A History of the First Church of Evans
Into this wilderness, along the southern shores of Lake Erie, pioneered the white man, in his western trek of civilization, when in the year 1803, Ebenezer Ingersoll and in the year, 1804, Joel Harvey established themselves at, or near, the mouth of Eighteen Mile Creek where it flows into Lake Erie.
The only means of access, we are told, at that time, was along the shore of the lake, there being no available trails or highways.
In 1806, a tavern was opened by Mr. Harvey, at the junction of Eighteen Mile Creek and Lake Erie, and in 1809, Aaron Salisbury, whose remains are buried in the Jerusalem Corners Cemetery, is reported to have settled in the immediate vicinity.
In rapid succession, locating along the Eighteen Mile Creek, came Aaron Cash, Anderson Taylor and Elijah Gates.
It must be remembered that this property had been opened by the Holland Land Company for sale to prospective settlers. At this time, the community was still know as the Town of Willenk, having been named after one of the members of the Holland Land Company, and in 1812, the Town of Eden, when then embraced what is now known as the Towns of Evans and Eden was formed.
Then came the war of 1812.
In 1814, Jerusalem Corners was known as East Evans, and that year, a hotel was opened at East Evans, and that year, a hotel was opened at East Evans by a Mr. Clark.
Evans Center was originally known as Wright’s Mills, and later, as Jericho, but the post office, which was established in 1818, was known as the post office of Eden, and James Peters who was one of the organizers of the First Church of Evans, was the first post-master.
In 1818, the State of New York, by enactment, limited slavery, by permitting male slaves to be held until they attained the age of twenty-eight years and female slaved until they had attained the age of twenty-five years.
It might be of interest to know that in this same year, the First Church of Evans was founded, and in the same year, and on the very same date, July 4th, the Erie Canal was started by Governor Clinton, at Rome, New York.
It was in 1818, too, that the first daily mail was inaugurated between Buffalo, New York and Albany, New York.
In 1820, the first store was established by R. Rowell.
It was not until 1821 that the Town of Evans was formed by an act of the Legislature, and the town was named after an officer of the Holland Land Company.
Along with the development and progress, such as was then being made, came the Rev. John Spencer, a Congregationalist minister, acting under the Presbyterian Synod, who, on horseback, followed the trails and brush-covered highways, preaching the gospel. He was known as “Father Spencer” and described as being a short, sturdy man, full of zeal in the Master’s cause, and of life and mirth. He was a great favorite among the hearty pioneers. It was he who acted as moderator at the organization of the First Church of Evans.
On Saturday, the 4th of July, 1818, a little group of people, men, women, and children, gathered at a tiny log school house, which stood almost opposite our present site at Jerusalem Corners, for the purpose of organizing a church.
To gain some realization of what this purpose upon the part of these people signified, it is necessary to picture this district and their lives and means at that period.
The whole of Western New’ York was included in the Holland Land Purchase. Between 1800 and 1806 that territory had been surveyed and opened to purchase by settlers who were slowly trickling in, coming chiefly from Eastern New York and New England, of sturdy English and Scotch stock, leaving comfortable homes in the east.
The present town of Evans in 1818 was a part of the towns of Eden and Hamburg. The whole
of this section, in fact all of Western New York, was covered by dense and unbroken virgin forest. The land hereabouts being level, was swampy and heavily wooded. In 1812 war was declared against Great Britain, which brought consternation and dismay to the scattered settlers along the frontier. The men, however, sturdily organized into a home guard but were at once ordered to report on the Niagara Frontier, which left this district, and their families at the mercy of the British who, previous to Perry’s victory, controlled the
British vessels, particularly the ship Queen Charlotte and brig Hunter, frequently patrolled these shores, landing parties of troops who stripped the cabins and people of their meager possessions, the women and children often passing the nights in the forests from fear of these visits.
ln the absence of the men no land was cleared and no crops were planted. Buffalo was burned in 1813 and all progress and development in the entire district naturally stood still or lost ground, until peace was declared in 1814 and the men returned to renew their struggle with the wilderness.
So by 1818 little progress in a material sense had been made. A few more families had moved
in, but the poverty of the times was extreme. From one to three miles apart, in the forest, stood tiny cabins of logs, of one room, the floor of dirt, with little furniture save that made at, home, a mud-covered chimney of sticks with open fire for heating and cooking, and windows covered with deer skin. About this home a few trees had been cut out for its building, among the stumps of which was planted a little corn and beans and beans and here and there a patch of wheat. Some of them had a yoke of oxen. Probably few, if any, had horses or cows. There was practically, no money in circulation, payment even on land being made in furs, wheat, maple sugar, potash from wood ashes or any like goods of market value. There were no roads. Travel was through the woods or along the beach, for even the Erie road had not been cleared of underbrush until 1816 and the trees were still standing. From the comfort of our homes on the sites of these cabins
one can hardly picture the hunger and hardships of these women and children during the long pitiless winters.
These people however were of sturdy Puritan stock and their first thought, individually and
as a community, after the establishment of a school, was for a church.
In the midst of these hardships, therefore, but actuated by this desire, we find the people of
this little group, after working their way through the forest, have gathered in the clearing about their school house to organize this church.
The people are led by the Rev. John Spencer, a Presbyterian missionary preacher, one of those good men who traveled on foot or horseback, as they could, through this western wilderness for the aid and comfort of the settlers.
Probably the meeting itself was held in the school house and we can picture the austere but
kindly face of the minister looking down from the teacher’s stand upon the homespun clad, earnest group of people gathered on the rough benches below.
The precious records of the church have been preserved during the many long struggling years of the century. In the record book the first entry of this meeting is simple and is as follows :
“This may certify that on Saturday, July 4th, 1818, a number of the inhabitants of the Town
of Eden, 8th, town and, 9th Range, met together for the purpose of uniting in Church Covenant, the meeting being opened by prayer. A sermon preached on the occasion and the following named persons voluntarily and public gave their assent to the preceding articles of’ faith, covenant and articles of practice and inconsequence of it I then, as a minister of the Gospel, pronounce them a visible Church of Christ, and as such they chose Nathaniel Gray moderator and Elujah Tolman clerk, and voted to unite with the Niagara Presbytery on the accommodation plan, and chose Nathaniel Gray their representative for that purpose. The meeting closed by prayer”
E. Tolman, Clerk Rev’nd John Spencer Moderator
The original members were as follows: Nathaniel Gray, Florilla Tolman, Zery Hamilton, Rhoda Wright, Sarah Gray, Truman Dewey, Jerusha Hamilton, George Cook, Elijah Tolman, Lois Dewey, Patrick Hamilton, Polly Curtis.
And George Cook, Polly Curtis and all three Hamiltons were baptized.
The record also gives us in full the stern old articles to which these people subscribed, in the strict conformity with which each was jealously watched by the other members, and with need for apprehension, for the Confession of Faith which contains twelve heads, ends as follows “we do believe that at the end of the world there will be a Resurrection of the Dead and a Final Judgment of all mankind, when the righteous shall be publicly acquitted by Christ the Judge, and admitted to Everlasting Life and Glory and the wicked will be condemned and go away into Endless Punishment.” Following this as the Articles of Admission and Discipline, and the Church Covenant as follows:
The Church Covenant
Adopted July 4, 1818
“We do this day publicly avouch the only living and true God to be our God, and , as far as we know our own hearts, we love Him supremely and are pleased with His whole character and laws, and with the wat of salvation by Jesus Christ revealed in the Gospel, and by the assistance of Divine Grace, we do resolve to make His law the rule of our lives, and hope we do sincerely repent all our sins and receive the Lord Jesus as our only Savior and the Holy Spirit as our Sanctifier, trusting in the mercy of God, through the atonement of Christ, as the only ground of our justification and salvation. We also think we have a cordial love of benevolence to all mankind, sincerely wishing their best good and happiness and a special love of complacency in all those who appear to be real Christians and, through Christ strengthening us, without whom we can do nothing, we resolve to deny all ungodliness and worldly lusts, and give up ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ, to be taught and governed by Him in all things, and we do also bind ourselves, in His strength, to walk with the church in all the ordinances of Christ, and with the members thereof, as becometh members according to the rules of the Gospel.”
It is probable that this was the first and only organized Protestant church in the entire lake region west of Buffalo at this period. The First Presbyterian of Buffalo was six years olders while the Episcopal and Methodist churches in Buffalo were each organized in 1817– one year previously. The church remained as an associate of the Presbytery until 1835 when it was transferred to the Congregational Association which was very active in this region in that period.
The Rev. John Spencer continued as their only pastor until 1822, visiting them once or twice a year, as he had opportunity, to baptize and administer the Sacrament.
In 1822 the Rev. Samuel Leonard was call as their first regular pastor at a yearly salary of $400.00, which was a very large sum for the people to undertake, and probably also a considerable income for the minister, because the record explains, when it was offered: “so that he might be free from wordily cares or the necessity of following other avocations.”
It must not be supposed however that $400.00 in money was intended for it is improbable that much actual money existed in the entire settlement. The original assessment is shown on a yellow, sheet of the original record book and runs in this wise:
Jeheil Bartholomew 20 Bus .02
Isaac Bartholomew 5 Bus
Johnathan Maltbie 6 Bus Paid
James Peters 10 Bus .03
Elisha Catlin 15 Bus .02
Zachieus Maltbie 4 Bus .01
Jediah Tucker 2 Bus .00
The Rev. Mr. Leonard was pastor for seven years and the church prospered. Services were held alternately at the Catlin school house, before mentioned at Jerusalem, and the one new Wm Wrights (on the property known as the Hunt Club). During his pastorate (in 1823) an effort toward a church building was made the cost was too great for the people and the prospect was for the time abandoned. Apparently at the end of his work, in 1829, the church had 54 members.
He was followed by the Rev. Wm. Beardsley, 1829-30: Rev. Geo. Coad, 1830-31, and Rev. Abel Parmelee, 1831-32
During these early years and for some subsequent years thereafter, as was the case in most early American churches, church discipline was strictly maintained, not only at the time of worship but during their daily lives. Watchful eyes were always upon church member’s to see that they did not stray from the narrow path, both that the dignity of the church be maintained and that their own eternal salvation be not endangered. And, at frequent intervals, charges were brought against members for any slipping from the path. The first appears in 1826 when a complaint was presented against two of the members “for the following offenses:
viz : neglect of public worship, neglect of family worship, neglect of the ordinances of the Gospel and breaking the Sabbath.” The charges in this, as all cases, were heard and a notice sent to the brothers to appear and make their defense. In this case, as was usual, they at first failed to appear. Then a committee of two or three was appointed to wait upon them. In time they usually did come forward, were tried, frequently confessed and were forgiven. Occasionally they either refused to appeal or denied the charge. The trail then ended by dismissal of the complaint as not sustained or the brother or sister was formally excommunicated and the verdict publicly read in meeting. The repentance they required is specified as “Gospel Repentance” their interpretation of which not being clearly set forth but the basis of their action in all of these matters is found in a strict interpretation of Matthew 18: 15-17, which verses frequently appear in our records.
In 1831, during the pastorate of the Rev. Abel Parmelee, a great religious awakening took place at a series of Temperance Meetings. The record says “After April 1Oth the Rev’s. A. Parmelee and T. L. Harris preached and labored, each a part of the time, at each meeting. About 30 hopefully converted and many anxious.” This series of meetings also led to a revision of the Covenant and Rules of Conduct, to bring them into closer touch with the needs of the times.
In 1838 a call was given to Rev. lsaac Oakes “to labor with this society” at a salary of $350
and wood for his home.
In 1839 four tithing men, Messrs. John F.Webb, Jonathan Maltbie, J. Bullock and Eli Catlin, were appointed “whose duty shall be to seat
strangers and notify persons or boys in porch of the time of public worship and seat them, and not have them remain in the porch, and keep order in the church.” This custom was followed for several years.
In 1840 it was resolved that $2.50 be raised by contribution to procure whale oil to light the meeting house and in 1845,it was resolved that 50 pounds of tallow and sufficient wicking be bought for the same purpose.
And also in 1840 the Trustees were empowered “to dispose of unsold slips, (as the pews were called) for what they may obtain, toward extinguishing such debts as are still standing for building the Meeting House,” and in 1841 a mortgage was placed on the Parsonage to meet a note of $50.00 owing Deacon E. Tolman. Just when the Parsonage was secured is not on record but it stood almost opposite the present manse, on the Derby Road.
During much of this and the succeeding period the ministers were secured joinily by this church and those at North Evans or Evans Center, preaching being held in turn at their several buildings.
During all of the decades of 1830 and l840 the records are full of charges against breaches of church discipline or the rules for the proper wordly conduct of church members. These include : negiect of public or family worship, slander, falsehood, intemperance, dishonest dealings with other church members, giving false information to public officers and speaking disparagingly of the minister. This last was particularly frowned upon and one very prominent member and church officer, who openly objected to one of the ministers, was taken kindly though severely to task, was charged, heard, tried, retried and excommunicated, the proceedings against him lasting nearly 10 years, long after the minister in question had departed, including a supreme trial by a conference of laymen and ministers from 40 miles around. Finally, on his confession, he was forgiven and restored to membership.
In 1843-45 they were in much distress over their debt, a part of which was a note for $77.00 and the costs of a suit thereon, the costs being
$115.00. The total debt in 1845 was $275.12. After many meetings the Trustees reported sufficient pledges to meet this amount, including $25.00 from the Ladies’ Sewing Society, whereupon Claudius Delamarter paid his pledge at once, $3.75.
In 1849 the meeting house bell was bought from A. Good of Buffalo for $147.12. This bell was used continuously for all services until the church was burned and the older residents say it was the sweetest-toned bell they ever heard.