No. 30 December 2003
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250


  
   
   
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Feature of the month

a building of endearing simplicity

In New Jersey, the term meetinghouse causes most of us tend to think of the Quaker buildings in the counties on the Delaware; if we were from New England, we would conjure up an image of the early Puritan structures that housed both town meetings and Sabbath services—there being no distinction between the religious and the secular in Puritan communities. In fact, some of the earliest surviving meetinghouses in Massachusetts were defensive shelters as well—stout log structures with firing holes, built to protect settlers during Indian uprisings. An early Massachusetts statute made it unlawful to erect a dwelling more than a half mile from a meetinghouse. But New England's history is not our history; after the first decades of Dutch rule, the Indians were largely peaceful, and except in Newark, Elizabeth, Woodbridge and three other towns settled by New England Puritans in the 1660s, the distinction between church and state was clear. Moreover, Quakers were not the only group that erected meetinghouses in this state. Let us explore a bit of the state's architecture—two dozen or so meetinghouses which were erected between 1739 and 1837, and see if an enlarged sense of the term might be gained thereby. I would like to begin, however, by returning to New England, which seems particularly appropriate because several of the early meetinghouses here were put up by the descendants of immigrants from Massachusetts and Connecticut.

We have noted that meetinghouses in New England held religious services, town meetings, and also served as a gathering place for inhabitants at times of peril or emergency. Thus, during the weeks leading up to the clash in Lexington and Concord, arms and other military supplies were stored in meetinghouses throughout New England. Even Longfellow's poem about the midnight ride of Paul Revere (which contains much that is fictional) makes explicit and accurate reference to this use.
     Puritans, like many Dutch Protestants and English Quakers in the seventeenth century, made an effort to distinguish their places of worship from Catholic churches—so church-like structures and decorations were shunned. One scholar remarked that the seventeenth century in Northern Europe was one of experimentation in church design, and another pointed out that early Dutch paintings show octagonal churches in the landscape. Woodcuts and drawings of the early New England meetinghouses show that the buildings were often square, or nearly so, with benches along the perimeter, and a pulpit opposite the main entrance. A bit later, the buildings are larger, usually rectangular in shape, with the entrance on the long side, and a steeple, sometimes with several tiers, in the middle of the gable end.
     
There is a habit in New England to call any early church a meetinghouse, at least until about the 1830s when Greek Revival elements came to dominate and the term apparently seemed less appropriate, although I have seen images of Greek Revival and Wren-Gibbs type churches in Massachusetts, Maine, and Connecticut that are still called meetinghouses. It appears to me that in New England the term is based on the usage of the building rather than architectural style. That's fair enough, although it makes a shambles of my use of the term to designate a style of church, or as we shall see, several related styles.
To manage my project of photographing all the early churches of the state, I created a database, and categorize every church according to architectural style, as well as the town and county where it is located, the denomination, current use, and so on. I have tagged 250+ churches (out of almost 900) as meetinghouses. It's a quick description which I sometimes modify on closer examination, but it provides an approximation of the nature of the building. Within that meetinghouse classification are a range of styles, from the very simple Green Bank meetinghouse in Cumberland county to the more sophisticated Old Swedes church in Swedesboro, which seems at first glance an elaborate building, but by Philadelphia standards, it is a modest one, neither ostentatious nor pretentious, and clearly in the New England meetinghouse tradition.
     The early Calvinist meetinghouses in Bergen, Middlesex, and Somerset counties were octagonal (or hexagonal) structures with hipped roofs, an elevated pulpit opposite the entrance, and some sort of a steeple or weather vane, judging from early woodcuts and written descriptions. None of those buildings have survived, although there is a reconstruction of the Dutch Reformed church at Three Mile Run in Johnson State Park just across the river from New Brunswick. Recent archaeological research shows that the original Quaker meetinghouse in Burlington was hexagonal, so there is a common thread running through the oldest meetinghouses in New England and New Jersey.

The most famous meetinghouse in the state is, of course, Old Tennent (1751) just outside Freehold. It served as a field hospital following the Battle of Monmouth, a common use for churches and meetinghouses located near battlefields, but one, like the quartering of troops in Quaker meetinghouses which was common during the Revolutionary War, the congregation surely did not anticipate. Old Tennent is a large, almost symmetrical shingled building with three entrances on the long side. Placement of the windows on the gable end is irregular, and the cupola, which fashionable design would have placed in the center of the building above the main entrance, is located at the extreme western end. It is a delightful building—the oldest Presbyterian church in the country, I believe—and surprisingly, there is no other in New Jersey that is similar.

Much the most common form of meetinghouse in this state (other than the Quaker meetinghouses, of course) are the small, domestic buildings—really not different than a small schoolhouse. In many cases they were called “the meetinghouse,” not “the church” and although built as churches, were used for a variety of other meetings and were usually available to whatever preacher came through the area (but rarely to Catholics and sometimes not to Methodists). Many have a steeple or belfry, but not necessarily. Among the most authentic examples are Weymouth (1807), Head of River (1792), Estelle Manor (1834), Green Bank (1823), Mt Bethel (Somerset, 1757), Upper Springfield Township (1739), Knowlton (1844), and Old Clove (1829). They are mostly wooden frame buildings, but several were made of stone: Old Rocks (1843), Mt Bethel (Warren, 1841), and the Locktown Old School Baptist (1819); or stucco over stone: Kingwood Presbyterian (1837) and most of the Christian (Campbellite) churches. Included in this category are several of the AME churches, and a handful of buildings designed as union churches, erected cooperatively by several small congregations which were not large enough to afford their own building or support a regular minister. Congregations alternated services when the minister of each was scheduled to come through, and the buildings were used for other meetings and purposes. About half of these meetinghouses accommodated a gallery. Worth mentioning are several other early meetinghouses, although later additions and modifications have altered their original appearance significantly: Manahawkin (1748), St Peter's (Freehold 1751), the SPG mission at Johnsonburg (c.1769), the original Methodist meetinghouse in Salem (1784), Batsto (1808), and the Harmony Hill Methodist church (Warren 1832).

Another style which I call meetinghouse—one not prevalent (to my knowledge) in New England—is the meetinghouse tradition exemplified by Connecticut Farms (1783), Springfield (1791), Hackettstown (1819), Elizabeth's Second Presbyterian (1821), the Hillsborough Reformed church at Millstone (1828), and another at Blawenburg (1832), New Providence (1834), and perhaps a few others. All are Presbyterian or Reformed. Some have a steeple/belfry but a few did not, and in none of the cases is there a tower projecting from the front of the building, which was the standard New England design. They differ largely in the door surrounds, some of the extra windows, and other aspects that suggest a ceremonial, not just a utilitarian purpose. Connecticut Farms is built of stone, Elizabeth is brick, but the others are substantial braced frame buildings, in construction probably not appreciably different from a barn. A couple of them do not look much like a conventional church, although they are obviously neither house nor barn; most bear kinship to early nineteenth century academies. The interiors seem to me to be conventional: galleries on three sides, box pews, a pulpit centered on the aisle, and nothing elaborate about an altar (if there is one) or the chancel.

A third group of meeting-houses are essentially Georgian buildings with their main entrances on the long side, like Old Tennent. They are symmetrical structures, built of brick, without a steeple or belfry (except for Old Swedes), and are distinguished by the Georgian style of door surround, which may include columns or pilasters and a fanlight. The list includes Old Swedes (1784), Old Pilesgrove (1767), the stately Cohansey Baptist (1801), the Moravian meetinghouse at Swedesboro (1786), and Bridgeton's magnificent Old Broad (1792). If one came upon the Pilesgrove meetinghouse or the Baptist meetinghouse in Cohansey in an urban setting, one might mistake them for an eighteenth century tavern, or the home of a prosperous merchant. The large windows of the Broad Street Presbyterian church in Bridgeton suggest that it was designed to host some kind of meeting, but there seems to be nothing ecclesiastical to the twentieth century eye about the building. Old Swedes is clearly a Wren-Gibbs style church, but smack-dab in the New England meetinghouse tradition (except for its brick construction and fashionable window treatment) so had to be included here. The Swedish Lutheran minister who designed it spent time in London learning English, studying church architecture, and kissing girls (according to his letters) before taking up his assignment in this country. We may assume he put at least two of those proficiencies to good use while in New Jersey.

At what point does a structure cease being a meetinghouse and become a church? Is that a question that nineteenth century congregations would have found relevant? Meetinghouse may suggest modest financial circumstances of the congregation, but it might as easily reflect the multiple uses for which a community building was designed. With the rising affluence and increased mobility of the population came a demand for more specialized places to meet, as well as more of the basic comforts and style which heretofore were dismissed as too worldly, so many churches added smaller lecture rooms, classrooms for Sunday school, and other assembly rooms distinct from the main auditorium. The mid-nineteenth century church was more than ever a meeting house, but the term dropped away. Perhaps the word needs to be qualified with an adjective—Georgian, modest, Quaker, or something else. Whatever we choose to call them, the state has a wonderfully rich array of eighteenth and early-nineteenth century meetinghouses, most of which are too little known to a broader audience. I feel I have done many of those meetinghouses an injustice by not picturing them here and providing only a link to a page with little additional information. Perhaps the endearing simplicity that one early scholar wrote of is something best discovered for yourself.

 
 

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