Issue No. 1   April 2001
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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We've created a database and photographic inventory on more than half the 18th & 19th century churches in the state and add to it each month. We welcome and solicit all contributions and suggestions from our visitors.


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Mount Holly's two nineteenth
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Holy Leisure: Recreation and Religion in God's Square Mile

Zion on the Hudson: Dutch New York and New Jersey in the Age of Revivals

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architectural oddities: unusual church designs

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Feature of the month

The Beginnings of Gothic Revival in New Jersey

Two fascinating churches were built in 1845, both Episcopal. One marks the end of a tradition, the other a beginning; neither church is well known, except to architectural historians, but both deserve to be. In this month's feature, we'll look at both churches, and at a few of their predecessors and successors.
     Saint Peter's in Clarksboro is a traditional Wren-Gibbs church; a wooden frame structure, with a square tower projecting from the front of the building, three large windows on each side, a simple belfry and steeple. The rectangular building has a Greek pediment and pilasters at the corners. A large wooden sign just below the belfry proclaims 1771, the year of its founding. It is the last Episcopal church built in the idiom of the mid-Atlantic region.
     The Chapel of the Holy Innocents, in Burlington, was built in the same year. It is a school chapel, rather than a parish church, but that fact is irrelevant to the enormous difference in style. It has a transept, which means that its plan is a cruciform rather than the rectangular design of most of the eighteenth and nineteenth century churches in the state. A cruciform plan would have been considered too Popish in a region dominated by reformed churches. Holy Innocents has very narrow Gothic windows, not designed to let much light into the interior, and a steeply pitched roof. Moreover, it is built of uncoursed stone, not unusual, of course, but it is not a rude or unsophisticated building--quite the contrary; the nature of the construction was obviously an integral part of the design. Holy Innocents marks the beginning of the English Gothic Revival tradition in this country.
     The line of demarcation is rarely so clear, nor the causes so evident, as they are in this shift in architectural style in Episcopal churches. In 1841, the Right Reverend George Washington Doane, Bishop of New Jersey, returned from an extended tour of cathedrals and parish churches in England, frequently under the guidance of a member of the Ecclesiology movement centered in Cambridge University, which was frankly dedicated to "influencing church architecture in the colonies." Doane came back with plans and ideas, and soon engaged William Notman to design a chapel for Saint Mary's School in Burlington. Notman had previously designed a Gothic-style church in Glassboro, Saint Thomas's, but in this case he was instructed to follow a specific English model for portions of the chapel, and he had access to measured drawings of that church.
      During construction of Holy Innocents, Doane engaged Richard Upjohn, who had already produced Trinity Church in New York City, to design a cathedral church for Burlington.The result is Saint Mary's Church, completed in 1854, one of the loveliest and most influential churches in the country, again patterned after a specific fourteenth century English church, measured drawings of which had been supplied by the Ecclesiology movement, albeit the Oxford University wing (Ecclesiological politics were very complex then.).      
      The architectural aspects of the movement were based, in part, on liturgical reasons, in part on a reaction to the dominant Greek Revival architecture of the time, and, significantly, on "a desire for more formal richness and visual opulence" in the churches, which they felt could best be expressed by a return to the English Gothic style of the fourteenth century. To realize the significance of the change, let us look at several Episcopal churches built immediately prior to Holy Innocents, then at several constructed shortly afterwards.

In 1843, Saint Paul's Church, in Rahway, was built. Its style is early Gothic, but it's clearly a Wren-Gibbs plan, with a similar projecting tower to the Clarksboro church, and modestly elaborated belfry. There are two large Gothic windows on the front, and four more along each side, making for a well-lighted interior. The church is not dissimilar to that which might have been built by a Presbyterian or Dutch Reformed congregation of the time.

      The Gothic was not the only acceptable style for Episcopal churches during this era, for in 1836, a congregation in Piscataway-town built a Greek Revival church, with Gothic windows front and side, but a shallow pitched roof characteristic of Greek Revival.
      A year earlier, in 1835, a Middletown congregation erected a small, wood frame building, that except for the Gothic windows and door, might pass for a country schoolhouse. The belfry is not appreciably different from Rahway's.
      In 1832, the proprietor of a major ironworks in Allaire had an Episcopal church built for his employees. It is a meetinghouse style church, but with an unusual rear placement of the steeple and cupola, which are similar to that found on Reformed and Presbyterian churches dating back fifty years.
      These five churches, Allaire, Piscataway-town, Middletown, Rahway and Clarksboro, are representative of the diversity in styles that was common throughout the state prior to 1845 for all but the Quaker meetinghouses. But that changes with the completion of Holy Innocents.

Let's move forward from 1845. In 1846, a church was erected in Philadelphia based on plans furnished by the Ecclesiologists, Saint James the Less, that was to have a profound influence on Episcopal parish churches throughout the state and the nation. It had a steeply-pitched roof, buttresses, narrow Gothic windows, a distinct chancel and a bellcote, but not yet the transept that will become a fixture in Episcopal churches.
     In 1848, an Episcopal congregation in Trenton erected a church (Saint Paul's) that is remarkably similar to Notman's building in Glassboro. There are narrow Gothic windows, buttresses at the corners, a steeply pitched roof, and roughly cut, but not unsophisticated, stone construction. Still, no transept.
     But in 1850, a small church in Matawan, designed by Upjohn, pulls everything that is to characterize the English Gothic Revival, together: transept and chancel, narrow Gothic windows, bellcote rather than belfry, exaggerated buttresses and an entrance vestibule on the south side. In 1856, a congregation in Woodbury built a church similar to Saint James the Less: a steep pitch to the roof, an articulated entrance, bellcote, transept, narrow Gothic windows. It also incorporates an elaborate ironwork door, which was less noticeable on earlier churches, and nonexistent on those built prior to 1845. A Woodbridge congregation built a similar building in 1860; like Matawan, it is of brick, but we see the bellcote, articulated entrance placed on the South side, transept, and the chancel facing east. The roof is steeply pitched and the Gothic windows are small, resulting in a dark interior.

Most of the Episcopal parish churches built during the remainder of the century employed virtually all of those elements. Even some that had been recently completed (by, say, 1855) soon were renovated to add a chancel and transept, as well as internal alterations to the pulpit, choir and altar. The diversity of styles that was common prior to 1845 had now become a uniform commitment to the fourteenth century English Gothic style for Episcopal churches.
Greek Revival was dead in most of the state as an ecclesiastical style by 1850, and the Gothic Revival had spread to mainline Protestant congregations. Most of those did not adopt the deep chancel, the crossing or the bellcote, and many stayed with large windows to provide well-lighted interiors, at least until the craze for stained glass windows even for simple country churches swept the country.  In time, the Romanesque displaced the exclusive reliance on Gothic elements, but the Gothic Episcopal church, because of the influence and affluence of its members, marked the real end of regional styles in New Jersey.



Copyright © 2001 Frank L. Greenagel