On Sunday, August 17, 1642, Dominie Johannes Megapolensis Jr. preached his first sermon to about one hundred people in a grain warehouse in Rensselaerwyck, a Dutch settlement across the Hudson River from the present site of Albany, New York. That historic worship service gave birth to the First Reformed Church in Albany, the second oldest congregation in the Reformed Church in America.
During the next century and a half the congregation constructed and worshiped in four different buildings. In 1647 it remodeled a warehouse near Fort Orange (now Albany). This structure housed special benches for the consistory as well as nine benches for the congregation. "To encourage religious worship in the colony" the High and Mighty Lords of the States General of the Netherlands gave a small pulpit to the congregation. This pulpit, the oldest in North America, is still used in the James Chapel of the present building.
In 1656, First Church and the city leaders together designed and built a new church at an intersection on the main road into Albany. This building, known as the Blockhouse Church, served a dual purpose as a place of worship and a fortress. On the main floor of the Blockhouse Church were a pulpit, benches for the women, and special benches for the consistory.The men kept watch while they worshiped, stationed by cannons mounted at loopholes in the overhanging balcony.
The Blockhouse Church boasted a new pulpit with an hourglass for timing the sermon (during the seventeenth century most sermons lasted about two hours) and a weather vane in the form of a cock (see "of Roosters and Preachers"); both of these had been purchased from the mother church in Amsterdam for twenty-five beaver skins.
In 1715, on the same site where the old Blockhouse Church had stood, First Church constructed a third and larger building called the Stone Church. The Stone Church retained the hourglass pulpit of 1656 and used the smaller 1650 pulpit as the voorlezer's desk.The old weathercock was mounted on the new building's bell tower, and the church's leading families donated stained .glass windows (which bore the coats of arms of those families).
First Church dedicated its fourth (and present) sanctuary in January 1799. This time the building was erected in the heart of downtown Albany. Designed by Philip Hooker in a spare Augustan style, First Church is the only eighteenth-century church building still standing in Albany. Although modest alterations have been made in this building throughout the years, it contains (and uses) the old (1656) pulpit, Tiffany windows, a four-manual Austin organ (built in 1948), a choir loft (in the rear of the sanctuary), a balcony, elder pews (on both sides of the pulpit and lectern), and seating capacity for approximately eight hundred people.
Among artifacts of interest held by the church are the old weathercock (1656), two seventeenth-century silver communion beakers, the original charter granted to the church by King George I of England in 1720, and original land grants dated 1667 and 1688. The pew used by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a member of First Church when Governor of New York State, is marked by an appropriate plaque. And in the archives one can find records of important civic events held in the church, including memorial services for Presidents Washington and Lincoln.
Until the mid-l790s the congregation worshiped in the Dutch language. However, in 1795, following a major conflict on the language issue which nearly destroyed the church, the congregation began using English for worship. Significantly, by this time the English had gained political and economic hegemony in Albany, and both the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches had given birth to important new centers of worship. First Church, however, is respected in the city to this day for having provided the foundation for religious life in Albany.
A Thriving Ministry
In its worship First Church has followed rather closely the prescribed order of the historic Reformed tradition. In the seventeenth century, for example, the church worshiped according to the Palatine Formula (1563), the Order mandated by the mother church in the Netherlands. The Reformed Church in America (organized in 1792) has revised that old Order through the centuries (1792, 1857, 1882, 1957), and First Church has generally adopted those revisions into its own worship (although recently the church conducted a service based on the 1642 order of worship).
However, now and then, here and there, in order to more adequately address a constantly changing cultural environment in Albany, First Church has initiated creative changes in its liturgy—changes such as preaching in English rather than Dutch, singing evangelical hymns rather than only psalms, introducing the organ and the choir into worship, following the lectionary, and, most recently, using drama and dance in worship. (First Church is situated at the center of the Arts and Culture section of downtown Albany.)
Traditionally First Church celebrated the Lord's Supper four times a year around a common table. Today, although a common table is set in the center aisle each communion Sunday, most of the congregation receives the bread and cup in the pews; and the congregation celebratesholy communion monthly instead of only four times a year.
Music is another important dimension of worship at First Church. The adult choir and the youth choir sing twice separately and twice together each month. During Advent and Lent the choirs at times present a twenty-minute "mini-concert" (of a Bach cantata, for example) before the service. The choirs also present concerts in the community, sometimes in the local historicalmuseum. At other times the church presents public piano and organ concerts (such as a recent anniversary concert of Dutch baroque music), which involve both staff and guest artists.
First Church presently has around six hundred members, is integrated (15 percent minority), and is actively witnessing through social ministries. The church supports a food pantry (twenty-five volunteers served food to more than nine thousand people in 1986), a soup kitchen, a day-care center, a peace ministry (First Church members founded the Upper Hudson Nuclear Weapons Freeze in 1980), and a senior housing program. Study groups from the church lobby against apartheid in South Africa and U.S. aid to the Contras in Nicaragua, and lobby for better relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In recent years guest speakers at Sunday worship services have included Dr. Allen Boesak (South Africa), Governor Mario Cuomo (New York), and Dr. Hendrikus Berkhof (The Netherlands).
Of Roosters and Preachers
The rooster, prominent on the spire of the First Reformed Church of Albany, was (and is) found on many church towers. The most prevalent explanation for the rooster is that this symbol is a reminder of the betrayal of Peter ("Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times"). When seeing the rooster, Christians are warned not to deny their Lord. Others interpret the rooster in more general terms of spiritual vigilance: just as the rooster arouses himself to greet the new day, so Christians must arouse themselves to spiritual alertness.
We find a more elaborate description of the rooster's symbolism in an eleventh-century treatise by Master Hugh of S. Victor: "The rooster placed on the tower represents preachers. For the rooster divides the hours of the night with his song as he arouses the sleepers; he foretells the approach of day. We must see these things mystically, for not one is without meaning. The sleepers are the children of this world, lying in sins. The rooster is the company of preachers, who preach sharply, stir up the sleepers to cast away the works of darkness… But wisely, before they preach to others, they rouse themselves by virtues from the sleep of sin, and chasten their bodies. They also turn themselves to the wind, when they bravely contend against and resist the rebellious by admonition and argument, lest they should seem to flee when the wolf comes. The iron rod on which the rooster sits shows the straight-forward speech of the preacher, that he does not speak from the spirit of man, but according to the Scriptures of God."
Adapted from: "Supplement" to William Durandus, The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments, ed. byf. M. Neale and B. Webb. Leeds, T. W. Green, 1843, p. 199.