What the Past Has to Teach Us

Deut. 7:7-9 | South Presbyterian Church – September 29, 2013

The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift


          From the time we were born, we have taken in pieces of knowledge. One piece at a time … sometimes flooding us with the rapidity of their arrivals, but each piece builds on the one before it. Each step we take in life gets us one step beyond where we just were.

          As human beings, we learn from our past.

          Where we have been informs where we are.

          What we think of someone or something is often related to our experiences with someone or something similar in our past.


          The people of Israel called upon their historical relationship with God in order to make sense of the new situations they found themselves in.

          Nothing is more important to them, even today, than restating their covenantal relationship with God; they harken back to earlier times. They remind themselves of their IDENTITY by telling and RE-telling their stories of wars and salvation … of the way God chose them and brought them out of Egypt. They tell of the Red Sea and Passing over of the Angel of Death. They are chosen by God and in retelling their stories, they remind themselves of their chosen-ness.

          Retelling their stories reaffirms that God has always BEEN there and God always WILL be there.

          Our past informs our present and shapes our future.


          As we are about to move forward into potentially a whole new part of our history as a faith community, I think it’s important for us to begin telling the stories of OUR past. … Not just the past of the last thirty or forty years, but the WHOLE history. And so I’m going to share some stories that are found in the Centennial History written in 1995.

          Zachary Taylor was President of the United States of America;

Rochester had been a city only fifteen years in 1849 when some young parents of West Brighton, a suburb of Rochester, felt the need for a Sunday School for their children. The village leaders finally granted them permission to hold such meetings at three o‘clock every Sunday afternoon in the one room, red brick school house on “the road that went from Rochester to West Henrietta,” the northwest corner of the present Mt. Hope Avenue and Crittenden Boulevard. This was close to the Crittenden Race Track in Crittenden Park.

Mr. Frederick Starr was a leader in this movement for a Sunday

School. What prompted such agitation? Couldn’t the children sit quietly at home? Were the teenagers sneaking into the inner city to join gangs? Were they “jumping boats” on the new Erie Canal? Maybe they were playing in the barns at the Crittenden Race Track or roaming to Oak Hill to hang around the Wolcott Distillery (where the University of Rochester football field is now located). There were so many temptations in those days!

Whatever the reasons for the desire for a Sunday School they are lost in history. Little is known of the development of the Sunday School between the years 1849 to 1859 when William B. Levet  took responsibility for the work.

Because there were no streetcars from Rochester to West Brighton, Mr. Levet had to walk all the way from his home in the city to the school on Sunday afternoons. It was largely through his efforts that the Sunday School became firmly grounded in the neighborhood.

His was a labor of love, much appreciated by the parents.



Think of that … 1849 … eleven years before the CIVIL WAR started, our forebearers saw the need in this community … a need that grew out of the CHILDREN … the Youth, actually … a need to establish their values for the NEXT generation.

It STARTED with Bible Class but then it went on to include evening preaching for EVERYONE.

Evening.  Preaching.  We didn’t have Sunday MORNING services for a long time.

Thirty-seven years … from 1849 to 1886 … Thirty-seven years … think of that.

The Sunday School and evening “Preaching Services” grew so much that it became necessary to make plans for some other place to meet… hopefully  [they thought] in a real church.

[It was ] In 1895, the group from the School House voted to incorporate into a legal organization, obtain land, and erect a church building. A “Certificate of Incorporation” was drawn up June 11, 1895 … [and] became legally known as “The West Brighton Chapel Society”.

People like David K. Bell, Harvey F. Remington, George Kinzel, Mrs. Emmeline Barker and Miss Katherine White are names we don’t even know about today. In the same way, we don’t know individual names of Hebrews who were instrumental in the survival of that nation, either.

The Constitution [of the West Brighton Chapel Society] adopted on June 11, 1895, [said that] “The object of the society shall be the propagation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to the means and usage in Evangelical Christian Churches.”

“The basis of the organization shall rest upon the teachings of Evangelical Christianity set forth in the doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Alliance of the United States of America.”


Like so many churches in the late 19th century, we were an EVANGELICAL church believing that we were sent into the world to preach the Word of salvation and to win souls for Jesus Christ.

They had a neat way of determining members. “Any person contributing money for the erection of the church building, or pledging a stated contribution of the support of this society and paying the same, shall be constituted a member of this society for one year from the date of the preceding annual meeting.”  [I guess membership was a year-to-year term.]

Following the adoption of the constitution, trustees were elected  [including] David K. Bell, Bion H. Howard, James Harmon, J. Franklin Crittenden [Crittenden Rd] and Harvey F. Remington.


It was one woman in particular, Mrs. Emmeline Bell Barker, who we need to lift up, I think. She was known for her indefatigable spirit. NOTHING could get this woman down. She is described as one who “prayed, labored and dispelled any pessimistic spirit that might have kept the people from striving for the reality of a church”. Her zeal in the early days continued through the years in the West Brighton Chapel.

After the constitution was adopted, the new church was started across from the school house on Mt. Hope Avenue on a lot given by Mrs.

Barker (where Record Archive used to stand). The lot, chapel and furniture cost about $3,000. And four years later by December 1899, only $350 remained to be paid. [Even then, our forefathers and mothers were thinking about stretching their money but they put their money where their faith was. How must they have sacrificed in order to move forward into a whole new area of defining who they would be as a church.]


          Almost twenty-five years later, during the winter of 1919-1920, the members of the West Brighton Chapel Society decided to formally associate their church with the Presbytery of Rochester. Our name was changed to the “West Brighton Presbyterian Church.”

          What do we have to learn from these first 75 years of our life as a church?

          What do YOU think?

  • Strength of their convictions
  • Put their money where their faith was
  • Meeting the needs of the neighborhood
  • Didn’t try to do what everybody else was doing with Sunday MORNING worship
  • Didn’t even HAVE a church at first


And so we look at where we are today … and y’know what? THEIR God is OUR God.

            God WAS then and IS NOW … the same God … the same source of Love that touches US touched THEM.

            I’m sure there were times when they wondered if they could make it.

            I wonder if ANY of them thought that we would still be here almost 165 years later. I mean really. That’s like 4 or 5 GENERATIONS … Imagine what WE are doing in these days being enough to insure the continuation of this church for another 4 or 5 generations … 165 years from now … in 2178.

            Holy cow!


            But as I said at the beginning: Each step we take in life gets us one step beyond where we just were. And each step is influenced by the one before it. And so have WE been influenced by those steps taken before we even CAME here.

          What we have to do is focus on one step at a time and remember that we are here because THEY stepped out in faith.

          We have a chance at new life because THEY grew and changed and confronted their fears with faith.

          How exciting it is to be called by God to be part of something SO DYNAMIC! … so ALIVE … so GROWING and ORGANIC!

          And as we move on today is ONE STEP … and tomorrow will be ANOTHER and then another, and another … and all of these steps are how we follow Jesus on the Way.


          Let’s pray:  God, we thank you for Frederick Starr and his view of a Sunday school, and for William B. Levit who walked out here in all kinds of weather because he heard your call.

          We thank you for the Reverend J. Ross Lynch and for all those who put their names and their fortunes on the line in order to incorporate our little faith community.

          Emmeline Bell Barker … a woman who, ahead of her time, was responsible for her own real estate … Lord Jesus, we thank you for her generosity and foresight.

          With these men and women as our guides, help us live into the same faith and confidence so that, by remembering our past, we may move boldly into our future.

          We pray this in the name of OUR Jesus who was also THEIR Jesus. Amen.


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