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HISTORY OF FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
Based on research and publication of the church history by Michael Alford, James Stewart, David Vincent, and James Mancuso.
Presbyterians began meeting in Schenectady sometime before 1760, with some evidence of the beginnings of a society as early as 1735. For a time in the 1760s the Episcopal and Presbyterian congregations shared the St. George's Episcopal Church building, with each group using different entrances to the building and different internal seating arrangements. In 1769, eight members of the Presbyterian society united and bought a lot and set out to build a wooden church building on the site of the present Mekeel Hall. The form of this building, with its steeple, which was an object of some pride, is preserved on the church seal.
The Rev. Alexander Miller arrived in 1771 as the first settled pastor. Pastorates were short in the early years, with long periods of supply preachers and vacant pulpits. The early years were also frequently ones of dissension in the church with two distinctly different parties. The one, styled "formalists" in the language of the day, stressed the forms and styles of worship as they had been known in Scotland. The other, the "evangelicals", stressed a religion of the heart and were greatly affected by the revivals which swept the area, under the preaching of men such as Asahel Nettleton. A later pastor, Dr. Jonathan Trumbull Backus, said in 1869 that "the beneficial effects of these revivals are still being felt in the church."
A sense of missionary outreach was felt in the church at an early date. John Blair Smith, President of Union College (1795-1799) and a participant in revivals in his earlier college work in the South, supplied the pulpit in 1795 and it was as the result of a discussion between him and a later Union College president, Eliphalet Nott (who was then on a missionary journey to the frontier), that the "Plan of Union" of 1801 was developed which united Presbyterians and Congregationalists in the evangelization of the frontier (west of Utica).
The first three decades of the 1800s were generally times of friction between the two elements in the church with but short interludes such as the 1809-1815 pastorate of Alexander Monteith. It was in his time that the present church building was begun. Copied from the Ransom Court Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, the church was distinguished by a balcony which went all the way around the oval interior. The balcony was depressed toward the main floor at the front, and on it was the pulpit from which the minister preached. Union College commencements were held in the church with students walking around the balcony to receive their diplomas in the front. Graduation addresses by Dr. Nott, President of Union College from 1804-1866, were Christian orations of the highest caliber, stressing the need for the young men to live for the Lord Jesus Christ. The portion of the church from the back wall to the wings dates from this time and something of the oval interior can still be seen in the back balcony.
The original church (1809) had white interior walls and blue woodwork. An addition was made in 1834 and the transepts were added in 1859. Clear window panes gave way to stained glass and the square pews were changed to those rounded on the ends as at the present time. Numerous remodelings occurred over the years as styles changed with the simple giving way to the ornate and then back to simple again.
Spiritually the church was placed on a firm foundation by the forty-year pastorate (1832-1872) of Jonathan Trumbull Backus, D.D. The church grew and prospered and in 1869 established the East Avenue Church (now State Street Presbyterian Church). Dr. Backus attained national recognition and was elected moderator of the 1870 General Assembly. In a sense it was fitting, because Elder Alexander Kelly of this church reportedly rode on horseback to Philadelphia in 1789 for the very first General Assembly.
The Sunday School was established sometime before 1835. Through the century other Sunday Schools were established, some of which grew into fully self-supporting churches. Communion services were preceded by a Friday evening preparatory lecture, and Sabbath breaking was a sin of major consequence. Church music was a subject of discussion throughout the 1880s with choirs being organized and disbanded and the organ being moved from place to place. The organ itself was a controversial innovation, having replaced the precentor (song-leader) and his pitch pipe. The singing of psalms gave way to hymns, and at times a cornet was used for accompaniment.
As the 1900s dawned, the church was involved in outreach and growth. The Union Presbyterian Church was established in 1900 when 81 members of First Presbyterian Church became charter members. In 1903 an Italian mission was established to evangelize the increasing number of immigrants. This became Trinity Presbyterian Church in Scotia/Glenville. However, the winds of change were blowing and new ways were entering the church. Spiritual zeal cooled during the pastorates of Revs. Anthony and Mutch. The Sunday evening service was discontinued and a certain spiritual apathy settled over the church. The liberal social gospel rampant in the early twentieth century had infected the pulpit and had led to a serious departure from the essentials of the gospel. All this began to change in 1937.
In that year , the Rev. Herbert S. Mekeel (minister 1937-1979) was called to the church, and like Dr. Backus a century earlier, started it on the road to spiritual vitality once again. This did not occur without the pain of change and transition. Many in the church were dissatisfied with the evangelical theology Dr. Mekeel brought to the pulpit. Within the first few years, there was a huge exodus of members leaving the church and going down the street to the more liberal First Reformed Church, a congregation of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) denomination. Dr. Mekeel held his ground, and saw the church grow back to even greater strength than in previous years. Much of that occurred during the years that General Electric was bringing in great numbers of new employees with their families to the city. First Presbyterian saw many of these come to Christ and join the church at the Lenten Luncheons, which attracted hundreds of GE workers on their lunch break to hear outstanding preachers of national reputation who were brought to deliver gospel messages.
In 1942 six young people appeared before the session to share their decision to enter Christian service and a long line of volunteers followed. New outreaches were initiated. A mission Sunday School became the East Glenville Community Church. Another mission became Hope Church in Ballston Spa. Other churches established during these years were Christ Community of Carman, Loudonville Presbyterian, Loudonville Community, and Grace Congregational in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Closed churches were reopened and the gospel went forth in a way not seen in the area for many years. In 1948, a number of leaders from the church joined together to establish Camp Pattersonville on 23 acres purchased above the south bank of the Mohawk River between Schenectady and Amsterdam. In 1976, First Presbyterian Church founded Schenectady Christian School. The original classes were held in Turnbull house, but the school bought the former Scotia High School and moved there.
Once again, change was in the air. In 1967 the United Presbyterian denomination adopted the "Confession of 1967", which is a replacement for the Westminster Standards and their high view of the authority of the Scripture. Form was becoming of more importance than spirit and truth in the life of the denomination. Increased demands were made on the local church, and there came numerous instances of denominational participation by “bureaucrats” in causes not supported by the church. Such basics as the inerrancy of Scripture, Jesus’ substitutionary atonement, and the physical resurrection of Christ were no longer viewed as core doctrines of the church, but were “optional.”
In 1975, First Presbyterian Church decided to petition the Presbytery of Albany for transfer to another Presbyterian denomination. The request was rejected and a period of struggle culminated in January, 1977 when the congregation voted to dissolve all relationships with the Presbytery of Albany. This led to legal wrangling over the property. A state law provision concerning churches incorporated before 1828 (First Presbyterian Church was incorporated in 1809) allowed them the right to change affiliation without impact on their property. This was vigorously contested by the Presbytery of Albany, including an unsuccessful effort to lock officers and members of the church out of the buildings. The case worked through various levels in the US courts, all the way to the United States Supreme Court. This was finally settled in December, 1984 in favor of the members and officers of the local church.
In September 1989 the church voted to join the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) denomination. This came after years of study by the session and the strong recommendation from the elders that the congregation should not remain independent, but should seek membership in an evangelical, reformed, presbyterian denomination. The PCA was organized in December 1973 by evangelicals leaving the increasingly liberal “Southern Presbyterian Church.”. The top priorities are evangelism and missions, Christian education and training, and a solid commitment to historic truths of the faith. This denominational affiliation closely parallels the commitment to missions and church planting that has been at the heart of First Presbyterian Church since the 1940s. Currently there are nearly 1800 PCA congregations containing over 400,000 members. In recent years it has been the fastest growing denomination in North America and supports the largest Presbyterian world mission force in the world.
In 1979, Rev. Michael Alford was installed as Senior Pastor, having previously served as assistant and associate minister with Dr. Mekeel, beginning in 1974. He had been converted under the preaching ministry of this church and served as a Southern Baptist church planter with three congregations in New England before coming here. He retired at the end of 2001 to care for his wife, Diana, during the final years of her failing health. Rev. Charles Stoker, also converted here at First Presbyterian, served as senior pastor from 2002 until his resignation in 2006. During much of the decade, the congregation experienced considerable inner turmoil and upheaval. Over the next few years, following Pastor Stoker’s resignation, Rev. Wesley O’Neill and Rev. Kenneth McHeard guided the church as associate and assistant ministers respectively. Dr. William Hogan, previously retired, provided much-needed leadership as interim senior pastor in 2008 and 2009 until the current senior pastor, Dr. Lawrence Roff, was installed in August of 2009. It was during his first full year that the church celebrated its 250th anniversary.
A hard-bound 244-page copy of the history of the church was published in 2010 as part of the 250th anniversary celebration. Copies are available for purchase from the church office.