Rochester’s Third Presbyterian Church is a local icon of history with a movement that prevails far beyond the local borders of Christianity
by Chris Clemens
The Third Presbyterian Church on East Avenue in Rochester has a long important history for both the city and for the history of religion; for this reason we’ve been attempting to get inside and see the church for the entire two years we’ve been doing this project. For whatever reason, each time we attempt to reach out our schedules just don’t align. Finally over holiday break toward the end of the year, we got a chance to meet up with Cindy, who is a wearer of all hats and handles a whole bunch of administrative type stuff for the church. She agreed to take a little time out of her morning to meet with us and show us around. We are very grateful!!
The Third Presbyterian Church was aptly named because at one point there were two other Presbyterian groups in Rochester. The First Presbyterian Church was organized in 1817 while the city was still known as Rochesterville; the group called a small, wooden building on present day State Street their home. Later that church would come together with Brick and Central Presbyterian and form the Downtown Presbyterian Church. Before that joining would happen though, a group split from the First Presbyterian Church in 1825 and begat the Second Presbyterian Church, who actually traveled back to their geographical roots and set up shop in the same building that the First Presbyterian Church had begun.
Soon after the Third Presbyterian Church would organize in 1827 and the now established City of Rochester lay inhabited by just 7,000 people. In December of 1826, a rift developed within the Second Presbyterian Church during a business meeting about where to build their new location. Some members of the group preferred the west side of the Genesee River where most others were building, while some others would prefer the east side. Those who preferred the east side would later establish the founding congregation of what would become the Third Presbyterian Church of Rochester. The group officially formed on January 17, 1827 and became the very first organized church on the east side of the Genesee River. Property was chosen at Clinton and Main Sts, and a minister would be chosen who had studied at nearby Auburn Seminary.
I had mentioned earlier that Third Presbyterian had played an important role for the history of both the city and for religion. In addition to being the first organized church east of the river, this first small 30′ by 60′ wooden framed meeting house would be the chosen locale for a famous summer of revivalism. In 1830-31 the noteworthy Presbyterian evangelist Charles Grandison Finney would reach new heights in his career and would bring his brand of religious revivalism to the quickly growing City of Rochester. It was here that he approached the pulpit Sunday after Sunday during his six month visit and quickly fueled the fire that would set ablaze the Second Great Awakening. Often times businesses in the city would close for a few hours just so those who chose (which was nearly everyone) to go hear the visiting minister share his message during the week. The fervor and excitement of the revivalist movement touched so many that the church’s membership grew by 158 in his six months of serving, 92 of which joined in one single day! Among changing the religious scenery in Rochester and creating an environment that would set the city as one of the highest ranking in the country for religious affiliations, he also would coin the term ‘Burned Over District’. Later on in his career, Finney described the Central and Western NY regions to be a ‘Burned Over District’ and explained that the ‘lamp oil’ of the ‘spirit’ had entirely burned up here, and nearly all of the inhabitants of this portion of Upstate NY had already found a faith. He implied that if you were looking to convert someone to your brand of believing, you’d best go where there are people who are still in need of hearing a message. Interestingly enough, as this post is being written, Rochester is now ranked one of the lowest in the country (82nd in fact) for religious affiliation and is primarily inhabited by residents who claim to ascribe to no religion at all.
Though the church was successful in campaigning for its own growth, it would soon undergo strife and difficult times. Soon after Finney left, the church began to feel tremendous financial strain and attempted some creative fundraising by selling pew leases in exchange for paying off the debt. Ultimately it was decided to sell the building to the Second Baptist Church (who later relocated to their current home at Clover and Highland and became the Baptist Temple after a fire ruined that purchase). Third Presbyterian members would then meet wherever they could find a space and at one point even voted to disband entirely. When that idea was voted down, they determined to overcome their new found adversity and banded to together to choose a new minister and a new home, which would be at Main and Stone Sts. During that time period, the church would choose a leadership that pulled them toward a more orthodox stride. Dr. Albert Hall would inspire the group to adopt a conservative world view, and in fact he would stay away from the issue of the abolition of slavery, and for a number of years women weren’t even permitted to speak within the church.
It was 1892 that the group would first touch down on the present location of East Ave and Meigs St to begin building their third home. Then, while under the guidance of another new leader, Paul Moore Strayer, the church would begin to relax in some of their worldly views. Taking a stronger stance in civil rights and equality issues, the congregation has continued since the early 1900’s to be more and more proactive in embracing equality for all. In 1917 Miss Mary Paris was brought to Rochester to be a school teacher for the church and founded the first Girl Scout Troop for the city. Another piece of the church’s particularly striking history speaks to the greater voice of the congregation and faith is that the first woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian church was Margaret Towner of Syracuse’s First Church in 1956. But, possibly just as important was the fact that a Rochester Presbyterian Elder named Lilian Alexander was the one who first petitioned to the national congregation that women should be allowed to be ordained in the church. Her fighting efforts and fortitude were the start of a national revolution to allow women to play a greater role in serving the church in higher leadership roles. The church has continued to evolve over time and today provides an entirely inclusive and welcoming congregation and is even one of the few places in the city that provides same-sex marriage opportunities.
We were brought into the main sanctuary began to meander around viewing each of stunning stained glass windows that line the church as our guide shared with us much of the history noted above. Third Presbyterian Church is one of the few in Rochester to be lucky enough to own Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows and whenever we encounter one we always make it a point to pay extra close attention. The sanctuary is large and cavernous, and because it sometimes it just not practical to have such a tremendous space, the church added an additional smaller chapel back in the 1950’s.
Third Presbyterian’s Tiffany Stained Glass Windows
The two buildings sat side by side for a while, and then more recently the church built a series of hallways and additions connecting it all. As you walk through the entire space from corner to corner, you sort of get this feeling that you’ve been walking through the entire history of the church as a physical model. There are perfectly brand new modern dry wall and tiled spaces with contemporary lighting, and then right around the corner you’re face to face with 100 year old original brick that was purposefully left exposed during renovations. The entire project seems like the church intended to embrace modern day architecture while still preserving and celebrating the artistic and sacred space it has worshiped in all along.
It was a real treat to be able to visit and get a first hand personal tour of the space and to get the stories about all the history that the Third Presbyterian Church has experienced, and especially to be able to get all that from someone as cool and welcoming as Cindy. We’re grateful for yet another really positive experience and the chance to be able to see up close some of the stained glass windows we had read about for so long. If you ever have the opportunity to experience the splendor and beauty of the church, seize it!
Resources and Additional Reading
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens