The Old First Church stands, serene and lovely, atop East Hill in Huntington. The sun and storms of 199 years have beaten against her graceful frame; her sanctuary has held the hopes and sorrows of many generations. Weddings, christenings, funerals have filled her years; she has given courage, cheer and comfort to the thousands who have come and gone since she was built in 1784.
In spite of Old First’s age, she is the third in the line of edifices which have housed her congregations. It takes a congregation to build a church. Her first congregation and the founders of the Town of Huntington were one and the same.
Old First’s original congregation arrived on these shores with its minister, William Lerverich, in 1653. It was a small band of men from Sandwich, Massachusetts, who, with their families, wanted to settle on Long Island. The Reverend Leverich had one extra purpose in mind, that he should do missionary work with the Indians. The group, under Mr. Leverich’s leadership, bought Oyster Bay from the Matinecocks, and a few of the men came on to buy Huntington from the same Indians.
There was no church here then – services were held in Mr. Holdworth’s schoolroom, as were Town meetings and court trials. It is hard to say when a church would have been built, had it not been for the Duke’s Laws instituted in 1665.
This most unpopular form of government insisted, among other things, that every Town not already possessed of a church build one immediately, big enough to hold 200 people. Although seething with discontent over the Duke’s Laws, the people of Huntington nonetheless complied with this stricture and built their first church next to Meeting House Brook in 1665. Meeting House Brook, it is thought, ran along Prime Avenue, in the valley to the west of the present church.
Mr. Leverich retired in 1669 to join his son in Newton. A graduate of Cambridge University, a man of enterprise and intelligence, this first pastor had been lawyer, businessman and property owner as well.
For seven years after Mr. Leverich’s retirement, the pulpit stayed vacant. Services were conducted by lay members of the congregation; the Town tired of this and in 1673 appointed a committee to procure a minister. In 1675 the Rev. Eliphalet Jones, a Harvard graduate, visited Huntington, assuming the duties of the pastorate. Mr. Jones, taking the temper of the townspeople, refused to make a permanent agreement until he was sure he was thoroughly welcome. In June 1677 he appeared before the Huntington division of the Suffolk County Foot regiment while it was drilling on the green near the church and asked to have “the company drawn up in order”, which was done. He then asked them to signify their will concerning his ministry amongst them. ”Ye whole company, “ wrote their Captain, Joseph Baylys, “held all their hands, but only one man held up his hand to the contrary.” The Reverend Jones then accepted and stayed as Huntington’s pastor for the rest of his life.
In 1715 it became necessary to build a new church. The first building, even with enlargements, proved inadequate. Everyone accepted the necessity, the new church on the location of the old, by Meeting House Brook, and in fact, started to do so; the other half were adamant about its being placed on top of East Hill and refused financial support to the Meeting House Brook project. The Reverend Jones proved himself as a moderator by calling in three other ministers as judges to listen to the argument of each side and make the final decision. In the end, the people who favored the East Hill location paid for the removal of the new frame from the Meeting House Brook site to East Hill and there finished the construction, with the approval of all concerned.
The Rev. Mr. Jones died in his ninety-first year, having first in 1723, ordained Ebenezer Prime as minister in his place. The Rev. Mr. Prime, also a Harvard graduate, was a most vital and intelligent man, a leader of revolutionary thought as well as a beloved pastor to his flock. He was in no small way responsible for Huntington’s immediate and enthusiastic support of the Revolution, and as a consequence, both he and his church suffered manifold indignities from the British troops of occupation. His large and valuable library was vandalized by the British soldiers, his house was used to quarter both soldiers and their horses, and the church was turned into a storage depot and stable. After Mr. Prime’s death in 1779, Col. Benjamin Thompson of the Queen’s Rangers tore down the church and used its timbers to construct “Fort Golgotha” on the old burying ground hill behind the former library. Col. Thompson built his marquee in front of the Rev. Mr. Prime’s grave, that he might have the pleasure of “treading on the old Rebel” as often as he went in or out. His soldiers used the tombstones from the graveyard as slabs for baking their bread.
It was during the Rev. Mr. Prime’s ministry that the “Great Awakening” took place, when the hysterical evangelism of Davenport caused the first split among church people on the Island. Those who chose to follow him called themselves “separatists.” In counteraction to the furor by Davenport’s mad fervor (he went temporarily insane) the Presbytery of Suffolk was organized in 1747. Suffolk’s churches changed from their original independent community set-up to the present Presbyterian form of government.
In 1784, after the Revolution, churches throughout the state were enabled, by Legislative Act, to elect trustees for the care of their temporal affairs, and in Huntington, at least, this had the effect of finally separating Old First from the Town government.
The first order of work for Old First’s parishioners, once the Revolution was won and done, was to rebuild their church.. Impoverished as they were from the long years of British occupation, they managed, nevertheless, to scrape together enough money to hire an architect. Samuel Haviland of New York, and to purchase the necessary materials. They did the actual construction themselves. The women, wanting an active part in the work beyond the serving of food to the men, got busy with adzes and shaped the beams.
The result of all the work was the sanctuary which stands today – beautiful in its simplicity, one of the most truly lovely examples of colonial architecture extant.