NCN Online Archives

A Sense of History: On This Rock
by Doris E. Auser

A favorite subject for the amateur and professional photographer is a "typical" early American church. These simple white buildings with their plain sloping roofs and square bell towers or slender spires, are familiar friends to persons of all faiths who take pleasure in graceful lines and honest design.

Although nowadays most religions are well-represented in each village and town with old, middle-aged, modernistic and futuristic houses of worship rubbing elbows, we may not realize how long it took for each congregation to establish itself firmly enough in a settlement or growing community before officially incorporating and erecting a separate place for religious activity.

Indeed, many of our churches have housed two, three or more different religious groups within their walls as the population grew and changed and the religious needs fluctuated.

Looking at the varieties of churches and the congregations they house, it seems almost impossible to believe that in 1776, in the entire state of New York, there were 81 Dutch Reformed Churches, 61 Presbyterian, 30 Episcopalian, 26 Quaker Meeting Houses, 22 Lutheran Churches, 16 Baptist, five Congregational, three Moravian, one Methodist and one Jewish Synagogue--there was not one Catholic Church in the state in those days.

Of course, these statistics include only incorporate congregations with separate houses of worship. They do not include many small groups who met in private homes and were usually served by itinerant preachers or other religionists.

The history of local churches gives us a pretty good picture of the national background of the first settlers as well as subsequent residents.

Although Yorktown was formed from the Dutch Manor of Cortlandt, it is obvious that the first settlers here were not Dutch. Until 1729 all 34 families who lived in Cortlandt Manor were communicants of the Sleepy Hollow Dutch Reformed Church. At this time a Dutch Reformed church was built in what is now Montrose and local families transferred there.

In the late 1720s through the 1750s the first lands in what is now Yorktown were leased by the heirs of Stephanus Van Cortlandt and then sold in parcels of about 200 to 250 acres each.

These first settlers did not come from the Dutch settlements along the Hudson River, but migrated from Connecticut and lower Westchester, creating a need for religious services in English of different doctrine than the Dutch Reformed Church.

In 1738 the first church was erected in Yorktown by a group of Presbyterians. The land for this church was deeded "for a Presbyterian congregation... exercising their religion and public worship of God Almighty after and according to the form of worship used and exercised by the now established Presbyterian Church government in that part of Great Britain called Scotland."

At this time the only other churches in the area were the two Dutch Reformed Churches on the Hudson--in Montrose and Tarrytown--and to the east, the Presbyterian Church in Bedford.

By 1744 an Anglican (Episcopalian) church, St. Peter's, was erected in Van Cortlandtville. By 1773 the Quaker population was able to erect a meeting house in Amawalk.

During the Revolutionary War there was very little religious activity in the county. This was due, in part, to the difficulty itinerant ministers encountered in traveling to serve the different congregations and groups. Also, many houses of worship were turned into hospitals or used for other purposes connected with the war.

After the War, we find an increase in different religious groups forming in the area.

In 1786 a Methodist preacher came to Shrub Oak area looking for a place to preach. He held his first service in the home of Peter Badeau, a strict Presbyterian of Huguenot descent. This first Methodist minister, Thomas Ware, was followed in two weeks by Rev. Cornelius Cook and then for some time by other preachers every fortnight until the deacons of the Presbyterian Church became alarmed at the increase of attendance at what they considered "the preaching of false doctrine" and advised Mr. Badeau to close his doors to the ministers.

After that they preached for several years at the home of Thomas Kirkham and by 1790 the Methodists erected their own Church in Shrub Oak. In 1792 they were incorporated as the Methodist Episcopal Society of Yorktown.

During these same years the Baptist Church was being organized in the southwest corner of Yorktown. It is interesting to note that in 1788 Freeborn Garrettson was appointed a presiding elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church up the Hudson and from that time assisted by 12 young preachers, the church of Shrub Oak was included in his circuit.

Also in 1788, Reuben Garrettson was ordained a Baptist preacher and became the first pastor at the Yorktown Baptist Church. At this time the Baptist services were held in the homes of the 40 members of the congregation. Although exact dates are not available, it seems to be fairly certain that the first Baptist Church building was erected about 1802.

The Orthodox Friends Meeting House on Hanover Street was built in 1831, three years after the group separated from the Hicksite Quakers. This edifice is now occupied by the Calvary Bible Church.

Although Roman Catholic Masses were said in Yorktown during the Revolutionary War by French Army Chaplains, it was not until 1872 that regular Catholic Services started with about 10 persons and officiated by a priest from Peekskill. The first Roman Catholic Church in Yorktown was built in 1897. It was used until 1932 when the present St. Patrick's Church was built on the site of the four room schoolhouse on Hanover Street.

The Mohansic Methodist Episcopal Church was incorporated in 1876 and the first services were held at Schoolhouse No. 3 at Yorktown Station and then in the upper room of a stable belonging to the Whitney Hotel. By 1886 the congregation had built its own place of worship a short distance from the Orthodox Friends' Church and the old schoolhouse. This building is now the home of Temple Beth Am and the Methodists have moved to a new Church on Crompond Road.

The population of Yorktown has grown and changed since the turn of the century and we now have many more religious groups and places of worship. And although all of the first church buildings have been destroyed--usually by fire--the subsequent ones built on the same sites have kept the original style of architecture.

Most typical of the early architectural styles are the Presbyterian Church, Amawalk Meeting House, Calvary Bible Church, and the old Baptist Church now the Community Church, on Baptist Church Road. A stroll through the burying grounds surrounding all but the Calvary Bible Church reveals the names of early members. The dates they were born and died, inscribed on the old stones, attest to the founding dates of each congregation.

 The Yorktowner, Vol. 2 No. 13, January 11, 1968

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