A Rich Past and a Promising Future
The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (NYAPC) embodies a rich history built on the very foundations of the Reformed tradition in this country. We were formed in 1859-1860, but trace our roots to 1803 as the F Street Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and another congregation founded in 1820 on our current site, the Second Presbyterian Church.
The powerful story of these two early congregations and the merged church that welcomed President Abraham Lincoln and his family as pew holders on the first Sunday following his inauguration in March 1861—just six months after the dedication of the newly constructed church—is a story fully intertwined with the history of our denomination, the capital city, and this country. Tours of the church are available following each regular service and by special arrangement with the office.
The F Street Church was established in 1803 with James Laurie as pastor by leaders of the Associate Reformed movement, known as covenanters, who had seceded from the Church of Scotland in the mother country and retained a separate identity in North America. After holding initial worship services in the U.S. Treasury building, in 1807 the congregation began meeting, still under the leadership of Dr. Laurie, in an imposing brick building that stood where the F Street entrance to the Willard Hotel today opens on to Peacock Alley—just two blocks from the church's present location on New York Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets, NW. The F Street Church, or Willard Hall, was one of the first buildings erected in Washington for Protestant worship. In 1824 Laurie led the congregation out of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian group to join the Presbyterian Church in the USA, which represented the mainstream of American Presbyterianism descended from the state-established Church of Scotland.
The Second Presbyterian Church, also a congregation of the PCUSA, was organized in 1820 by 16 families from the Bridge Street Presbyterian Church in Georgetown, at the time a separate town from Washington City. These members found their church too distant for regular attendance over the often muddy streets connecting the White House area and Georgetown. Pastored until 1828 by the Rev. Daniel Baker, the Second Church congregation included three of the four candidates for President in 1824. Andrew Jackson’s wife described Baker as “a fine, plain preacher,” and John Quincy Adams was an early pew holder as Secretary of State and ultimately served as a Trustee.
In those days, controversy divided Presbyterians into opposing camps of “Old Schoolers” and “New Schoolers.” The New School was ardently evangelistic and revivalist, and abandoned strict Calvinism for a theology of free will; the Old School was more doctrinally rigid and fearful of too much emotion. Second Church experienced an Old School/New School division, suffered financial hardship in covering the cost of its new building, and became involved in a scandal involving a member of Jackson's cabinet. By the 1850s, it was barely functioning.
Finally, in 1859, the F Street Church, pastored by Rev. Dr. Phineas Densmore Gurley, an Old School Presbyterian who had been called in 1853 following Dr. Laurie's death, merged with Second Presbyterian to form The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church under Dr. Gurley.
Symbolically, as a church in the young and burgeoning city, the NYAPC took its name from the avenue that separated it from the oftentimes malodorous tanyard on its south side. Not surprisingly, the new church was erected with a bold vision for the future, for although its membership stood at 291, the new sanctuary and a gallery added later accommodated more than three times that number.
Beyond a Building
Ultimately, though, it is what happened in this first church building and its 1951 successor that matters. The ministers of this church have repeatedly had the opportunity to speak truth to power. In addition to Adams, Jackson, and Lincoln, other Presidents of the United States attended services to hear their preaching, including William Henry Harrison, James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Benjamin Harrison, Dwight David Eisenhower, and Richard Milhous Nixon, as well as members of their Cabinets, Congress, and the Supreme Court.
Phineas Densmore Gurley, minister to Abraham Lincoln.
President Lincoln worshiped regularly at NYAPC during the American Civil War. Lincoln and Rev. Gurley developed a relationship in which they frequently discussed theology, and those discussions and Gurley's sermons likely influenced Lincoln's perception of the war and its meaning for the nation. Gurley presided over the funeral of Lincoln's son, William Wallace Lincoln, in 1862, and then over the funeral of Lincoln himself in 1865.
The Rev. Peter Marshall preached many famous sermons from the church's pulpit during World War II. In the late 1940s, Marshall was appointed Senate chaplain. Catherine Marshall's book of her husband's life and the feature film by the same name, A Man Called Peter, depict Marshall's memorable years at the church.
George Docherty and Dwight Eisenhower greet members of NYAPC's congregation in 1954.
The Rev. Dr. George MacPherson Docherty preached a Lincoln Day sermon on February 7, 1954, to a congregation that included President Eisenhower. The sermon, titled "A New Birth of Freedom," is credited with prompting Eisenhower to recommend to the U.S. Congress that the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States be amended to insert the phrase Lincoln used at Gettysburg, "under God."
At the invitation of Dr. Docherty, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from New York Avenue's pulpit to warn about the consequences of the war in Vietnam. And, more recently, the church twice served as a host for the Christian Witness for Peace for Iraq in its efforts to call into question the war there.
Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) march in Arlington Cemetery in February 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is at the center of the photograph. George and Mary Docherty walk just behind and to the left of Andrew Young (far right).
Service to city and country and hospitality to all who enter this church are part and parcel of this place. Led by the Rev. Peter Marshall, the church opened its doors to the young men and women who streamed into Washington to fight or to support those who fought in World War II. NYAPC ministers, Dr. Docherty and the Rev. Jack E. McClendon, journeyed to Selma to march for civil rights with Dr. King. The church served as a haven for protestors of the Vietnam War and the center for publicity and public information for the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington in the spring of 1968.
John Wiley, Eleanor K. Robins, and Vincent de Forest stand outside the Poor People's Campaign Information Center at NYAPC in the spring of 1968.
New York Avenue became a destination for prayer and comfort for many on September 11, 2001. And in January 2009, the church welcomed hundreds of the thousands of people who journeyed to the capital for President Barack Obama’s inauguration, providing food, drink, tours, and a warm place on a cold day—“a Godly pit-stop,” in the words of one visitor. For many years, the church has hosted the Jewish High Holiday celebrations of Fabrangen Havurah. These services, which are free and open to all, annually draw hundreds from in and around the city.
Ministries in the City
The 1960s and 70s saw the creation of several ministries— for Washington, DC’s junior high and high school students as well as the homeless, the mentally ill, and the hungry—that continue still. Some 1,200 people come to the building on a weekly basis for a wide range of purposes—to meet with a tutor in Community Club or a social worker at the McClendon Center, receive a cup of coffee or an article of needed clothing through the Radcliffe Room ministry for the homeless, attend one of a number of AA meetings, sing in the Gay Men’s Chorus, or worship with one of the four congregations the church hosts. New York Avenue’s current pastor and head of staff, the Rev. Roger J. Gench, and members of the congregation also serve directly in the community as active participants in the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), a broad-based, multi-racial, multi-faith, and non-partisan citizens’ organization of local congregations and associations committed to training and developing neighborhood leaders, addressing community issues, and holding elected and corporate officials accountable.
The church also extends beyond the boundaries of the metro region and the nation in many ways, but particularly through support—financial and otherwise—for a program for orphans sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in Njoro, Kenya, and a partnership with First Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Havana, Cuba. For several years, First Havana and New York Avenue’s congregations have reached out to one another, developing friendships and, more recently as downtown churches in capital cities, intentionally modeling reconciliation for their respective nations.
New York Avenue is a church that continuously strives to discern the role it is called to play in and from its building on this corner of Washington, DC. This is a church that is reformed and always reforming, and this place of worship and service reflects that longstanding tradition.