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A History of the Schenectady Patent in the Dutch and English Times
15: The Presbyterian Church

Rev. Timothy G. Darling, the Pastor

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[This information is from pp. 399-408 of A History of the Schenectady Patent in the Dutch and English Times; being contributions toward a history of the lower Mohawk Valley by Jonathan Pearson, A. M. and others, edited by J. W. MacMurray, A. M., U. S. A. (Albany, NY: J. Munsell's Sons, Printers, 1883). It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 974.744 P36, and copies are also available for borrowing.]

[Copies of this book are available from the Schenectady County Historical Society.]

[The original version uses assorted typographical symbols to represent footnotes. To improve legibility, the online version uses the form (page number - note number.)]

An Historical Sketch of the First Presbyterian Church

The early history of the Presbyterian Church in Schenectady is obscure. As late as 1756 we learn from Smith's History of the Province of New York that there was no Church in the town except the Dutch. Before this date, however, settlers from England and Scotland and from New England were drawn to this "frontier" town by the facilities afforded for trading with the Interior. Missionaries, chiefly for the Indians, had been sent into these parts by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel early in the 18th century.

One of these, the Rev. Mr. Barclay, under date of 26 Sept., 1710, reports preaching once a month at Schenectady, "where there is a garrison of 40 soldiers, besides about 16 English and 100 Dutch families * * * the only 'dissenters' there are Dutch." There was a chapel in the fort at Schenectady which was built about 1735.

In July, 1759, the Rev. Dr. Johnson writes to Archbishop Seeker, "They are building a church at Schenecty, a fine county town on the west side of the river above Albany, and will soon want a minister there," "Chenectedi or Corlaer," is said about this date to be a village of some 300 houses.

Concerning this building, now St. George's Episcopal Church, a tradition existed that Presbyterians subscribed to its erection with the understanding that it should be used in common by both denominations.

Unfortunately all the ecclesiastical records which might have thrown light on the earliest Presbyterian history here, have been destroyed by fire.

It is not unlikely that such Presbyterian missionaries as had penetrated to Albany had also visited this region, but there was no minister settled over the Presbyterian church here before 1770. For some time prior to this, however, there had been a congregation worshipping statedly in a hired "meeting-house," as under date of 11 Jan., '69, there is an entry in "An account of what Andrew McFarlan has laid out," as follows: "To Balance due on the first 2 years of the old house £6 14s. 6d."

On the 12th Oct., '69, a lot was purchased from Peter De Bois for 100 pounds, and work seems to have begun at once in earnest, as almost immediately follows: "To 2 Gallons Westd Rum when cutting the timber for the church 11s." — the next item being, "To cash paid to Phinn & Ellice for rum and sugar when rideing timber £4 9s. 4d. (400-1)

The site of the old meeting house cannot now be ascertained, nor can I learn concerning it more than that it was furnished with a bell. It was still in use 22 March, 1773, as at that date Mr. Fuller was paid £1 16s. 0d., for attending to the windows.

By the end of '73, the edifice seems to have been completed, and the bell in the new steeple with its leaden ball adorned with "6 bookes of gold leaf" no doubt called the congregation to a joyful service of dedication, of which we have no notice whatever.

The church and lot are credited with an expenditure of about $1,800. The carpenter's work was done by Sam'l Fuller and John Hall. The church had a gallery and, on the ground floor, 21 wall and 22 "Boddy" pews and the carpenters agreed "to do the work on the Pulpit In the Same manner as In the English Church only it is to Joyn the wall So as to have no piller for a Soport & to make the Clark's Seat."

Of the size and strength of the congregation there is no record until much later; but in 1768 they felt able to compete with their brethren in Albany; for a letter of Mr. Brown to Sir Wm. Johnson at this time, in urging the necessity of securing Mr. Murray for St. George's, says: "We are the more Anxiously Solicitous on this Head as the Presbyterians are busee to get Mr. Bay among them" — this Mr. Bay being called about this time to the Presbyterian church at Albany. The first minister who is known to have preached to the congregation statedly is the Rev. Alexander Miller.

Mr. Miller was a pupil of Rev. James Findley, a graduate of Princeton College in 1764, a student of theology under Dr. Rodgers, of New York, was licensed 1767, and ordained by the Presbytery of New York, 1770, which is the date of his settlement here. He may have preached here, however, prior to this date, and may possibly be the person alluded to in a letter of 25th Feb., '69, from the church wardens to Sir Wm., expressing their disappointment at not securing Mr. Murray, which "will be attended with the consequence of losing some part of our congregation by their joining the Dissenters, as they have provided themselves with a Gentleman who is much admired."

Mr. Kelly states that Mr. Miller left in 1781, during the summer. Mr. Miller also preached at Currie's Bush and Remsen's Bush in connection with his charge here. The elders in Mr. Miller's time, were James Wilson, James Shuler and Andrew McFarlan, with William White as deacon. The grammar school which was taught by Mr. Miller during the Revolutionary war, was, according to Spafford's Gazetteer, a very respectable one, "in which Gov. Tichenor of Vermont (and in which the late John Wells received his education), and others since celebrated acted as assistants."

During the war the Church, though not exposed to the outrages which were perpetrated upon the neighboring Episcopal church for political reasons, seems to have suffered greatly. Mr. Andrews had reported to the S. P. G. (year ending Feb., 1773) 43 communicants and 16 catechumens; but Mr. Doty, his successor, reports in 1780 from Montreal, where he had taken refuge, that "his poor little flock has been almost dispersed and the few remaining were in the most deplorable circumstances" and had been informed by a young man, lately from Schenectady, that the congregation consisted of only 27 white adults, 20 children and some blacks. It is not likely that the Presbyterian Church was much less afflicted. The congregation was in arrears for salary due to Mr. Miller at the time that his successor, Mr. John Young, was called. Mr. Young (401-1) first came here about the middle of 1787, was ordained June 14th, 1788, and gave one-third of his time to Currie's Bush or Princetown. In the interval, however, there had been occasional supplies, (401-2) there is recorded the payment of £6-10-0 to Mr. Ball, whom I take to be the Rev. Eliphalet Ball of Bedford, N. Y., who was so much pleased with the country that in 1788 he took a portion of his congregation to settle in the region (which is now called in honor of him, Ballston).

The congregation at this time, and for years later, was composed of elements which did not mix very kindly, Formalism contending stubbornly against the growing evangelical spirit in the Church, and Mr. Young was dismissed in consequence of the dissensions, 9th Dec., 1790. (402-1) Perhaps one cause of the disaffection with him may be found in Mr. Kelley's note, "no session in his time."

From 1791 to 1795, among those preaching here occasionally, are Rev. Messrs. Baldwin, Chapman, Coe, Cook, Davenport, Dod, Dun, Judd, McDonald, Pomeroy, Schenck, Thompson and Williams.

With the election of the Rev. John B. Smith, to the presidency of the College, a brighter day dawned for the Church. Dr. Smith did much to reorganize the Church, ordaining 4 elders in 1795 or 1796, (402-2) viz. Alexander Kelly, John Taylor, Alexander Walmsley and John McAtyre.

On the 13th Sept., 1796, the Rev. Robt. Smith of Pennsylvania, a graduate of Princeton, was installed over the Church, which at this time numbered only 37 communicants. There were however about 85 pew holders, and the income of the Church from pews and subscriptions was a little over $700.

Mr. Smith remained until July, 1801, when the severity of the climate having impaired his health he sought refuge in Savannah, Ga., dying soon after his removal. He is said by Dr. Dwight to have been a man of remarkable gifts, resembling in many traits President Smith of the College, but excelling "him and most other men in amenity and tenderness of disposition and sweetness of deportment." His life was sacrificed to his zeal and affection for his people. Under his ministry the Church received 51 additional members. (402-3)

During the illness of Mr. Smith the Rev. Mr. Adair and Dr. Jonathan Edwards, Jr., second president of the College, frequently supplied the pulpit, and as the collections for 1801 show an increase over previous records, and additions to the Church are also recorded, the impetus given by Mr. Smith's pastorate would seem not to have been arrested.

In March, 1802, three elders and 73 others, petition Presbytery for the speedy instalment of the Rev. William Clarkson, 20 petitioners, including two elders, however, pray that the installation may not take place. Mr. Clarkson's settlement was the signal for war among the discordant elements in the congregation, and shortly after such serious charges were preferred against him as that he did not "preach," but read sermons "contrary to Luke 4:16-23 where our Lord preached, said preaching being without notes." Mr. Clarkson was also charged with saying that "we never had such preaching here before, we had nothing but like the reading of an almanack," and the Presbytery failing to see the heinousness of Mr. Clarkson's homiletic shortcomings, a temporary secession of 24 families took place. Although considerable accessions to the Church took place in Mr. Clarkson's brief pastorate, his opponents claimed that the communicants had diminished one-half. During this unhappy contention in which perhaps Mr. Clarkson was rather the occasion than the cause of the quarrel, an election for elders had occurred and the session now consisted of Alexander Kelly, Alexander Walmsley, John McAtyre, Jas. Murdock, Jos. Shurtleff, Rob't Loague, Wm. Dunlap, Geo. Leslie and Caleb Lyon (elder John Taylor died 1801). The election seems to have intensified the strife, and in September, 1803, Mr. Clarkson sought peace in departure.

In the succeeding December, the Rev. John B. Romeyn, a son of Dr. Romeyn of the Reformed Dutch Church and founder of Union College, was settled over the Church at a salary of $625. But the Church was at strife, and in November, 1804, Mr. Romeyn also left. The number of communicants at this time could not have been much above 100, the highest rental for pews was but $35 and the support of the Church and pastor in the midst of such difficulties very doubtful and precarious. At least, Mr. Nathaniel Todd, ordained over the Church 11 Dec., 1805, was dismissed by Presbytery in the succeeding November, on the ground that the congregation were unable to support him.

For some time the Church depended upon temporary supplies, but, as if still further to complicate and confuse matters, the ear of the congregation was taken by an Irishman of the Methodist Church, a lay preacher, Mr. John Joyce. In spite of the peril of a threatened schism if Mr. Joyce were not settled over the Church, Presbytery declined to entrust the Church to his care and declared it expedient for the session to resign that new elders might in the interest of harmony be elected. The new session consisted of Messrs. Kelly, Walmsley, Daniel Chandler and Prof. Henry Davis, afterwards president of Middlebury, and still later of Hamilton college.

Notwithstanding its want of a pastor, and its internal differences, the Church does not seem to have lost any confidence in itself, for on the 3d of July, 1809, the corner stone of a new edifice was laid, (404-1) the old building on the site of the chapel being taken down, and the congregation worshipping for a time in the college chapel.

No doubt a large part of the strength and impulse in this movement came from the college. Dr. Nott from his accession to the presidency in 1804 had been a warm friend, and to his kindness, as well as that of Mr. McAuley and other members of the Facility, it was probably in large measure owing that the Church came through its crisis with so little loss of strength. It was no doubt in grateful acknowledgment of their sympathy and practical help that the galleries of the church which was elliptical in form were so constructed as to enable the graduating classes to march down an inclined plane into the pulpit for their diplomas, and up again into the opposite gallery.

Meantime, the Rev. Alexander Monteith had been called to the pastorate, and on Aug. 29th, 1809, he was settled over the Church, remaining its pastor until his death, Jan. 29th, 1815. He must have been a judicious and good man, for there seems an absence of all party-strife during his ministry. The church must have also prospered generally, as there was an increase in its collections, its communion roll was enlarged by 62 additions, and the pastor's salary was advanced from $700 to $1000.

Mr. Monteith's successor was the Rev. Hooper Cummings, whose eloquence covered not a few of his own sins and other men's sermons. Eccentric and unfortunate, to speak mildly, Mr. Cummins' brief pastorate, judged by statistics, was most successful. Installed 22d Nov., 1815, and dismissed 18th Feb., 1817, 65 persons were added to the communion roll, and work among the colored people prosecuted with vigor and success, Presbytery having authorized Messrs. Wisner and Davis, then members of the Church in Union College, to catechise and exhort among them.

During Mr. Cummings' ministry however, old strifes broke out again and it was not till the 8th of June, 1820, that another pastor could be secured, changes having occurred in the session, and some withdrawing from the Church, which in the interval enjoyed the services of Drs. Nott and McAuley. In April, 1820, the famous Mr. Nettleton preached, and the Church seems to have enjoyed spiritual prosperity, not less than 120 being added to the Church during the year. "Tokens" (405-1) at the communion were still in use, not being dispensed with till March, 1821, when members of other Evangelical Churches were welcomed to the Lord's table. Besides these changes, during Mr. (Walter) Monteith's pastorate (1820 to 1826), the old psalm book (Rouse) was relinquished, which indicates that a decided change was taking place in the sentiment of the Church. In Mr. Monteith's time also the old "Session House" was built by subscription, and not without much opposition from those who did not favor Sabbath Schools, prayer meetings and other "new fangled ideas." The Sunday School had been started by Mr. Jonathan Crane, an elder in the church, in the basement kitchen of his own house as a Mission Union School in 1817, but in 1824, it divided into two church schools, one Dutch, the other Presbyterian, which found a home in the session house, though viewed with suspicion if not with dislike by many who regarded it as "a school for outcasts."

Mr. Monteith's successor was the Rev. Erskine Mason, a son of the celebrated Dr. John M. Mason, whom in intellectual strength he in no small degree resembled. A scholarly and finished preacher, the three years of his service here were years of strength and blessing to the Church, which received during his brief pastorate an addition of 89 members, 506 being the total number of communicants reported to Presbytery in 1830.

From July, 1830, until December, the church seems to have depended for service upon various ministers, when the Rev. Wm. James, a brilliant but somewhat eccentric preacher, became its "Stated Supply," declining, however, in 1832 the call to become pastor, and ceasing to preach in the spring of the same year, for the Rev. James W. Henry appears to have supplied the Church in April and May.

The day of rapid changes in the pastorate and shifting fortunes was not to end, for the pulpit having been supplied by the Rev. Jonathan Trumbull Backus, May 27th, 1832, a call was extended to him, and on the 6th Dec., 1832, he was ordained and installed over the Church, remaining its pastor until the 18th June, 1873. During all this long pastorate, under the blessing of God, the Church steadily grew and strengthened; old differences died out; larger ideas of the privilege of Christian benevolence obtained; more efficient methods of work were adopted, and the usefulness of the Church greatly increased.

During the ministry of Dr. Backus, over 1,000 persons were added to the communion of the Church and a new era of benevolence entered upon, the aggregate of the reported benevolence during this period being over $160,000. The Church edifice was enlarged in 1834, and again in 1859; and the old "Session House" in 1843 gave way to the chapel to which was added in 1857 the session room. During this century not less than 60 of its members have entered the Christian ministry.

The Pastors and Supplies of the Church, as far as known, are:

Rev. Alexander Miller, 1770-1781. Rev. John Young, 1787-1791. Rev. John Blair Smith, D.D., 1795, etc. Rev. Robt. Smith, 1796-1801. Rev. Wm. Clarkson, 1801-1803. Rev. John B. Romeyn, D.D., 1803-1804. Rev. Nathaniel Todd, 1805-1806. Rev. Alexander Monteith, 1809-1815. Rev. Hooper Cummings, 1815-1817. Rev. Drs. Nott & McAuley, 1817-1820. Rev. Walter Monteith, 1820-1826. Rev. Erskine Mason, D.D., 1827-1830. Rev. Wm. James, D.D., 1831-1832. Rev. J. Trumbull Backus, D.D., LL. D., 1832-1873. Rev. Timothy G. Darling, D.D., 1873-.

Mr. Kelly's Paper, to which reference has been made, contains a list of the ministers of the Church down to Dr. Mason's day and could not therefore have been written before 1827, when Mr. Kelly was nearly 80 years old. In this paper it is stated that between 1760 and 1770, the Episcopalians and Presbyterians "agreed and built a church betwext them, The former to Goe in at the west door, the Later at the South Door. When the church was Finesht John Brown belonging to the English Church went to New York and got it consecrated under the Bishop unknown to the presbyterians. The Presbyterians Highlie offended at this, John Duncan, James Wilson, James Shuler, Andrew and Hugh Michel, Andrew McFarland, William White and Alexander Merser, purchest a lot from a Gentelmin New York, colected money in varies places to Build a Church. The Dutch Inhabitants seing How they were served advanst very Liberal in money, Boards, plank, Nails, Hinges & paint, The Church was built about the year 1770," &c.

The allusion to consecration by the bishop is a manifest anachronism; Seabury, the first bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America, receiving his consecration as bishop in Scotland in 1784, New York being under the care of the bishop of London, who succeeded in defeating all attempts of the Presbyterians to procure incorporation. Mr. Kelly is evidently referring to something which gave legal title to the property and which was done in New York and not on the spot. Writing in extreme age, his memory might fail to distinguish between consecration and incorporation.

In a letter from Mr. Brown and others to Sir Wm. Johnson, 20th Dec, 1765, it is stated that "the congregation of the Church of England have come to the conclusion to petition H. E., the Governor to grant them a charter to secure their Rights & Privileges in the Church built here," and seek Sir Wm's consent to acting as a Trustee "as we can have no doubt if a Gentleman of your known merit and character will Espouse our Cause, it will prevent for the future the Presbyterians from making any unjust attempts on our privileges in the church." — (Doc. Hist., N. Y., IV, page 229.) On the 4th Dec., 1766, it is stated that the charter had been granted (Ib., p. 234). Of this petition and charter I can find no trace, though the kindness of Mr. Fernow, of the State Library, has furnished me a copy of the petition of 1774, in which it is stated that the title to the church lot was vested in Dr. Ogilvie and others, petitioners.

A letter from Sir Wm. to the S. P. G., 8th Oct., 1766, states that the church was built chiefly by subscriptions among themselves. "In the meantime the Dissenters claimed a principal property therein, because some of them had been promised the use of it when it did not interfere with the service of the church of England," and that they were so incensed at the turn of affairs, as to desire to destroy the organization and demolish the building.

The Rev. Dr. Payne, of St. George's church has with great courtesy put at my disposal his church records of this period, and I have diligently searched them, without coming, however, to any very positive conclusions.

In 1759, both bodies must have been very feeble and in no condition, unaided, to support regular services, and the application to the S. P. G., does not seem to have been made till some time after. In 1769, Dr. Auchmuty thought that "Albany and Schenectady should be but one living," and in 1778, Mr. Inglis joins with Dr. Auchmuty in thinking the grant to Schenectady a perversion of the society's bounty, which ought to be extended to larger bodies of people without worship. — (Doc. Hist. N. Y., IV, pp. 263 and 311), though Sir Wm. about the same time, writes to the society that although because of poverty and small contributions the "Church of England be then in its infancy, it is such as affords the must flattering hopes, if properly nourished and improved." — (Abstract of Proceedings of the S. P. G. Hist. Society's Library, N. Y.)

The lists of the contributors to the two edifices are extant. The subscribers were mainly residents of New York city, Albany and Schenectady, and in the two latter places, the names are largely Dutch. In Albany there were about 126 subscribers to the Episcopal, and 107 to the Presbyterian church, 22 of the above subscribing to both. In New York 71 to the Episcopal and 161 to the Presbyterian, and only 15 names in common. In Schenectady 192 to the Episcopal, and 212 to the Presbyterian, 47 in common. Of the Schenectady subscribers I think I have identified 63 of the Presbyterian, and 47 of the Episcopal subscribers as pew holders in the Dutch church, and many with like names not recorded as pew holders.

Unhappily there are no pew lists of the Presbyterian church prior to 1796. Of the 25 or 26 names attached to the agreement that the money from the sale and rental of pews be at the disposal of the church wardens and the vestry, dated 31st March, 1766, stands the name of John Duncan. (407-1) He was one of the largest benefactors of the church, subscribing 30 pounds, and giving besides "a fine of Pat'k Larkins" £4-12-0. Before 1765, he had bought pew No. 1 at 5 pounds. On a loose sheet, apparently a part of the original record, he is charged 12s. pew rent and 5 pounds for Mrs. Hepburn's grave. The latter is marked paid on the record, but I cannot find that he ever paid pew rent. On the other hand Mr. Jas. Willson who subscribes £4-10-0, and Mr. James Shuter who subscribes £4-4-0, both pay pew rent as late as Jan., 1767, but do not sign. These men are prominent in the Presbyterian movement, and disappear about this time from the Episcopal records. This would tally with the publication of the charter which Dec., 1769, "would shortly be sent up."

On a loose slip of paper in St. George's Records, with memoranda of different dates, under a most curious "Church a Count of Hatts," and after a date of 1765, is this Writing "Ye Daley Labor I Have stot down in This Count I wold Now if Church wold take Back ye Seets again Sence ye Presbyterns are Sepyerated."

It was a time when ministers were few, and in 1759 there could scarcely have been strength enough in both parties combined to support a minister. Nor was the idea of a building common to several congregations, so foreign to the necessities of the times as to our notions of fitness. The churches so built by Sir Wm. Johnson, at Johnstown, 1763 and 1767, were used in common by Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians (after the war the church building of '67 was granted by the legislature to the Presbyterians except for eight Sabbaths in the year. — (Gillett Hist. Pres. Ch., I, 383). Moreover, there was at this time the beginning of a movement in the Dutch church in favor of services in English. All these circumstances incline me to believe that there was a concerted effort, independent of denominational control, to erect a building in which there would be services as occasion offered in the English language in which all classes united harmoniously, until about 1767, when the Presbyterians felt themselves aggrieved and withdrew.

Curiously enough, in the plans of St. George's church, to which reference is made, March, 1766, the "South Door," referred to by Mr. Kelly, is just west of Mr. Duncan's pew, and the six "body pews" (there are 17 wall pews) are near the two desks in the eastern portion of the church, leaving more than half of the body of the church vacant. In the second plan, which seems to be of only a little later date, the "south door" walled up, and there are sixteen "body pews," but removed quite far from the desks near to the western wall, suggesting in connection with note on taking back the seats, the query whether in the original building the Presbyterians did not have the western half of the church, with a movable desk near the western door, which would then not unnaturally, be kept closed during worship, entrance being at the south door, for which no necessity would exist after the Presbyterian exodus. Not earlier than February, 1768, John Moffatt is credited with £14, 12s. 0d. for "masonry," and as the previous credits on this account are in 1763, this may indicate the date of the closing of the door — though work was still being done upon the church, 6th December, 1768, when Mr. Brown regrets that there is "not one Plasterer in Town," and that for the joiner's work "the way Mr. Daves and he proposes, will Vastly exceed what we can pretend to do."

Whatever uncertainly may attach to these conjectures, the above items, in conjunction with the allusion to "the balance due or the first two years' rent," indicate certainly a regular organization for Presbyterian worship not later than 1766, and probably at the time of beginning to build in 1759, what afterwards became St. George's church edifice, to which justly or unjustly the Presbyterians made joint claim.

Notes

(400-1) As illustrating the "better days of our Fathers" may be mentioned also this entry, 3 Aug., 1771, To tickets bought at New Castle Lottery £4 16s.; but I cannot learn that we enjoyed any such good luck here as did our friends and neighbors of St. George's church.

(401-1) According to Mr. Kelley's.

(401-2) In the absence of Mr. Miller (1771).

(402-1) Mr. Young requested a dissolution of the pastoral relation, Nov. 10th, 1790, on the ground of non payment of salary and ill health. The Church had not yet settled its indebtedness to Mr. Miller who was still seeking payment, and the Church at Currie's Bush applied to Presbytery for two-thirds of Mr. Young's time on the ground that the Church in Schenectady, was no longer able to support him.

(402-2) Mr. Kelly's paper gives the date as May 1st, 1796.

(402-3) The township of Schenectady contained in 1796, 3472 inhabitants, 683 being electors and 381 slaves.

(404-1) Concerning the form of the original church building, nothing is certainly known, but it is believed that the church seal (an impression of which is here reproduced [original size (5K) | 36x enlarged (112K)]) represents it. This seal was made under the supervision of the late Dr. Magoffin, and it was the understanding of my predecessor and quite in conformity with Dr. Magoffin's habit of mind, that the seal was intended to represent the original structure.

(405-1) The "Token" was intended to prevent any unknown person, or member under discipline from coming to the Lord's table. Tokens wore distributed by the elders before communion to all who were in good standing and were taken up by the elders again from the communicants at the table. They were made of lead, or pewter, wore about an inch square having inscriptions on each side.

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(407-1) Which he likely did not himself affix, as his name and that of John Glen and Sir Wm., are in the same handwriting.

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