The City of New York from 1700 to 1770  Part I

 Attention to the Cause of Education

The interests of education were but little regarded by our ancestors till a comparatively recent period; and the idea of diffusing intelligence among the masses seems not to have existed among them at that time. Schools for the education of the children of the common people were unknown, and comparatively few could read intelligibly or write their own names. In 1702 a grammar school was established by the corporation, and a master sent for to the Bishop of London, as there was not any person within this city (with whose convenience it would be agreeable) proper and duly qualified to take upon himself the office of schoolmaster in said city." The school thus established continued in existence, in some form, throughout the colonial period of the country, and became the nucleus around which were collected the original elements of Columbia College. But the advantages of such a school were necessarily confined to the more opulent families, while the poorer and middling classes were quite without educational facilities. As a necessary consequence of this state of things, there was a prevailing amount of popular ignorance, with its accompaniments of rudeness and illiberality, that can now be only faintly apprehended by the more favored people of this metropolis at the present time. A library of one thousand six hundred and forty-two volumes, a gift from Dr. Millington, of London, to the corporation of the city of New-York, was received through the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts, in 1729, which was duly accepted and arranged in a room appropriated for that purpose in the City Hall. This was the first public library ever established in New York. It was afterward used as a circulating library, the books being loaned to the citizens at sixpence a volume for a week The New York Society Library was founded, for a like purpose, in 1740.

Increase of General Intelligence

The establishment of the first newspaper in the city has been already noticed. That was, however, at first rather a mercantile and political affair than a movement in behalf of learning. But the incidental and at length direct influence of a free press upon the cause of general intelligence, soon became too evident to escape general observation. A very marked change in the matter of general intelligence among the inhabitants of New York took place during the forty years preceding the war of the Revolution. This intellectual progress of the masses led to a higher appreciation of popular liberty, and a more fearless assertion of the rights of individual freedom.

 Political Affairs

The political history of New York city for thirty years before the beginning of the Revolution, is almost wholly destitute of incidents of general interest. A succession of royal governors, and, at frequent intervals, lieutenant-governors, who were generally citizens of the province, held the chief direction of public affairs between whom and the assembly there were almost perpetual contests for the ascendency. But the history of the province and that of the city had ceased to be identical; the city had attained to an individuality of its own, and the increase of the province beyond the city gave a more general character to provincial affairs. The city was still the seat of the provincial government, and the residence of the governor and other principal officers: but the municipal affairs were almost exclusively managed by the local officers of the corporation, who were more or less directly dependent on the popular suffrages, and in many cases in a good degree imbued with the popular spirit. The period under notice was, in a variety of aspects, one of slow but steady social progress.

 Enlargement of the City

During the ten years from 1740 to 1750, the progress of the city was much more considerable than during the decade immediately preceding. About four hundred houses were added in that time, and the population advanced in about the same ratio, though very few public buildings were erected for a long period down to the year 1750. In that year we hear of the first theater ever established in New York, and from this time the increase of public edifices was rapid. The Moravian church in Fair (Fulton) street was founded in 1751, and St. George's, in Beekman street, the next year. About the same time the new Exchange at the head of Broad-street was built by private subscription. King's (Columbia) College was founded two years later. About the same time a new market was built "on the west side of Broadway near Dey street," called " the Oswego Market," the predecessor of the present Washington Market. In 1757,a large number of troops being assembled in the city, barracks, capable of holding eight hundred men, were built for their accommodation, " on the Commons, between the jail and Catiemut's Hill,"Śnow the block of ground bounded by Centre, Chambers, and Chatham streets. The building was four hundred and twenty feet long, twenty-one wide, and two stories high. In 1760 the Baptist church in Gold-street was built, and five years later St. Paul's chapel in Broadway.

In 1766 the Presbyterian Church petitioned for the " angular lot, lately called the vineyard," alleging the great increase of that persuasion, and their consequent need of an additional place of worship; and the land asked for was granted at a rent of forty pounds per annum, upon which shortly afterward was erected the brick church in Beekman street, which was at first called the " Brick church in the fields." The same year a German Lutheran church was built in " the Swamp," on the corner of William and Frankfort streets: a year later the Scotch church in Cedar-street was erected: the next year the Methodist church in John street the first of that denomination in America : and in 1769 the North Dutch church in William street. With this list end all public improvements of any note till after the war of independence.

Aspect of the city at that time

At this time (1729) the population of the city was little more than eight thousand, and the number of dwellings about fourteen hundred. For the next twenty years the progress of the city was inconsiderable, so that one may justly figure to himself the image of this great city, as it was a hundred years ago, as that of a rudely-constructed village of scarcely ten thousand inhabitants, with ten places of public worship, of almost as many different denominations, and most of them of very limited proportions; and the few other public buildings of equally insignificant proportions. The day of its progress had not yet dawned upon the future Empire City.

Commerce of New York

From the beginning New-York has been a commercial city, and its increase and stability have always depended upon its commercial prosperity. Of late its trade had greatly increased. Its ships visited many foreign ports; and no town in America, not excepting Philadelphia, surpassed it in the extent of its commercial operations. The whole amount of its imports for the year 1769 was a little short of a million dollars,a great advance from that of previous years; and though it seems small compared with the immense aggregates now realized, yet, compared with the population, the disproportion is much less remarkable. At that time about one-tenth of all the foreign commerce of the British American colonies centered at New-York, which proportion has gradually increased till nearly one-fourth of the whole foreign trade of the United States is found at that port. The effects of this commercial prosperity were felt in all the affairs of the city. Increase of wealth brought with it an improved style of building, an increase of public work, greater attention to personal appearance and manners, and at length more attention to education.

Religious affairs: Presbyterians

A change in the moral and religious affairs of New York, not less gratifying than that of its commerce and pecuniary business, was carried forward during the third quarter of the eighteenth century. The spiritless monotony that had marked nearly all the churches of the city from the beginning was now interrupted, and a more fervid style of address introduced into the pulpit, and a spirit of earnestness began to pervade the religious assemblies. This was especially the case with the Presbyterian Church in Wall-street, of which Rev. John Rogers was for a long time pastor. Probably few individuals have conferred so large favors upon our city as did that pious and active minister; and to him is the city generally, and the cause of religion and good morals especially, and, above all, the Presbyterian denomination in New York, greatly indebted. The increase of the Church in Wall street was so great that the place was found insufficient for the congregation that sought to avail themselves of the privileges of public worship in that place; and this led to the establishment of a second congregation the brick church in Beekman street, founded in the year 1767. The new religious life that had been infused into the staid congregation of that church led to a modification of some of the old time honored forms of the Presbyterian Church, and especially to the substitution of Watt's Hymns instead of the uncouth version of the Psalms of David formerly in use. But such innovations were viewed with horror and alarm by the more rigid adherents of the ancient forms of the Presbyterian Church. A secession had consequently taken place some years previous, and the separatists about this time organized an independent ecclesiastical body, and erected the First Scotch Presbyterian Church in Cedar street.

The Reformed Dutch Church

The same influences that so greatly and advantageously affected the Presbyterian Church in New York, extended also, though in a less degree, to the Dutch Calvinist Churches. These Churches, the original religious denomination of the province had well maintained their ascendency and relative numbers in the city. Instead of the original edifice within the walls of the fort, a new one was erected, in 1693, on Garden-street, near Broad-street, which was greatly enlarged in 1766. Another, commonly known as the Middle Dutch Church, situated at the corner of Cedar and Nassau streets, (now occupied as the post-office,) was built in 1729; and now (1769) yet another, known as the North Dutch Church, was erected at the corner of William and Fair (Fulton) streets. All of these several Churches and congregations formed one ecclesiastical corporation, and enjoyed a common pastorate, which important office was held by the venerated Dr. Livingston. Under his wise and judicious administration, and by the influence of his Christian zeal and fidelity, the rigid formalism of these ancient Churches was brought into a more practical approximation to the spirit of the times, and into sympathy with the newly awakened religious influences that were actuating other religious bodies in the city. The position thus given to that venerable denomination was, both immediately and prospectively, of the greatest importance
to the religious affairs of New York.

The Methodists

During the latter portion of this period a religious movement was commenced in New York which presently attracted some attention, and has since had a large share in directing religious affairs in all parts of the country. About the year 1766 the first Methodist society in America was formed in the city of New York. Methodism had then existed in Great Britain as an organized body for nearly thirty years, and its " United Societies" were found in almost every part of the kingdom; but as yet no attempt had been made to plant that form of Christianity in this country. Whitefield had indeed visited this country in his missionary tours, and had borne with him the name and spirit of Methodism, but not its form. He had also labored with marked success in New York, and was no doubt largely instrumental in promoting the changes already noticed, especially in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church. But hitherto Wesleyan Methodism was unknown in America. About this time a number of Irish immigrants, who had been connected with the Methodist body, and one of them a lay preacher, came to New York. These presently set up public worship, after the forms they had been accustomed to use in their own country, first in a private house, and afterward in a rigging-loft. The house thus rendered memorable, now, after the lapse of nearly a hundred years, is still standing, a relic of " the old time." It may be seen on the south easterly side of William street, about midway between John and Fulton streets, and readily distinguished among the lofty modern edifices that surround it.

Embury and Captain Webb

The lay-preacher just spoken of was Mr. Philip Embury, who was by birth and education an Irishman, and by trade a house carpenter. He appears to have been a man of true piety, and of very considerable good sense and energy of character. He naturally became the head and leader of the little company that held their social conventicles at his house; and with so much favor were these exercises regarded by those who were admitted to them, that soon more sought admittance to them than could find accommodations in the narrow limits of the dwelling of the mechanic preacher. This incited them to procure more ample accommodations, and accordingly the place in William street was obtained for a house of public worship, where Embury officiated as minister. While the little society were occupying this humble place, an event occurred that suddenly gave no little notoriety to themselves and their unimposing chapel. Among the military forces then in the province was a Captain Webb, who held the office of master of the barracks at Albany. This officer had been connected with the Methodist societies in Great Britain, and was licensed
to officiate as a lay preacher. At the time now under notice Captain Webb was in New York, and having introduced himself to Mr. Embury, was by him introduced to the assembly in the " rigging loft," to whom he preached in his military costume. The novelty of the thing, together with the deference that was felt for an officer bearing the king's commission, awakened much interest, and drew out many to hear the soldier preacher in his subsequent ministrations. Afterward Captain Webb was stationed at Jamaica, on Long Island, where a body of troops was then quartered. Here he continued his efforts as an evangelist, and thence also paid frequent visits to his friends in New York, fully identifying himself with the little society under the care of Mr. Embury.

 The First Methodist Church

The zealous efforts of these unpretending evangelists were not without their fruits. The attendance of a large and respectable audience at the " loft" in William street indicated the extent of the impression that had been made upon the public mind. The state of things in the city generally, as already noticed, favored this new enterprise, and in return received from it an increased impulse. The necessity of a more commodious place of worship began to be felt, and the practicability of procuring one to be discussed. The undertaking was a formidable one; but the necessity was seen to be imperative, and so an effort was made. A lot of ground was procured on a slight eminence to the east of Broadway, called Golden Hill, since traversed by the upper part of John-street, and on this a wooden building, forty by sixty feet in its dimensions, was erected. The funds required for this work were obtained by private donations from all classes of the citizens, together with a small sum sent by Mr. Wesley from England. Mr. Embury did much of the carpenter's work with his own hands, as well as superintended the whole business. The building was finished in the autumn of 1768, and dedicated to its sacred purpose by a sermon and other religious exercises, conducted by Mr. Embury.

Methodist Preachers Arrive From England

Thus far the little Methodist society had existed entirely unconnected with any other association, either at home or abroad. They, however, claimed to be an integral part of the great body of Wesleyan Methodists, then rapidly extending in all parts of Great Britain. Mr. Embury had thus far conducted the affairs of the little society with much discretion and ability; but as by the change of circumstances his little assembly assumed the character and aspects of a Church, requiring the services of a regularly authenticated minister of the gospel, he felt his inadequacy to the work thus thrown upon him, and wished some other to be intrusted with the weighty charge. A petition was accordingly sent out to Mr. Wesley, soliciting the appointment of one or more preachers to labor in America. Two individuals, Messrs. Pilmoor and Boardman, were therefore sent to take charge of the Methodist society in New York, and to commence in America a system of itinerant evangelization, similar to that which had been so eminently successful in Great Britain. A few years later these were reinforced by additional missionaries from England, among whom was Mr. Francis Asbury, since the apostle of American Methodism, and one of the first bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. The present Methodist church in John street, erected in 1842, occupies the site of the original edifice, and is one of the few places of worship that has not yielded to the demands of the commercial interests of that portion of the city.


Website: The History
Article Name: The City of New York from 1700 to 1770 Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: New York: A Historical Sketch of the Rise and Progress of the Metropolitan City of America by a New Yorker; Published by Carlton & Phillips 1853.
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