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Battle Fought at Early Church

Footnotes to Long Island History

British Fortified Meeting House:  Battle Fought at Early Church

October 1, 1953

by

Thomas R. Bayles


Caption:  Fourth Church to serve the Presbyterian congreing, erected in 1811.  It replaced one damaged by the British occupation in 1777, and that church had been preceded by two earlier meeting houses, the first erected shortly after the settlers arrived in 1655.

          When the first white men made their settlement at Setauket in 1655, the location of a place of worship was to them a matter of importance, and at an early date a rude building was erected for this purpose.  It was not until 1665, however, that a settled minister was employed by the town.

          He was the Rev. Nathaniel Brewster, a graduate of Harvard in 1642, and it is said that he preached his first sermon at Setauket, standing on a rock in the village green.  For his use the town purchased from Mathew Prior “his home lott with housing, glass windows, particions, with all fensing, young appell trees and other freute trees, for the minister’s accommodation.”  It must have been a fine house to have had glass windows in those early days. 

          About 1671 a “meeting house” 28 feet square was built which served the needs of the settlement for 40 years.  In 1682 John Waede was engaged to “erekt and build a good suffissiant substantial pulpett, handsome panell fashon fitt for the 3 men to sett in with a outlett for the minister to stand to preach.” 

          The Rev. Mr. Brewster continued to serve the “town” church until his death in 1690.  The early churches were governed and supported by the town, and in the divisions of land one part was often reserved for the support of the church.  The Rev. George Phillips was engaged as minister of this church in 1697 and was installed as pastor in 1702, and the town voted him 100 acres of land near Nasekease swamp, and shortly after another 200 acre tract, both for his use while he remained pastor, to belong to him and his heirs forever, if he remained here during the whole period of his natural life.

          By 1710 the population of the town had grown so that the people began to feel to need of a new church at Setauket.  There must have been some trouble in deciding on the site, but in 1714 it was finally decided by “a Providential Lot,” which directed that the new building adjoin the old meeting house.  It was also agreed that is should forever be Presbyterian and that it be put to no other use.

          Col. Richard Floyd gave the church a half acre of land from his home lot to enlarge the original burying ground adjoining the church.  Here are located the graves of nearly three centuries and countless historic associations hover round the sacred spot.

          During the Revolution Setauket was one of the British outposts in August, 1777, and the Presbyterian church was taken possession of by the British and made a military fort, with a mound of earth six feet high and five feet thick surrounding it, with pickets set closely at the top of the mound over the ditch.  Guns were mounted inside, pointing from the gallery windows. 

          General Parsons sailed across the sound with a force of about 150 men and undertook the capture of this fort, and a hot battle was waged for several hours until word was received that several British ships of war were heading towards Setauket from Huntington.  Fearing that their retreat would be cut off by the capture of their sloop and whale boats by the British, the Americans fled to their boats and returned to Connecticut with four of their number killed and several wounded. 

          One of the soldiers in this expedition was Zachariah Greene, who was about 20 years later was installed as pastor of the Setauket church.  The British abandoned the church, which they had been using as a barracks for their troops, in the early part of 1778. 

          The Rev. Mr. Phillips served the church 1739, and his grave is in the churchyard.  His tombstone was one of those torn up by the British.

          After the Revolution the damaged church was repaired and continued in use until the present one was built on the same site 1811.

          The Rev. Zachariah Greene came to Setauket as pastor in 1797, and he must have delighted the young people of the village, for here was a man who had enlisted in the army when a boy of 16, and had been in a number of battles, including one in which their own church rigured.  He retired to his daughter’s home in Hempstead in 1849, as he was 89 years of age.  He was retained with an honorary title of senior pastor until his death, which ended a pastorate of 61 year in all.

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