This essay is a reprint from from a book entitled "Niagara Land: the First 200 Years," which in turn was a reprint of a series of essays published in "Sunday, the Courier Express Magazine" to celebrate the 1976 American Revolution Bicentennial.
The Word Comes to Niagara Land
by Mrs. Roy Summers
This 1849 sketch by William Miller depicts the original St. Paul's church, a frame building, erected in 1819 at Main, Church, Pearl and Erie Streets, as it appeared between its enlargement in 1828 and its removal in 1850 to make way for the permanent stone ediface.
RESIDENTS OF NIAGARA LAND in the early 19th century tended their farms and businesses, dug canals and harbors, fought naval battles and burned each other's towns in time of war.
They also held religious services and constructed churches, for religion was important in their lives.
Reverend Elkanah Holmes
Usually the traveling missionaries who visited the region held services in homes, in public buildings, and in the open air before churches were erected. One of these was the Reverend Elkanah Holmes who wrote in a letter dated October 29, 1800: "At Buffalo, where I made my home whilst I was visiting the Senecas, I preached seven or eight times to the white people . . . They never had but one sermon preached in the place before."
Quaker missionaries to the Indians had come to Niagara Land as early as 1791. Fifteen years later there were enough Quakers to organize a "Friends Meeting" in what at the time was called East Hamburg. The next year, 1807, they built a log meeting house. It is credited with being the first church building in Erie County and for at least ten years the only one.
CIRCUIT - RIDING METHODIST preachers were probably the most active of the early champions of the cross in Western New York. Prominent among them was Glezen Fillmore, cousin of the more famous Millard Fillmore, though like him possessing "the well-known strong Fillmore features, and stalwart Fillmore frame," according to a local historian. Licensed as a Methodist "exhorter" in March, 1809, Glezen Fillmore set forth immediately at the age of nineteen from his home in Oneida County to carry the word of God to the tiny pockets of settlement within the Holland Land Company's domain. With his knapsack on his back, young Fillmore traveled two hundred miles on foot through the damp and cold of early spring before reaching Clarence Hollow where he obtained land and made his home.
Not that he was often there; for the Reverend Glezen Fillmore spent many months away from home on whatever service was asked of him. In 1818 he was called to take charge of a growing Methodist congregation in Buffalo. Under his energetic direction a church was rapidly built, being completed and dedicated only 48 hours after construction began. Located on Pearl Street, it stood 25 by 35 feet in its ground measurements and is said to have been the first structure built in Buffalo for specifically religious purposes.
Fillmore etching courtesy of Zoe Tom. Click on illustration for larger size.
[For more inforamtion about Rev. Fillmore see "Rev. Glezen Fillmore" in Ladies' Repository]
First Presbyterian Church
THE METHODIST WAS NOT the first congregation incorporated in Buffalo, however. Historians award that distinction to a group of twenty-nine Presbyterians and Congregationalists organized by the Reverend Thaddeus Osgood in February 1812. From this group evolved the First Presbyterian Church, whose incorporation was recorded in April, 1816 and whose first regular religious structure was a small frame church erected on the corner of Church and Niagara streets in 1823. After the Methodist but before the First Presbyterian, St. Paul's Episcopal Church occupied a substantial building on the lot where the present cathedral of that name now stands.
By 1835 there were 13 churches in Buffalo: Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, Universalist, Reformed Methodist, Unitarian, German Lutheran, German Evangelical, Bethel chapel and two Roman Catholic. In Western New York outside Buffalo there were at least fifty functioning churches at the time, some of the early ones being Methodist churches in Newstead and Clarence. a Baptist church in Wales, one Presbyterian church at "Fiddler's Green," or Springville, and another in the present town of Lancaster.
In 1818 . . . Located on Pearl Street, it stood 25 by 35 feet in its ground measurements and is said to have been the first structure built in Buffalo for specifically religious purposes.
ON THE CANDIAN SIDE of the Niagara, religious developments were influenced by the fact that the Anglican Church of England was favored, with nearly all government officials and other members of the social elite belonging to it. These government and church officials opposed the Methodists. Nevertheless, by 1800 there were seven Methodist ''saddlebag preachers" in the Canadian part of Niagara Land, each covering a circuit of about 100 miles in a month, carrying all their needs in their saddle bags.
Major George Neal came to Queenston in 1786 as a Methodist minister and denounced vice so scathingly that rougher elements in the town pelted him with stones until the blood ran down his face. The Commandant at Queenston ordered him to leave within 30 days because he was creating public disorder. But the Commandant died before the thirty days elapsed, so Major Neal stayed.
Probably Neal's most important convert to Methodism was Christian Warner, who built a Methodist chapel on his farm in 1801. In later years, Warner chose to pray in a nook in the perpendicular surface of the Niagara escarpment. This natural sounding board enabled his prayers to be heard two miles away, or so his neighbors said.
Movement for religious reasons between the United States and Canada was not unusual. For example, in 1801 there was a German Lutheran church in Thorold that needed a minister, so the members persuaded George Joseph Wichtermann to come from New York state to serve them. The members made substantial promises to Wichtermann, but two years after he came, only thirteen members had paid their share of what had been pledged. One member is quoted as saying, "I will pay if he GOES -- if he stays, not a farthing."
Consequently Canadian couples wishing to be married by a Methodist clergyman would cross the Niagara to Lewiston where 25 cents was the going price for a Methodist marriage ceremony.
Presbyterians in Southern Ontario also looked to New York for a minister. He was Daniel Ward Eastman, ordained at Palmyra, New York. The Reverend Eastman came to Canada as an official of the established Church of Scotland and so was allowed to perform the marriage ceremony, a privilege denied to Methodist clergy in Canada at the time. Consequently Canadian couples wishing to be married by a Methodist clergyman would cross the Niagara to Lewiston where 25 cents was the going price for a Methodist marriage ceremony. This practice gave rise to the saying that contacts between Canada and the United States before the War of 1812 were more often marital than martial.
Quakers were present early in Ontario history and they opposed was as firmly as their brethren on the United States side of the river. Tunkers were another pacifist sect with a community at Bertie, Ont. under the leade~ship of John Winger. They were inspired by Biblical interpretations similar to those that brought the Community of True Inspiration from Germany to settle east of Buffalo at Ebenezer in the 1840's.
By 1835 there were 13 churches in Buffalo: Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, Universalist, Reformed Methodist, Unitarian, German Lutheran, German Evangelical, Bethel chapel and two Roman Catholic
In fact, it would be difficult to find a religious belief with members on only one side of the Niagara -- even American Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans were religiously as closely related as cousins. Likewise. it would be difficult to find a home in Niagara Land without a Bible during the early 19th Century. Bibles were as common and as much looked at in homes then as television sets are today.
About the Author:
Mrs. Summers is vice president of the Niagara Regional Historical Council, specializng in the early history of Southern Ontario.
Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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