A HISTORY OF THE
Reformed Church of Fonda, N. Y.
BEGINNING WITH THE OLD CAUGHNAWAGA CHURCH,
LILLIAN DOCKSTADER VAN DUSEN.
PUBLISHED BY THE LADIES AID SOCIETY 1925
REV. HENRY C. CUSSLER, PASTOR.
Rev. H.C. Cussler, President
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths." Such was the inscription in Dutch upon an oval tablet just below the eaves and over the door of the Old Caughnawaga Church, in the eastern part of the village of Fonda on lands now owned by Mr. William J. Weeper.
The records of this church go back to 1758, but the church itself was not built until 1763. History tells us that it was the first Low Dutch Church in this region, being first a preaching station, served by the Dutch Church of Schenectady, and the congregation being organized soon after the year 1754.
It is not known from whom the title to the original church lands were obtained. By some it is believed to have been embraced within the 2000 acres of the Collins patent granted in 1714; by others to have stood upon lands belonging to the Butlers, and for that reason not destroyed during the raids through the valley during the Revolutionary War.
The church is described as a massive stone building, about square, much larger than one is led to believe from the illustrations of it. It was built of rough limestone, having a curb roof, and stood with its gable end toward the street. The entrance was a double door in the middle of the east side. Two windows on the east side, one on each side of the door, and two on the south end toward the street furnished the light. These window ledges were so wide inside that occasionally a tired child found them a convenient place for a nap. In the gable end toward the street, close to the ridge of the roof, was a small circular opening in the wall, while half way down from this to the tops of the windows, were two oval ones, a trifle larger, inclined toward each other at about the same angle as the sides of the roof opposite them, after the fashion common in the eccleastical (sic) architecture of the age. This may account for the saying that the church was built with loop holes and could be used as a fort. Both doors and windows presented the flat but graceful Norman arch, which was thought to be more becoming a sober church of this kind, than the pointed and shooting Gothic.
In 1783, Zephania Bachelor was asked to furnish the consistory with an estimate of the cost of building a tower to the church, but not until 1795 was this done, together with other extensive repairs under the direction of Frederick Sammons, contractor, and at a cost of $2,250. The tower was placed on the north gable end and it was a curious thing to many to see a church with the spire at the rear.
The church was without a bell until the property of Sir John Johnson was sold during the Revolution. Then the former dinner bell of Sir William was bought by several male members of the congregation, carried on a pole by friendly Indians, and lifted to its place amid shouts, cheers and smiles. The bell weighed about 100 lbs., and the inscription on it read: "Sir Wm. Johnson, Baronet. 1774 Made by Miller & Bros., in Elizabethtown." In 1795 the church records read: "Cash paid for ringing bell 3 pounds."
The pulpit stood against the western wall, a little five sided coop, perched aloft on a slender support, reached by the narrowest of stairways, and canopied by a sounding board, that completely roofed it over. There was room in it for one person only. On the wall on either side of the pulpit hung a pole, several feet in length, suspended by an iron hoop or ring, from which also depended a little bag with a bell at the bottom. These were used for taking the collection, the bells tinkling a warning for the congregation to be ready with their offering.
The pews were high and square and had a door at the end. After the persons entered and the door was closed it was quite like a small room. A space at the north end had benches placed there for Indians and the negro slaves, and a gallery ran around three sides of the room. The pew at the left in entering is said to have been sometimes occupied by Sir Wm. Johnson, who had contributed liberally toward the erection of the building. No proof has been found to substantiate either of these beliefs.
Some curious resolutions in regard to the pews were adopted in 1795. These resolutions were to be read in service twice a year and were as follows: "The women's seats to begin with the first bench facing the pulpit on the north side of the aisle and the men's seats to be along the south wall beginning on that side of the pulpit. No man's seat shall descend to any of his heirs being females, nor a woman's seat to any of her heirs being males. Upon the death of the owner the seat shall descend to next of kin of the same sex. In default of such heirs, seats revert to the church. After the death of the owner, the transfer of the seat to the persons entitled to have it, shall take place within one year and six weeks".
At first the church was supplied by the pastor of the Dutch Church at Schenectady, the Rev. Barent Vrooman. The first stated pastor of the church was the Rev. Thomas Romeyn, who came in the Fall of 1771, and served for twenty-two years. Both preaching and records were in Dutch. In 1790, an assistant was called, who was able to conduct services in both Dutch and English, and who preached alternately on both sides of the river in proportion to the sum of money subscribed by the residents. It is recorded that Dominie Romeyn made a contract with Cornelius Van Syel to collect the salary once a year, the Dominie promising him, that if he went at the appointed time, to give him twenty shillings for each side of the river. It is also on record that those who refused to pay as promised to the salary of the Dominie, shall be made to pay by the Magistrate. In 1788 it was decided that the wood for the use of the Dominie should be furnished by the congregation, and those refusing to bring wood must bring one skipple of grain for each person in the family.
In 1783, the Consistory met at the parsonage with Dominie Romeyn to listen to the petition of those who resided on the south side of the river to establish a free ferry to the church. It was agreed that wood be delivered by the congregation on both sides of the river at the home of John Wemple, who consented to keep and run for the congregation, Sundays and other church days, a ferry, for those who attended church. John Fonda agreed to allow a road over his lands to the ferry. This ferry was in operation as late as 1825, when it was conducted by Peter Fonda.
On August 17, 1788, the church organization was incorporated under the title of "The Minister, Elders and Deacons of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Caughnawaga." When Dominie Romeyn died in 1794, he was buried under the old church, and near him a short time later, one of his first elders, Peter Coyne. A tablet in the present Reformed Church commemorates the memory of Rev. Thomas Romeyn, the inscription at the bottom being: "The memory of the just is blessed." His pastorate must have been difficult at times, especially during the struggle for independence, when Indians and Tories lurked upon the exposed frontier, ready to wreck vengeance with the tomahawk and scalping knife. Courage and faith were necessary to carry on, and we can be sure that Dominie Romeyn was faithful to his trust. Simms, in his Frontiersmen of New York, gives an account of the raid through the valley in October, 1780, when the wife of Dominie Romeyn ran with her small children up the hill back of the church to escape from the savages. When they saw her, they gave a few war whoops which frightened her so that she stumbled and fell, but she was unmolested, the savages laughing in savage glee at her flight.
The next pastor was the Rev. Abraham Van Horne, who preached his first sermon June 21, 1795, and continued his pastorate for 38 years, the longest term of any of the pastors. He preached in both Dutch and English, but at the close of his pastorage the preaching in Dutch ceased. His records show 1500 marriages and 2300 baptisms. It is said that he sometimes waited outside the church until the elders and deacons had assembled on each side of the door, then entering to the pulpit, these officers following in dignified procession.
On Sept. 2, 1800, the Classis of Montgomery was organized in the Caughnawaga Church, the Rev. Van Horne being the first stated clerk, and Rev. Rynier Van Nest of Schoharie, the first President. Those who conducted the organization were Chancellor Dr. John H. Livingston, Rev. Dirck Romeyn, founder of Union College, and Dr. Solomon Froeligh, a professor in New Brunswick Seminary. At the time of the organization there were 24 churches in the Classis of Montgomery.
During the last two years of Dominie Van Horn's pastorate, he was in poor health and it was thought advisable to have an assistant. So the Rev. Isaac S. Ketchom of Stone Arabia was called, but he came poorly recommended, for he had been regarded as a troublemaker in Dominie Spinner's congregation at Herkimer. There were some members of the Caughnawaga congregation who wished the Rev. Ketchom to come. There were others who objected. Two dates were chosen for his installation, which was postponed in both cases, but he was finally installed over the protest of Dominie Van Horne and his adherents. The matter was then carried to the Particular Synod of Albany on appeal and the call was abrogated. The strife and ill feeling brought the pastorate of Dominie Van Horne to a close and divided the congregation.
The Rev. Robert A. Quinn was the next pastor, but he served only two years.
The Rev. Jacob D. Fonda, was the last regular pastor serving from 1836 to 1842. It is interesting to note that his wife was a sister of Dr. Scudder, the first medical missionary to India.
There are many interesting anecdotes told of the old church, among them the story of the famine. It seems the people were suffering from famine, and this being in the days of faith and prayer, they gathered in the old church to pray for relief. While there it became very dark, and it being day time, they hurried outside to find the cause. They saw great flocks of wild pigeons darkening the sky overhead, a swift answer to their supplications. They were able to slaughter hundreds of them using some for their immediate needs, and preserving the rest.
It is said that the church was often used for patriotic meetings and Fourth of July celebrations, but that it was never used as a fort and stood unmolested during those days of strife.
The custody of the Deacon's chest, Sacremental Cups, table furniture and Black Cloth used at funerals, passed from one set of officers to another, these being preserved with great care.
People came from great distances to attend services, which were often held morning and afternoon of the Sabbath. The parish of this old church was very extensive, including the towns of Amsterdam, Perth, Mayfield, Broadalbin, Johnstown, Charleston, Florida, Glen and Mohawk. Sometimes they carried their shoes and stockings and a towel with them, walking barefoot to the Cayadutta Creek at the west, and the Danascara at the east. Here they washed and dried their feet and put on shoes and stockings. When they started for home, after they got out of the village, they again went barefoot.
The Visscher brothers always attracted attention because of the fine horses they rode to church, their slaves following them to care for the horses.
Hon. Francis Granger, who had been appointed Post Master General by President Harrison, speaks pleasantly of attending service in the old church. One Sunday found him at Caughnawaga on a journey to the west with his private conveyance. It was a time when people did not travel on the Sabbath, so he decided to go to church, even though it was a strange one. He observed loads of worshippers coming in from the country. As fast as the women alighted from the sheepskin bottomed chairs, which formed their seats in the wagons, and entered the church, the men, after providing for their teams, repaired to a neighboring tavern. Gravely, as befitting the day, each ordered a drink. Having drained his glass, the thirsty Christian thrust his hand deep into his pocket, and drew forth a long narrow leather wallet tied with a string. He emptied the cash into his left hand, selected a six pence and, laying it before the landlord, replaced the money in his wallet, put it back into his pocket and went into the church to services. Mr. Granger followed them in and listened attentively to all that took place. The congregation entered heartily into the singing, and Mr. Granger thought it good worship, though sad music. At the proper stage, the ushers, taking down the scoop nets with the tinkling bells, gathered the collection. There was the same diving for the purse, the unrolling and emptying of contents, but, instead of a six pence, this time it was a penny that was taken out.
Sometimes even the minister had his glass of today before the sermon, but whether this helped to make him more eloquent has not been left upon the records.
The tavern was across the street and at one time was kept by Mr. Matthew Oliver Davis, the grandfather of Mr. E. Corning Davis. During services one Sunday morning, he whispered to his small son, the late Isaac M. Davis, "Sonny, when we sing the last hymn, go home and put on the copper tea-kettle so that the water is boiling when I come home. There is to be a meeting there after church." This request was carried out so that when the services were over, the kettle was boiling ready to prepare the drinks. Mrs. Davis passed crullers and gingerbread, and the meeting lasted all the afternoon.
The following anecdote is related by Mrs. A. V. Morris, Sr., of Amsterdam. "It seems that a member of the congregation, a man, was in the habit of getting intoxicated very frequently. The other members remonstrated with him but in vain, for they could not induce him to mend his ways. Finally they called a meeting to find some way of dealing with this wayward member of the flock. One of those present suggested that at the next Communion service the bread and wine be passed by this man and he not be allowed to take Communion with them, hoping that this would cause him to repent. The plan was carried out and at the communion service, the sacraments were passed by the offending brother, but instead of making him repentant, it made him very angry. He immediately rose and said: "You can go to H----mit your communion. I goes to Schenectady, and I gets all the Communion I vants." "
From the font, which has been presented to the Montgomery County Historical Society, were baptised, in addition to the white members of the congregation, both Indians and negro slaves, who were faithful adherents and worshippers of the church. Some of the Dutch names are very odd and quaint, such as Francyntje, Jannetje, Maritje, Engeltje, Geertruy, Hans, Hannicel, Gysbert, and Rulif. The late Joe Munsell of Albany, well known writer and historian, says of these Dutch names that the ending je is a diminutive and applies to little boys and girls as we say "Johnnie, Nellie, etc."
In the winter as a means of heat, small foot stoves, burning charcoal, were taken into the pews, and were said to make the temperature very comfortable. In May, 1807, Isaiah Depuy built a chimney and placed a new roof on the church at a cost of $300. It is probable that stoves were used then for heating the church.
In 1838, the well known historian, Jeptha R. Simms, played a flute in the choir of which a Dr. Stewart, who played the bass viol, was leader. Mrs. Stewart was also a member of the choir.
A parsonage was built about the year 1800, east of the church for Dominie Van Horne, in front of an older parsonage erected for Dominie Romeyn. This stood until a few years ago, when it was torn down and the residence of Mr. William J. Weper erected, on its site.
During 1842 and 1843 the pulpit of the old church was supplied by Rev. Andrew Yates of Union College. By this time unpleasant things were happening among the congregation dating back to the trouble over the Rev. Ketchum in 1833, and the lack of support caused by the organization of a new congregation at Fultonville in 1838. It seemed impossible for the congregation to come to any agreement concerning the affairs and services of the old Caughnawaga Church.
On Dec.. 9, 1842, the entire original church glebe, edifice and parsonage were sold at Sheriff's sale at the old Court House to Rev. Jacob Fonda for $1,316.56, who took it because of the debt the remainder of the congregation owed him for salary and were unable to pay. As a Sheriff's deed could not be given until 15 months after date of certificate of sale, the congregation had a chance to redeem the property.
On Jan. 21, a congregational meeting was called to discuss the erection of a new house of worship. Mr. John B. Borst, hearing of this, offered to give a lot on the corner of Railroad and East streets. A subscription list for the building of the new church was circulated but was a failure because some did not approve of the site. It was suggested by the western part of the congregation that two churches be built, one on the site of the old church, and one in the village, but this was not advisable. It was decided to abandon both old and new sites and choose a more central one in order to bring about a better state of feeling. The Rev. Fonda was directed to call a meeting of three clergymen, the Rev. James Stevenson, of Florida, the rev. Benjamin B. Westfall of Stone Arabia and the Rev. Samuel Van Vechten of Fort Plain to give advice. They met the next week and recommended that a site be chosen near the Court House as that was the most central part of the village.
Finally a committee composed of Simeon Sammons, Jacob V. A. Wemple and John Booth representing the western part of the congregation, and Jesse D. DeGraff, John S. Veeder, and James Post representing the eastern part of the congregation, met with the consistory to choose a new site, which was to be somewhere between the Fonda Hotel and the home of Abraham Van Horne, either on the north or south side of the railroad.
A building committee composed of thirty-one persons was selected to have full charge of building operations and to choose a site from those suggested. This was later changed to the determined by a plurality of the votes of those subscribing. By thus giving the subscribers a right to vote, an entirely new site was chosen in a month's time. That it had taken the congregation five years to agree on a site for the new church, indicates the disturbed and disordered state of affairs. The edifice of the Reformed Church of Fonda stands today as a fitting tribute to the Rev. Andrew Yates, for it was his broadness of mind, untiring energy and his ability to restore peace and tranquility where chaos had reigned, that made the new church possible.
The new site was offered for sale by George W. Hatch, who acted as a "dummy" for John B. Borst, and was located on the corner of Railroad and Center street, and was purchased for $300.
A committee was appointed to call on the sheriff, Mr. Thomas Bunn, to obtain permission to hold services in the Court House every Sabbath afternoon until the new church was completed, except when some other denomination wished to occupy it, which request was granted.
The new building was constructed of wood at a cost of $3,500, all but $500 being met by subscription. The contractor was a Mr. John Stafford of Canajoharie. The corner stone was laid on Wednesday, June 8, 1843 and a parchment bearing the following inscription was deposited in it: "The ark was shaken and the breech fell upon the people. Under the good hand of our God, after much toil and patience, with believing perseverance, a union was effectted (sic) which resulted in the erection of this edifice June 8, 1843. Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain."
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