No. 51 September 2005
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

an orgy of eclectic showiness—post Civil War churches

The post Civil War decades have been described by historians, novelists, and social critics in many ways—as a gilded age, the mauve decades, the age of the robber barons, the melting pot, the light of the world, or the rise Manifest Destiny and of American imperialism. Most characterizations arose, of course, from the attitude of the beholder towards the rising affluence, urbanization, vast immigration, social upheaval, the move to the suburbs, industrial concentration, the closing of the frontier, free silver populism, and a myriad of problems and pressures. The U.S. population had doubled between 1860 and 1890 (from 31 million to 62 million), and that alone brought problems of public health and education that a barely constrained capitalist economy usually seemed disinclined to deal with. The novelists and essayists we remember today (Twain, Drieser, Crane) saw it as both materialistic and idealistic—but as often as not, thrusting, grabbing, and posturing. Surely that could not be true of the country's religious establishment as well?

The period before the Civil War had given birth to dozens of new sects, some displacing the mainstream Protestantism of earlier generations, but many finding converts among the formerly unchurched. The decades following the war saw the urban centers awash in immigrants whose major identification was, initially at least, with church and language rather than neighborhood and occupation. There were still fervent week-long revivals—indeed, they had spread to Reformed and Anglican denominations that had earlier disdained such emotionalism—but gone were the relays of preachers screaming sin, damnation and eternal love from stumps and wagon beds. Gone, too, were the occupants of the “anxious bench” —the seats where wavering souls who feared they were in the hands of an angry god and needed to know how they might be saved were displayed for the special attention of the exhorters. Now, Bible study, foreign missions, and various civic involvements took the place of anti-slavery as primary concerns of Jersey congregations.
     Where the simple meetinghouse had been adequate for most believers in the 1830s, by the 1880s the churches' ministries had extended to include a variety of social and education activities not previously associated with formal religion, and the plan of the urban church and synagogue had changed to reflect this enhanced mission. We now find the parish house, library, Sunday School, lecture room, social hall, kitchen, gymnasium, and semi-detached chapel all common elements of the late-nineteenth century house of worship.

About 350 of the remaining churches in the state were erected in the last twenty years of the century—roughly one-third. All of the remaining synagogues (there are only seven left) and half the Roman Catholic churches were built in these two decades, but only 30% of the Presbyterian churches and none of the Quaker meetinghouses—the two denominations that had essentially dominated the state's religious and political life during the early colonial era. Since I have found it is relatively easily (now) to make a fairly accurate guess as to a churches age (based largely on the scale, construction, and architectural style), I wondered whether the zeitgeist (spirit of the age) of that late nineteenth century period might have been as much a determining factor as the denomination's liturgy, architectural traditions, or the ethnic background of its members. Presumably many of these buildings have more in common with each other than with those of their own denomination erected a few decades earlier. It's an interesting question, but rather than try to make an argument here, my intention this month is to show you a selection of the more interesting churches of the period and let you draw your own conclusions.

One of the things we can be rather certain of: congregations were still wedded to post-medieval idioms—Gothic and Romanesque, for the most part. Here and there we may find a protomodern massing of windows and walls, but with very few exceptions, we find a mixture of traditional forms, greatly scaled up in affluent communities, accentuated by exaggerated towers and arches, a proliferation of asymmetrical pinnacles and gables, and rich, textured surfaces. Much of it I find is tasteful, even graceful, but . . . there are some exceptions. Clarence Cook, an acerbic architectural critic of the 1880s, denounced “architects [who] cannot design a home or a church but they must carve every stone . . . break up every straight line . . . plow every edge into moldings . . . and refuse to give us a square foot of wall to rest the tired eye.” The House Beautiful (1881) His was not the only dissenting voice, and within a generation late Victorian architecture had fallen into disfavor. But you be the judge of this limited sample.

In Elizabeth, St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church (above) was built in 1887 facing a park by the waterfront. This monumental Gothic church, with its twin towers and rose window, would not look out of place in one of the older cities of Europe; in fact, it reminded me very much of Cologne Cathedral. Except for the fact that Catholics rarely built this grandly before the Civil War, there is little in the church itself to suggest a late nineteenth century edifice. The compound, however, includes schools and several residential buildings, which is the best clue as to its date.

Tom's River- Christ Church. This interesting church was erected in 1882, but since the completion of a newer church on the same property, it now serves as the congregation center. The massed windows are characteristic of the Romanesque Revival popularized by architect Henry Hobson Richardson, although in other respects the design is more likely to be called "stick." The emphasis here is clearly on gables and lines, in contrast to the above churches.

The Cranford Presbyterian (at the top) is one of the finest examples of the shingle style in the state. This building was erected in 1893 in a style that was more characteristic of upscale homes. Atlantic Highlands boasts another late Victorian style (the second image from the top). The Central Baptist Church was constructed in 1896. The interior is an amphitheatre arrangement, as one might infer from the corner entrance, the style and the date. The large rose window, set between towers of different height, was a common feature of the period.

Newark's Roseville Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1889. The large triple arched entrance and rusticated stone are typical of the Romanesque Revival. The elongated, heavily decorated windows high on the tower are occasionally seen on other churches of the period, but not any like these. The adjoining structures are obviously part of the "church," but they are very secular in appearance. When it was built it was much the largest structure in the neighborhood, and still stands out because of its tower and white stone construction. It is now known as the First Hopewell Baptist church, located at 525 Orange Street in Newark.

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Copyright 2005 Frank L. Greenagel