The authoritative source on
  early churches of New Jersey

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St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church
Woodsville, Manalapan Township, Monmouth County

Ellis writes of a hamlet situated near the western edge of Manalapan Township’s border with Millstone called Africa. It was settled, he notes,
by a number of colored people prior to 1840. An African Methodist Episcopal church was organized in 1843, although there is a sign high
in the gable of this church that says “ circa 1836.” Writing in 1885 Ellis
says the “church still maintains its organization, and is well-supported
by the colored people in the vicinity.” The 1889 Wolverton map shows
a church and cemetery at this location, but the denomination is not noted. The earliest readable tombstone in the adjoining burial ground is dated 1830.
      The 200 square foot addition to the left containing a bathroom, storage space and a small office was added in 1984 when vinyl siding and other improvements were made. I suspect the entry vestibule was also a later addition. The architect for the renovation discovered the church rested on large tree trunks set on big stones. The story of the church is rather remarkable. Catherine Conover was abducted in Africa by slave traders about 1800, brought to Philadelphia and purchased by a Hightstown farmer. She gained her freedom and $1,400 upon his death and used the money to buy the land where the church now stands. Church history says a wealthy Englishwoman, Mrs. Charles Sanford, donated money every year to run the Sunday School, an act that reportedly angered local slaveowners. There had been a long-running debate among religious leaders as to whether it was appropriate to educate and baptize slaves; some believed that in doing so the Bible did not sanction slavery of Christians. By the 1850s there were dozens of Episcopal, Baptist and Presbyterian ministers, mostly in the South, who assured slave-owners that the Bible indeed approved slavery, even for blacks who were educated and were baptized.

 

 

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