June 1999 Feature
Our Church and its Heritage
First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown
Reprinted with permission of the First Presbyterian Church of
Richard W. Hunter, Church Historian
The story of our church and our town is so deeply entwined that in the early days separation of the two was almost impossible. The establishment of our church followed closely the establishment of the first farms. The lands of "Appamaghpogh" or Amawalk were obtained in 1683 by Stephanus van Cortlandt from Indian sachems. From then on it was known as the township of Hanover within the Cortlandt Manor. The Yorktown portion was known as Gertrude's Borough in honor of Gertrude Beekman, wife of Harry Beekman and daughter of Mr. van Cortlandt. The present township was established March 7, 1788 - some 58 years after our church's founding.
Thus, our church, sitting on the hill above the original village of Crom Pond, commanded a central place in the development of the town - its social and historical as well as its spiritual development. The community of Crom Pond developed at the crossroads of a major east-west highway, then King's Highway, now Crompond Road, and a more local road, King's Street or Old Yorktown Road. From this vantage point our church watched history march past her doors. She was by no means a passive observer for there were occasions when history and its colorful personages included the church itself in their line of march.
Founded in 1730 "not as a civil or ecclesiastical body but simply as an assemblage which convened weekly for the worship of God," this group met in homes and barns until its membership increased sufficiently to require a place of its own.
On March 25, 1737 Joseph Lane leased from Henry and Gertrude Beekman 220 acres in the manor of Cortlandt. By 1739 a meeting house was built on some three acres of this land "by sundry inhabitants and neighbors being Presbyterian by profession". On January 2, 1739 these three acres were deeded "for and in consideration of five shillings current and lawful money of the province of New York" to John Hyatt, John Haight and David Travis, in trust for the use of a Presbyterian congregation.
So, by 1739 our church had a growing congregation, land and a building of its own. The pulpit, however, continued to be filled, if at all, by itinerants, until 1742 when the Rev. Samuel Sacket was assigned to Cortlandt Manor which included North Salem, Cortland and Somers as well as Yorktown.
Our church extended a call to Mr. Sacket October 24, 1761 and with a salary of 65 pounds per annum, use of the parsonage and 25 cord of wood he became the first regular pastor, until his death June 5, 1784.
Mr. Sacket's pastorate carried our church through a series of trials by fire - including a literal fire which saw the church and other buildings burned to the ground.
The serenity of the developing farm community was shattered during the American War for Independence. While no major battles were fought locally, the area (which was supposedly neutral ground) was the scene of numerous skirmishes. Our location between New York City and the forts of the Bear Mountain-West Point area with its proximity to the Hudson River, resulted in passing visits by many of the famous figures of the Revolution. General Rochambeau and Lafayette encamped nearby. Major John André, carrying the plans for West Point in his boot, passed along King's Highway and spent the night not far from our church. Washington, Hamilton, Burr, Putnam, Heath and Benedict Arnold all traversed this area before Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Va., for which our town was officially named. Since the church and parsonage were the center and rallying place of local patriots it seems safe to assume that some of these gentlemen visited within the buildings. The parsonage was used for a time as barracks for part of Col. Samuel Drake's regiment, under the command of Capt. Henry Strang. Here the Yorktown Committee of Public Safety met and transacted its business which was to "disarm the disaffected and punish the incorrigible." Here, too, a committee of Congress was assembled to distribute commissions to those officers empowered to raise the militia.
All this activity forced the people to do their farming with guns at their sides. The pastor was later forced to flee to safety in Sharon, Connecticut due to his outspoken and uncompromising loyalty.
This patriotism of both pastor and people was not without more disastrous results. A severe test of faith was in the offing as the British troops sought to avenge the peoples' efforts on behalf of the American troops, British troops landed at Verplanck's Point June, 1779. A detachment, led by Col. Ambercombie and with Caleb Morgan of Stony Street as guide, was sent out June 13 to destroy the parsonage and store house - and succeeded in burning both.
The people, not willing to give in, then used the church itself as a depot for the arms of Col. Drake's men. With equal determination the British light horse launched another attack. Led by Tarlton and Simeoe, some 200 surprised Drake's contingent while they were having breakfast in neighboring houses. The British, who had come from White Plains via Pines Bridge, drove the Americans into the woods and then burned the church. The three buildings were valued at $3,500 and although two attempts were made to obtain indemnification from Congress, neither succeeded despite favorable reports from Congressional committees.
Gradually the troops withdrew and the people resumed their agricultural labors without fear of attack. Mr. Sacket returned from Connecticut and was provided residence in one of the farmhouses on King's Street. He lived just long enough to see the passage of a resolution on May 30, 1784 "to proceed as fast as possible to build a house for public and divine worship, the former one having been destroyed by the enemy." It was also resolved that Abner Osburn should be the master-builder. The frame was raised on Tuesday, June 25, 1785. Mr. Osburn's bill amounted to a little more than 100 pounds, a figure which does not represent the total cost since much of the timber was furnished by local farmers, along with their time and labor.
The close of the Revolution and the termination of Mr. Sacket's pastorate also brought to an end the military and political struggle for the congregation. In the years that followed a struggle within the church itself arose.
The second pastorate, that of the Rev. Silas Constant, was marked by a split in the congregation - a division between the adherents of Presbyterian and Congregational principles within the membership.
Mr. Constant began his service November 3, 1785 and the church gradually assumed a Congregational form of government. Our church, Presbyterian in views and sympathies, had been connected with the Presbytery of Dutchess. He gradually instilled Congregational form and ideas into, a large percentage of our membership. In 1792 the Associated Presbytery of Westchester was founded by Mr. Constant and from then on we were no longer connected with the Dutchess group. Our representation was through the new organization which was Congregational in principles and usage.
Judge Lee, an elder, and some 17 other members sought to maintain Presbyterianism and thus these two factions separated in March 1806. Both groups incorporated as the First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown and both sent certificates to White Plains. The incorporation certificate of the Presbyterian adherents was recorded March 4 and that of Mr. Constant's followers on March 5. A law suit for the property in Circuit Court granted the land and buildings to the Presbyterian group. The Congregational members later built their own church which Mr. Constant served until his death in 1825.
During Mr. Constant's pastorate the Red Mills (Mahopac Falls) and Peekskill groups attained sufficient membership to become separate churches and thus left our congregation.
The church life progressed during the service of Rev. Robert Thompson, the sixth pastor. When he became pastor "the old house of worship was ... an exceedingly old and unsightly object ... It was felt that a new and more modem building was a necessity to the comfort and prosperity of the congregation." Work began in the spring of 1839 and the present building, erected on the same style as its predecessor, was dedicated January 9, 1840.
On August 5, 1865, during the pastorate of Rev. Samuel D. Westervelt, the division of 1806 was ended and the members of the two churches reunited. The Congregational group voted to dissolve its organization, sell its property and give certificates of dismissal to all members in good standing.
The doors of the church were open once again to former friends and members and the worship of all was enriched by the renewed dedication.
Some 10 years later the church was also enriched in historical documentation as well as in spiritual growth as the result of the service of its tenth pastor - The Rev. William J. Cumming.
Mr. Cumming did extensive research into the church's history and delivered an historical sermon August 6, 1876. This sermon was later published in pamphlet form and is a source of reference on early church history. His pastorate, the longest in our history, saw steady growth in both spiritual life and membership.
It was during this time that annual harvest Sundays were observed. The members exhibited their produce which was distributed to area hospitals.
Mr. Cumming, installed in August 1876, served for 32 years until August 1908. He was the stated clerk of the Westchester Presbytery from 1886 until his death in January 1922.
From earliest days the development of the Yorktown Church has reflected and enriched the history and development of the community it serves. Ours is truly a great heritage.
Click here for an interesting perspective on the First Presbyterian Church in history, written by Cortland P. Auser in 1969.
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