No. 20 December 2002
The authoritative source
early churches in New Jersey
We've created a database and photographic inventory containing 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
A friend is in the process of compiling
an illustrated guide to stained glass in the area's churches, especially
those with Tiffany or John LaFarge windows. For a sample of some fine
windows, check this site:
If you know
of any churches with Tiffany windows, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
the emphasis in this website is on the architectural aspects of the early
churches of New Jersey, we've noted the architect or master builder wherever
that information was available. We have compiled a directory of individuals
and firms who worked in the state, and offer it now, even in incomplete
form, for suggestions, corrections and additions.
some talk of building a church
History of American Architecture
you identify this church?
Rt 94, Sussex County
photo of the month
A dozen at-risk buildings are noted. Submit your nomination for the most
endangered churches in the state. We will research the submissions and
feature one each month, then maintain that list indefinitely.
Do have additional information about any of the buildings in this article?
Or perhaps an old photograph or an article that can enrich our knowledge?
Please submit that information for the benefit of other visitors.
to use this site
Architects & master builders
Consult the database
Annotate the database
Upload a photo
Suggest a church for inclusion
List of churches, by county
Links to related sites
of the month
white walls, black churches
There were 412 Negro churches in the state in 1938, according to the
WPA directory of churches (The Works Progress Administration was a New
Deal agency that employed writers on a variety of projects, including
a complete listing of the extant churches in each county.). Most of the
buildings that house black congregations, of course,
do not date to the 19th century, and a number of early congregations did
not have their own church, but shared space with other congregations or
held services in homes and in public buildings, a pattern familiar to
other denominations as well. The county histories written in the 1880s
do a notably poor job of inventorying the black churches, so it is very
difficult to arrive at an estimate of the number of surviving 19th century
black churches in the state, most of which are African Methodist Episcopal
(AME), AME Zion, or Baptist congregations. To date I have photographed
25 churches belonging to one of those denominations that date to the 19th
century, and I know about another 10. But that sample is far from complete.
Even in counties where I have concentrated (Hunterdon, Somerset, Warren,
Essex, Hudson and Burlington) I feel there must have been more black churches
whose identity is obscured, and Monmouth, Camden, and Salem ought to have
several more each, given the substantial black populations in those counties
throughout the 19th century. This article is therefore less an inventory
or analysis than a very preliminary report that I hope will stimulate
people with more knowledge than I have to contact me with additional information.
(In a side note, one person I corresponded with suggested I had no business
investigating the topic and ought to leave it to black scholars; another
said all I had to do was to open my eyesthe state was filled with
I estimate there may be as many as 60-70
churches from the 19th century that were built by black congregations.
There are many more old churches now occupied by black congregations,
but they were originally erected by mainstream white, mostly Presbyterian
and Reformed congregations. Most of the buildings put up by black congregations
are simple wooden frame buildings, reflecting the modest financial circumstances
of their congregations. Most have been modified and/or renovated extensively,
so only a few, in my opinion, bear much resemblance to the original churches.
Many of the earliest congregations have prospered, and did as their white
counterparts didrebuilt their churches in this century. The upshot
is that any inventory, no matter how complete or representative (and this
surely is neither) will not adequately reflect the history of black church
architecture in the 19th century. Having said all that, let us examine
some of what we have.
In contrast to the Presbyterian churches
in much of the state and the Quaker meetinghouses in the southern areas,
black churches are rarely found in the center of town. No one would have
sold prime property to them, if they had the moneya problem experienced
by early Catholic and some Methodist congregations as well. With few exceptions,
they are found on the periphery in Mt Holly, Madison,
Cape May, South Bound Brook
and Lambertville, or they
are found out in the countryside, as in Othelo
(Cumberland county), Whitesboro
(Cape May county) and Rocktown
(Montgomery Township in Somerset county). A few are found in towns founded
by blacks, such as the one in the top photo in this article, of the Solomon
Wesley Methodist church in Blackwood (Camden county) that is now listed
on the National Register of Historic Places.
In Burlington county are several early
AME churches; pictured here is one in Burlington itself and another in
Mt. Holly. The Bethlehem AME church in Burlington (left)
was erected in 1836.
Obviously remodeled, the size alone suggests that its congregation was
substantial and prosperous. It sits near the center of town, close to
the river and the Waterworks. The Mt. Moriah AME congregation in Mt Holly
more modestly, about the same time (1835). The congregation was organized
by 1826 and their first church was built a little west of this one on
Washington Road, where their cemetery still stands. Where the Burlington
church exhibits elements of mainstream church architecture, Mt. Moriah
draws little or nothing from other churches. That Washington Road neighborhood
hosts an early Catholic church and an early Methodist church as well as
two 19th century black churches.
Gouldtown, in Cumberland county,
was an important early black community. Appropriately, it is the site
of one of the most interesting black churches, Trinity AME (right).
A traditional meetinghouse in the style of the Springfield Presbyterian
church, it was erected about 1860.
1878, the Mt Pisgah AME (left)
congregation erected this fine brick church in Salem. Mt Pisgah is one
of the earliest congregations in the state, organized in 1800. The building
is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It draws on a rich
legacy of southern New Jersey architecture, which is in turn derived from
the Georgian traditions of Philadelphia.
Allen AME in Cape May (below)
is a very simple but nicely proportioned design. A suggestion of a Gothic
arch over the entrance, but otherwise no elaboration. I believe it was
built about 1890.
The black population of the state was substantial,
varying from 7-10% throughout the colonial period and into the end of
the 19th century; in some counties (Monmouth, Somerset, Bergen) it was
as high as 12-17%, with a substantial proportion of free blacks throughout
the state's existence. Before the founding of the black churches, it is
difficult to say where the bulk of blacks in the state worshiped. If the
percentage of blacks who where members of churches paralleled that of
whites, only about 7% of the black population were church members, although
more than that may have attended occasional services. Records of early
Presbyterian churches in Lamington and Flemington list colored
members, sometimes indicated by a first name only, and often by the notation
that the individual was a slave. Seating was separate (blacks sat in the
gallery, along with children) and as late as 1857, burials at Lamington
were still separate.
White churches, especially the Quakers,
get a lot of credit for assisting blacks before and after the Civil War,
but I suspect that, if the record were more complete, we would find that
black congregations did more to help themselves than is generally acknowledged.
A part of that record begins with a more complete inventory of the early
black congregations in the stateand their churches.
For additional information, there are three invaluable sources: Giles
Wright's, Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History (Rutgers,
1998), C.B. Coane's, The Negro Church in New Jersey (WPA, 1938),
and Graham Hodges', Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African
Americans in Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1665-1865 , (Madison House,