In 1902 the wooden structure was showing its age, including the many missing slats on the tall shutters. from the collection of the Library of Congress
In 1797 the Rev. William Gibson organized New York City's first Reformed Presbyterian congregation. Its members were mostly Scotch and Irish immigrants who had fled persecution for refusing to declare loyalty to the British government. The group established the city's first Sunday school.
It may have been the 1822 yellow fever epidemic that prompted several members to move northward to Greenwich Village. In 1828 they purchased the wooden Dutch Reformed church at the corner of Bleecker and West 10th Streets. The building's architecture exhibited some Georgian elements of a generation earlier, like the Palladian influenced windows and fanlight above the entrance.
In 1830 the congregation formally became the Second Reformed Presbyterian Church. When its church building was apparently threatened two decades later, the trustees made an astonishing move. On February 8, 1885, The New York Times recalled, "In 1847 the building was removed on rollers to its present location." According to historian David W. Dunlap in his 2004 From Abyssinian to Zion, the structure was "transported whole...with the preacher delivering a sermon inside while en route."
The church was now situated at 166 Waverly Place, just east of Grove Street. Its relocation came just before an irreparable schism formed among the congregants. In 1848 a splinter group, the Third Reformed Presbyterian Church, was established. It retained possession of the Waverly Place structure while the Second Reformed Presbyterian constructed a new church on West 11th Street, near Sixth Avenue.
The Third Reformed Presbyterian installed its new pastor, Rev. John Little, on June 5, 1849. The Evening Post noted he had "arrived a few weeks since from Ireland." Having separate structures did not heal the deep wounds between the two congregations and on October 13, 1851 Reverend Little was forced to defend himself to the Presbytery against charges by the Second Reformed Presbyterian that he was "a preacher of heresy."
In 1859 the trustees purchased land at 238 West 23rd Street and began construction of what The New York Times described as "a small but comfortable edifice of brown-stone." That same year, on April 16, the Abyssinian Baptist Church was incorporated. The all-Black congregation had been formed in 1808 and was currently worshiping at Thompson and Spring Streets.
The area around Minetta Lane, about four blocks south of the Waverly Place church, was populated by freed Blacks, earning it the nickname Little Africa. The Abyssinian Baptist Church now purchased the building. The Sun later explained that its minister, the Rev. William Spelman, "bought the church property partly with his own money and partly with money collected from Baptist churches in town." George H. Hansell described Spelman in his 1899 book Reminiscences of Baptist Churches and Baptist Leaders in New York City as, "of Southern birth, a barber by profession, and...once a slave."
Although the Emancipation Act had outlawed slavery in New York in 1827, racial equality was non-existent. The Sun recalled:
...it was deemed wise to have the control of the church property in the hands of white men, and a special act was passed at Albany in 1859 giving the control of the property to nine trustees, four of whom should be white men, while a transfer of the property could not be made by the votes of less than five trustees.
The congregation began fund-raising in 1862, in an attempt to pay off the outstanding debt (and, perhaps, to release the "white men's" hold on the property). On February 19, the New-York Daily Tribune reported, "Miss E. T. Greenfield, the Black Swan, announces a grand concert for the benefit of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, No. 166 Waverley Place, near Sixth avenue, this evening."
It was a notable event. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield had been born into slavery in 1819. Her mistress, a Quaker woman, gave her a formal education. Against all odds, in 1851 she began singing professionally and in 1853 went to London under the patronage of the Duchess of Sutherland and Harriet Beecher Stowe. She gave a command performance for Queen Victoria on May 10, 1854.
On September 19, 1865, The New York Times headlined an article, "Lecture By A Colored Lady." It reported, "Miss Richmonia Richards, recently from Richmond, where she has been engaged in organizing schools for the freemen, and has also been connected with the secret service of our government, will give a description of her adventures, on Monday evening, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church."
It may have been Richmonia Richards, or her experiences, that prompted Rev. James J. Spelman to travel to Mississippi in February 1868 to temporarily teach in the "freemen's" schools. The war was over, but it seems to have only increased racial hatred among some Southern whites. Upon Spelman's return, he gave a lecture on August 3 about his encounters. Calling him, "an intelligent colored man," The New York Times reported:
He had been persecuted by the whites continually; was threatened with death by the Kuklux [sic] Klan, and once was ordered to leave the State within forty-eight hours, and failing to comply with the direction, was fired upon from covert places repeatedly.
The churches of New York's wealthy citizens closed during the summer social season, when the congregants left for their country homes in places like Newport. Working class churches, of course, stayed open. But that was not the case with the Abyssinian Baptist Church, as might be expected. On July 22, 1877 the New York Herald reported it was closing and explained, "The church numbers about 1,200 members and seats only 500, but so many of the congregation are coachmen and upper servants in fashionable families leaving the city, that the attendance during the summer is reduced to a minimum."
As had been the case with the Third Reformed Presbyterian Church, by the early 1880's a division was forming within the Abyssinian Baptist congregation. Its severity was evidenced on Sunday, September 21, 1884. Following Rev. Spelman's prayer, Deacon Henry Harris "jumped up," according to The New York Times, and attempted to announce a meeting to reorganize the church. Spelman tried to stop him, and a "row" developed among the backers of both sides. The New York Times reported, "the backers of Harris and the regular church party were carrying on a wrangle in front of Harris's pew. The minister called for quiet, but he was not heeded, and the bandying of words and a few pushes were continued."
The author of the caption of this dignified portrait misspelled the surname. original source unknown
The differences festered until, in 1885, Rev. Spelman was "deposed," according to The New York State Reporter. Spelman and his followers formed a separate congregation that began worshiping in Garnett Hall on West 26th Street. In reporting upon Spelman's death on February 13, 1891, The Sun called him "for over forty years a vigorous personality among the colored Baptists," and noted, "The differences between the factions are still in the courts."
The Rev. Robert D. Wynn had taken over the pulpit at Abyssinian Baptist. He was on vacation in July 1891 and a well-known Black revivalist "Mr. Jones," preached on July 30. His prediction that day that "a certain section of New-York City is to be destroyed, with all its inhabitants, by 'fire and brimstone' from the nether regions," caused panic.
The New York Times reported, "The colored people, it seems, would have taken no stock in Mr. Jones's prophesying if he had not gained a reputation by foretelling incidents which have actually come to pass." It seems that Jones had foretold of the Charleston earthquake, and predicted that Johnstown, Pennsylvania would be "overwhelmed with a mighty flood." Both catastrophes had come to pass. The newspaper noted that Jones "has a great influence over New-York colored Baptists, and it is reported that when he foretold its impending doom some of his followers fled from the city." (As it turned out, New York City was not devastated by brimstone, nor was Chicago buried beneath the waters of Lake Michigan, "never to come up," another catastrophe he had foreseen.)
More than three decades before the NAACP began law suits to desegregate public schools, the members of the Abyssinian Baptist Church were on the forefront of the fight. In 1899 there were no schools for Black children in Jamaica, New York. But there was at least one Black child. On September 26 the New-York Daily Tribune reported, "Since the exclusion of a colored child from the schools of that district, which are attended by white children, and the decision of Justice Smith that such an act of exclusion was legal, the colored people of the city have been taking steps to appeal the case." A large meeting had been held in the church the night before that article. Ministers and delegates from other congregations spoke, and money was raised for legal costs.
In 1901 the congregation hired the architectural firm of Pollard & Stedman to design a replacement structure. The new "one-story brick church" was expected to cost $30,000 to construct--a significant $942,000 in today's money. But, by now, much of the Black population of New York City had moved uptown. The plans were scrapped, property was acquired on West 40th Street, and the new building erected there. The congregation took title to the property on January 12, 1903.
The old wooden church sat empty for a year. Then, on May 21, 1904 the New-York Daily Tribune reported, "The Zion Baptist Church, which for many years has worshipped in a hall, has leased the church building at No. 166 Waverley Place, and will begin worship there to-morrow." Another Black congregation, organized in 1832, its residency would be relatively short lived. On July 19, 1907 architects Bernstein & Bernstein filed plans for a six-story apartment building, which survives, on the site.