1776: Trinity Church and the American Revolution

Today, Trinity Wall Street is quintessentially American.

Presidents from George Washington to George Walker Bush have prayed at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel. Alexander Hamilton rests in Trinity’s south churchyard, steps from the American Stock Exchange. Pilgrims flock to St. Paul’s Chapel to pay homage to the heroes and victims of September 11.

But in the summer of 1776, as British and American forces fought for control of New York and citizens fled, the clergy of Trinity Church remained loyal to the British crown—and to their duty as parish priests. By autumn of that year, the church building, stripped of royal insignia and bells and burned to the ground, was another casualty of the Revolutionary War.

Propaganda Wars

The Reverend Charles Inglis, assistant minister under the ailing rector Samuel Auchmuty, supervised the parish in 1776. At the time, the parish consisted of Trinity Church, St. Paul’s Chapel and St. George’s Chapel, and a charity school.

Inglis, a British immigrant, took his post at Trinity in 1765 as the movement for American independence coalesced. He soon joined with three other Anglican clergymen to form the “Whig Compact,” to "watch and refute all publications disrespectful to the Government…tending to a breach."

Inglis, in his own words, was not one of those "passive obedience and no resistance men." He believed that the British Constitution of 1688 created a fair and wise system of government, and American grievances, while real, were best addressed through creation of an American constitution that preserved the union with Britain. He feared the violence and destruction a war would bring.

Inglis and other members of the Whig Compact were active in the Loyalist-vs.-Patriot propaganda wars leading up to the Revolution. Inglis’ first Loyalist writings, which appeared under the name "A New York Freeholder," were published in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury in the fall of 1774. They made little impact. Subsequent letters by other Whig Compact members attracted the attention of the 19-year-old Alexander Hamilton, a King’s College student and later a Trinity parishioner, whose Patriot reply was mocked by compact members for its poor grammar.

Most, but not all, of Trinity’s congregation were Loyalists. Parishioner James Duane and Vestryman John Jay were New York delegates to the First Continental Congress in the summer of 1774. Both initially favored maintaining union with Britain, as Inglis did, though both eventually supported independence. Their commitment to Trinity would prove crucial after the war, when they lead the effort to transform Trinity from a Loyalist bastion into an all-American congregation.

After the battles of Lexington and Concord in the spring of 1775, war became unavoidable. Loyalists were targets of angry mobs. Rumors of invasion circulated. New Yorkers who could afford to leave the city fled. Concerned about his family’s safety, Inglis moved them to the country in and quietly returned to Trinity Church. Throughout the war, Inglis remained committed to Trinity’s congregation. He tended to the sick, performed baptisms and officiated at funerals.

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense was published on January 9, 1776. Paine challenged anyone to show "a single advantage" that could be gained by maintaining union with Britain. Inglis took the challenge, and anonymously penned a response titled “The Deceiver Unmasked; or Loyalty & Interest United.” After an advertisement for the pamphlet was published, the Sons of Liberty broke into the publisher’s office and seized all copies, which they later burned. Inglis secretly made additional copies and had them smuggled to Philadelphia. The pamphlet was finally published under the title The True Interest of America Impartially Stated in certain Strictures On a Pamphlet intitled Common Sense. Modern historians regard it as some of the best Loyalist writing of the war.


Patriot forces arrived to occupy New York in early February 1776. The Rev. Samuel Auchmuty, Trinity’s rector, fled to New Jersey, leaving Inglis in charge. Loyalists were disarmed. After forcing the British evacuation of Boston on March 17, General George Washington moved the Continental Army to New York City and began fortifying it against British invasion. Private houses were seized, food and fuel grew scarce, and the mass exodus from the city continued. In a letter, Inglis described Patriot treatment of Anglican clergy:

"The Clergy amidst this Scene of Tumult and Disorder, went on steadily with their Duty; in their Sermons confining themselves to the Doctrines of the Gospel, without touching on politics: using their Influence to allay our Hearts and cherish a Spirit of Loyalty among their People. Their conduct, however harmless, gave great offence to our flaming Patriots who laid it down as a Maxim, "That those who were not for them, were against them"…The Clergy were everywhere threatened…sometimes treated with brutal violence."

There was at least one Patriot who did not condone rough treatment of Anglican clergy. On Sunday, April 13, a "Rebel General" left word at the Rectory that "General Washington would be at Church, and would be glad if the violent Prayers for the King and Royal Family were omitted." Inglis ignored the demand. Washington attended Trinity Church without incident. Inglis later noted, "On seeing [the Rebel General] not long afterward, I remonstrated against the Unreasonableness of his Request…This Declaration drew from him an awkward Apology for his Conduct, which I believe was not authorized by Washington." Inglis later loaned Washington the telescope from King’s College.

On April 17, Washington forbade contact with British warships stationed around New York, a directive Inglis would ignore.

Loyalty and Liturgy

Conducting services became increasingly difficult for Inglis. Patriots threatened clergy with violence if they continued to pray for the King and Royal Family, a mandatory part of the liturgy. Inglis ignored the threats at first. Then, according to Inglis, one Sunday in late spring 150 Patriot troops, armed with rifles and bayonets, marched into the church during services and threatened to shoot should Inglis pray for the King and Royal Family. Inglis prayed anyway, but no shots were fired. Inglis’ contemporaries suspected Inglis exaggerated the incident for his own glory. King George III, however, believed Inglis’ account, and sent him a bible and a prayer book with the royal monogram on the cover as a token of appreciation. The books are now exhibited in the Grand Lodge Archives of the Freemasons Hall in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Mobs and Conspiracies

Mob violence against Loyalists broke out in earnest on June 11. A contemporary account states, "Citizens of the City of New York Gethered together a number of them and went round among them which they Supposed to be tories, Striped a number of them and was at the Trouble of carrying them about the Streets, on a Rail…" Inglis was not attacked.

Around this time the provincial congress appointed a "Committee to Detect Conspiracies," which uncovered a plot to assassinate George Washington. Two dozen New Yorkers, including Loyalist Mayor David Mathews, were taken into custody. Vestryman John Jay was one of three Patriot officials to sign the warrant authorizing Mathews’ arrest. Inglis, convinced that Patriots had exaggerated the plot, visited Mathews in jail.

On June 29, the British army landed on Staten Island. Tensions were high. New York City, with a peacetime population of 25,000, now contained less than 5,000 citizens.


The Declaration of Independence was officially proclaimed in New York City on July 18. A newspaper described the scene on Wall Street, "…True Friends to the Rights and Liberties of this Country attended and signified their Approbation to it by loud Acclamations. After which the Coat of arms of his Majesty George III was tore to Pieces and burnt…" A statue of the King and all royal symbols in the city were then ripped down by the mob; word was sent ahead to churches, including Trinity, so they might remove the royal insignia and prevent injury to the church buildings. Inglis took the insignia down.

Closing the Churches

It was clear by mid-July that Inglis and the congregation could not continue praying openly for the King. The vestry voted unanimously to shut the church rather than, as Inglis wrote, "…by omitting the prayers for the king, give that mark of disaffection to their sovereign. To have prayed for him had been rash to the last degree—the inevitable consequence had been a demolition of the churches, and the destruction of all who frequented them…I shut up the churches. Even this was attended with great hazard; for it was declaring, the strongest manner, our disapprobation of independency, and that under the eye of Washington and his army." Inglis fled New York soon after, first joining his family upstate before moving to Flushing, Queens, to await the British Army.

Bells and Cannons

The Continental and British armies fought the Battle of Long Island on August 27. The Continental Army was defeated and fled to Manhattan. On September 5, the provincial council "requested and authorized" Washington to remove all bells, including Trinity’s, from New York City. British capture of the city seemed inevitable, and the council did not want, "the fortune of war…to throw the same into the hands of our enemy, and deprive this State…resource for supplying our want of cannon." On the same day, General Greene, a Patriot, wrote to George Washington advocating burning New York City and the suburbs, to prevent the British from using it. John Jay also advocated destroying the city.

The British Take New York

The British landed at Kip’s Bay in Manhattan on Sunday, September 15. They took possession of New York City immediately, though they continued to battle the Continental Army in New York State. Inglis returned the next morning and found the city, "…deserted and pillaged…my House plundered of every Thing …" Inglis quickly reopened Trinity Church and its chapels, and, in his words, "…Joy was lighted up in every Countenance on the Restoration of public Worship."


Inglis’ joy was short-lived. Between 12 am and 1 am on September 21, a fire broke out in buildings on Whitehall Street and burned through the night. Conditions were conductive to fire: the city was dry and a brisk southeasterly wind blew. Between 1000 and 1500 houses burned to the ground. A newspaper reported:

"The Fire…swept away all the Buildings between Broad Street and the North-River, almost as high as the City-Hall; and from thence, all the houses between Broadway and the North-River, as far as King’s College…Long before the main Fire reached Trinity Church, that large, ancient and venerable Edifice was in Flames, which baffled every Effort to suppress them. The Steeple, which was 140 feet high, the upper Part of Wood…resembled a vast Pyramid of Fire…Several Women and Children perished in the Fire, their Shrieks, joined to the roaring of the Flames, the Crash of falling Houses…formed a scene of Horror beyond Description. Besides Trinity Church, the Rector’s House, the Charity School…and many other fine Buildings were consumed. St. Paul’s Church and King’s College were directly in the Line of Fire, but saved with very great Difficultly."

Inglis, awakened by the fire alarm, organized the fire-fighting parties that poured water on the roof of St. Paul’s Chapel, an action he credited with saving the building. Inglis, like many in city, blamed the fire on a small number of Patriots, who, according to one account "remained in the City [after the Continental army left] concealed to execute this most diabolical Purpose." Reports claimed Patriots had been captured with matches and brimstone on their persons, and that several men were lynched during and after the fire. There is no conclusive evidence that Patriots were behind the fire, and several contemporary accounts blame on it on "men and women of bad character" living in tight quarters on Whitehall Street.

After the Fire

The fire caused £25,000 damage to Trinity property. 200 houses that stood on church ground burned. Trinity’s organ, which cost £850, was destroyed.

Inglis continued to hold services after the fire. He also began advising Ambrose Serle, secretary to the British General Howe, who had been given charge of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. Inglis created a petition against the martial law that had been imposed on New York City since the British capture, though it was rejected. Inglis’ wife, who had been living upstate with their children in a Patriot-controlled area, was required to sign an oath of secrecy swearing that she would not provide military information to the British before she and the children were permitted to return to New York City.

Inglis Becomes Rector

The ailing Reverend Auchmuty, Trinity’s rector, returned to New York City that winter to find his parish in ruins. He died on March 4, 1777, and Inglis was elected to succeed him. With the mandate of the British governor, senior warden Elias Desbrosses administered the requisite oaths in Trinity Churchyard, then, according to the legend, placed Inglis’ hand on the charred, ruined wall of Trinity Church to complete the rite.

New York City was occupied by the British until 1783. During that time, Inglis, writing under the name Papinian, published another series of articles in the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. Addressed to Henry Laurens and John Jay, then Presidents of the American Congress, Inglis condemned what he saw as Patriot violations of a specific rule of war. He also preached a sermon to the British Army titled The Christian Soldier’s Duty Briefly Delineated , in which he stressed protecting civilians and maintaining moral conduct.

Loyalist refugees crowded New York City during the war, and Inglis worked to relieve the suffering brought on by shortages of food and fuel. He kept the charity school open. Trinity Church was not rebuilt during the war, and British soldiers may have used the ruins as a summer theatre.

The War Ends

As the war came to a close in 1783, Inglis and several families of Trinity parishioners evacuated to England and eventually settled in Nova Scotia. His final sermon as rector, preached on October 26, 1783, included this, "I have labored to prevent the shedding of blood; when I go from America, I do not leave behind me an individual, against whom I have the smallest degree of resentment or ill will."

Assistant minister Benjamin Moore was called to replace Inglis as rector. James Duane and a group of patriot "Whig Episcopalians" objected to the church remaining under Loyalist leadership and rejected Moore. Samuel Provoost, former chaplain to the Continental Congress, was instead installed as rector. In 1789 he presided over the service held in St. Paul’s Chapel after the first inauguration of George Washington.

Trinity Church Today

On July 4, 2008, tourists will walk the streets of Lower Manhattan, stopping at St. Paul’s Chapel to pay homage to the heroes of September 11. They’ll stop at George Washington’s pew, admire the patriotic monument to General Richard Montgomery, created by Jean-Jacques Caffieri and embellished by Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, and pause at Alexander Hamilton’s grave. They’ll celebrate America in the heart of a great American city. Perhaps they’ll pass by the plaque dedicated to the Rev. Charles Inglis in Trinity Church and reflect on the complex history of the nation, and Trinity Church.