2016-03-24 / Columnists

Good Ole daze

Babylon’s First Presbyterian Church - Part I
by Stanis Beck

Does anyone know, for sure, what really is the oldest building in Babylon Village? Some will defend to the death that it is the white wooden house located just to the right of the 1st Presbyterian Church on Montauk Highway. This two-storied house, which was constructed in 1783/84, was actually originally the Presbyterian meeting house church, then known as the Presbyterian Church of Islip and Huntington Station. In other words, this house, known to many locals as the Sammis house, was originally a church (at least we can say so about the front half of this building; the rear portion was added later, when it was turned into a house).

Smaller church meeting buildings were common back in the 1700s as there were very few parishioners and resident clergy were a rarity. The site itself was purchased for five pounds (the currency used locally at the time) and the building was used both by the mobile minister and parishioners.

This building was moved a few feet east, in 1838, and finally converted into an actual house, enlarged and eventually owned and occupied by the Sammis family. It still looks like a house, though it now serves mainly as the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon offices.

Carriage marks, from over two centuries ago, can still be seen on this two-storied building’s most easterly side, as they brushed up too closely against the building on arrival for services. Since parishioners came to this place of worship from Islip and Huntington Station, in addition to the locals, carriages were used to bring those at a distance to the services.

The construction of the building is wood, most likely hand hewn from large oak timbers. Moldings are attractively detailed and the windows are double hung with louvered shutters. The interior was not painted or ornamented, accept for the pulpit which was described as very tall and painted blue. This pulpit was also said to be so high that the minister could actually not be seen and was hidden from the congregation when he was seated!

Also at that time parishioners had to keep their feet warm by footstoves which they themselves would have to bring along to the services. It must have been, therefore, a very happy day in 1831, when a large wood burning stove was added to this church. Also, those subscribers who regularly donated the most would be offered premium seats in the church (closer to the stove?) and those offering less would receive less desirable seating. Down the road, this building eventually became too small to adequately serve the growing congregation, but it remained, and basically still remains, in its original place.

Looking back into the climate of the times in the 1700s, early settlers and citizen elders of the church wielded much power, regulating civic and societal morays along with religious matters. A town meeting would be held several times a year where laws were actually created regarding safety and security and citizen soldiers were organized to protect our defensive forts. Puritan and Quaker backgrounds were common and settlers had to be deemed desirable, or months later would be asked to leave the area. Heavy penalties were handed down regarding the sale of alcohol. Lying, profanity is and slander were considered penal offences and whipping posts and stocks were in common usage.

In those harsher times, old church records indicate that in 1796, this small Presbyterian meeting/house church succeeded in procuring the services of a Rev. Luther Gleason, who shared his time ministering with the Presbyterian Church of Smithtown. People pledged money for the support of this pastor, but a troubled relationship developed with the elders, despite the fact that he lasted nine years, and that the parishioners had agreed to provide a house for the pastor, along with his horse!

Although Pastor Gleason had limited education, he was basically well loved and most were able to continue to support him even though he had been convicted of “gross sins” and was actually expelled from the ministry.

What was considered so egregious, at the time, is next described: He was convicted of “making too free use of intoxicating liquors.”

In protest, one member actually dared to criticize the church for being more like a prison, ruled by so-called “tyrants.” (After the Revolutionary War, drinking spirits rose in popularity and temperance movements then flourished. These movements blamed alcohol for crimes including murder.) Saloons were seen as evil entities (and Babylon apparently had more than its fair share!) Dancing and card playing were also discouraged and it was not until 1932 that dancing and card playing were again allowed in the church, but only in the gym, for the church’s organizations only and without advertising or admission charge or any prizes for card players.

In 1833, a strict temperance pledge was presented and all the parishioners were required to comply. Also, anyone attending a church of another denomination was considered anathema. James W Eaton, author of History of the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon, Long Island, shared that, as a youth, he and his buddies would talk abut how it was a sin to attend a Roman Catholic Church, but having no Catholic church in Babylon til 1878, they were safe. The boys also thought that the Catholic church was preparing to slaughter other Christians. They had heard and believed a rumor that a Catholic church in Brooklyn, constructed of stone to the first floor and roofed over, was built as a fort to slaughter Christians!

In June of 1802, one woman named Temperance Johnson was accused, by a subscriber, of “not being confined to any church or society and had acted accordingly in going to other meetings….Temperance apologized and the church session restored her…” Apparently, Methodists were literally despised at the time! However, almost 100 years later, in 1912, the Presbyterian church hosted services by the Anti-Saloon League and in 1918, joined with the baptists and methodists in a union service! (How

March 24, 2016, BEACON NEWSPAPER • 5 sweet it is that nowadays, interfaith services are actually a fairly common occurrence in our locale!)

The church building itself was much later turned into tenements utilized by the locals, until it was purchased by Martin Willets, serving as his dwelling. He later sold it to DSS Sammis, who lived there with his family until 1951, when the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon again repurchased the building for religious instruction for $40,000. (The Sammis family apparently also owned the Conklin House too, until they deeded it to the Red Cross in 1945.)

The name Sammis was well known in the Babylon community as David SS Sammis was also the owner of the luxurious Surf Hotel on Fire Island. This palatial hotel, completed in 1856, accommodated up to 100 wealthy, notable guests and was located just east of the lighthouse. “Sammis mapped the journey of his clientele from New York City to his lavish hotel. Train trolleys and a ferry would assure him of patrons (so being a man of means he was able to accommodate his guests with access via trolley and ferry). The three-story edifice had walks extending to outlying cottages, all illuminated with gaslight. (Babylon Village was apparently one of the first Long Island communities to be illuminated with gas lights!) His yacht, ‘Bonita,’ served as a ferry for his guests for many years.” (Curious note: “In 1892 the government designated Fire Island as a receiving station for European ships carrying diseased immigrants. A rebellion by townsmen sought to destroy the ships until a militia was sent to guard the waterfront.”)

Most of the information in this article has been gleaned from materials shared by the Babylon Village Historical Museum; History of the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon, L.I by James W. Eaton; By the Waters of Babylon, A History of the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon, Long Island, 1730-1980, by Marilyn Schou; and, especially, many thanks for the very generous interview and walk-through with church trustee Judy Skillen. Stanis Beck, Director, Babylon Village Heritage Conservancy, stanisbeck@optonline.net P.S. If you are an owner of an Argyle Cottage in Argyle Park, please email stanisbeck@optonline.net or write to Stanis Beck at 534 Deer Park Avenue.

Return to top

Suffolk County Shelter Locator and Storm Surge Zone Mapping Tool
The Shelter Locator and Storm Surge Zone Mapping Tool