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The Gilbert Hatfield House Part II: Mistakes and Legacy

July 6, 2017

A couple of days ago I wrote an obituary for the Gilbert Hatfield House on Hall Avenue. In the first 24 hours alone it was read almost four hundred times. Clearly, it spoke to something we know to be true: the historical landmarks of our past, in White Plains and elsewhere, are rapidly disappearing, often without our even noticing. “It’s sad; a shame; I did not know, but now I feel profound grief” were among the first reactions. Later came words of appreciation for my collecting the history and telling the story.  And then new information emerged; information that made my heart break.

I had begun researching the history of the Hatfield house on a lark; I had recently discovered that one of my ancestors had willed property to Gilbert. Gilbert’s son and grandson are buried in the cemetery at the White Plains Presbyterian Church where I am the pastor. I had put together all the usual clues of a historical mystery and followed them as best I could with old maps, genealogies, and on foot – walking the neighborhood and woods where I thought the house should be. The house at 1649 did not quite look right, but then again the last photo I had of the Hatfield House was from 1975 after a small fire had damaged part of the porch and roof. The granite outcropping behind the house was the best candidate I had found for Mucklestone Rock. The house sat on property that had once been part of Klugg Farm in 1893. Not everything added up – the house didn’t quite look right – but it was plausible, and was rumored to be from the eighteenth century.  Then the fire on Monday called forth the obituary.

Through the post, however, I met a man who has lived on Hall Avenue most of his life, and his wife showed me that their house is perched on the actual Mucklestone Rock. They remembered a different home, two doors down from them, that they had always known as “The Hatfield House.”  And then more neighbors wrote me. 

It seems the Hatfield House was destroyed not by neglect or suspicious fire but by a real estate developer in 2012. According to google.maps, the house stood at 636 Hall Avenue. An elderly Italian couple were living in the house until 2011, and when they passed on it was left to their children.  It’s unclear whether the family knew of the house’s historical significance.  The house was later sold to a developer who divided the property into multiple lots. Had the house been protected as a local landmark, it might still be with us today.  But in 2012, White Plains had not yet passed The Historic Preservation Law nor established the Historic Preservation Commission.

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So, for the record, above is the photo of the 1770s Hatfield House published by John Rosch in 1937, and below is an architect’s drawing of the house that I believe was prepared as part of the application to demolish. Notice the stone walls.

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Google.Earth has a wonderful feature that allows us to go back in time and look at satellite photos from prior years. Here’s the Hatfield House (at the center of the photo) in 2007. This is clearly the house photographed by Renoda Hoffman in 1975.

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And while Google Maps now drops down on an image of the property already cleared by the builder, the last time a camera-car took images for the “street view” function was in 2012. Here are the final images of the Hatfield House before it was torn down. 

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Above: Approaching from the south. This was a substantial property with a stone wall on the South end. This wall extends well into the rolling hills above Silver Lake. There is a bar-gate for animals nearly due east in the woods.

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The porch was enclosed sometime after 1975. The house looks to be in pretty good shape.

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A sunny side view from Hall Avenue. The house faced the driveway, not the street.

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From the north side, at the back of the house. Notice the natural rock and stone wall.

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Here’s the same wall today, now overgrown, and from a slightly different angle,
but the historic home has been torn down.  

Hopefully this will be the last historic home lost in this way. We have the opportunity, dare I say the responsibility, now to protect those that remain. 

Today, the City of White Plains has a Historic Preservation Commission that is actively creating an index of local landmarks and historic districts. Residents in historic homes or neighborhoods can apply to be recognized by the commission, using a simple form on the city’s website. Landmark status provides a level of protection for properties, potential grant opportunities for restoration, and tax breaks for the increase in home value due to restoration. I sit on the commission, and we would welcome the opportunity to talk with White Plains homeowners of historic properties.  Let’s let the Hatfield House’s legacy be our commitment to preserve historic sites that have shaped us into the community that we are and are becoming.

The Gilbert Hatfield House: An Obituary

July 4, 2017

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July 4, 2017
Independence Day


On Tuesday morning, July 3, 2017, the historic Gilbert Hatfield House at 1649 Hall Avenue in North Castle burnt to the ground. Built sometime before 1774, the house had stood at its present location for almost 250 years, predating the American Revolution we are celebrating today. It was one of the oldest homes in White Plains, and though it had been neglected, its destruction is a loss for our community. I feel a sense of obligation to remember this house and its part in our local history. It was the home of patriot Presbyterians and played a role in the Battle of White Plains.

[Correction: the fire occurred in the midst of my research on the Hatfield House. It seems the real Hatfield House was destroyed not by neglect or suspicious fire but by a real estate developer in 2012. While the family history and history of the house recounted here are sound, please see my next post, “Mistakes and Legacy” for the final images of the actual house.]

Who Was Gilbert Hatfield?
Gilbert Hatfield and his brother Captain Abraham Hatfield were of the third generation of Hatfields born in the British Colony of New York. The family begins with their great-grandfather, Thomas Sr., who had been an English separatist who sailed to Leiden, Holland with other pilgrims, many of whom later made their way to Plymouth Plantation on the Mayflower. Their grandfather, also Thomas, was the first Hatfield to come to New York some time later as a soldier with the Dutch East Indies Company. He became an original landowner in Mamaroneck. Gilbert and Abraham’s father, yet another Thomas, was born in Mamaroneck in 1685.

This third Thomas purchased a farm from his brother (Peter) in 1716 and moved to White Plains where he married Eunice Knapp, a Presbyterian. Together they had three sons: Abraham (b. 1720), Gilbert (b. 1721) and Joshua (b. 1722).

The first son, Abraham, became a Captain in the Westchester Militia in 1758, fighting in the French-Indian War. He remained a civic leader (and probably Captain of the Militia) the rest of his life. On the eve of the Revolution Abraham served as Justice of the Peace and ran a Tory Inn and Tavern on S. Broadway.

The second son, Gilbert, was a farmer and in 1750 owned an estate of 150 acres that had been part of the original purchase. This property included all of what today is Delfino Park (south of Lake Street) and Hatfield Hill (north of Lake Street and east of 287). It was bounded to the north by Hall Avenue up to Mucklestone Rock, and from there straight down to St. Mary’s Lake (now Silver Lake) following roughly the path of the White Plains Heritage Trail.

Of the third son, Joshua, we know little but that he was an executor of Abraham’s will. None of these brothers survived to see the Revolution.

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Gilbert’s Property ran from Flat Meadow Brook (now 287)
to Mucklestone Rock, and from Lake Street to Hall Avenue

The House on Hatfield Hill: Witness to a Revolution
Gilbert and his wife Tamar Brondage had four sons and eight daughters. When Gilbert died in 1775 he left the property on Hatfield Hill to his son Daniel. Daniel and his younger brother Joshua were both fierce patriots, serving as Privates during the Revolutionary War in the First Regiment, Westchester County. Both were laid to rest in the Burial Ground of the White Plains Presbyterian Church.

Daniel, in turn, left a farm of fifty acres to his youngest son, Gilbert, “on the hills, some distance from Lake Steet.”  This included the family home on Hall Avenue. We cannot be sure when the house was built, but certainly by 1774 because it was the only house on the hill during the Revolutionary War. General William Heath stationed his Continentals on Gilbert’s property and used this home as headquarters and outpost during the skirmished there on Nov. 1, 1776, during the Battle of White Plains. It is said that the soldiers helped Daniel hull his corn, which was used to make breastworks for the Americans.

About 400 feet behind and to the north of the house is Mucklestone Rock, a outcropping of granite ledge named as a landmark in early maps of White Plains (see above). Hall Avenue used to pass above, rather than below, the rock. When approached from that side it appeared to be a flat part of the hillside, but it breaks off suddenly with a sheer perpendicular drop nearly fifty feet to a dark glen below. It is said that during the Revolution Captain Tilton, a British officer, being pursued by American soldiers and unaware of the abrupt ending of the rocky platform, plunged off the cliff into the ravine below and was killed. Because of the Captains’ tragic fate, Mucklestone was sometimes called “Tilton’s Rock.”

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In 1928, Daniel’s granddaughter, Anna Jane Fisher Hall, was still living and could recall fond memories of the home. (And the reason the old road is called Hall Avenue?). In 1937 John Rosch, a local historian, published the above photograph of the house with the following description:

Hatfield Hill, west of St. Mary’s Lake (Silver Lake) is sufficiently high to permit a view of Long Island Sound on a clear day; and by night, the illumination of the empire State Building, in New York City, is visible. On this hill, to the north, was located the home of Gilbert Hatfield, in the year 1776. He was the owner of the entire are. This old house still stands on the original spot, amid rural surroundings, although now know as Klugg Farm.

The hand of progress has not quite reached this quiet and secluded spot. The Hill itself, up to the split-ail gateway of the Klugg Farm, has been subdivided into building lots, with fine roads and beautiful residences, all evidence of the period of 1776 gradually but surly disappearing. This ancient homestead was, to the writer’s recollection, the only house on the top of the hill during the late [eighteen] seventies and early eighties.

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This color photo, undated, was taken by White Plains archivist Renoda Hoffman. And then, just a year before the Nation’s Bicentennial in 1776, Renoda returned and took these next two photos. Note the fire damage.

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I had been researching the Gilbert Hatfield House for about a month before it was destroyed. When I started researching the Gilbert Hatfield House, it had been neglected for a long time. A friend told me that during the 1980s it “was used by a young lad who had a fish smoking business there.” The Assistant Fire Chief who responded to the fire said it had been bandoned a long time and boarded up because it was had been used as a party house. I barely recognized it when I first saw it, and refused for a while t believe it was the same house as in the photos above. A realtor’s website listed it as “suitable for destruction upon purchase and unlivable due to water damage.” Well, now it is destroyed.

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still smoking, hours after the early morning blaze

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what appears to be fieldstone foundations for the original two rooms

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I’m not an architectural historian. Could these steps have been laid by Gilbert himself?

A Word of Thanks

I was greatly aided in my research by White Plains Archivist Elaine Massena and City Clerk Anne McPherson. I now have quite an archive of notes, papers, books and maps that piece together the story of the Hatfields of White Plains and of this particular property. See especially The Hatfields of Westchester: a genealogy of the descendants of Thomas Hatfield of New Amsterdam and Mamaroneck, whose sons settled in White Plains, Westchester County, New York (New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 1935), by Abraham Hatfield, as well as Volume 49 of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, both available on the Internet Archive

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Daniel Hatfield, perhaps the longest occupant of the property
buried with his brother in the Presbyterian Burying Ground.

The headstone at the top of this post is that of Daniel’s son, Gilbert.
I do not know where Daniel’s father, Gilbert, is buried.

Sabbath Day – Walk Rye History 2

July 3, 2017


Kudos to the Rye Historical Society who have done a valuable and impressive job putting together Walk Rye History, a series of 22 Wayside Displays interpreting the History of Rye from early settlement to the twentieth century. With an absolutely beautiful Sunday afternoon on my hands I spent four hours following the interpretive boards around the historic neighborhoods of Rye, New York. I walked most of it, but did consent (for time) to driving between historic neighborhoods. [Apparently stops 23, 24, and 25 are a series of milestones erected at the direction of Benjamin Franklin, but I had no map to find them.]

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Rye was founded in 1660 by Peter Disbrow and two others who purchased land from two Native American brothers. The house above, which is not a part of Walk Rye History, was originally a stone home used as a fort for the settler community during King Philip’s War. The present house represents a series of additions to the original stone house which was itself taken down after the Civil War. I had a friendly talk with the current resident who told me the foundations of the original and subsequent additions can still be seen in the basement, where a massive section of an ancient tree holds up the house.  

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The photo below captures me looking down into Rye’s oldest well, beside the Disbrow house, presumably dug around 1660!

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The Rye Historical Society’s

Self-Guided Tour Through
350 Years of Rye History


1. The Square House: Once owned by the Rev. James Wetmore, and then run as an Inn and Tavern by his son. John and Samuel Adams stayed here on their way to and from the Continental Congress in 1774.

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2. The Village Green and the Rye Free Reading Room: The mortar stone above was used by the Siwanoy Indians who dwelt here beside the Long Island Sound. Several millstones from local mills lay on the Green here beside the Blind Brook. Below, the Free Reading Room which still serves the community.2017-07-02 17.47.36

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3. The Firehouse and the YMCA: above

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4. Church of the Resurrection: The original Catholic Church in Rye was a wooden Gothic structure right on Purchase Street – the center of the commercial district. The wayside display had several photos of original. It was torn down, I believe, in the 1920s. The house above, on the Boston Post Road, was the home of the priest. 

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5. Rye’s Commercial District: Walking down the aptly named Purchase Street with the aid of the interpretive signs, it was quite easy to imagine it filled with horses and dry goods stores rather than cars and trendy micro-breweries. Many of the buildings on the street were here 100 to 150 years ago. The house on the right in both photos above belonged to Daniel Budd and was used for a time as the post office. The house on the left (seen through the tree) was Theodore Fremds Meat Market. 

2017-07-02 17.56.39Daniel Budd’s Building

2017-07-02 17.55.36Theodore Fremd’s Meat Market

6. Arrival of the Railroad: Simply turning around from where the above pictures were taken, one can see Union Square where the first railroad station once stood. 

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7. The Caroline O’Day Post Office: Named for the third woman and the first Democrat elected to congress, and a good friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, this post office above is the third in Rye. The first was Daniel Budd’s, further above. The second, below, still stands just down Purdy street. 

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8. Rye Public Schools: The interpretive board helps one imagine school life in the early settlement. The building above was the original high school.

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9. Billington’s Livery: The stone fence is all that remains of the livery and riding school. The pictures on then display make it easy to picture Smith street 125 years ago.

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10. History of the Boston Post Road: One of the things I missed on the tour were the locations of original mile markers which were carved by the same stone cutter who made the tombstone for Rev. John Smith, of my current congregation.

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11. Religion in Rye: “During the Revolutionary War, the Presbyterians generally sided with the patriots while the Anglicans sided with the British.” Yep. That’s what my sermon was about this morning. Yet both had their churches burned during the war. This building was once Christ’s Church, built  1788 as the new Anglican church. It now houses The Rye Arts Center.

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12. Rye Playland: A staple of our summers since 2011. The photo above was taken at the town park beach near the end of my walk.

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13. Rye Town Park: Established in 1909, a couple of young guys let me park for free, as they had never heard of the Walk Rye History boards before and were curious.

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14. The Timothy Knapp House: Built by an early settler and a relative of mine, it now holds the town’s archive. See my previous post

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15. Milton Cemetery: See my previous post.

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16. The Bird Homestead and Rye Meeting House: Built in 1835, those home raised generations of scientists in the maritime village. The meeting house next door was originally a mission of Christ’s Church, but today houses the Quaker Meeting. Found this deer resting between the meeting house and the marshy waters of Milton Bay.

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17. Rye Commercial District: Set on a peninsula between Milton Harbor and the Long Island Sound, ships were built here, as well as racing boats. Mentioned on the interpretive sign is the location of “the little yellow schoolhouse,” above, and other surviving buildings.

18. The Wainwrights and Their Houses: Rode all the way to the private club at the point. Took no photos. 

19. The Boston Post Road Historic District: This stretch includes Whitby Castle (now a golf club) and the Jay Estate and Heritage Center. No photos.

20. Greenhaven: Once, and still, home to early movie moguls and entertainers. Truly beautiful and ridiculously expensive homes. No photos. 


21. The African Cemetery (at Greenwood Union Cemetery): I have performed many graveside services at Greenwood Union but was previously unaware of the African Cemetery. I visited my dead friends, including a descendant of the first Rye settlers, and sought out the African stones. Land was donated by a Methodist for the burial of descendants of the towns early slaves. Spotted my second deer of my walk.

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22. Immigrants in Rye: I first found this neighborhood a few years ago, attending a concert at the Rye Roadhouse. In the mid nineteenth century the corner of Maple and High Street was known as Dublin for all the Irish.  In the 1890s, it became an Italian community. The private residence above was built by by a Dubliner in honor of St. Gertrude. A local business now occupies the former St. Donato, built in 1892 by an Italian. 

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The neighborhood is full of mid-nineteenth century residences. 

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Obviously, this is a sketch of my walk through Rye, not an account of Rye’s history. I do regret that the text and photos on the Wayside Displays are not available online for a virtual tour, but then that would defeat the experience of getting out and walking through history. If you can find as pleasant a day as I did, and you are local (or visiting), then I hope these photos will encourage you to get out and walk. If I’m around, I’ll join you.

Happy Sabbath.

Presbyterians: A Heritage of Resistance

July 3, 2017


A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church to mark the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the anniversary of the Declaration of American Independence, and the Birthday of John Calvin, July 2, 2017

Psalm 103 (inclusive language)      Mark 6:21-24

The following section from The Kairos Document, written by black South Africans in 1985, was read as a preface to a reading of Psalm 103, which was done with inclusive language, replacing “the Lord” with “Our Sovereign.”

When we search the Bible for a message about oppression we discover, as others throughout the world are discovering, that oppression is a central theme that runs right through the Old and New Testaments. . . . Moreover, the description of oppression in the Bible is concrete and vivid. The Bible describes oppression as the experience of being crushed, degraded, humiliated, exploited, impoverished, defrauded, deceived and enslaved. And the oppressors are described as cruel, ruthless, arrogant, greedy, violent and tyrannical and as the enemy. Such descriptions could only have been written originally by people who had a long a painful experience of what it means to be oppressed. . . . Throughout the Bible God appears as the liberator of the oppressed. God is not neutral. God does not attempt to reconcile Moses and Pharaoh. To reconcile the Hebrew slaves with their Egyptian oppressors, or to reconcile the Jewish people with any of their later oppressors. Oppression is sin and it cannot be compromised with; it must be done away with. God takes sides with the oppressed. As we read in Psalm 103:6 (JB), “God who does what is right, is always on the side of the oppressed.”

The Sunday closest to, and before, the Fourth of July is always marked by this congregation as a Heritage Day. At the conclusion of our worship today we will process into the Presbyterian Burial Ground, our historic cemetery, to stand in the presence of our founding mothers and fathers who built this church and fought for political liberty, and we will read from the Declaration of Independence. The first public reading of the Declaration took place on July 9, 1776 just down the street from here – with our pastor in attendance and a trustee of this congregation on the committee that would end colonial rule and establish New York as the first state in what would become the United States of America. We always pair our remembering of this revolution with one or more readings from the many struggles that have been fought to expand the idea of freedom: women’s suffrage, collective bargaining, economic democracy, voting rights, civil rights, and the myriad contemporary struggles for enforcing basic human rights.

On October 28, 1890, one of my predecessors, The Rev. Anthony Robinson Macoubrey, at the request of the church council, delivered an address to the Westchester County Historical Society on the following topic The Relation of Presbyterianism to Revolutionary Sentiment in the Province of New York. Dr. Macoubrey asked the question, “Why did Presbyterians almost universally take up the cause of revolution?” And he provided at least three answers to the question:

  • First, resistance to tyranny is an inherent part of our biblical and theological heritage, bequeathed to us by John Calvin in the Protestant Reformation;
  • Second, the founders of this congregation were, he says, further ‘schooled in resistance’ by the tyranny of New York’s governor, Lord Cornbury, who confiscated protestant church property in Jamaica, Queens, and in our sister church in Rye, N.Y.; One of the ministers sent to investigate the property theft, by the way, was our own pastor, the Rev. John Smith.
  • And, the third reason Presbyterians almost universally took up the cause of revolution was that when prominent Presbyterians in New York City used newspapers and pulpits to tell the truth about the governments growing tyranny, the governor accused them of libel and took them to court (or simply had them jailed). The lawyer for the defense was our pastor’s brilliant brother William. The governor lost in court. He also lost the patience of a good many people.

The occasion for the Rev. Dr. Macoubrey’s address was an anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This year, 2017, marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and this week marks the birthday of its greatest figure, John Calvin, the very first Presbyterian, about whom I want to say a few things at some length this morning.


John Calvin is one of the most significant figures of the sixteenth century. Calvin was born in the year 1509 and he died in 1564. That’s the same year Michelangelo died, and the year Shakespeare was born – a little less than one hundred years before immigrants from the Calvinist Massachusetts Bay Colony settled in what was already known as Westchester County, New York.

Though he was the near contemporary of Machiavelli and Thomas More, Erasmus and Rabelais, Michelangelo and Copernicus, Cervantes, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, Calvin is one of the least known. People who have never read a page of his voluminous writings know him by reputation, and a bad reputation at that. He has been called the ‘apostle of gloom’, who turned sixteenth century Geneva into a dismal city. He was a theocratic dictator, servant of an angry God who predestined some to salvation and most to hell. As the originator of our own Presbyterian and Reformed theology, he has sometimes been called ‘a grim paternity’ and ‘as dismal an influence’ as we could hope for.

Which is hogwash! A close reading of Calvin’s sermons and commentaries reveal him to be an extremely sensitive pastor and teacher. Perhaps this sensitivity came from his own experience of exile. For John was an exile from his childhood home of Noyon, in the North of France, a town which had been destroyed by the Imperial aggression of Philip II of Spain. John was an exile from his own beloved country, whose King Francis I persecuted and killed its Protestant leaders in a bid to win the support of the Pope – to out-Catholic Catholic Spain. Calvin remained an exile and immigrant his whole life. He was never quite at homen his adopted city of Geneva. Geneva may have been the city where he built his reputation as a leading reformer, but the city government didn’t even give him the right to vote in city elections or affairs until he lay on the sickbed that became his deathbed.

As a result, exiles from many other countries were drawn to Geneva to learn from him. Everything he wrote (from sermons and biblical commentary, to civic constitutions, letters to government leaders and even his theology) was written in support of the martyred, persecuted and exiled Protestant communities. He sought to convince them that God had not abandoned them, all appearances to the contrary. Calvin wrote to ‘offer resources that would permit the faithful to persevere and retain their integrity in spite of the state’s violent attempts to root out the Reformed religion.’ In his Commentary of Habakkuk, Calvin wrote that the cry of the oppressed, “How long, O Lord” becomes the very cry of God, suffering with us. Which is a remarkable image! When we cry, God cries out with us, God is present with us in our times of distress. Calvin understood God as compassionate and responsive to human suffering, to the point of suffering with us, a theological idea that Elder Sharon Callender echoed in her sermon last week.  This conception of God-in-solidarity-with-us in our suffering helps us understand why Calvin spent so much time pioneering new forms of political governance, emphasizing Christian freedom of conscience, and insisting that it is the duty of the Christian to resist unjust rulers. It is because God is on the side of those who suffer under unjust systems and authorities, as we read in Psalm 103.

In fact, Calvin’s theological writings on these matters were the inspiration behind the unsuccessful Huguenot revolt in La Rochelle, France, whose exiles subsequently created New Rochelle right here in Westchester. Calvin’s Reformed theology also inspired the more successful Dutch, English and American revolutions.

For me, John Calvin stands out as a spiritual leader who straddled the medieval and the modern worlds. It is often said that Martin Luther began the protestant reformation by offering new answers to old questions (what is justification by faith?, how is Christ present in the Eucharist?). Calvin, however, asked new questions (about how power is held and shared, about the political responsibility of citizens, and about how God’s sovereign love for, and care for, the world is demonstrated in the responsible lives of God’s people). The English poet Carlyle put it this way: “Protestantism was a revolt against spiritual sovereignties, Popes and much else. Prebyterianism carried out the revolt against earthly sovereignties and despotisms.” If Luther began the Protestant reformation, John Calvin organized it and made Protestantism the basis of a new culture.

As a creator of culture, Calvin gets credited or blamed for an awful lot that characterizes the modern world: for capitalism and modern science, for the discipline and rationalization of the complex societies of the West, for the revolutionary spirit and democracy, for secularization and social activism, for individualism, utilitarianism, and empiricism.’ Whew!

That scholars either pay homage to or blame Calvin for instigating such developments is not surprising. For the very point of theology – of Christian worship – for Calvin was not simply to contemplate God but to change the world, to transform church and society, to pray with Jesus, as Jesus prayed, that it might be ‘on earth as in heaven.’ His most famous writing, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, was written while he was in exile in Geneva and dedicated to King Francis I of France – who you will remember as the King who forced Calvin into exile because he – Francis – was trying to out-Catholic Catholic Spain by persecuting all the Protestants. Calvin’s Institutes were written precisely to defend the Protestant communities from the charge of heresy and treason, and to remind the king that he – yes even he, the king – was accountable to the sovereign God. Calvin was no ivory-tower academic, nor was he a heavenly-minded preacher; he was a man of deep faith and trust, an intellectual and social leader who catalyzed new approaches to understanding ourselves, our society and God that continue to reverberate in the 21st century.

One of Calvin’s principle aims was to bring all of life under the lordship of Christ by stressing God’s sovereign and beneficent rule. What he accomplished was a democratizing of religion and the creation of very idea of popular sovereignty; in the words of political scientist Michael Walzer, he transferred political agency from the prince to the saint. All you have to do is compare Calvin with the other political luminary of his time, Machiavelli: Machiavelli had no program of action for citizens, only for The Prince. Calvin, on the other hand, inspired and empowered ordinary people not only to better themselves but also to improve their communities and nations, and all for the Glory of God.

You see, the sovereignty of God, to which the saint is committed – and by saint Calvin and I mean all the members of the Christian community, the church – the ultimate sovereignty of God (the power and presence of God in the world) dethrones every unjust government and demands resistance to tyranny. Can you imagine the modern world without this idea? Only God, and no earthly emperor, king, or ruler deserves ultimate allegiance. Calvin clearly states that whenever fidelity to human authorities interferes with our principle duty to God, we must, in the words of Acts 5:29, ‘obey God rather than human authority.’ So important was this imperative that Calvin not only drove it home in the final lines of his Institutes, which he wrote for educated adults, but he put it in the final section of the catechism he wrote for children. The whole of his thought – Reformed and Presbyterian thought – leads to responsible participation in public life by both adults and children. No matter what the cost. Friends, this is why I am a Presbyterian.

Our gospel reading this morning tells us of the arrest and execution of John the Baptist. To understand the context, Jesus had just sent his disciples out on their own for the first time, two by two, to heal, cast out demons, and preach repentance. Jesus’ rejection in his hometown has served as an example to his disciples that faithfulness does not necessarily mean success. Right after our gospel reading the disciples will return to tell the stories of their success. But slipped in the middle of the story of the disciples mission is the example of John the Baptist, who the writer of Mark calls ‘a true prophet of God.’ The story of John’s beheading, reminds us that Jesus’ public ministry began ‘after John was arrested’ and that it has the threat of imperial repression looming over it the whole time.

Now it’s important to know why John was arrested. He wasn’t arrested for eating locusts and wild honey. He was arrested because his public calls for repentance and his practices of baptism were igniting the Jewish people to question and resist Roman Imperial rule. Like the prophets before him, John’s ministry was an attempt to hold the king or ruler accountable.

John was arrested and beheaded because he spoke out when Herod Antipas married his brother Philip’s wife, while Philip was still very much alive. Philips wife was Jewish royalty, and this marriage was Herod’s attempt to claim the title of “King of the Jews” by marrying a Hasmonean princess. Further, he had to divorce his own wife in order to do it, and she was the daughter of the king of Nabataea. This marriage was not about sexual lust (though Calvin is quick to point out that John does condemn this) but about political lust and ambition. Thus Calvin writes,

John has thus, by his example, furnished an undoubted rule for pious teachers (and preachers), not to wink at the faults of princes, so as to purchase their favour at [this/any] price, however advantageous so ever that favour might appear to be to the public interests.” Rather, “we learn with what unshaken fortitude the servants of God ought to be armed when they have to do with princes; for in almost every court hypocrisy and servile flattery are prevalent; and the ears of princes having been accustomed to this smooth language, do not tolerate any voice which reproves their vices with any severity.

In other words, when those receiving the criticism are powerful political figures, persecution (or smear campaigns and claims of libel and even beheading) may follow.

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of John’s death to foreshadow Jesus’ own encounters with the Roman Empire. But it is included at just this point in the story to remind us, the readers, that even in the midst of the disciples’ seemingly successful mission, success is not to be counted as the measure of faithfulness. Truthful witness is. It cost John his life. It cost Jesus his. And it is worth ours.

I imagine exiled Protestant believers who gathered around John Calvin in 16th century Geneva asked themselves, “If the whole world is against us, who is for us? And the answer is the core of Calvin’s thought: “though the world be against you, God is faithful.” Or as the Apostle Paul put it, “If God is for us, who – WHO -can be against us.”

As we acknowledge the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the anniversary of our nation’s first struggle for independence, and John Calvin’s birthday, I suppose it is not without irony that our gospel this morning is a story about a birthday party. The head of John the Baptist was a birthday present for Herod from his new wife’s daughter. The silencing of God’s judgment is an appalling gift! This story provided Calvin an occasion to reflect on birthday celebrations themselves in his commentary:

The ancient custom of observing a birth-day every year as an occasion of joy cannot itself be disapproved; for that day, as often as it returns, reminds each of us to give thanks to God, who brought us into this world, and has permitted us, in his [sic] kindness, to spend many years in it; next, to bring to our recollection how improperly and uselessly the time which God granted to us has been permitted to pass away; and lastly, that we ought to commit ourselves to the protection of the same God for the remainder of our life.

Let’s take this day and this collection of anniversaries as an occasion to recommit ourselves to God first, and to Calvin’s understanding that “God is known where humanity is served.”


Sabbath Day – Walk Rye History 1

July 2, 2017


My Sabbath was observed this week in short snatches over several different days. Finding myself in Rye for a pastoral visit last Friday, I made time to stop afterward at the Rye Historical Society. They are housed in “The Square House,” which was built in 1675 by a farmer named Jacob Pierce. The son of the Episcopal priest later ran it as an Inn and Tavern, starting in 1760. John and Samuel Adams stayed and drank here on their way to and from the Continental Congress in 1774.


Standing in the tavern, with cards and mugs on the tables and the bar in the corner I could think of nothing else than that I walked right into the set of TURN: Washington’s Spies. Does this not look just Rivington’s Tavern, run by Culper Jr., Robert Townsend, in seasons there and four? 


My interest in Rye history was already aroused because I’d recently re-read Charles Baird’s Chronicle of  Border Town: Rye, New York researching the history of my own congregation. White Plains and Rye were very nearly a single community until 1788, with families having members living and working in each community. It was founded in 1660, the same year that my former church in Setauket was founded. The Square House (known as The Havilland House) is also the first stop on the Rye History Walk, a set of twenty-one interpretive signs up through the town. I’m definitely going back for the long walk.

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In the meantime, I went back to Rye the next day to visit the Timothy Knapp House. This home was built about 1670 by my twelfth great grandfather’s cousin Timothy. It is the oldest home in Westchester county. The original large room was also used for worship before a first church was built in Rye. Timothy (and some of his sons) signed his name to the transaction with the ten native american leaders which gave the people of Rye the right to work and settle in White Plains between the Bronx and Mamaroneck Rivers. He and his sons help property here, and helped start the Presbyterian Church. I spent a very pleasant hour here with the town archivist, Daniel, who took me all around this beautiful house.  

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Across the street is the Milton cemetery, through which runs Blind Brook. Blind Brook was originally called Milton, after the blind poet of Paradise Lost.  I wonder why the name was changed? I found the cemetery filled with names I have read about and families who buried members in my own cemetery. On the far side of the brook, for example, lies the pre-Revolutionary war Purdy family cemetery. There several nicely sculpted ‘soul effigy’ here. 

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I’ve titled this post “Walk Rye History 1” because I will certainly be going back soon to make the full circuit of the signs. But my Sabbath hours (there being no Sabbath Day) were well spent as I was preparing a sermon on the theme “Presbyterians and Revolutionary Sentiment in Early New York” as part of our congregation’s observance of Independence Day. 

The Church in Song

June 23, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church celebrating “The Church in Song,” June 18, 2017

Psalm 100       1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

In her sermon last week, the Rev. Lynn talked to us about stories; in particular, the way stories give orientation and meaning to our individual lives and our life together. And she talked about how in worship, and through Scripture, our many different stories can be caught up in the great story of God in Christ working the redemption of all creation. It’s one of the reasons we come together each Sunday, to be caught up into something larger that moves us to both work and worship.

Just how important this is was driven home to me later in the week. On Tuesday Naomi Klein released a new book for our time. It is called No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. In the first half of the book Klein describes ‘the shock doctrine’: how repressive political movements and corporations take advantage of our experience of shock and disorientation to push through social policies that would never stand a chance of being adopted democratically. Shock and disorientation can come through natural disasters, climate disruption, industrial failure, terror attacks, financial collapse, and war. As she puts it,

We don’t go into a state of shock when something big and bad happens; it has to be something big and bad that we do not yet understand. A state of shock is what results when a gap opens up between events and our initial ability to explain them. When we find ourselves in that position, WITHOUT A STORY, without our moorings, a great many people become vulnerable to authority figures telling us to fear one another and relinquish our rights for the greater good. (p. 7, emphasis added)

The only way to resist this, she writes, is to first understand how these shock politics work, and whose interest they serves, and then to tell a better story. Klein’s book tells a story about the global, branded, corporate takeover of our democratic institutions, and narrates an alternative path to a better world.

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Lynn asked us what stories we are telling right now. She said something like “story is that which you cannot not tell.”

And stories take different forms – not all stories are simply narratives of speaking or writing. When words meet music a thicker texture of meaning emerges – one that anchors the words in our memory, one that helps us pay closer attention to the words themselves through accenting or elongating syllables, one that sets a tone for the words of mystery or triumph, of inquiry or solace.

Throughout history, songs have helped cement the identities of peoples. Before it was known as a great text, the Iliad was a song. Before Psalms like the one we read together this morning were texts, they were call and response melodies; sung prayers that knit believers together and opened a wellspring of emotions that captured human experience of the divine. Sometimes insightful texts are made more memorable, like when Sweet Honey in the Rock transformed Kahlil Gibran’s passage from the Prophet “On Children” into a singable pneumonic of care.

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When we human beings become frightened, one way we calm ourselves, is to sing. We may hum, we may sing a phrase over and over, we may tap into a lullaby from childhood. And sometimes the best pastoral care comes through song.

Here I told a story about a person well known to the congregation who had a health crisis and was accompanied to the hospital by a person she had just met. It was a very scary situation. Through a series of stressful tests, the companion sang to her, including all the way through a forty-five minute MRI, transforming an experience of being scared into an experience of sacred blessing.

When has song moved you from scared to sacred? Who has sung the faith to you when you could not find your voice? What melodies and lyrics sustain you – in times of trouble? What songs give you courage to face that from which otherwise you might shrink? Perhaps it’s something personal or perhaps too you have found that empowerment when singing out at a time when you were standing up publicly for what you thought was right.

If we are not to succumb to what Naomi Klein has termed shock politics, if we are to maintain our moorings against attempts to manipulate us in our fear, we must nourish our singing as well as our speaking. And our church’s hymnal is a repository of strength that we can carry with us on the way – whether we are facing a health crisis or a political crisis, whether we are in the solitude of our own reflection or the multitude of a community seeking a way forward, the hymns of our faith are gifts to us.


So today as we sing I invite you to learn some of these lyrics and melodies by heart. Let them nest within you, that they may be a well-spring for you in good times and hard. Let us teach them to our children that they may build a repertoire of faith that will reside within them no matter where life may lead. And do not worry whether you can carry a tune. All God cares about is that you make a “joyful noise!” So

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth.
     Worship our God with gladness;
     come into God’s presence with singing…

For God is good;
     God’s steadfast love endures forever,
     and God’s faithfulness to all generations.

Sabbath Day – A Ministry of Music

June 23, 2017

This is my Sabbath post for last Thursday, June 15

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My copy of the new Companion to Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal finally arrived. Edited by Carl P. Daw, and weighing in at a little more than three and a half pounds, it is in many ways a more substantial volume than any of the other hymnal companions in my collection. This is not another volume of “hymns and their stories” but a thorough reference work on the history of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in the Presbyterian Church, with commentary on authors, composer and with performance history and tips. The opening essay, Sing a New Song: An Historical Survey of American Presbyterian Hymnals by James Rawlings Sydnor was originally written at the time of the publication of The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990), but has held up well. It was a very welcome gift as I was working last week toward a special worship service focused on “the church in song.” The service didn’t turn out at all like I had intended, but I learned a lot on the way.

I’ve been wondering about how the early settlers in White Plains sang and how our music ministry developed over time. To that end I’ve been spending time in the archives of the White Plains Presbyterian Church and taking notes, generating new questions with each bit of information. 

When our congregation first gathered for worship – the oldest grave in our historic cemetery dates to 1709 – Reformed music meant literal translations of psalms and biblical songs, sung without instrumental accompaniment. However, as we were forming a church in the Colony of New York, The Rev. Isaac Watts, in England, was beginning a revolution is sacred music. Watts, the inventor of the modern hymn, said:

While we sing the Praises of God in His Church, we are employed in that part of worship which of all others is the nearest a-kin to Heaven; and ‘tis pity that this of all others, should be performed the worst upon earth.

In 1707, Watts published a collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs, and in 1719 published his paraphrased Psalms of David. Both collections were published in the American colonies in 1741 by none other than Jonathan Edwards, an intimate friend of our pastor, The Rev. John Smith. In his lifetime, Watts would publish more than 600 hymns and psalms (including a congregational favorite, Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun. I do not know when they were first introduced and sung here in White Plains, but our sister church in Rye had introduced Watt’s hymns in 1829, replacing something called The Village Songbook, then in use. 

We know that the congregation had an organ before 1854 because it was one of only three objects (including the pulpit bible and a pew door) that were saved when a fire destroyed our second sanctuary. The first organist to appear in our records is Miss Ianthe Willis, who in 1884 had been playing for some time, and is described with great admiration as both self-taught and a volunteer. Whether she was playing the same organ that survived the fire of 54 or not is unknown, but in 1886 the Church Session resolved “that the leader of the choir be clothed with power to procure a suitable person to blow the organ.” Around this same time, in the interest of promoting congregational singing, the Session did away with the paid choir. This was a trend that had started in 1857 at Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn and within just a few short years the experience of joining in song with this congregation of enthusiastic singers was said to rival hearing their pastor, and the nation’s leading preacher, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.  

Our now volunteer choir was expected to lead the congregation in song, rather than sing for them, though on June 30, 1889 the Session saw fit to allow that “several young men who are members of the church may be permitted to use violin, violin cello, and bass viol, [an instrument akin to a fiddle] in order to improve the music of the choir.” One can only wonder.

But at this point, finally, we know what the congregation was singing from its hymnals:

  • In 1889 the congregation purchased a new hymnal (suggesting that there had been an old one). They now sang from Hymns of the Faith.
  • In 1907 they purchased the The Hymnal , published by the Presbyterian Church.
  • In 1935 they purchased a new revision of The Hymnal (1934, the Green one) because “the responsive reading is so different in the new one. Some of the responsive readings in our present book are badly selected and not at all conducive to the proper attitude in the service.” 
  • I am astonished that we did not purchase another hymnal for corporate worship until The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990, Blue).   
  • In 2013 we purchase our current hymnal: Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Purple).

I am astounded that the congregation spent 83 years with the same basic hymnal!! This promotes knowing songs with one’s heart, obviously, but also fosters resistance to change. In 1931 the music committee reported that they “are unable to get any men for the choir at the present time.” It must have been a great concern for the Music Director, W.O. Stearns, because at that same time they were considering purchasing a new organ at the cost of $21,000. (This, during the depression). The level of anxiety about worship and music can be sensed shortly thereafter in the Council Minutes of 1934: 

The meeting on June 14 was given over to an exhaustive discussion at the morning service…

Great stress was laid up on the fact that the morning service was too long – that it did not begin on time and did not end on time and lacked life and pep. One thing was positively decided – that we cannot and will not go on any longer without a printed bulletin; that the money must be raised somehow. It was definitely recommended that announcements from the pulpit be eliminated entirely.

It was also definitely decided that the service drags; the hymns are played too slowly, that there is not enough life and color in the singing of the congregation. It was suggested that the sermon be put much nearer the beginning of the service before the people become tired out with fifty minutes of preliminaries. The sermon should be 30 minutes in length, as a pastor’s message cannot be adequately given out in less time than that, and then more of the worship service should come after the sermon. That there should be three hymns of reasonable length during the service, as congregational singing is much enjoyed, and the service should begin promptly at eleven o’clock, with Mrs. Ford starting the prelude at five minutes before 11, with the pastor in the pulpit at that time and the choir in their seats; that the service should close promptly at 12:15 unless there is some unusual reason for prolonging it. There should always be an Anthem as the Chorus Choir is greatly appreciated, and an occasional solo. That the Responsive Reading should not be cut out, as that is one of the few ways the congregation can participate in the service, and many like to enter into it personally. Several people spoke of the haphazard way in which many things in connection with the service are done. The choir does not rise soon enough, and the congregation rises in a disorganized and struggling way. Just as soon as the choir has risen all the elders should simultaneously rise thus leading the congregation to make a systematic and orderly rising. This has been brought up before to the Session more than once. Mrs. Ford plays too long an offertory. She should train herself to bring it to a stop when the ushers are through with the collection, and there should be some other sign for the ushers to come down the aisle than the nodding of the pastor’s or music director’s head. 

The subject of the way the hymns should be played and sang was discussed at length. They are dragged too much as before stated, by Mrs. Ford. They should be played with vim and spirit as they are a great source of inspiration to everyone.

Poor Mrs. Ford. I had a conversation this morning with John Timmons (now 93) who remembered her fondly, but without any complaints. Would that we could all be remembered for our contributions and not our faults. 

I continue to work on lists of organists, music directors, choir leaders, soloists, etc. There were also music performance groups at different times, hosted concerts, etc. And so much more. My next post will be the sermon preached the Sunday after all this research on “The Church in Song,” which has had favorable reviews. 

Happy Sabbath