No. 22  February 2003
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Feature of the month

The oldest Mormon church in the country?

Not since the eighth century when the Muslim religion was founded has there been a new religious denomination as successful as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Better known as the Mormon church, it was formally organized in 1831 at a time when dozens of new sects were formed in this country, including the Owenites, Fourierites, and a variety of perfectionist and millennial communities. Most died out within a generation or less, but the LDS church thrived, with more adherents today outside the U.S. than within the county, according to the Economist (12/21/2002). Upstate New York was the spawning ground for many of these sects, and indeed, that was where Mormon founder Joseph Smith uncovered the golden plates in 1823 that contained the entire text of the Book of Moroni, although the church was legally constituted in Ohio. The LDS headquarters were soon moved to Missouri, but because of conflicts with neighbors in 1838-39, the leaders were expelled and the church relocated to Navoo, Illinois, where their history becomes much better known. Following the murder of Joseph Smith and his brother in 1844, the major part of the faith left for Utah (in 1847), where they flourished, although often amidst conflict with other settlers and with the federal government. This is mildly interesting, you may say, but where is the New Jersey connection?
     The records show that Joseph Smith preached in the state in 1840, as did Brigham Young, his successor as leader of the church, in 1843. In 1844, a wagon load of New Jersey Mormons left for Navoo, and later, another wagon train left from the state for Utah—all of which indicates that the LDS was reasonably well-established in the state, a fact that is not much noted in the religious history of New Jersey. The first record of services in the state dates to 1832, but most of the attempts to organize congregations (stakes, in Mormon parlance), took place in the late 1830s. An early Mormon stake was established in 1840 in Tom's River, and others held services in Shrewsbury, Recklesstown, Cream Ridge, Greenville, Shark River, Mt. Holly, Little Falls, Pompton, Tabernacle, New Egypt, Jersey City and Newark. But Hoernerstown in Monmouth county seems to have been the center for the church, as it is referred to repeatedly in accounts of visits from the church's hierarchy, which at one time included another of Joseph Smith's brothers (William).
      In spite of the substantial number of members (by early 19th century standards) of some of the stakes—Cream Ridge, for example, had 100 members—only two churches are specifically referred to: one in Tom's River and the other in Ocean County, about eight miles east of Hoernerstown. The building in Tom's River was purchased in 1878 and was used as a storehouse for a while, and then apparently disappears from the historical record (although it may still exist). But the other building remains, near Hamilton in Jackson Township, a few miles south of Interstate 195.
     The New Faith Bible Church is undoubtedly one of the earliest surviving Mormon churches in the country, perhaps the oldest. It was built between 1839 and 1844. There is a small burial ground behind the church and a much larger one across the road. I did not inspect the grave markers carefully, but a cursory walk suggested that most of the older headstones date to the 1870s; judging by the shape and weathering, however, many might well date to the early years of the Mormon congregation. The building has been sheathed in aluminum siding, and an entry vestibule has been added, but in scale and design, it probably has not changed much since its erection. There are no distinctive elements that might mark it as Mormon, or as any other denomination.

There was a widespread falling away from the church after 1850; one historian says "this apostasy eventually became complete and universal, incurable at mere attempts at reform,"—but Mormon religious services continued in the 1860s and early 1870s. The death of Smith caused a schism in the church, with some advocates for designating Joseph Smith's son, rather than Brigham Young, as successor. That group eventually became the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and some in New Jersey, according to depositions taken much later, became members of the RLDS. There are hints in the record that the Mormons were harassed here as they were elsewhere, and essentially chased from the state. A Methodist congregation in time took over the building, and sometime in the last several decades, it was acquired by the present congregation.

For additional information, see A.William Lund, “The Early Mormons of New Jersey” in The New Jersey Genesis, (n.p., n.d.) and Claire Bay and Alfred Carlson, A Bit of Zion on Barnegat Bay, 1997.

 
 

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