No. 13  April 2002
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Feature of the month

Deceptive chronologies: untangling building histories

I was recently taken to task for claiming that the Bound Brook Presbyterian church was organized about 1725 instead of 1688, as the writer asserted. I do make an effort to be accurate in the facts, but I have to rely largely on published sources, which are fallible. In this case, I relied, quite correctly I believe, on Snell's History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, published in 1881, which says, "It is generally accepted that the [Bound Brook] church was organized in 1725, although Dr. Rogers [the church's minister from 1830 to 1874] says in his historical sermon that it was organized in 1700." Even then, it seems, there was a tendency to claim as much antiquity as possible for one's church. Everyone would like his/her church to be the oldest in the state or the county.
     My goal is not to establish which was the first, but to construct a chronology that places a building in time so that we may see it in relation to other buildings and to its social and historical context. I try to assign the earliest date that is defensible in terms of whatever written records I have, as long as those records are consistent with the style and construction of the building. That's not as simple a task as it may seem. There's a fine old Presbyterian church in Kingston that is usually dated 1723 in the books I have seen. The actual construction date for this building, however, is 1852, which I think would be apparent to even a casual observer. I attribute the 1723 date to a typographical error that never got challenged.
      I am less sure what to make of the dating (1788) of the Cranbury Presbyterian church by two respected authorities. That would make Cranbury the first Greek Revival structure in the country, predating by a couple of years the earliest known drawing for a Greek Revival church, by a Pierre Pharoux, and even predating Jefferson's design of Virginia's capitol in Richmond, which is often credited as signaling the beginning of the Greek Revival in this country. The documented rebuilding of the Cranbury church in 1838 is a much more likely date, pairing it with the very similar First Presbyterian church in Princeton, which was erected in 1839. I would even hazard a guess that the two were designed by the same architect.
     Cornerstones usually provide presumptive evidence for dating a building, but occasionally they add to the confusion. The Zion Lutheran church (left) in Long Valley displays a marble plaque that says the building was erected in 1832 and rebuilt in 1861. Is this an 1832 building or an 1861 building? If the absence of other information, I have used 1861 as the date of construction, but I would be delighted to cite the earlier date if anyone has evidence that most of the present church was erected in 1832.
      The Presbyterian church in Lawrenceville proclaims it was built 1830, rebuilt 1853, and rebuilt again in 1870. Were the later rebuildings that, or simply a renovation that didn't change the outward appearance substantially? One can often tell from the style, but styles can be deceptive; Lawrenceville could be reasonably assigned to any of those dates, for the congregation stayed within a meetinghouse tradition that was as common to 1830 or 1853 as to 1870.
     Trenton's delightful "fantasy medieval" St Michael's (below right) is claimed to date from 1753, a date I find equally fanciful. A Hessian soldier stationed in Trenton just before Christmas in 1777 would not recognize the St Michael's we see today. The 1830s or 40s is more likely; there was a major renovation in 1844, and another major rebuilding in 1871, although the records note the "front facing Warren Street" was not altered during that construction.
     Another sensitive date is that of Newark's St John's Catholic church (below), which is claimed to be the oldest Roman Catholic church in the city (and therefore in the state). Its construction is widely attributed to 1828, and surely there was a church there at that time, but the one that sits there today is not one that would be recognized by a traveler in the 1830s. There were additions in 1838, 1846 and 1858, and the latter date is the one, in my opinion, which is the most likely date that the church assumed its present external and internal form. Is there a remaining wall or part of a foundation that dates to 1828? Probably, but that would be true for dozens of churches throughout the state.
     When trying to assign a date to a building, I have not accepted the existence of the foundation or a single wall as sufficient, but look for evidence of a major portion of the building. The tower and portico of Newark's Trinity church would be recognized by a traveler passing by soon after the church was erected in 1743, although the nave was rebuilt in 1810. Similarly, the tower for New Brunswick's Christ Church was built in 1773, but the nave was rebuilt (much later) twice. The Lutheran church in Oldwick claims 1749 as its date of construction; well . . . the walls were put up then, but the roof was changed from hipped to gable, the door was moved from the long side to the gable end, the pulpit was moved and the windows are new. Is it recognizably the same church as it was in 1749? Of course not. The Old First Church in Elizabeth was gutted by fire in the 1940s, but the walls remained and the interior was authentically restored, so what is a fair date for purposes of a useful chronology? In that case, I believe a time-traveler from 1789 would recognize the building we see today and so I accept 1789 as its date of construction.
     The Christian Church in Frenchtown presents a more difficult case. The local historical society applied for designation as a historic district, and their application is a model of documentation. In it, they claim the Christian Church was built in 1846, and that simple stucco-over-stone building (now a residence) might have been erected in 1846. But Snell's History offers an 1861 date for the organization of the congregation (presumably as a mission of the church in Milford) and particulars about the names of the trustees, the location and the cost ("about $1,000") of the meetinghouse. Is it likely the congregation was formally organized 15 years after the church was built? Not very. Snell's details on the organizational meeting gives credence to 1861, and that is the date I have used here.
     The facades of many churches conceal a complex history which we may try to unravel by examining the style and construction as well as the printed record. Rebuilding was usually the result of a fire or a growing congregation, but almost as often it indicates an improved financial situation of the congregation. The old churches document the social and financial conditions of their times, as well as reflect upon liturgical issues of that moment, but if we would interpret that record correctly, we must make an effort to get the dates right and not concern ourselves with which was first.



Copyright © 2002 Frank L. Greenagel