The Washerwoman’s Genes

May 5, 2006

Eighteenth Street Church, Brooklyn

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 12:25 pm

According to a source on the web—a document written about 1870—the Eighteenth Street Church in Brooklyn was formally known as the Sixth M. E. This was my Grandma Josie’s church, where she taught Sunday School and belonged to the Ladies’ Aid.

Founded in 1842 (forty years before her birth), the first building measured 25 by 35 feet and cost $700. Its membership comprised South Brooklyn and New Utrecht. It was, as its name indicates, the sixth Methodist Episcopal congregation to form in Brooklyn.

The first—the Sands Street Church—had been established as far back as 1794. Named for site donor Joshua Sands (“whose impulses were never limited or restricted by denominational prejudices, and, who though himself an Episcopalian, was ever ready to respond to the wants of the master’s servants”), the church experienced such rapid growth that the first edifice was quickly replaced by a larger one, and then again, and again, until the final building was erected and, after a fire, again rebuilt. The resulting building concretizes an intensity in the faith: “It is of brick,” the report of 1870 notes, “sixty feet front and rear, by eighty feet deep, the outside presenting a very neat appearance, interior plain, but commodious, and is calculated to hold about one thousand two hundred persons, without crowding.”

Indeed, the nineteenth century saw a welling up of religious fervor—not unlike that which had stormed through the early eighteenth. As early as this history of Brooklyn Methodism is, it lists dozens and dozens of churches and missions, as well as describing the schism leading to the African M.E. Church and the related denominations of Primitive Methodist, Methodist Protestant, and Protestant Methodist.

This denomination grew in what had been Nieuw Amsterdam. The Dutch had come for business, not religious freedom; their Reform Protestantism came with them as a matter of course. What we now refer to as religious diversity followed quickly. The Dutch filled their colony with whatever folk could be induced to go there: Huguenots, Quakers, German Lutherans.

The Brits took the place by 1667, pretty much, and from then on what happened to English and Scottish souls pretty much happened to Americans too. By the 1740s, New York and the middle colonies were hotbeds of evangelism, with the British George Whitefield and other itinerant preachers both imported and native-born touring the countryside in search of hordes ripe for conversion. God had bestowed special grace on the colonies, calling the people to him and making it his special chosen land.

Purdue Professor Frank Lambert’s take on the so-called First Great Awakening shows that Whitfield, in particular, and the movement in general, practiced PR at a virtuoso level : advance men, press manipulation, crowd exaggeration, trumped-up testimonials, and publication blizes succeeded then as now: the Great Awakenings accepted by most as an historical event were minted by marketers savvy in creating buzz, priming fads, and hyping God’s hand in daily affairs.

Another upsurge, in the early 1800s, was dubbed the “Second” awakening. New York—then a frontier—remained a hotspot of religious impulse. (It was in nineteenth-century western New York, for example, that Joseph Smith invented the Mormons.)

For months I’ve been reading church records and not thinking about the context: religion as cultural climate, a stabilizing force, a personal structure. A history fan, over several years I’ve read quite a bit about the religion of early America. Yet, regarding these ancestors of mine, I have pictured a daily life crammed with family and work, a life preoccupied with survival, of isolation borne of physical distance and personal reserve, of the bitterness and despair inherent in self-reliance.

I haven’t thought much of their religious beliefs or considered the possibility of spiritual struggle. I haven’t imagined emotional need that seeps toward the channels of organized religion. Knowing the current descendents, I’ve assumed detachment and skepticism that goes way back. That could be projection. Grandma Josie taught Sunday School. She belonged to the Ladies’ Aid.

New York Methodist Conference at White Plains, NY. “Brooklyn Methodist Episcopal Churches: History / Members / Pastors.” Report, Undated (internal evidence suggests 1870). Accessed April 26, 2006.

Lambert, Frank. Inventing the Great Awakening. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.


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