The First Congregational Church and Society of Albany which this year celebrates its one hundred years of service, was organized by a band of “thirteen earnest Congregationalists who had become merged into churches of other denominations in the city. These people, having been used to the larger freedom granted by the Congregational order, and attracted by the possibility of a new church for their faith in this city” met on December 15, 1849, at the home of James Burton on Grand Street “for the purpose of founding a new religious society whose form would appeal to those who believed in the simple tenets of the faith.”
Of these thirteen men the names of only four are preserved in the records, Anthony Gould, Dr. James McNaughton, Bradford R. Wood and Rufus H. King, all of whom were prominent citizens of the city.
Through the generous aid of Anthony Gould the former edifice of the First Presbyterian Church on the corner of South Pearl and Beaver streets “one of the most eligible locations in the city” was purchased, and the first service was held on Sunday, April 7, 1850, with Rev. Leonard Bacon, D.D., in the pulpit. From that time on according to a contemporary report “the house was filled with a large and attentive audience.”
On July 10, eighty-one persons (forty-seven of whom were from the First Presbyterian Church) dismissed by letter from other communions, were duly organized by an ecclesiastical council assembled for the purpose, as the First Congregational Church and Society of Albany. The pulpit during that summer and fall was occupied by some of the most distinguished clergymen from New York and New England.
The church was fortunate to have as its first pastor the Rev. Ray Palmer, noted theologian, poet and scholar, whose hymn “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” has been translated into almost every language and dialect in the world. Dr. Palmer came from Bath, Maine, and was installed on December 10, 1850. During his powerful and effective guidance of sixteen years, four hundred and seven members joined the church.
With the installation of Dr. Palmer, the organization of the new church was thus completed and the founders “had the satisfaction of seeing their place of worship occupied almost at once by a large and regular congregation.” The society after the organization received from the association of gentlemen the title to the church property. A portion of the money was raised by collections and subscription, and the building mortgaged for ten thousand dollars. To meet and pay the mortgage when it became due, a subscription was immediately made payable in four annual installments, the last of which, paid in May 1856, freed the Church and Society from all encumbrances. The pews were owned by the society and “seatings annually rented to the occupants. By this arrangement the rents have been so graduated that the income from the pews let during the first six years has been about sufficient to cover the ordinary expenses.”
The church became immediately one of the most influential in Albany and could claim in 1856 that it was free from debt, “all the great benevolent societies had received their annual dues, the church had been repaired and beside the $52,000 which this amounted to, $4,000 had been raised for a new organ . . . no inconsiderable sum for so new an undertaking.”
There is extant a yellowed program dated December 12, 1856, which announces the installation of the new organ and the concert given to celebrate. Professor G. W. Morgan came from Grace Church, New York, to give a recital and demonstrate the various reeds and stops, and an address on the religious use of music was featured.
Other interesting items appear in the papers of the day, which give us glimpses of our early church:
August 16, 1853: “The weathervane of the Congregational Church . . . an arrow, has been regilted and returned to its place where it had pointed to the wind for many years.”
October 16, 1853: “The Congregational Church . . . which had long been undergoing repairs, was opened for worship. During the summer this ancient edifice, the oldest church building in Albany, put on a new appearance under the hands of the painters and other artizans, looking quite as modern as any of its neighbors.”
October 18, 1854: “A new bell was raised into the steeple of the Congregational Church, weighing 2020 lbs. Key F., to supply the place of the one cracked on the Sunday preceding.”
During the period of Dr. Palmer’s leadership prominent lay men and women were trained to take an active part in the Christian life. The character of this congregation is shown by the number of prominent professional and business men of Albany, past and present, among its members: Isaac Edwards, Dean of the Albany Law School, Dr. James McNaughton, Dr. Uriah, and Dr. John Bigelow, Dr. Levi Moore, Judge Alden Chester of the Supreme Court, William A. Rice, father of Colonel William Gorham Rice, David A. Thompson, lawyer and for years president of the board of the Albany Orphan Asylum, Hon. Edward S. Draper, Dr. Merril E. Gates, Headmaster, Albany Academy, and afterward President of Rutgers and then Amherst College, Chauncey P. Williams, banker, and many others.
Under the leadership of Austin Kibbee, twenty-five years superintendent of the Sunday School, a large and growing attendance was noted until in 1865 the record shows four hundred and six members and forty-two teachers.
In 1852 an event of historic importance took place in our church. The First Council or Synod, representative of American Congregationalism as a whole, that had met since the Cambridge, England, meeting in 1646, took place in “the old brick church.” The meeting, known as the Albany Convention, was composed of four hundred and sixty-three pastors, delegated from seventeen states and Canada, called by the General Association of New York “to examine the denominational situation.” Lyman and Henry Ward Beecher were both present.
Spirited debates regarding the slavery question and “the plan of union” between the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches took place. It was at this meeting that the plan of union was terminated to “the mutual satisfaction of both bodies.” A fund of fifty thousand dollars was raised for extension work, and the American Congregational Union, later called the Congregational Church Building Society, had its inception in this church.
An amusing story of this convention is told in The Argus for October 7, 1852. “While the committee was selecting officers, the chair read a communication from the New York City Chief of Police, stating that a delegation of pickpockets had left the night before, by boat, to attend the conference. They imitated the clergy in their dress, wearing white neckcloths. It caused much amusement and one delegate suggested that they send a vote of commiseration to the gentlemen coming up today who think to get anything out of a body of ministers.”
Recognizing the importance of the convention the Common Council of the city ordered that tan bark be placed around the church during the sitting of the members to deaden the noise caused by the rumble of cart wheels over the cobblestone pavements.
On April 15, 1866, The Rev. Ray Palmer preached his farewell sermon to his congregation. In that year Dr. Palmer resigned to become Secretary of the American Congregational Union (now the
Congregational Building Society).
In 1900 an inspiring semi-centennial celebration was held in the church to mark its fifty years of continuous service in Albany. Famous men and women had spoken from its pulpit, it had taken a leading part in every forward movement, impressive Forefather’s Day services had been conducted, stimulating overflow meetings held in its lecture rooms, and concerts, plays and pageants presented in the large Sunday School Rooms.
At this celebration, special services honored Dr. Ray Palmer. A tablet in his memory placed on the outside wall of the church on the Jay Street entrance, was unveiled by his daughter, and his son, The Rev. C. R. Palmer gave the dedicatory address.
This history would not be complete without special mention of memorials. As has already been indicated the present building was named the “Ray Palmer Memorial” in tribute to its first pastor. The “Ray Palmer Club,” founded in 1905 by David A. Thompson, comprised Congregationalists from Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Rensselaer and Saratoga churches “to encourage friendly relations among Congregational members.” In 1928 the “Ray Palmer Guild” was organized by Mrs. Richard O. Ficken as a church organization of fellowship for business and professional women.