In earlier days, Albany's substantial core of Scottish-ancestry residents and other Calvinists as well found religious services at the Albany Dutch Reformed church. Although liturgically compatible, the fit was not perfect as the Dutch Reformed Church was Dutch language and based on Dutch-American culture.
By 1760, a growing enclave of recently arrived Scottish traders sought to establish a meeting house in the city of Albany. From that time, the "English Presbyterians" of Albany were served by occasional preachers supplied through the Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia. In January 1762, David Edgar, John Macomb, and Robert Henry petitioned the city council for land on which to establish a Presbyterian church. Their request finally was granted in September and the church took title to a plot of land along what became South Pearl Street. Other notable organizers included Albany resident Abraham Lyle. The modern First Presbyterian website includes and locates creative visualizations of the first and subsequent meeting houses.
The first minister was Connecticut native William Hanna who served perhaps from 1762 to 1767. He later became an Anglican priest. He was followed by Scottish-ancestry Andrew Bay who served in Albany and elsewhere from 1768-73. Both of these clerics were technically missionaries who also served the growing number of Scottish settlers in greater Albany County.
Because many of the church's members were newcomers who inherently were British sympathizers, the Albany Presbyterian church suspended operations during the Revolutionary war. Occasional services were held during the war years but no record of those ministries has been found.
Independent of any British connection, the Presbyterian church reopened again in 1784 making it Albany's fourth permanent denomination. Its first postwar minister was, John Mc Donald. His tenure commenced on November 8, 1785. Two years later, 116 communicants "partook of the Lord's Supper." In 1793, Mc Donald claimed that almost 30% of the city's inhabitants belonged to the Presbyterian denomination.
The postwar church appears to have been thoughtfully organized. The Board of Trustees composed of leading members set policy and made financial decisions. A salaried sexton had proscribed duties relating to the logistical/practical aspects of the operation.
In 1795, what became known as "The First Presbyterian Church" severed its relationship with Mc Donald. He remained in Albany - "gathering about him the nucleus of what is now the United Presbyterian Church, on Lancaster street. He died there, September 1st, 1821. He was a man of great power and popularity, and lived and died with the esteem and affection of a large circle of friends!"
By 1796, the First Presbyterian church had engaged young Eliphalet Nott to serve as its minister. Born and trained in Connecticut, this Yankee cleric attracted many of the American Calvinists who had flocked to the new State Capital during the last decades of the century.
The church was allotted a burial plot in the new cemetery located above Eagle Street and, after 1806, in the Washington Park cemetery.
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, its members were primarily of Scottish and New England ancestry. Benjamin Lattimore and other Afro Albanians were also members prior to the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church about 1818. Across the board, Albany Presbyterians were drawn from the trades and crafts with a few merchants and laborers.
Sources: The most comprehensive published resource is J. Mc Cluskey Blayney, History of the First Presbyterian Church of Albany (Albany, 1877); online. A transcription of a membership list from this basic resource has appeared online! See also, David G. Hackett, The Rude Hand of Innovation: Religion and Social Order in Albany, New York, 1652-1836 (New York, 1991), which does a particularly good job in explaining the ethos of its members in the post-Revolutionary period, pp. 61-69. At this point, the church website provides more comprehensive but less focused historical information!
1793: Mc Donald wrote: "Divide the city into ten equal parts. Of these the Dutch have at least four parts in numbers, and in wealth a much greater proportion. The Presbyterians will hardly claim full three parts in numbers, and still less in real wealth. Two parts of the inhabitants will be the full proportion of the Episcopal church; but in real wealth they will reach higher. The Lutherans, German Calvinists, and Methodists, will amount to no more than one part of the inhabitants, but not perhaps near that proportion of the real wealth of the whole." Quoted in Blayney, First Presbyterian Church, 19.
United Presbyterian Church: Organized following a meeting of Albany Presbyterians in October 1800. In 1801, Reverend John Mc Donald began preaching to those assembled in rooms owned by members. In October, a church lot was obtained from the city and a church built on the corner of Fox and Chapel Streets. The church opened in January 1802. The first trustees were Joseph Caldwell, James Angus, John Kirk, Alexander Cumming, Alexander Watson, John Van Ness Yates, John Grant, George Klinck, and George Pearson. Pastor Mc Donald served until 1819.
Link to commemorative program in 2013 by the Albany Institute of History and Art.
first posted 5/30/02; last updated 7/10/16