No. 80  March 2010
The authoritative source
on early churches in New Jersey



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Feature of the month

The churchscape of Mercer County

There are two quite distinct historical churchscapes in Mercer County—one urban, built of stone or brick, dominated by large Catholic churches amidst a welter of stylish Presbyterian, Methodist and other mainstream Protestant denominations, almost all of which were erected in the 35 years following the Civil War. The other is a rural or small town churchscape,

Trenton-SacredHeart

Trenton Sacred Heart church

Groveville ME

Groveville Methodist Episcopal church

characterized by wooden-frame buildings generally erected in the first half of the nineteenth century, but enlarged later with space for Sunday schools and other meeting rooms. These churches are mostly Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist. There are exceptions to these generalizations, of course, especially in Princeton and Hightstown, but as a place to begin an exploration of the reasons for the architectural styles that can be seen in the county, I think it will do.

Half the churches in the county are located in Trenton, which might have developed much like Princeton, Allentown or Burlington, but for two events—it became the capital of the state in 1790, which meant it was destined to see almost all the major denominations in the state erect stylish churches, just as the colonial Church of England made sure that all the county seats and major towns of the province had Anglican churches, even when it was necessary for the Society for Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to subsidize those congregations. In 1850 when Trenton’s accelerating industrialization attracted hordes of immigrants, it was certain that another host of denominations, many heretofore unknown in the county, would erect places of worship, often in architectural styles that reflected the various ethnicities of their congregations.

St. Stanislaus

Trenton - St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic church

National and linguistic differences tend to be maintained by religious affiliations. Irish, German, Italian, and Polish Catholics, in addition to the Lutheran, Hungarian Reformed and Baptist, and Jewish immigrants from eastern and middle Europe naturally desired to maintain national and cultural ties, and one of the ways of doing so was to erect their own churches, which drew on architectural idioms familiar to them. And so we find Gothic or Romanesque churches that are not English in their antecedents, as might have been the case a dozen years earlier, but Polish, German and Italian, for example. The immigrants’ churches helped to establish their presence and identity— indeed, they served as centers of language and culture for thousands of factory workers and laborers new to the country. And that very visible presence probably stimulated the established Protestant elites to reassert their social and cultural leadership by founding missions, erecting chapels, and building new churches—sometimes larger than the immigrants’ churches, but certainly elegant and refined edifices designed by architects and built of the best materials.

By the mid-nineteenth century church building was an assertion of an ethnic identity for some, and the reassertion of a social and cultural leadership for others. Piety could be expressed by a stylish and comfortable place of worship. Those tendencies were encouraged and abetted by the denominational conferences and synods, particularly Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist and Methodist, who endorsed certain architects and offered inexpensive plans that came with the imprimatur of fashionable, refined and liturgically-correct, all prepared by “the best architects.”

There are 72 churches, chapels and meetinghouses remaining in the county that were erected before 1900—17 of them are Presbyterian, 13 are Methodist, and 12 Baptist; that accounts for 55 percent of the total. There is Mercer graphone Reformed church here (the Hungarian Reformed), but Hunterdon, Somerset and Monmouth counties have numerous Dutch and German Reformed congregations. Only three surviving meetinghouses were built by the Quaker peoples who first settled the area in 1670, and at least one other was built but has long-since disappeared. There are at least four nineteenth century black congregations (African Methodist Episcopal, Baptist and Presbyterian) remaining, whose founders had little or no control over when they arrived. But at least three other black Baptist churches have disappeared. There are no Jewish synagogues from the nineteenth century. An Orthodox church, a Christian church on the border with Somerset and Hunterdon, a Adventist church, as well as four Lutheran churches and two Evangelical congregations remain. But there are no churches belonging to Congregational, Moravian, or the German pietist sects that were formed in other counties of New Jersey. In spite of early efforts by colonial governors to establish the Anglican church in the state, there are only five Episcopal churches in the county, four of which are in Trenton. There are seven Roman Catholic churches that date to the nineteenth century, all but one in Trenton. Catholics may have accounted for three per cent of the county’s population by 1790 but there was no formal organization before 1848, 14 years after the state constitution granted civil rights to Catholic organizations. The arrival of Catholic immigrants in substantial numbers by the 1850s brought a physical scale to the county’s churches that was heretofore unknown in West Jersey. Soon thereafter, the industrialists and merchants who built large factories in Trenton accumulated vastly more capital than any individuals in the surrounding counties; those financial resources are reflected in the number and quality of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches in the city.

Lawrenceville Pres

Lawrenceville Presbyterian church

The part of the county around Lawrenceville was originally dominated by Presbyterians, but early Baptist and Methodist churches are found in equal numbers, especially to the east of Trenton. The oldest church in the county was erected in 1739, and there are at least 14 congregations (Presbyterian, Quaker, Baptist, Episcopal and Methodist) with extant churches organized in the eighteenth century. But two-thirds of the churches here were erected after the Civil War, most by congregations that could count their history in months, not decades. Although my focus is on architecture—the material presence of the religious beliefs and practices in the county—the real significance of the religious architecture lies in the causes, patterns, and influences that gave form to the churches and meetinghouses, and how they help us to understand why they came to be. The existence of a denomination during the colonial period provides an indication of where the early settlers were from, and that has implications for the kinds of churches they erected. The national backgrounds of those settlers, density of settlement, and the activity of the circuit-riding preachers will explain much of the distinctive characteristics of the county’s early churchscape. By the time the later immigrants began to arrive in ever increasing numbers, other forces were afoot—a rising affluence, a merchant class, a popular culture that expressed itself as refinement, liturgical changes, as well as manufacturing and construction methods—all of which helped to shape the churchscape.

I argue in my forthcoming book on the old churches of Mercer that construction of a church here in the last several decades of the nineteenth century was a social act, one driven as much by a need to establish or assert legitimacy—an identity or presence, in the case of the immigrant churches—or to reclaim the economic, cultural and social priority in the case of the established denominations. Those dynamics made it easier or perhaps even necessary to find the money to erect a new (or equally fine) church, although the existing one could serve the congregation very well.


This month's feature article was adapted from the initial chapter of my forthcoming book on the churches and meetinghouses of Mercer County, titled Asserting Legitimacy, Maintaining Identity: the religious architecture of Mercer County, New Jersey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book will be published in April by the Wooden Nail Press. I have attached a pre-publication order form, which if received by March 31, will entitle one to a 20% discount from the list price.

The 296 page book includes more than 200 photographs, tables and drawings, an outline of architectural styles, a summary of the religious denominations operating in the state during the early centuries, a glossary of architectural terms, an extensive bibliography, and index. The book will be available from Amazon.com, and the publisher's website, http://woodennailpress.com.


The redesign of the website is a work-in-progress. All the new pages from now on will use this format—a wider screen, a different background color and a little more consistency in typefaces. The major features—architects, vintage images, books reviews, unknown churches, and endangered churches have also been re-designed. Many of the county lists (accessible from "find a church") have been reworked as well. A number of the individual church pages use the new format, but I am unlikely to try to revise all the existing ones—there are more than a thousand churches here and my time is better spent putting new ones up. As I get additional information or a correction for an existing page I will probably rework that page as well. I hope this will work well for the next eight years.