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Cities of God

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 3/6/20

Let us build the city of God/May our tears be turned into dancing!

For the Lord, our light and our love/Has turned the night into day!

- City of God by Dan Schutte (1981)

On March 2, 1785, a …

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Cities of God

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Let us build the city of God/May our tears be turned into dancing!

For the Lord, our light and our love/Has turned the night into day!

- City of God by Dan Schutte (1981)

On March 2, 1785, a group of Baptists in New Vernon in the town of Mamakating organized what is believed to be the first church in the area that would later become Sullivan County. Reverend Eleazer West was the pastor.

That is not to say that there were no religious services in the region prior to that. The Dutch settlers in the Mamakating Valley were likely to have conducted services at least irregularly beginning in the middle of the 18th century, and the settlers at Cushetunk, along the upper Delaware River, likely did too. Although their own physical survival and that of their families was the first priority of these early settlers, their spiritual needs were never completely neglected, and it is interesting to note that churches were among the first public buildings erected in many communities. Furthermore, if a church edifice was to burn down, it was quickly rebuilt, the economic fortunes of the community notwithstanding.

Writing in his “History of Sullivan County,” published in 1873, James Eldridge Quinlan, whose father was an itinerant preacher, devotes considerable space to the formation of the early churches and the residents responsible.

“Religious service according to the forms of the (Dutch) Reformed Church must have been performed at Mamakating Farms previous to the war of the Revolution,” Quinlan writes. “Clergymen of that faith passed through the valley in traveling to and from Minisink, and the first settlers were generally of the Protestant Church of Holland. In 1805, the first regular organization was formed…in 1812, the first church was built.”

Writing further, Quinlan notes that the “Baptists claim priority of all others in organizing a church in Sullivan” before going on to describe the formation of the New Vernon church.

Reverend West served that congregation until May of 1794, when he was succeeded by Elder Benjamin Montanye, under whose watch the first church building was erected around 1800.

There are many colorful clergymen who have passed through the pages of Sullivan County's history over the years, but none more noteworthy than Reverend Montanye.

During the Revolutionary War, he was among George Washington's most trusted couriers. Captured by the British while carrying a dispatch to Philadelphia, he would spend time in one of the notorious sugar house prisons in Manhattan before being freed in a prisoner exchange. Indirectly, he contributed much to Washington's ultimate victory at Yorktown, but his is a story for another time.

Reverend Montanye served at New Vernon until his death in 1825, after which Reverend Gilbert Beebe became pastor. Reverend Beebe was the father of George M. Beebe, who was born in New Vernon in 1836, and went on to become governor of Kansas at the age of 23, and then publisher of the Republican Watchman newspaper in Monticello.

Mamakating, of course, is the oldest of Sullivan County's 15 towns, and it isn't surprising that many of the earliest churches were built there. Besides the New Vernon Baptist Church and the Dutch Reformed Church of Mamakating, there were early churches in Bloomingburgh, including the Union Church, organized in 1800.

The Reformed Church of Bloomingburgh broke from the Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church that had been formed in 1819 and built its own church in 1821-22. That church building, with some alteration, is still standing thanks to the Bloomingburg Restoration Foundation, and is one of the oldest church buildings in the region.

Lumberland is the county's second oldest town, and so it is no surprise that an early church was organized within its boundaries in 1799. Back then, Lumberland was quite large, and this particular church was located at Narrow Falls, which Quinlan notes was “a location about a mile above the mouth of the Lackawaxen on the Delaware River.”

This congregation was quite nomadic, it seems, and had Sabbath services, as well as Wednesday evening prayer meetings, at various locations, including Grassy Swamp, Beaver Brook, and Halfway Brook, in addition to Narrow Falls. This tradition continued for more than 30 years, until November of 1835, when the First Congregational Church of Lumberland dedicated its church building at Halfway Brook, or present day Eldred.

Interestingly, just two months earlier, on September 17, 1835, the First Congregational Church of Barryville was dedicated a few miles away. Reverend Felix Kyte was the pastor for both churches.

By that time, Sullivan County had been officially chartered for a number of years, populations were beginning to shift, and churches were being built in many other parts of the county.

For example, the Glen Wild M.E. church was organized in 1807, although a church structure was not completed until 1866.

There was a Baptist congregation organized in Liberty about 1809, and one in Neversink about 1811.

“A society existed in Liberty previous to 1810,” Quinlan writes of the Baptists. “It was called ‘The Neversink Branch of Pleasant Valley Church, that part resident in the town of Liberty.' The earliest written record of this ‘Branch' is dated August 12, 1809, on which day a church-meeting was held at the home of Darius Martin.”

Quinlan writes that this congregation was torn apart by internal dissension, and eventually ceased to exist, its members forming other churches in Parksville and Liberty.

There were a number of early Presbyterian and Episcopal congregations in Sullivan County, too, joined eventually by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and others. More on these churches in a future Retrospect.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. His latest book, In Further Retrospect, is now available. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com for information on how to order it.

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