The history of Schoharie United Presbyterian Church covers a lot of ground, and could easily fill a book. We present here a brief summary:During Queen Anne’s reign, refugees from the Palatine region of Germany fled to England after their homeland had been ravaged by numerous wars. They were relocated to the Hudson Valley, and many of them settled in the Schoharie Valley in 1712. The name “Schoharie” is a distortion of the name the Schoharie Mohawks had for the valley, which meant “place of driftwood or floodwood.” The village of Schoharie, one of seven “dorfs,” or settlements, in the valley, was originally called “Brunnendorf,” which meant “Fountain Town” (because of the springs that supplied abundant water to the settlement.)"Soon after the Germans located at Schoharie, they formed a church, and had preaching…” (Jeptha Simms, History of Schoharie County and Border Wars, 1845, p. 610). The first two preachers were itinerants, one Dutch Reformed, and one Lutheran; they served until 1717. Several other ministers served Schoharie, but one, Johann Bernard Von Duhren, or Van Dieren (1722-28), proved to be a fraud. It appears that there was friction between the German Lutherans and the Dutch Reformed, and by 1742 there were two congregations in Schoharie: Lutheran and Dutch Reformed. In 1742, Rev. Peter Nicklas Sommer arrived from Hamburg to serve the Lutheran Church, having received a call to come to serve the Palatine Lutherans in Schoharie.Dominie Sommers married Maria Kayser of Stone Arabia, and besides preaching in Schoharie, he served as pastor to congregations in Stone Arabia, Little Falls, Geisenberg (Hallsville, near Fort Plain), Rhinebeck, Claverack, East Camp and West Camp, in the Helderbergs, Dorlach (Sharon), and Cobleskill. These locations are in what are now Columbia, Dutchess, Albany, Green, Ulster, Herkimer, Schoharie, and Fulton Counties—a very large area! Many of these places were visited only two or three times a year, when he would perform baptisms, marriages, and funerals. He retired at age 80, and died in 1795, aged 86.According to the New York State historical marker in front of the church, “the first school” was on this site, and the date on the sign is 1740. No further information could be found relating to this school. It is likely that the building was burned when the British attacked the valley during the American Revolution. The old stone church (not to be confused with the “Old Stone Fort,” which was built as a Dutch Reformed Church) and the old parsonage survived, probably because they were not seen by the raiders, or because Sir John Johnson, the commander of the raiding force, had given orders that church buildings should not be burned. The earliest church services were probably held in a “plain wooden structure,” perhaps a barn, as early as 1734. In 1743, the Lutherans erected a parsonage, which also served as a place for congregational worship. (This building still stands, and is believed to be the oldest building in Schoharie County.) The “Old Stone Church” was built nearby, in 1750-51. It fell into disrepair, and was torn down in 1795, when the present edifice was built. Foundation stones from the Old Stone Church, inscribed with names of members and supporters of the church, were used in the foundation of the red brick church. (Another possible explanation for the inscription of names in the Old Stone Church’s foundation stones is that they are the names of people buried nearby in the cemetery.)Incorporated into the twenty-inch-thick outer walls of the church building is a heavy timber framework, the members of which extend around the building both below and above the window openings. (These became visible when the lath and plaster were removed following the 2011 flood.) No vertical timbers were used. This framework helps to tie the walls together and give them resiliency. The roof is supported by the original heavy wooden trusses hewn from selected oak timbers and mortised together using methods used in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These trusses were not properly designed to carry the heavy slate roof, and the roof structure had to be reconstructed around 1959.The total original cost of the building was $5,450.77, besides donated materials and labor. The original church spire was assembled in the tower room and raised vertically to the top of the tower. The interior arrangement of the sanctuary has been reoriented and changed several times.The present brick church building is one of the oldest church buildings in Schoharie County that is, and has continuously been, used as a house of worship, and the manse has served as the minister’s residence since it (the manse) was built in 1801.George Benson, a member of SUPC, created a replica of the original rooster weathervane. The original weathercock, which is now on display at the Old Stone Fort museum, topped the Old Stone Church, and dates from about 1750. The replica is displayed on the wall near the back entrance of the present sanctuary. According to Eric Sloane, who wrote Our Vanishing Landscape, “The story has it that Pope Nicholas I in the middle of the ninth century ordained that a figure of a cock should surmount the top of every church throughout Christendom to remind the people how Jesus said Peter would deny Him at cockcrow. The Nativity and the Resurrection occurred near cockcrow, and an ancient superstition predicted that when the cock ceased to crow, the Day of Judgment will be at hand. From these religious symbols, our weathercock evolved, devised to turn with the wind.” (p. 96)Jeptha Simms, in his History of Schoharie County and Border Wars (1845), wrote of “…old Doctor Moulter … a believer in witchcraft. He is said to … have encountered seven [witches] at once, at a small brook, near the corner of the roads in the north part of Schoharie village, and retreated until he placed his back against the brick church, when he overpowered them. It is not unlikely he met a Mary Magdalene, as they still lurk at times about the same corners.” (p. 164)At various times, the present church had galleries on all four sides, and the pulpit was situated east, south, and now north. The entrances were also in different places, and the pews were once square, with seats on four sides facing each other. The rounded pews (which were destroyed in the 2011 flood) were installed in 1896, as were the stained glass windows. In 1843, church records show that “People on the hill were requested to take the gallery back of the pulpit,” as they were “a community of ignorant and degraded beings living about the mountains.”The present manse was built around 1801, and the sexton and cemetery caretaker used the old parsonage as a dwelling. The Presbyterian congregation voted to convey the ownership of the old parsonage to the Village of Schoharie in 1961, with the understanding that the Schoharie Colonial Heritage Association would restore it. It was restored to its original 1743 appearance, and it is open to the public as a living museum during the warmer months. In addition, the church owns St. Paul’s Cemetery, which is still an active cemetery.In 1918, “… to aid in winning the war…” (World War I), the three Protestant churches in Schoharie village (Lutheran, Methodist, and Reformed) formed a temporary federation in which each congregation would retain its identity, but the services of a pastor would be shared. This federation, as planned, just lasted for the duration of the war. (From an article in the Schoharie Republican [newspaper], July 25, 1918.)In 1920, the Lutheran and Methodist churches joined, forming the Community Church of Schoharie, Inc. Worship services were held in the Lutheran edifice, and the Methodist Church building was used for Sunday School and as a church hall. The Methodist building stood across from Prospect Street, and was razed in 1964, when the present Christian Education Building was built. The Meneely bell from the old Methodist church was placed between the present sanctuary and the education building.In 1960, the congregation voted to affiliate with the Presbyterian denomination. There was some sentiment that becoming Methodist or Lutheran would cause division in the congregation, and the moderator for the denominational choice meetings was Presbyterian. In addition, curriculum from the Presbyterian denomination had been in use in the Sunday School, and the congregation apparently found it sound and effective.A Jordine organ replaced the original organ in 1881. The Jordine organ was electrified, and new pipes were added in 1956. The organ was restored 1996-1999, and the console is currently being refurbished.
Schoharie United Presbyterian Church has served and continues to serve the community in many ways. It has allowed the use of its buildings to community organizations, including overflow classrooms from Schoharie Central School, Head Start, and Youth as Leaders. In addition, it has housed and organized the local food pantry, which was back up and running only a few weeks after Hurricane Irene. “Helping Hands” concerts, which benefited various organizations in the county, were held in the sanctuary for a number of years, several years ago. The church’s mission fund has contributed to many causes, both local and worldwide, and several church groups have participated in mission trips. In partnership with the Schoharie Reformed Church, the Middleburgh Reformed Church, and Camp Fowler, a very successful community day camp program has served over one hundred county children and youth each summer.
The community and the church are not strangers to calamity. The first few years of the Palatine settlement here were times of severe hardship, when the charity of the Schoharie natives enabled the settlers to survive. During the American Revolution, the valley was raided by the Tory-Indian alliance; most buildings and crops were burned, and livestock were driven off or killed. The valley has flooded a number of times, though the 2011 event was the most catastrophic in recorded history. There was a major flood in 1955, as well as in 1996. A fire occurred in the sanctuary in 1978, which required renovations and redecorating, and in 1989, a tornado passed through the area, causing a great deal of property damage (though not to the church properties.)
The 2011 flood, caused by heavy rains from Hurricane Irene, brought over five feet of muddy water coursing through all three church buildings. Many buildings in the community suffered the same kind of damage that the church buildings sustained. Mud and debris needed to be removed, floors and walls had to be torn out, and furnaces and electrical systems needed to be replaced. The efforts of many, many volunteers from the community and elsewhere have helped immeasurably in the recovery of the village and nearby locations that were similarly affected. At the time of this writing, the recovery efforts have reached a point where the light at the end of the tunnel can be clearly seen, yet there is still much to be done to restore the church and the Schoharie Valley, but with great hope and community spirit this work will be done.