Welcomes You

325th Anniversary - Trinity St. Paul’s

New Rochelle, New York
Sunday, September 15, 2013

What a remarkable milestone!  325 years of faithful worship in this community, with a vibrant and diverse congregation committed to serving the people around you, and those who continue to come here through a very narrow gate.  The history of Christian community here has a great deal to do with narrow gates. 

Most children in the United States learn about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving.  That is only one part of the history of religious intolerance, which is probably as old as human history.  Jews were persecuted by Egyptians and Romans, early Christians by Jews and Romans, Muslims and Jews by Christians, and Christians and Jews by Muslims.  Beginning around 1100 the Crusades tried to reclaim Jerusalem for Christians and the wars lasted for centuries.  A religious war against Jews and Muslims began in Spain around 1200.  Conflict between Eastern and Western Christians mounted.  By the late 15th century, religious wars between Christians pervaded Europe.  Moravians are the modern-day descendants of the first of these protest movements.  The Protestant Reformation really began to heat up in the early 16th century when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door in 1517, and then Henry VIII rejected papal political authority in England in 1533-34. 

Explorers came to the Americas in the 1500s, often with commercial motives, and soon led others to attempt to establish enduring settlements.[1]  Religious persecution also began almost immediately, as indigenous peoples were slaughtered and enslaved with religious (papal) warrant because they were “heathens” and “infidels.”  Religious support became important almost as soon as colonizing began.  Indeed, the first Anglican service in the Americas was held by Sir Francis Drake’s chaplain near San Francisco in 1579.  The shore party was attended and observed by Native Americans. 

The fallout of religious protest and reformation in the Old World was war, though there were some attempts at toleration.  Henry IV of France made accommodation for non-Roman Catholics in France through the Edict of Nantes in 1598.  Many governments persecuted the dissenters and reformers, and discrimination, torture, and violent death were common.  What we’re seeing today in Afghanistan and the Middle East is not new human behavior, although religion is still often a cover for other objectives. 

Opportunities for migration to these shores proved highly attractive to religious refugees fleeing oppression in Europe and Britain.  Huguenots (French Protestants) and Walloons (French-speaking Belgian Protestants) came here from the Netherlands in 1624 with the Dutch founders of Nieuw Amsterdam.  This congregation has connections with the first Église Française Réformée, Saint Esprit, founded in Manhattan in the 1620s.  English-speaking Protestants settled north of here in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies about the same time. 

After Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1688, more Huguenots came from the city of La Rochelle and formed La Nouvelle (New) Rochelle.  The refugees had sent an advance man to find land.  Thomas Pell had acquired his land from the Siwanoy Indians in 1654, apparently paying for it with Jamaican rum.  The Dutch objected, and Pell settled the matter by invading New Amsterdam in 1664 and forcing the governor, Peter Stuyvesant, to surrender.  Pell’s nephew inherited, and made some 6100 acres available to the Huguenot refugees.[2]  Huguenots continued to come to New Rochelle until at least 1760.

Thomas Pell’s encounter with Governor Stuyvesant had an important effect on other migrants to these shores.  Stuyvesant was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, and a highly exclusivist one.  He forbade public Lutheran worship, tried to keep migrating Brazilian Jews from entering and get other Jews to leave, on the premise that providing religious liberty to some would only encourage Roman Catholics to settle here as well.  He arrested and exiled a Baptist preacher and publicly tortured a Quaker one.  English citizens living in Flushing in 1657 finally answered his edicts with a letter that is seen a precursor to the Bill of Rights’ assurance of freedom of religion.  It contains these remarkable words: 

The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage.

It goes on to remind the governor that we are meant to see the image of God in our neighbors, and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  He promptly arrested them. [3]

All those religious migrants to these shores came through a narrow gate of fidelity to particular theological understandings.  Their beliefs set them apart from the theocracies which governed their homelands, and they departed, looking for greater liberty. They came looking for the peace of Jerusalem, and quietness in the shadow of its gates.  Some of them were far more tolerant than others, understanding that the road they had traveled was narrow and hard, and should lead to a more open and welcoming space for others as well as themselves.

The congregation here in New Rochelle was founded in 1688 as an independent French Protestant Reformed church.  The second priest who came here to serve in 1695 had been ordained in England, which was fairly common as Huguenots and others found shelter there during persecutions in Europe.  There is a chapel in Canterbury Cathedral where Walloons and Huguenots have worshiped since 1550.[4]

Soon after that priest came here in 1695, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel began to offer some financial support, as it did for many Church of England congregations in the English colonies.  Whether it was spiritual or financial support or the connections with Pell, this congregation joined the Church of England in 1709.  At that time New Rochelle had 261 residents, of whom 55 were slaves.  The first slaves were brought to this region by the Dutch East India Company in 1626, and British and other settlers continued the slave trade.  The rum that Pell bought his land with was part of the triangle trade between Africa, the Americas (both the Caribbean and New England), and Europe.  The labor of imported African slaves produced sugar, cotton, and tobacco; processed goods, including rum, from here went to Europe and to Africa.

The third priest who served this congregation, by now called Trinity, came here in 1724 and started the first school in New Rochelle.  Among his pupils were John Jay and Washington Irving.  Jay later served as President of the Continental Congress and Governor of New York.  He was a strong abolitionist, and finally succeeded in ending slavery in New York with an act of 1799 that eventually emancipated all the slaves in the state.  He was an Episcopalian, and while remarkably clear about the duties of Christians, “Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others, and therefore will not provoke war” – he also argued that Roman Catholics should not be permitted to hold public office.[5]

The impact of that first school here in New Rochelle resounded far beyond these shores.  John Jay (with Alexander Hamilton) and others also helped to found the African Free School in New York City in 1787.  Among its many graduates were Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African-American physician, the first to operate a pharmacy, founding member of the NY Statistics Society and the National Council of Colored People.  Alexander Crummell was also a student of that school – an Episcopal priest and saint of this church whom we celebrated last week, the first black graduate of Queen’s College, Cambridge, missionary in Liberia, and founder of the American Negro Academy, a society of scholars of science and the liberal arts.

The ministry of this congregation has rippled through the world over more than three centuries, bringing healing of body, mind, and soul to multitudes and preaching peace to those who are far off and those who are near.  It has helped to open the gate to religious refugees, slaves, the oppressed, and the deprived.  

The narrow gate Jesus offers is not the narrow-mindedness of religious zealots.  It is the narrow gate of judgment – judgment that leads to self-restraint and love of God and neighbor.  That gate opens into a gracious and generous field of peace, with room for all God’s children.  The judgment gate that is the cross unites heaven and earth, and leads to abundant life for all who hunger and thirst and live in want.  It opens onto a holy city where death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more – a city of peace, with justice for every son of Adam and daughter of Eve.  May the people of Trinity St. Paul’s – and their neighbors – keep on building that city of God’s dream.  Enter these gates in righteousness, leave tyranny outside the walls, and live in peace.  Open the gates, O Jerusalem, and rejoice!