No. 47  May 2005
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

Ewing Presbyterian church

Rarely do I single out an individual church for discussion in this column, but last month I reached a milestone I consider worth special note—I have now photographed one thousand of the remaining meetinghouses, synagogues and churches in the state, and this was No. 1,000—the First Presbyterian Church of Ewing. It is located at a bend in Scotch Road just south of the Mercer County airport and a few miles north of the Statehouse in Trenton. It's a large stone church, traditional in design, surrounded on three sides by an extensive cemetery. It is an old congregation, although not the oldest in the county, and first began to meet in 1703. Its story has many parallels in the state, so it is particularly worthy of attention beyond the personal significance of marking a milestone in my attempt to inventory all the remaining eighteenth and nineteenth century churches, synagogues and meetinghouses of the state.

The church
Formally organized in 1708 as the First Presbyterian Church of Hopewell Township, it originally (1703) consisted of both Presbyterian and Church of England members, but “the spirit of harmony among the group had ceased,” according to the church's history, and by 1708 the Anglicans left to form St. Michael's in Trenton. The first church was built of logs in 1712; before that, meetings were held in homes, barns and in the open. During this period they shared a minister with the church in Maidenhead (Lawrenceville, five miles away). In 1728 that church was replaced with a frame building, that lasted until 1795. John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration of Independence and President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) preached in that building in 1788-1789. In 1795 a new church was built—a red brick Georgian building, rather like the Old Broad Street Presbyterian church in Bridgeton (Cumberland County, 1792), but with the separate entrances for men and women that was traditional at the time. Contemporaneously, Presbyterian congregations in Essex and Union counties were building in a different tradition, but Mercer and south Jersey, it seems, has generally followed Philadelphia architectural styles more than those borrowed and adapted from New York. In 1867 that building was torn down and the present one erected; the total cost was $21,608.70. It originally had a tall steeple, but that came down in 1890. The interior walls were decorated with stenciling, a common practice on the time, and that, too has disappeared. In other respects, the church is remarkably unchanged over the last one hundred forty years.

Marks the 1,000 church photographed
Ewing's church came to my attention through Woodward & Hageman's 1883 History of Burlington and Mercer Counties. An initial visit in late afternoon was no good photographically as I was shooting into the sun, although the image of the rear of the church is fine. I returned a week later early in the morning and got the shots I needed. Then I spoke with the minister, who opened the church for the interior shot, and gave me information about the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia where the old records of the church are kept. A trip there and conversation with their helpful staff took me to two boxes of roughly sorted newspaper clippings, papers, sermons, and other records. About three quarters of the way through the second box I found a handwritten transcription of the minutes for 1865-1867. They revealed that an architect had been selected in 1865, a Mr. Graham (probably Charles Graham, a Trenton architect who designed the Presbyterian churches in Newton and Belvidere about this time) was authorized to be paid for some unspecified work, but financial troubles intervened and the next note, two years later, said that the plans of H. Fisch, architect, had been rejected at a special meeting. Three days later, a meeting of the full congregation approved the plans of J.C. Sidney, architect of Philadelphia, at a cost not to exceed $20,000, including architect's fees. That was the information I was after, so I packed up and in the softening afternoon light, I walked over to photograph Old St. George's Methodist Episcopal church, which served, I believe, as the model for at least a dozen mid-century Methodist and AME churches in the state.

Summary of the first 1000
Of the churches that I have photographed thus far, 268 are Methodist, 199 are Presbyterian, 118 Baptist, 100 Episcopal, 81 Catholic, 68 Reformed, 40 Quaker, 29 AME, 29 Lutheran, and 7 Jewish synagogues. The remaining churches and meetinghouses are scattered among a half dozen sects, or are union, non-denominational or unidentified. Twenty-two of these congregations were founded before 1700. Fifty-six of the surviving churches were erected in the eighteenth century, most of them Quaker meeting-houses, and fifty-five more were built before 1830. Amazingly, all but thirteen of the eighteenth century churches still hold religious services, generally by the original congregation. Five are now residences, one is a bank, two are museums, and two are in ruins.
     The sample is drawn from all twenty-one counties, although Bergen and Passaic are under-represented. In five counties (Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, and Warren) I have photographed all of the remaining churches, and perhaps 90 percent of those in Burlington, Cape May, Cumberland, Essex, Mercer, and Salem counties. I estimate there are roughly 1,300 surviving churches and meetinghouses in the state, so there is considerable work remaining. All of the extant nineteenth century synagogues have been photographed, and all but one or two, I believe, of the Quaker meetinghouses. As I continue my work, the proportion of Methodist churches will decline somewhat, as it was predominately a rural denomination in the nineteenth century and thus is over-represented in my sample, but I anticipate no major shifts in the denominations, or even in the architectural styles.
     There are few "great" churches in the state if one uses size and magnificence as the measures of greatness. But there are a number of fine examples of the country's religious architecture that remain, and they justify the effort that has gone into this inventory. That, anyway, is my rationalization, and I'm sticking to it.



Copyright 2005 Frank L. Greenagel