How the American Revolution Affected Newtown

Created: Tuesday, July 4, 2017 Written by Elder Marjorie Melikian, Church Historian

Yes, the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown is older than the United States of America! In our fifth building since being founded in 1652, we will celebrate our birthday in the fall. But July 4, Independence Day, celebrates the birth of the Unites States of America. We should not forget that this independence was not easily obtained. The original 13 colonies (now states) had to throw off British rule and go to war against the might of England, a David vs. Goliath-like undertaking. It affected both our neighborhood and our church, causing death and destruction in this very area. We should not forget the sacrifices of those who came before us, to build this country and this very old church.

England's policies towards its new American colonies became more oppressive, with heavy taxes levied on colonists for items they needed to import, which was almost everything they couldn’t grow or catch. Part of the problem involved religion. The English Governor of New York, Lord Cornbury, was ordered by Queen Anne to crack down on churches like ours that did not want to be part of the Church of England, which she headed. Independent for awhile, we decided to be Presbyterian in 1715, after the governor drove out our pastor at the time and arrested two Presbyterian pastors passing through town whom we had asked to preach in our church. We were left with no pastor. He put them in prison simply because of their religion. They later became the founders of the national Presbyterian Church.

Americans were not allowed representation in Parliament, so their welfare and pleas were ignored. The colonies learned to work together and become more independent. Things came to a head over a simple thing like tea, which those British-born colonists loved. A boycott was called against the high British tax on it and other staples in America - supported by many in Newtown. The wife of our pastor at the time, Rev. Peter Fish, politely declined to drink a cup of tea offered her, saying it was against her principles to support taxation of Americans without any representation allowed. (Rev. Fish was related to Jonathan Fish, who gave land for our Old White Church in 1715.) The Boston "Tea Party" was an act of rebellion in which colonists boarded a British ship and threw taxed tea overboard. This led to some of the first clashes of British soldiers against the American population.

Meanwhile, "Committees of Correspondence" sprang up around the country urging independence for America and corresponding with the newly elected Continental Congress in Philadelphia for that end. In 1774, our church members formed a Committee of Correspondence in Newtown, which included members of the Dutch Reformed Church. We own the original 1774 draft of an agreement by our own members to cooperate with the Continental Congress through the committee - a call for independence by local men! It was signed at the Old Corner House, on the corner of what is now Grand Avenue and Queens Boulevard. (In the 1800s, that building also served as the Presbyterian church parsonage.) What is now Queens Boulevard was only one or two lanes wide then, called the "Road to Jamaica."

Members of St. James Church, then part of the Church of England, were split, but most took the side of the British. Newtown's document stated that Newtown citizens considered the imposition of taxes without any representation to be a subversion of the English constitution, and said they “had the right to submit to their posterity the same rights and privileges their ancestors had.” But 26 Newtown residents loyal to the king began collecting arms and ammunition, which our members reported to the Continental Congress, with their names. The Congress had them arrested, but they were released upon payment of bond and a promise to support the Continental Congress and the cause of liberty - a promise they did not intend to keep. At about this time, three young men, two of whom were loyalist Moore family members who attended St. James, pulled down the small steeple of our Presbyterian Church. (King George III called the war "The Presbyterian War" since most Presbyterians supported the Revolution.)

On July 4, 1776, independence was declared by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. We were now a separate country. A copy of that Declaration of Independence was within a few days read on the steps of the Old Corner House in Newtown. Soon after, war started in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Newtown started a militia and prepared itself. Soon shiploads of British soldiers landed in Brooklyn, and the Battle of Brooklyn was fought, and won by the well-armed British.

Two days later, victorious British soldiers then marched up Grand Avenue to Newtown, their next target. They committed "excesses" against the inhabitants, for which British general Lord Howe apologized the next day. Friendly Indians warned Newtown of their approach, and some citizens were able to hide valuables, but there was little the small town could do against an army.

Lord Howe confiscated the largest home in town for his headquarters. That home was owned by Samuel Renne, one of our church’s first three elders. His name and signature appear in our 1715 book. The home was located across from the present Rock Church and lasted until the early 1900s. It was also called the Brettonierre House later after a subsequent owner. Officers were housed in the best homes, English and Hessian troops (their allies) set up camp around Newtown. Some were camped a few blocks in back of the present Presbyterian church, some near where Public School 13 is now, and others took over citizens’ homes. They helped themselves to citizens’ food and livestock, leaving little or nothing for them.

Soldiers also took over our sanctuary, then a small building across what is now Queens Boulevard from the present location. It was desecrated - the pulpit was put into the street to hitch horses and the building was used as a prison for deserters, one of whom was hanged from a nearby pear tree. In winter, they tore down the church altogether to use the wood for soldier's huts. Before the war, three young Tories, one an uncle of Clement Clarke Moore, pulled down its small steeple. The British stored gunpowder in the Dutch church. They worshipped at the old St. James Church, which still exists on Broadway. It is said that the future King William IV, then in the navy, visited Newtown and St. James while stationed in Manhattan.

British soldiers remained in Newtown for the entire war. They enjoyed their stay, made welcome by local Tories (including the Moores, whose ancestor Rev. John Moore founded what became our church.) They drank and danced with local Tory girls at the Old Corner House. Its owner hid a wanted American in an upstairs room, helping him escape. But the tide of war eventually turned, with victories elsewhere. Against the might of the British army, Americans fighting for their country and their rights prevailed. About August 1782, Newtown heard the war had ended. The local Tory sympathizers fled, many going to British Canada. Some of the patriot men of Newtown joined in the escort of George Washington as he took victorious possession of New York City.

Read more about Rev. James Lyon, pastor of our church after the Revolution.

Elder Marjorie Melikian is the historian of the First Presbyterian Church of Newtown