No.104  June 2013
The authoritative source
on early churches in New Jersey

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Feature of the month

a plausible expression of piety

In the late seventeenth century settlers in Elizabeth and Newark erected simple frame meetinghouses to serve both religious and secular needs. In Elizabeth the initial Puritan meetinghouse was called the Town-House, and East Jersey's Assembly first met there. Forty years later when those original buildings had to be replaced, the question New Brunswickconfronting the congregations in the East Jersey colony was "What kind of a building is suitable for Christian worship?" Quakers in Rahway and Plainfield followed the pattern established in Burlington, and the Anglican Church, supported by the Society for Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, erected churches of a decided Georgian flavor. There are drawings and woodcuts that provide a solid answer—two story gable-fronted buildings with a projecting tower and internal galleries—the dominant Presbyterian and Reformed congregations in the region built churches that looked much like the Reformed church in Hackensack or the Anglican and Reformed churches in the drawing of New Brunswick. For the next hundred years those models were more or less a satisfactory response. But as the dominant social theology and ideology of the day changed, the question became what kind of a building do we need to carry out our mission, accommodate our desire for more comfortable places and that reflect our taste and refinement?

The rise of the Sunday School Movement in the 1830s required additional dedicated space for classrooms; the hosting of Bible study, temperance meetings, abolitionist societies and literary groups also required additional meeting rooms, which often included a kitchen and interior restrooms. The changing nature of the services in many evangelical churches—from long explication of Bible passages to more emotional exhortations that had much in common with the preachings of the revivals and camp meetings demanded adaptation from the high pulpit to the broad rostrum and auditorium seating. Roles and forms of worship affected the plan of a church, and both were undergoing significant change in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

Califon MEOne scholar has called this the "institutional church," and noted that its idea was to take upon itself and meet the wide variety of needs of contemporary [that is, nineteenth-century] parishioners and communities. "In addition to worship and instruction, institutional churches offered many opportunities for fellowship, self-improvement, athletics, and social service. An institutional church offered programs seven days a week and, apart from Sundays, might easily be mistaken for a YMCA or a YWCA of the era. They were a characteristic invention of an age which had learned that Christian civilization was not to be found out on the streets of the American city, but just might be experienced in the context of a total institution which met the Christian child, woman and man and their need for friends, fellowship and wholesome physical refreshment within the context of a church—sponsored program." The Methodist church in Califon pictured here, needing more space for its expanded mission, purchased an obsolete church from a neighboring town and reassembled it at the rear of their existing building.

Historian Page Smith, writing of the period just after the Civil War, observes that although the war had accentuated a religious revival set off by the depression of 1857, the inability of the old-line churches to "cope with the issue of slavery greatly diminished their authority." He argues that they remained strongholds of personal piety, but their broader social importance was curtailed, and they began to put their energies and resources in "churchly institutions," by which he means missions, denominational schools, and colleges. There was a shift in emphasis from Christian morality to activities related to human progress and social development. If one grants that interpretation, it is not difficult to see a parallel shift in emphasis on the significance of the church building and its ability to accommodate activities related to its perceived social mission, and less to matters of personal redemption. For some denominations the church as a house of worship had taken a back seat to the congregation's social mission. The universal spaces given to Sunday school and meeting rooms for mid-week prayer were now available for lectures on secular topics; churches began to host abolitionist societies, women's rights groups, temperance societies, and other political and reform groups.

While Anglicans and Roman Catholics continued to build based on traditional roles and classical forms, Protestant churches with evangelical roots turned to secular models to reconfigure their places of worship. In the 1880s in addition to the carpeted, heated comfortable home as a model, it was also to the theatre and the opera house that designers looked. Pews set in straight rows gave way to curved pews. "Engineering and practice devised new roof truss systems that allowed architects to span a greater space and eliminate interior columns. Communion tables all but disappeared as did baptismal fonts. The enclosed pulpit with its high sounding board also disappeared as a relic of old, to be replaced by a stage with a central lectern opened to the sides so that the preacher might stride across the stage while delivering his exhortation like a camp meeting revivalist or a high-brow Chatauqua lecturer. The stage or platform, no longer a chancel, sometimes was large enough to accommodate an organ and a choir which had, in the spirit of theatrical showmanship, been moved from their traditional position in a rear balcony to be up front as part of the entHackettstown Trinityertainment." This plan is called an auditorium church and it was adapted and adopted by hundreds of evangelical congregations across the country in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Trinity Methodist church in Hackettstown is an example. It is likely that almost all the evangelical churches erected in the state after 1880 are auditorium churches. The defining characteristics are the sloped floor with curvilinear pews, aisles radiating from the rostrum like spokes on a wheel, and a broad platform. The footprint of the plan was basically squarish, but octagonal and even cruciform plans were common. The exterior provided only a hint of the interior arrangement, especially with the smaller wooden-frame L-plan and T-plan buildings found in less urban areas.

Until about the time of the Civil War, liturgical matters, building traditions and the financial resources of a congregation were the controlling factors affecting what would be built. With the growth in population, the general rising affluence of the area, and revivals adding to membership rolls, many congregations came to expect that their church be more than a preaching station; several cultural historians assert that congregations expected their buildings to be more comfortable and reflect their new social and financial status. Increasing commerce and communications with New York City and increased affluence due to the emergence of a manufacturing and commercial economy encouraged the desire for something more comfortable and more elaborate or distinctive than the plain Harmonymeetinghouses of the early settlers. That inclination was aided at mid-century by a serious push from denominational authorities to build better churches. A Methodist divine in Maryland observed in 1875 that "The character of houses of worship concerns in great degree the success and prosperity of the Church." Architectural historian Mark Gelernter noted that "never before had so many diverse styles competed for attention." In England, one authority noted that "The hunt was up, far and wide, for architectural forms to suit the ever-increasing demand for ostentation and grandeur." What was true for England was no less true here. A small Presbyterian congregation in Harmony (Warren) noted in their centennial publication that "other congregations were erecting new houses of worship, and it is creditable to Harmony congregation that it desired a better building." Sometimes that desire meant a larger church, sometimes one closer to home, but often it signaled an attitude that a more fashionable church was needed. Refinement was the commonly-expressed concept.

Comfort was a part of it. Even traditionalist Quakers were affected by the desire for greater comfort. A member of the Trenton Friends said of the 1873 renovation that the building was "greatly improved. . . with some features worthy the attention of Friends who may wish to make their Meeting Houses more comfortable." Interiors were often augmented by carpeted aisles, cushioned pews, stained glass windows and pipe organs (but not among Quakers). The struggle over what kind of church to build was perpetually played on a field where the impulse to model a church on venerable and therefore presumably sacred models of church architecture fought against the impulse to adapt religious buildings to the way contemporaries used, built and thought about the built environment. Thus, debates about heating churches went on long after the general population had added stoves to their dwellings and places of work. Moreover, these debates were often clothed and complicated by religious arguments about comfort as a form of sin, discomfort as a form of virtue, human ingenuity as God-given grace or creaturely hubris. A reminiscence of the initial impression of the Baptist church in Scotch Plains recalled the "massive black walnut pews with luxurious red cushions would assure comfort through the dullest sermon." The Congregational Church publication, A Book of Plans for Churches and Parsonages, (1853) expressed the view that a church "should correspond in style to the better class of dwellings possessed by those who are to occupy the church." Architectural Historian William Pierson observed that the "overt materialism of the publication was startling. . . . The size and character of the church itself was not a religious question but rather was directly related to the financial and social condition of its congregation. The function of ornament was neither symbolic nor didactic; it was to enrich, and as long as it was good, there was no limit to its potential for elaboration."

HobokenThat is about as far from the doctrines of the early Puritan church as it is possible to get. In this view, architecture was no longer a matter of religious principle as it was for the Puritans and Quakers, but largely a question of expense. That was a carte blanche for those who wanted a building to reflect their social status and financial resources. There was a contrary view, of course. In 1852, the annual Episcopal Address of the Methodist Church argued that "very costly edifices lay heavy taxes on our pecuniary resources and do not tend to edification or godliness, but rather engender pride." That seems to have been a minority view. Defenders of the "gilded" church asserted that the magnificent cathedrals merely represented the new social and economic stature of the membership. They were "an inspiration to lavish gifts and noble achievements." The First Baptist church in Hoboken is one of the finest examples of the Romanesque style in the state.

Denominational authorities regarded architecture as one of the important means of competing with other denominations. As James Hudnut Buehler, an exceptionally astute interpreter of developments in religious architecture, notes "Long before the Puritan period had fully passed, New Englanders and Virginians incorporated fine aesthetic details into their new churches. Indeed Calvinism's long shadow worked to encourage the sublimation of personal aesthetic tastes for fine things into church buildings. That is, by building a beautiful church one could indulge one's taste for beauty and even a modicum of luxury without committing the sin of personal indulgence or ostentation since the house of worship was at the very least a community house, part of a common-wealth and not part of one's individual wealth. On a higher view of things, the church was God's house and therefore worth of any luxury or expense." In other words, any sufficiently elaborate church could be excused as a plausible expression of piety. And that happens to be the title of the book I am preparing on the religious architecture of Hudson County.

Essex bookMy newest book
: A Mighty Architectural Shout: The Development of Religious Architecture in Essex County, a book I've been working on for almost seven years (not steadily, of course). It treats the 109 remaining churches and one surviving synagogue in the county in a series of two- and four-page spreads, but the real subject is the social, liturgical and cultural forces that shaped the churchscape. I deal with the major factors—immigration, pluralism, urbanization and industrialization and the wealth accumulation it produced, and how those factors are reflected in the plan and design of the religious architecture of the county.