1920s through 1939, explored the effects that innovations in communication and transportation had on the unity of the congregation that was still predominately white within an increasingly diverse city. Radio reviews from the 1920s and sermons from 1937 reveal how the rise of the radio era enabled the church’s organist to perform a national organ concert but also popularized the widespread performance of racial stereotypes under the guise of entertainment and aided the rise of totalitarianism across Europe.

Mass transit dramatically changed the neighborhood of the church as the Brooklyn aristocracy moved out of mansions and large houses, which were then divided into smaller apartments, making the way for the variety of apartments and townhomes that house the current intergenerational and multicultural congregation, which is brought together by a vibrant music program.

As the series wraps up, the themes of abolition and activism will be traced through to the church’s recent vision of anti-racism, interfaith reconciliation and activism. So will the wonder of how music and authentic praise has played a role in conveying the church’s message to a world rapidly changing around it.

In the 1980s, the church called its 14th pastor and first Black minister, the Rev. Dr. Paul Smith, a civil rights leader and mentee of Dr. Howard Thurman. Smith revitalized the shrinking congregation as an intentionally diverse and inclusive church with a vision of reconciliation. First Brooklyn hosted the Dalai Lama on his first trip to the United States and held monthly interfaith conversations and services with local synagogues, a mosque, and a Buddhist lay congregation in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, just two miles away across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Smith provided race sensitivity training for the local police precinct while the church hosted the precinct for an annual worship service. During Smith’s tenure, music in worship was diversified to include gospel, jazz and Broadway in addition to traditional hymnody and organ music. The Presbyterian Hymnal and the African American Hymnal sit side by side in each pew.

Gospel radio station WLIB named First Church’s choir, directed by Amy Neuner for more than 20 years, as one of the top-10 choirs in New York City. The choir, a favorite of the late Dr. Derrick Bell, a founder of critical race theory, performed annually at a concert and lecture held in his honor at the New York University School of Law. Since Smith’s retirement in 2006, First Church has installed two Black women as senior pastors, the Rev. Dr. Flora Wilson-Bridges and Thorne.

For this Matthew 25 congregation, the multiple faces and voices narrating each video serve as one answer to systemic oppressions that have challenged the gospel in their context. Since Smith’s tenure began in 1986, diverse representation in leadership has been a cornerstone from session to worship leadership. Like each of these films, every Sunday service features multiple liturgists to represent the diversity of race, culture, gender and sexuality present in the congregation and serving on their session.

Engaging in social justice by exploring congregational history

The recent publications of books like Dr. William Yoo’s “What Kind of Christianity: A History of Slavery and Anti-Black Racism in the Presbyterian Church,” and the resources developed by the Presbyterian Mission Agency through the Matthew 25 invitation support more congregations in looking closely at the histories and the systems that shape their ministries. Helping congregations and mid councils do the particular work of reparations is a goal of the newly formed Center for the Repair of Historic Harms within the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

The questions around a particular church’s historical engagement with congregational vitality through mission, structural racism and systemic poverty that are lifted up in “A Journey of Faith” are not just for First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, but for any PC(USA) church taking seriously the resolution to explore its history and engage in social justice.

In a recent interview, the Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam, the  director of the Center for the Repair of Historic Harms, discussed the larger church’s role in continuing the work of abolition: “Protestants also have ‘a very proud and significant legacy in opposing slavery,’” Ross-Allam said. “I think there is an acknowledgement of the church’s abolitionist past that will remind churches there is still work to do now so that the work can finally be finished.” Ross-Allam sees the role of the Center for Repair to listen to the need for repair and to train those who wish to engage this work: “We try to create an environment where any person who has something to contribute to repair and reparation will gain the instruction and training they need to become a permanent part of solving these problems.”

Pride and uncertainty lie underneath the narration of the story of First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn as its members wonder why their church rose to certain challenges and balked at others. Upon launching the bicentennial video series in September 2022, Thorne, the congregation’s 16th pastor, resigned to accept a call to the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan. While producing subsequent videos, church members have navigated what is next in terms of their congregational vitality and their commitment to addressing racial and economic injustice as a community in search of a new installed pastor.

The complete retrospective video series, which can be viewed on First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn’s YouTube channel, provides hope for congregations. First Church’s 200-year history shows how a group of four men and six women could start a journey that ebbed and flowed in its membership and weathered many pastoral transitions, congregational conflicts and social strains. For then as now, “everything felt like a leap of faith,” said Ruling Elder Nate Dudley, “not just for churches but also for the people who could fill them.”

The Rev. Beth Waltemath served as associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn from 2006-10.

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