Feature of the monthThe 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,
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.
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 one 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.
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.