30 December 2003
Architects & Builders
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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.
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.