The Spring Street Presbyterian Church was opened in the spring of 1811 on the corner of Spring and Varick Streets in New York City. The church was in operation from 1811 until it closed in 1963, and the church building was demolished in 1966.
The Spring Street Presbyterian Church had active burial vaults between 1820 and 1846, according to church records and coffin plates. During the time of the burial vaults, the church was a radical abolitionist congregation participating in the Second Great Awakening. It was first built in a fruit orchard but quickly incorporated into the working class neighborhood of the 8th ward. New York City was a rapidly growing and industrializing space in this time period, and the area surrounding the church was a mix of middle and working class homes as well as shops, a firehouse, several blocks of prostitution, a market, and a tannery and glue factory.
Spring Street Presbyterian Church was most notable for its involvement in abolitionist activities during the early 19th century. Abolitionist pastors Samuel H. Cox and Henry G. Ludlow served at the church during the 1820s and 1830s, and in 1822 the church opened one of the first multiracial Sunday schools in New York City. The Reverend Samuel Hansen Cox was an abolitionist with ties to major figures in the day, including William Lloyd Garrison, and his effigy was once burned in protest by slave owners in Charleston, South Carolina. The Reverend Henry G. Ludlow, who took over after Cox left Spring Street in 1825, is perhaps best remembered for his work ministering to the Amistad Africans during their trial and for his work with the underground railroad.
The politics of the church mean that it is remembered occasionally in historic records, especially during the summer of 1834, when the city erupted in race riots surrounding abolitionist activities. The church was targeted in part due to rumors that Rev. Ludlow was performing interracial marriages, a claim he would later deny in newspaper publications. About the attack on the church, this was written:
“…the mob proceeded to Spring street [sic] and attacked Rev. Mr. Ludlow’s church, the doors and windows of which they began to batter in….They then recommenced the work of destruction, broke in the doors, shattered the windows to atoms, and entered the Church. In a short time they broke up the interior of it, destroying whatever they could.”
– from Journal of Commerce, July 12, 1834, New York City
The church was rebuilt on the site after the race riots, and reopened in 1836.
By 1820 two burial vaults were in-use at Spring Street Presbyterian Church, and another two were added in 1831. These burial vaults housed the remains of approximately 200 individuals. The vaults were permanently closed in 1843, and fell out of memory until December 2006, when construction work at the site uncovered the remains of the vaults.
New York City during the early half of the 19th century was experiencing rapid growth and urbanization. Industrialization, a growing world economy, and New York’s rise as the primary shipping port in the United States contributed to this period of change and growth. The Spring Street Archaeology Project is studying the remains uncovered at the Spring Street Presbyterian Church burial vault site to understand how the church congregation experienced this period in American history and what their lives were like.