History of Stone Presbyterian Church

by Midge Bakos, Church Historian, 2019 

New Beginnings 1787-1791 

On Sunday, April 8th, 1787 just a month after the original settlement of Clinton eight men met for a simple worship service in Moses Foote’s unfinished “home.” These men had doubtlessly heard more artistic singing and a better sermon than a printed one but no one could dispute their sincerity. Worship was a basic and guiding influence in their lives-they were resolute to maintain the worship of God.

Established as a Congregational Church August 29, 1791 

With continued growth, Rev. Dr. Jonathan Edwards, The Younger, was summoned from New Haven, Connecticut to establish three new churches– the first in New Hartford and two days later the second at Paris. That same day in Clinton at Moses Foote’s home thirty charter members signed the Congregational Confession of Faith.

Early Years 1791-1835 

At Dr. Edward’s suggestion, Dr. Asahel Norton, a well-educated Yale graduate arrived for a six-month probationary period. After receiving the call as pastor, his ordination took place in the open air “on the green” in 1793.

He served as a devoted and faithful servant for forty years adding 753 members. A modest man and strong in his Calvinistic views, only his Thanksgiving sermon of 1820 was ever published. He played a contributing role in promoting educational interests by serving as trustee of Hamilton College established in 1812.

The log cabin used for worship was taken down in 1796 to make way for a much larger New England style clapboard structure erected on the southerly end of the green. It was completed five years later in1801 and built entirely by the worshipers-capacity 500. For many years the “Old White Meeting House” wasn’t heated at all “warmed in winter by nothing save the fire and devotion and the small foot stoves allowed to some of the tender sex” according to A.D. Gridley’s book “The History of Kirkland.” A controversy arose over having a large box stove for heat but eventually the stove won out.

With increased membership and due to the deterioration of the building the meetinghouse was sold for $175 in 1834. The bell, gilt ball, lighting rod, weathercock, and star were set aside for the new building to be erected of stone.

“Old Stone Church” 1835-1876 
A colonial style Stone Church was built in 1834-1835 further south on what is now South Park Row using local limestone — cost $8000. The second floor was used for the Sabbath School and a wooden chapel was added in later years. George Bristol, through subscriptions, purchased a pipe organ for $1500.

Missionary interest and giving became very strong. The church began supporting pioneer missionaries Martha Smith in the Sandwich Islands and Amelia Bradley in Siam.

In 1842 during Rev. Wayne Gridley’s five-year tenure the issue of slavery nearly split open the fellowship but the congregation dealt with it in a responsible Christian manner declaring slavery a political, social and moral evil. The three resolutions drawn up were published in the New York Observer and New York Evangelist periodicals.

The Rev. Robert Vermilye, our fourth pastor, was the first pastor to live in the newly erected manse completed in 1851 located on College Street. The entire cost was $2,654.22. Over the years fifteen pastors have resided there and it is presently rented to a private family.

In 1864 the church became Presbyterian 

The church severed its relations with the Oneida Association of Congregational Churches. Because of the distance to travel and because business at the Association could not be transacted for a lack of a quorum more often than not, the church decided to unite with the Utica Presbytery.

Six years after the arrival of our pastor Dr. Hudson, came the fateful fire of 1876. The historic structure, the wooden chapel and adjoining block were in ruins. Total losses were about $47,000. Linked to the community by sacred and pleasant memories, the people were disheartened at the destruction of their church.

A week later at a congregational meeting a motion was carried unanimously “to rebuild at once”. The Baptist church graciously offered the use of their facilities during the construction. A vote to accept the offer passed-it being the first recorded time the women were allowed to vote.

New Stone Church-1878-present 

In addition to some reclaimed stone from the old Stone Church, twenty-five hundred tons of blue limestone and fifteen hundred tons of cut stone went into the combined Gothic and Romanesque architectural style church. The entire woodwork of the interior is made of chestnut. A Hooks and Hastings prize winning organ graced the balcony. Charles Booth of New York constructed the stained glass windows.

Fourteen hundred people including choir, guest clergy, and faculty of Hamilton College attended the dedication of our debt free church February 14, 1878-quite a community affair! Dr. Thomas Hudson, our pastor of twenty-two years, led the congregation through this transitional period from the old and into the new church. He resigned to become treasurer of Hamilton College but he continued to be a Christian influence at Stone Church.

The beautiful and symmetrical 160 ft. spire towered over the Oriskany Valley for 46 years-quite a sight to behold. However, even after expensive repairs were made twenty-five years earlier, the deterioration continued making the tower unsafe. The beloved landmark had to be removed in 1923 and redesigned in 1924– total cost $19,600. Egbert Bagg, an architect of Utica, N.Y., created the clock chamber and tower as you see it today.

Our bell was the ” pioneer bell ” of Central New York and placed in the Old White Meeting-house in 1804 weighing 800 lbs. It also hung in the Old Stone Church until the 1876 fire when it partly melted, fell and broke into pieces. Remnants were preserved and forged with new metal to make a new sounding bell. Since 1880, the new bell now weighing 2000 lbs. peals out an E-flat tone. This bell had called people to worship, rung on holidays, college commencements, weddings, and funerals. Even the fire department used the bell as a fire alarm since the church was erected. After several broken door locks to get to the bell or the defiling of the church by prowlers if the door was left unlocked, the session declared its displeasure by passing a resolution forbidding the bell being used for anything other than religious purposes in 1911. During the repair of the clock tower in 2009 and due to a serious crack in the bell, it was repositioned so that the bell could be run only by a rope from the narthex and in such a way as to not cause further damage to the tower. The bell no longer rings the time.

Also in 1880, a Seth Thomas eight-day clock run by weights and manually wound, that operates on the same principle as a grandfather clock, was installed as “the Town Clock”. A grandfather clock pales in size in comparison. Residents of the town raised $500 for its purchase. It was “donated” to the church and some years later the village “adopted it”. Once a week a village employee climbs the 26 stair narrow circular stairway to maintain the “Old Town Clock”. The clock had been losing time for some years but because it was cared for and readjusted weekly the by Village Caretakers, most people didn’t notice. Repairs around the clock face were sorely needed and on October 20, 2009 the clock ceased its operation and was retired to the Historical Society after 130 years of service. On December 9th, thanks to the community and the village, a new Verdin electronic clock and a Carillon were installed. The Carillon chimes the hour-every quarter during the day.

Hamilton College and Stone Church Interwoven in Faith and Education 

Samuel Kirkland, a missionary to the Oneida Indians was the founder of the Hamilton-Oneida Academy predecessor to Hamilton College. Dr. Norton became a trustee and inaugurated Hamilton’s first president Azel Backus.

Until recent years, Hamilton College presidents were ordained ministers and held its graduations at the church, the last being in l897 when the college chapel was renovated.

Men and women of the second generation were active and scholarly-taking pride in serving the community. By 1850, Clinton had at least twenty ministers, Hamilton alumni, were drawn to this community to teach at Houghton and Cottage Seminaries, the Dwight School, Kellogg Seminary and Royce Seminary.

Many of the faculty and students at Hamilton were active in the church. Greek Professor North was an elder for thirty-eight years and Biology Professor Merrill taught a popular Bible Class. Graduates Rev. Wayne Gridley,

Rev. Albert Erdman, and the Rev. Dr. Thomas Hudson served as Stone Church pastors.

Mission-Faithful from 1836 

Mission giving and support of over fifteen foreign missionaries continued into the twentieth century significantly. In the twentieth century, Alice Ellinwood taught in Siam twenty-nine years and two generations of the Underwood family served in Chungju and Seoul Korea.

Locally we were part of an ecumenical ministry to migrant workers in the mid 1900’s. For twenty years members have supported needy Christmas families of the Neighborhood Center of Utica and serving the needs of the Kirkland Country Pantry. More recently volunteers serve at the Utica Hope House– an ecumenical mission. For over fifty years the church as sponsored Boy Scout Troop 9.

Not only do we support Church World Service and Presbyterian missions worldwide, we now through the Fair Trade mission sales benefit the most needy globally. We also support “Soup at Schools” in South Africa.

Music – a traditional and meaningful ministry 

Vital to the church was the ministry of music. Our earliest beginnings began with Thomas Hastings in the “Old White Meeting House” With no organ and only a flute and a base viol as aids, teenager Thomas Hastings led the choir (approx. 1814-1819). Striving to improve church music, he moved on from Clinton becoming a noted author, lecturer, and hymn and anthem composer in pursuit of that goal. Later in his career he received an honorary degree in music from NYU for his contributions.

Later in the mid 1800’s George Bristol, an excellent tenor attracted people to hear him sing as well as the minister’s sermon. Organists Ann Sykes and Florence Jones, to name a few of several fine musicians, continued the fine quality of music for nearly two centuries. Since 1991 the Kolb family has carried on this meaningful ministry.

Roots in history-hope for the future 

Twenty ministers have served Stone Church for over 220 years of Christian witness and service.

Following the retirement of the Rev. Dennis Dewey at the end of June 2015, Scott Leonard succeeded him having been commissioned as a lay pastor on December 14, 2014 after three years of study with the Presbytery of Utica Lay Academy.

Scott has been passionate about continuing Rev. Dewey’s biblical story-telling ministry in the scripture readings during our worship services for a better understanding of the biblical text. Scott has balanced serving our church while holding down a full time job—and continues managing that balance. He is using substitute local pastors, and lay leaders one Sunday a month to help keep our own church and community activities up and running smoothly.

Our church actively participates in ecumenical activities such as the Clinton Area Ministerium Lenten study series, Good Friday, Easter Sunrise service, Labor Day Weekend service “On the Green”, the Blessing of the Animals, and the annual Community Collection day in April for the local Country Pantry serving families in need. Music and mission remain faithful traditional and meaningful ministries. Music is well coordinated with Pastor Scott and our musicians Rob and Lauralyn Kolb. Mission not only includes continued monetary giving toward Church World Service and Presbyterian goals but includes actual volunteer work within the local community and the greater community.

The church adopts families for Christmas gifts through The Neighborhood Center, supports Hope House in Utica serving the hungry by sending a team of volunteers the fourth Monday of the month to serve meals and donate supplies, supports the local Country Pantry with specific needed goods and money, and supports donating and packing meals for Your Neighbors. Stone Church participates with the community being led by the Clinton Methodist Church in the Rise Against Hunger international program both monetarily and with packaging meals annually.

Our all-volunteer successful Fair Trade Shop led by Lauralyn Kolb sells products from 38 different countries to provide hope and development for marginalized people across the world.

The resolve of those early settlers that our relationship with God is a basic and guiding influence of our Christian commitment continues as our vision for the future. Our current mission statement reads: “The purpose of Stone Church is to be an inviting, spiritual community of Christ, engaging in worship that inspires and challenges us to learn and grow as we reach out in caring and service, trusting in the love of God.”