In the early 1700s, the Church of England sent missionaries to help spread the faith in remote, far-flung outposts of the expanding empire.
Places like Hempstead.
There, in the midst of that Colonial settlement at the edge of western Long Island’s great plain, a church was formed and named after the country’s sovereign, George I.
St. George’s Church was founded in 1704 and was supported by the wealthy farmers in the surrounding countryside. The church’s early members included names that still echo on Long Island: the Conklins and Carmans; Hewletts and Seamans. There was Josiah Martin, whose palatial Georgian manse, Rock Hall, is now a Town of Hempstead museum. There was Thomas Jones, the Ulster mariner with the piratical past whose whaling operation flourished on a sandspit of land that would eventually become known as Jones Beach.
These men craved something more than a place to worship.
“They were landed gentry,” said Charles Egleston, historian for the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. “And they were going to set up a church for themselves along the lines of what you had in England, where this was the church of the elite.”
So the elite of Colonial Long Island traveled to the new church. And in many cases, they brought with them some of their most valuable property — their slaves.
Fast-forward three centuries: It’s a Saturday night in January 2018, and many members of St. George’s Church are gathered in its modern event hall to honor Jared Gordon, 18, of Westbury, a member of the church-sponsored Boy Scout Troop 300, who has just attained the exalted rank of Eagle Scout.
Today, St. George’s consists of the church building itself, which was built in 1822 and is the third structure on the site. Across Front Street is the rectory, which dates from 1793. Adjoining the church is the modern parish hall. Here about 100 people are attending Gordon’s Court of Honor ceremony. The majority of them, like Gordon and the members of his troop, are African-American and Afro-Caribbean.
These are the descendants of the slaves of Long Island grandees (many of whom are buried in the church’s graveyard), as well as their counterparts in the British West Indies and throughout the Americas.
They are now the driving force behind the church.
It’s an irony that is not lost on the members. Beverly James, of Uniondale, who has belonged to St. George’s since 1984, recalls a bishop who visited the church and addressed the mostly black congregation.
“He said, ‘I know there are a lot of people in those graves out there who are turning over, right now,’ ” James recalled. “He was right, and we all laughed.”
Indeed, one can still sense them spinning. Led in large part by people of color, modern St. George’s is a vibrant, active, spiritual community. “Churches succeed if they’re wealthy or have enthusiasm,” Egleston said. “St. George’s started out wealthy. Now it has enthusiasm.”
That energy and cohesiveness is evident in the turnout for Gordon’s ceremony — and the fact that he is the 16th member of the troop to have advanced to the rank of Eagle. His Eagle Scout project involved renovating the basement storage rooms for the church’s food pantry, which helps needy families in Hempstead. As he polished the floors, cleaned the windows and reorganized the inventory system for the pantry, Gordon also had time to reflect on his church’s history.
“It’s an amazing thing that it’s been here since 1704,” said Gordon, a freshman at Nassau Community College. “You can’t put a price on that.”
You could, however, put a price on the slaves who were once a significant part of life on Long Island. A 1722 census of the parish of Hempstead and Oyster Bay (where a second and smaller Anglican church, Christ Church in Oyster Bay, was founded a year after St. George’s), found a total population of 3,629 men, women and children, 430 of whom were slaves.
Amid St. George’s 18th century sacramental register of weddings, births and deaths, an occasional mention will be made of the baptism of a slave. Oral tradition holds that they were allowed to sit only in the second floor of the church, which became known as the “slave gallery.”
Still, as heinous an institution as it was, slavery here was not the same as in the South, historians say. Farms on Long Island were smaller, and the number of slaves fewer.
“It’s more complex,” said Reine Bethany, the village historian, and a member of St. George’s. “While there was certainly separation, no question about that, on Long Island there was also a tradition of educating black people that did not exist in the South.”
Much of that effort was launched by one of St. George’s first ministers, the Rev. John Thomas, who in the early 1700s not only led services at both the Hempstead and Oyster Bay churches, but also traveled into the hinterlands for home services — and seems to have made great efforts to educate slaves and poor, free blacks, as well as white indentured servants.
“John Thomas was really ministering to the poor,” said Bethany, whose illustrated history of the village, “Hempstead Village,” will be published in March as part of the Arcadia “Images of America” series, a collection of local photo-history books.
Thomas wrote a poignant letter bemoaning “the great number of inhabitants . . . in very indigent circumstances. I find large numbers of them assembled who appear glad of my services and are willing to be instructed but are totally illiterate. Nor have they abilities or opportunities to get their children instructed.”
During the American Revolution, from 1775 to 1783, St. George’s — like most of the Anglican denomination in America — was the church for Loyalists. For much of the war, Hempstead was occupied by the British who, despite being on the same side, apparently didn’t treat it well. An apocryphal story holds that the church’s weather vane was used for target practice by Hessian soldiers.
After the war, though St. George’s and other churches of its denomination changed both their name (from Anglican to Episcopalian) and their service (eliminating for example, prayers for the health of the King), in the succeeding decades other doctrinal differences developed between the two. Today, the Episcopalian church is generally seen as more liberal in its beliefs.
In terms of its views on black members, however, St. George’s would continue to struggle, even after slavery was abolished in New York in the early 19th century. In an 1881 history of the church, the black presence is rarely mentioned.
By the mid-20th century, the church had a predominantly white congregation in a town that was increasingly African-American. Many wanted things to stay that way. James, who grew up in Queens, recalls attending a service in St. George’s as an Adelphi student in 1968.
“It was clear that I was not welcome,” she said. “No one would even talk to me.”
When she returned to St. George’s after moving to Uniondale two decades later, she found a church in transition. What happened to St. George’s in the past 30 years is summarized by Pat Moore, a white native of Hempstead who has been a member of the church for most of her life.
“It’s marvelous,” said Moore, 84. “We were rescued by an influx of West Indians.”
The Anglican Church remains a strong presence in the Caribbean, so when immigrants from there began to move to Long Island, many were looking for a spiritual home close to that tradition. St. George’s fit the bill. These new members brought with them what James — who is of Antiguan descent — describes as “a different palette.” Steel band music was heard in the church for the first time; traditional Caribbean dishes such as rice and peas, jerk chicken and fish cakes began being served at church socials and dinners.
“Lots of white people were incensed and left,” said Moore, wryly. “That meant more good food for the rest of us.”
What it also meant was an influx of new energy into the old church, evidence of which is seen in the turnout for Gordon’s Court of Honor.
Part of the attraction for members and visitors alike is St. George’s nearly 200-year-old church building. Lawrence C. Provenzano, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, describes it as a “Colonial, New England-style of church.” He cites the family pews and the high windows, featuring stained-glass from Tiffany’s, that were added later. “Even the contours of the wooden appointments of the sanctuary are all reminiscent of a Colonial style,” he said.
Despite its traditional look, the church is now poised for more change. According to interim rector Frederic Miller, the church’s current membership is around 400, about 125 of whom will be in attendance at a typical Sunday service. While the membership is mostly black, the community around them is largely Latino.
Bishop Provenzano has launched a diocese-wide racial justice and reconciliation initiative which, for St. George’s, he said, “is going to involve how to deal with the growing Hispanic community, how to deal with Garden City, a predominantly white, upper-middle-class community that is its next-door neighbor. That creates opportunity and challenge.”
For James, the real challenge is getting younger families into the church. But whether Latino or millennial or both, she hopes the assimilation of new members will mirror what happened when the one-time church of slave owners became the church of Afro-Caribbean immigrants, African-Americans and a few longtime white residents.
“The white people who stayed got to know us better, and we got to know them better,” she said. “We recognized we have more similarities than differences.”