The only thing I knew about Albany prior to my arrival was it was the place my birth certificate came from. I was born in New Hartford, NY on the Utica city limits. We would pass the interstate signs for Albany on the way to Rhode Island. 55 years later I enter the New York State Capital for the first time. It was a dark night, but suddenly as I turned up State Street from the Thruway this huge Castle like Capitol erased all the darkness. I parked on State street in front of the impressive architecture of St. Peter's Church and thought this will be an easy connection. I was partially right. The sight symbolism was evident. The story of church and state a bit deeper.
This Capitol had a long road to it's present building. It took 32 years of construction 1867- 1899, 3 different architects to replace the first Capitol building in Albany after becoming the New York capital in 1797. Previous state capital locations were in New York City, Kingston, Hurley, and Poughkeepsie. New York's history as the Dutch colony of New Netherland is where it's church origins come from.
St. Peter's church was born as The Church of England's Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The Rev. Thomas Barclay arrived in Albany in 1704 and his primary ministry was directed to the Iroquois tribes and the British garrison. This lead to the building of the first Anglican church in Albany in 1716. Two more churches replaced the original in 1803 and 1859. This is where St. Peter's Episcopal church stands now.
I did not see The First Church in Albany which was a few blocks NE of the Capitol. It was founded in 1642 and is the oldest church in Upstate New York. The Dutch fur trading post of Fort Orange was incorporated as Beverwijck ("Beavertown) in 1652 and named Albany in 1664. In 1689 this Church begins mission to Mohawk Indians, continues until 1738; 332 Indians are baptized by 1763. In 1720 Church is incorporated as the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in the City of Albany. Long Church names were clearly the rage in the early 1700's. 1938 brought a merger with other churches and a simple name. The First Church of Albany. A summer Drive -in service began in 1974 and by all accounts seems to be quite healthy almost 380 years later.
It was time to cross the Hudson river and head to New England where history drips off the mountains and into the sea. I'll see you in the next chapter played out in the Green Mountain state.
My column is called Capitols and Churches and it is my story of the 51 Capitols I visited in 2013 to find church and state symbolism between each Capitol and it's closest physical church. The one detour from this mission was to Danbury, Connecticut on the way to Hartford. Why? Because of the 1801 letter sent to President Thomas Jefferson from the Danbury Baptist Association. His response letter has been widely recognized for his metaphor answer that included "separation of church and state. So I had to stop by and see what remains of the Danbury Baptists in 2013.
I met my friend Caryl for coffee and we went searching for Baptist churches in Danbury. It was somewhat elusive as the Association has scattered over the many years. We did meet one pastor who mentioned the government controlling the rules of their meeting space for fellowship and he pointed Caryl in the direction of the cemetery were some of the original writers were buried. She continued her search later and I continued on to Hartford. I did however find this article that captures the history of Danbury Baptists from then to now. http://doverfirstbaptist.org/about/separation-of-church-state.
It was dark when I arrived in Hartford and the closest church building I could find was Second Church of Christ Scientist. Organized in 1907 it was sold to the state in 2008 and now is the state library. If I had walked further east down toward the Connecticut river I would have found First Presbyterian Church of Hartford. The first group of this church met in Gilmans Saloon in 1851. Four moves later they built a church at the corner of Capitol and Clinton.
The current capitol is the third capitol building of Connecticut. Two in Hartford and one in New Haven. From the American Revolution until after the Civil War, Connecticut maintained multiple capitols alternating on a seasonal basis. The architect Ithiel Town engineered Center Church (1812), Trinity Church (1813), and designed the State House (1827) on the Green in New Haven. The Old State House in Hartford is still standing and was designed in 1792. After Hartford won the competition to be the sole Capital, the current Statehouse was built and finished in 1878. The site was chosen because it is adjacent to Bushnell Park and its abundant open space.
The closest church to both the old and new Capitol buildings in Hartford is appropriately called Center Church- the first church of christ UCC. The first two meeting houses were built on the site of the Old State House today. The third and fourth were built on its current site within view of both state houses.
My quick visit in the dark to Hartford in 2013 just scratched the surface of what I would find out about Capitol and Church history in Connecticut. It is and deep and long journey of discovery that still matter in the debates of today.
My visit to Trenton came with an approach from US 1 in Pennsylvania over the Delaware river. The State Capitol of New Jersey is the closest capitol building to state border of any state capitol. As you cross the river I thought that it will be an easy location to explore. I was wrong. It's golden dome is easy to spot from the South or even the East, but it is actually tucked into a number of urban buildings. I managed to find a space to park on State Street and strolled to the front entrance. Built in 1792 it is the third-oldest state house in continuous use in the United States. I also thought that this must be where Trenton growth started and the state surely was ahead of the church in being established here. Once again, I was wrong.
I walked a few blocks north then a couple of blocks west and found two old churches that actually preceded state government showing up. St. Michael's Episcopal church was founded in 1703 among farms and dirt roads in the area called "The Township of Hopewell" (Now Ewing) This is where members of the Church of England wanted to found their church. This area is now a marker on the grounds of the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. Trenton prior to the Revolutionary War was just a small village maybe 100 houses, and Episcopal church on King street which was named St. Michael's, probably because the cornerstone was laid on on the Feast of St. Michael. This location became very instrumental in the battle of Trenton with the church grounds the place of hand to hand fighting. No Weapons could be used on church grounds and church services were suspended on July 7, 1776 to close the church indefinitely. The next day the Declaration of Independence was read on the steps of the Trenton Court House. Fighting continued until January 4th , 1983 when it opened again.
The history of the church across the street from St. Michael's is The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, which is where the Commander of the Hessian army was mortally wounded and died on December 27, 1776. it wasn't until 1865 when the property was purchased by Reverend Anthony Smith that St. Mary's was established and dedicated. the church was destroyed by fire in 1956 and a new Cathedral erected and dedicated by 1959. I walked back to my car near the Capitol amazed by the distinctions of site and history between these three buildings. Church , War and State were the timeline of this story in Trenton, New Jersey.
Dover, Delaware: "fervent Dover" established Wesley United Methodist as the first state government was establishing it's first state house.
Delaware was the first state to sign the U.S. Constitution. The old state house in Dover was constructed from 1787 to to 1791. Wesley United Methodist Church was established in 1778 and became a center for early preachers. Their first chapel was finished in 1784 with considerable help from Kent County Chief Executive Caesar Rodney. Bricks from this chapel were used to build the present church on State Street in 1850 one block north of the old statehouse. By 1931 the need for a new state capitol building resulted in the Delaware Legislative Hall being built on the Green to the East.
This is what I found when I arrived on an April night in 2013. The church and state buildings looked like they were properly planned and separated, but still connected as common neighbors around the central green. I returned in August of 2021 and connected the Dover dots of history in this space. Various signs around the green point to the carefully planned seeds of church and state here. I highly encourage a trip away from the Interstate to the Delaware Capitol in Dover.