A History of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC
History is said to be to a community what memory is to an individual life. That is certainly true of the history of a religious congregation, as its remembered past takes the shape of a narrative crucial to self-understanding, decision-making, and future planning. Capital Witness tells the story of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (NYAPC) in Washington DC with such an end in mind.
The result of a union in 1859 between F Street Associate Reformed Church (founded in 1803) and Second Presbyterian Church (founded in 1820), NYAPC’s roots are deep in the nation’s capital. With the church situated just blocks from the White House, the people of NYAPC have been immersed in the social, religious, and political issues facing the country since its founding.
During NYAPC’s span of more than two hundred years and location in four sanctuaries and various temporary sites, the church has been renowned for preaching truth to power—James Laurie, Daniel Baker, and Phineas Gurley in the nineteenth century; Wallace Radcliffe, Joseph Sizoo, Peter Marshall, and George Docherty in the twentieth century; and Roger Gench in the twenty-first century. Three of its pastors have also served as federal legislative chaplains—specifically Septimus Tustin, Gurley, and Marshall.
NYAPC’s pews have held such noteworthy historical figures as Presidents John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Capital Witness recounts Adams’s generosity to the church and its pastor, Jackson’s role in the scandalous affair of two friends, Lincoln’s ultimate belief in the selfless love and reconciliation reflected in his Second Inaugural Address, and Eisenhower’s inspiration for the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
The NYAPC clergy and congregation have been active leaders in the fight for social justice dating as far back as 1817, when Laurie backed colonization as one way to right the wrong of slavery. It continued through the Civil War era as Gurley counseled and consoled a president struggling to understand the meaning of God’s activity in the maelstrom of that war, and into the twentieth-century as Docherty and Jack McClendon led the congregation into active participation in the civil rights movement and protest against the controversial Vietnam War. This quote from its 1988 Long Range Plan sums up the role NYAPC has played and the people it has attracted over time: “Ours is a church for those who respond to challenge.”
This church’s track record of care and involvement is reflected in its various ministries. One of the most notable is the Community Club. A program that began as a World War II–era social and recreational outlet for the young men and women passing through or relocating to Washington DC, the Club has evolved into a successful tutoring program for underprivileged youth in the community that has encouraged and enabled hundreds to pursue higher education.
The buildings housing this congregation through the years are supreme examples of leading architectural design during the periods in which each new church was constructed. The current structure boasts a sanctuary renovated in 2009, a state-of-the-art organ, and nineteen stained glass windows, each one depicting biblical scenes or significant historical remembrances in the life of the congregation. The sanctuary holds the pew originally rented and occupied by Lincoln and his family. Also on display in one of two rooms that preserve and recall NYAPC’s history is an original draft in Lincoln’s handwriting of what later evolved into the Emancipation Proclamation.
Capital Witness describes how this church, born of the Reformed tradition in America, has evolved and continues to transform—“reformed, always reforming”—irrevocably intertwined with the nation as a whole, the city in which it stands, and the lives of the people who give and receive its ministry.