First Congregational Church of Poughkeepsie: A Brief History
From its creation in 1837, First Congregational Church has been an important presence for Christian mission and social justice in downtown Poughkeepsie. We continue that legacy today, in Dutchess County and around the world, through the United Church of Christ, and as an Open and Affirming congregation.
Antislavery and the Founding of First Congregational Church
In the Hudson Valley, Dutchess County was an outpost of radical antislavery. Early leadership came from Poughkeepsie’s free African-American community and from Quakers in rural Dutchess. In 1834, black and white abolitionists created the Poughkeepsie Anti-Slavery Society (PASS), which organized conventions, circulated petitions, and pledged to assist those seeking to escape slavery through the Underground Railroad.
In February 1837, PASS invited abolitionist Samuel Gould of Massachusetts to speak. During his lecture at Second Presbyterian Church (now the property of Second Baptist Church, located at Mill and Vassar Streets), Gould was attacked by hostile men who swarmed the pulpit, ripped his clothes, and hit him with rocks as he sought shelter in the residence of his host, Dr. Thomas Hammond. The mob then roamed the streets breaking windows. Local editors, ministers, and businessmen blamed not the rioters but abolitionists for their “incendiary” doctrines.
Many members of both First and Second Presbyterian Churches were angered by their ministers’ unwillingness to oppose slavery. In the months after the riot, they left these churches and founded First Congregational, which began holding services in the summer of 1837. FCC members pledged, among other things, to oppose “buying and selling human beings or holding them in involuntary servitude.”
FCC and the Antislavery Cause
Of the 73 men who joined FCC in the first four years, at least 40 were documented members of the Poughkeepsie Anti-Slavery Society or otherwise active in the abolitionist movement. FCC called as its first two pastors 28-year-old Rev. Almon Underwood, an energetic member of the PASS, and then 27-year-old Rev. Levi Waldo, also active in the cause. Waldo’s associates in antislavery work included such prominent national leaders as Lucretia Mott and Stephen and Abby Kelley Foster. In 1839, FCC was the only white church in Poughkeepsie to participate in prayer vigils on behalf of the enslaved.
In April of that year, FCC extended membership to prominent African-American abolitionist speaker and writer Samuel Ringgold Ward, then teaching at Poughkeepsie’s Colored Lancastrian School. The church hosted his ordination by the New York Congregational Convention, after which he was called to an upstate pastorate.
In May 1839, Rev. Underwood and three church members (John Low, Abraham Requa, and Samuel Thompson) constituted the majority of Dutchess County’s six-man delegation to the 6th National Anti-Slavery Convention in New York City. At many such meetings, First Congregational partnered with the Catharine Street AME Church (now Smith Metropolitan AME Zion) . Members of the two churches cooperated on many projects for antislavery and black education.
In October 1847 the church invited famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass to speak at FCC when he was barred from lecturing at city hall. In 1851 FCC members played a key role in raising funds to purchase the freedom of fugitive slave John Bolding, a Poughkeepsie tailor who had been seized by US marshals for forcible return to the South. Bolding lived the rest of his life in Poughkeepsie.
Moving to Mill Street
In the 1850s, FCC sold its original building (now Second Baptist) and purchased land on Mill Street. The new building was completed in 1859 and has been the congregation’s home ever since.
In 1861 FCC minister Rev. Moses Tyler preached a passionate antislavery sermon on the eve of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, denouncing compromise with slaveholders.
Other Reform Causes
During its founding years FCC members were involved in a number of other reform causes, especially the anti-liquor movement. Thomas Austin served on the school board in support of universal public education and related reforms. Church member Mary Eliza Wiltsie was a founder and leader of the city’s Female Guardian Society and Home for the Friendless.
The Civil War and After
During the Civil War, 30 FCC members volunteered in the Union Army. Five died in the war and several others were permanently disabled. In 1862 the church sent barrels of clothing and supplies to the relief of formerly enslaved refugees at Fort Monroe, Virginia. FCC members were probably active in other reform work during Reconstruction, but such activities have not yet been researched.
In 1871 the church called as pastor Henry Ward Beecher’s brother, Rev. James Beecher, who had commanded African-American troops as Colonel of the First North Carolina Colored Volunteers. Beecher served as pastor for four years.
Twentieth Century Legacies
The social justice work of FCC’s founders has been sustained by succeeding generations. In the Progressive Era, FCC was the first site of a Mothers’ Milk Station that later evolved into the Poughkeepsie Day Nursery. During the terrible influenza epidemic of 1918, which claimed half a million American lives, the church opened Margaret Chapel as an emergency infirmary.
During the 1950s and 1960s, FCC pastor Rev. Philip Allen Swartz was a leading local advocate of affordable housing. He served as chair of the Poughkeepsie Housing Authority, and the Philip A. Swartz housing development is named in his honor.
During these years First Congregational also joined the United Church of Christ, created in 1957 to unite Congregationalists in fellowship with other progressive Christians.
Recent and Current Social Missions
In the 1990s, FCC members helped sponsor and resettle a refugee from Uganda. FCC sustains strong links to Africa, especially Kenya and Uganda, where which some members grew up and have continued family ties. Recent projects have supported local organizations such as Dutchess Outreach and Grace Smith House, as well as international missions in Haiti and other locations.
FCC is an Open and Affirming congregation of the UCC. Church members have written repeatedly to state representatives, urging passage of marriage equality legislation. FCC participates in the annual Pride Parade sponsored by the LGBTQ Center of the Hudson Valley.
Church members focus attention on the issues of housing, hunger, and homelessness and have worked with Hudson River Housing to support itsWindchill Fund, Middle Main initiative, and Anchor-Based Revitalization Project, with FCC’s property serving as one of the neighborhood “anchors.”
In keeping with our mission to “build Christ’s diverse and compassionate community,” church members continue to work for social justice and raise funds for missions and UCC initiatives at home and around the world.