History

After the removal of Dr. Upfold, a petition signed by eighty-five pewholders and members of the parish was handed to the vestry on October 4, 1831. This petition requested that the vestry extend a call to the Rev. Francis Lister Hawks, then rector of St. Stephen’s Church at the corner of Broome and Chrystie Streets, one mile distant from Saint Thomas. The vestry assented and Dr. Hawks was called. Dr. Hawks declined the invitation, and Dr. Jonathan M. Wainwright, the rector of Grace Church, undertook the care of the parish for the time being. With the full approval of Bishop Benjamin Onderdonk, the call was renewed, and a special committee went to see Dr. Hawks. He thereupon reconsidered, accepted the election, and entered upon his new duties on December 17. Many of the people from St. Stephen’s followed him, and a new era began for Saint Thomas.

Third Rector, 1831-1843

The new rector, at the age of thirty-three, was in many respects the ablest priest then resident in the city of New York. He was a man of astonishing versatility. A southerner by birth, he had first been a successful lawyer and had been elected to the legislature of his native state of North Carolina. Taking charge of vacant parish as a lay leader, he had eventually determined to study for ordination under the direction of Bishop John Stark Ravenscroft of North Carolina, a militant Hobartian High Churchman who had himself entered the ministry after a considerable secular career. Dr. Hawks’ rise in the ministry was rapid. He was ordained deacon in 1827 and seventeen months later was elected assistant minister of Trinity Parish in New Haven, Connecticut. There he was ordained priest and earned a great reputation by his ability as a preacher. Then, in rapid succession, he became assistant to the venerable Bishop White at St. James’ Church in Philadelphia, Professor of Divinity at Washington (now Trinity) College in Hartford, Connecticut, and rector of St. Stephen’s Church in New York. Here his eloquent preaching attracted a large congregation, and people from all over the city flocked to his Bible classes and expository lectures. The initial call from Saint Thomas came after he had served only nine months as rector of the neighboring church.

Hawks assumed the rectorship at a critical moment for the parish. As the vestry said to him in later years, “You found our church far from prosperous; few of our pews were sold, many of them not rented.” The annual income of the parish was $6,110.29 and the debt on the church was $23,905.29.

With the arrival of Dr. Hawks, things changed for the better with amazing speed. Every pew was quickly sold or rented. So great were the crowds that within one month steps were taken to erect a gallery. At the next visitation of the bishop, sixty-three persons were presented for Confirmation. The attendance at the rector’s Bible Class averaged one hundred.

That shrewd observer, Bishop Thomas March Clark of Rhode Island, who heard Hawks in his prime, gives this graphic picture:

To hear him preach was like listening to the harmonies of a grand organ with its various stops and solemn sub-bass and tremulous pathetic reeds. The rector of one of the Washington churches, where Daniel Webster was an attendant, told me that after Dr. Hawks had preached for him on a Sunday morning, Mr. Webster said that it was the greatest sermon he had ever heard.

It is said that great orators are such by virtue of three gifts: a magnificent voice, a gift for the choice of words, and a magnetism that captivates the audience. Dr. Hawks seems to have had all three, but he was also more than an orator. He was one of the first to realize what the Episcopal Church as a whole has been slow to appreciate: the vital importance of Christian education. In his first parochial report, that for 1832, he noted that while the parish numbered only 180 communicants, there were 644 children in the Sunday School, 69 in the charity school, and 104 in the Bible class. The next year showed a gain of 41 communicants, and a Sunday School of 802—50 pupils of African descent—and a charity school of 170.

Soon the vestry was proudly describing its Sunday School as “one of the largest and best arranged Sunday Schools ever collected in a church in this city.” By 1833, the church could no longer provide facilities for the children who flocked to it, and it was necessary to hold its sessions in the public school on Wooster Street. At the peak of its prosperity, there were 1,400 children in the school, with 80 teachers. Teachers were required to visit each child at home at least once a month and to attend teacher’s meetings every two weeks. When the Sunday morning class ended at 10:15, the entire school marched into church singing a metrical psalm, and the students remained there for the service. On Saturday afternoons the rector publicly catechized the students.

Dr. Hawks was not only a brilliantly successful rector of Saint Thomas; he was also one of the outstanding priests of the entire Episcopal Church. In 1832, he was assistant secretary to the House of Deputies of the General Convention, and from 1833 to 1835 he also served as part-time Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Pulpit Eloquence in the General Theological Seminary. He was one of the first persons to sense the importance of the study of history of the Episcopal Church in the United States and made important contributions to it, such as the Documentary History of the Protestant Episcopal Church which he began to edit (1863-64). He was appointed by the Episcopal Church as “Conservator of all the books, pamphlets and manuscripts of this Church,” and took a year’s leave of absence from Saint Thoas to go to London, where he was able to copy a great number of important historical documents from the records of Lambeth and Fulham palaces and from the mission archives of the Society for the Propogation of the Gospel. Eventually, Dr. Hawks was named the second Historiographer of the Protestant Episcopal Church, succeeding Samuel Farmer Jarvis and preceding his associate, Williams Stevens Perry.

His interest in history and its publication led him into further enterprise. In 1837, in conjunction with the Rev. Caleb S. Henry, he founded the New York Review, intended as a counter-weight to the Unitarian-dominated North American Review. Ahead of its time, it continued for a few years to be among the best of the serious magazines published in this country. Later Hawks was instrumental in the establishment of The Church Record (1843), a weekly paper dedicated to Christian education, and The Church Journal (1853), a periodical of Anglo-Catholic perspective.

That Dr. Hawks’ manifold activities did not involve any neglect of the parish is shown by its steady progress. By 1833, the work had grown to such an extent that services of an assistant minister were necessary, and during the remainder of Dr. Hawks’ rectorship there was always an assistant. In 1841 the parish reported a communicant list of 452, a dramatic growth from its humble beginning, and representing in reality a congregation of at least 1,500 souls.

The Oxford Movement

The latter part of Dr. Hawks’ rectorship was a stirring time in the history of the New York diocese and of the Episcopal Church as a whole. We have seen that when the parish was born, the Hobartian school of High Churchmen was dominant in the diocese. Hobart’s views were obviously influential at Saint Thomas, even though during the 1830s there seems to have been a small and militantly Evangelical group called the “Association for Promoting Christianity” that gathered under the influence of John Duer, a vestryman, and Evert Duyckinck, one of the group’s leading spirits. Hobart’s successor as a diocesan was Benjamin T. Onderdonk, a man lacking his brilliance, but nonetheless a sound and diligent bishop who held fast to his predecessor’s principles. In 1839, during Onderdonk’s episcopate, an invigorating but also unsettling influence began to be felt, as the first American edition of Tracts for the Times was established. The Tracts, which originated in England and the circle at Oxford that included John Henry Newman, John Keble, and Edward Bouverie Pusey, at once became the center of a storm. They were avidly read, especially by the younger clergy, who found in them a warmth and vigor at times lacking in the teachings of the Hobartians.

The result was a division within the High Church party. And so, from about 1840, we find in New York two schools of High Churchmen: the one, Hobartian, old and well-established, perhaps a little stodgy; the other, young and militant, sometimes casting longing eyes toward Rome and Roman ways. Dr. Hawks and Saint Thomas were of the former persuasion, and Hawks entered the controversy with a pamphlet directed against the controversial confessional practices of Bishop Levi S. Ives of North Carolina, a Tractarian partisan and, ironically, the son-in-law of the deceased Hobart. Ives would subsequently convert to Roman Catholicism, confirming the fears of many that the Oxford Movement sought to “Romanize” the Episcopal Church.

As you will read in later sections of this history, the Oxford Movement impacted developments at Saint Thomas for decades following, especially when the parish moved uptown to Fifth and Fifty-third, where two successive buildings were built explicity for liturgical worship.

Saint Thomas Hall

Meanwhile, Dr. Hawks, always vitally interested in education but also busy with many varied interests, tried his hand at a new venture in 1839. That year he established at Flushing, Long Island, a boys’ school which was named Saint Thomas’ Hall. Into this, as usual, he threw all his energy. Leaving the care of the parish largely in the hands of his capable assistant, the Rev. Isaac Pardee, he erected a school building and a chapel at the cost of $60,000.

Saint Thomas Hall was likely, in some sense, a competitor to St. Paul’s College, Dr. William Augustus Muhlenberg’s famous school, which was also located in Flushing. The prospectus of Saint Thomas’ Hall sets forth clearly the principles it was established to promote. It was first of all a school centered in religion. “No system of Education,” declared Dr. Hawks, its founder, “can be right which does not, from its commencement to its close, include education for eternity, as well as for time.” It was his conviction that a boy’s character is formed before he is fifteen, and that mere academic instruction is a relatively small part of true education. The prospectus clearly stated that “on the subject of religion it is due to candour distinctly to state that, as the proprietor is himself, on principle, a Protestant Episocopalian, the services of his chapel and the religious training of those under his direction will be in conformity with the doctrines and worship of the church to which it belongs.”

The chapel was then central in the life of the school. Its chancel boasted, according to one critical description, “a massive altar in the center—on one side a music stand or lectern, on the other a Gothic bronze candlestick with seven branches…There was a choir and a splendid organ, and a gallery at the back; the little boys, the choristers, went into the vesting room, each took down his white surplice from a peg, and ten or twelve or fifteen entered into the choir and chanted the services of the Church.

In the 1840s this was “ritualism.” The emphasis was certainly upon the primacy of worship, an emphasis clearly characteristic of Saint Thomas parish itself.

Catastrophe followed. Within three years, the school had failed, and charges of financial mismanagement were rampant. As a result, Dr. Hawks felt that his usefulness as a rector of Saint Thomas had been so impaired that the good of the parish demanded his withdrawal.

Resignation

Accordingly, on October 21, 1843 he addressed to the vestry a letter of resignation. “I had expected to lay my bones beneath the chancel of St. Thomas,” the letter read, “but according to my best views of duty after much deliberation and prayer, God seems to me to order otherwise.”

The resignation came to the parish like a thunderclap, and immediately a committee of the vestry was appointed to approach the rector to change his mind. Several interviews ensued, but Dr. Hawks persisted in his resolve. At length, the vestry reluctantly accepted his resignation. In a testimonial the vestry summed up the achievements of his rectorate in these words:

During a connection with St Thomas Church for more than twelve years, we have marked with the most sincere gratification the rapid increase of the Congregation under the very able and sound exposition you have ever given of the doctrine and teachings of our Lord and Master…You had scarcely commenced your pastorial [sic] care of us before we felt most sensibly its beneficial results…Though we part with you with reluctance, we do so with the firm conviction that our separation is for the general good of the Church, that the Almighty has called you to make known His will, to plant His Gospel and administer His sacraments in a distant land and Vineyard…

And so, a golden age came to an end. It had been a golden age made so by the preaching of a golden-mouthed rector, for Dr. Hawks had come to be known as “the Chrysostom of the American Church.”