No. 11  February 2002
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Feature of the month

New Jersey's Campbellite churches

A Google search for "Campbellite church" turns up several hundred references, mostly to biographical data on 19th century figures, including President Garfield; the note is often simply that "[person] attended the Campbellite church in [town]." Many of those churches lie in the south and in the Ohio Valley; I didn't trace them all, but none appeared to specify a New Jersey church. Nevertheless, there were more than a handful of Campbellite churches in the state, and the history of their formation sheds some interesting light on a significant movement in the country's cultural history.
       The period from 1800 through about 1840 was marked by more or less continuous revivals, largely led by Presbyterian ministers in Appalachia, but often in concert with Baptist and Methodist clergy. The Cane Ridge revival of 1801 in Kentucky is much the most famous, but in many ways atypical. The religious fervor created by the excitement of those revivals often led to a clash of interpretations of the best (or only) way to salvation, as well as to many disputes about baptism (infant or adult) and the sabbath (Saturday or Sunday). The upshot was that the first half of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of a number of religious sects, usually as schisms and separations from one of the mainstream denominations, but occasionally entirely new bodies arose, like the Shakers and the Mormons.
       Several of the breakaway groups from Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist congregations coalesced by 1811 in western Pennsylvania under the leadership of a Presbyterian minister, Thomas Campbell, and his son Alexander, who sought a union of believers where the simple gospel rather than creeds would be central. They intended to get away from denominational lines and a church hierarchy, and called it the Christian church, but many congregations became known as Campbellite churches, very likely because of the prominence of Alexander Campbell's writing and debating skills. Adherents flocked to his message, and the Christian church expanded rapidly; by 1832 there were hundreds of congregations from New England to North Carolina. The denomination continued to grow strongly after the Civil War, especially in the west and midwest.
       The term, "Campbellite church," was a popular one, never an official name, and both Campbells denied any intention to found a church. But that they did. Both the Disciples of Christ and the Church of Christ trace their roots to the Christian church begun by the Campbells.

I have identified six surviving Campbellite (Christian) churches in the state, although I suspect there are many more: in Locktown, Little York, Frenchtown (all Hunterdon), Hopewell Mountain (Somerset), Finesville and Johnsonburg (Warren). Two of the churches are deteriorating, two are residences, one hosts a evangelical sect, and the another houses a Presbyterian congregation. The mother church for the four in Hunterdon and Somerset is active as a United Church of Christ congregation, but its nineteenth century building burned in 1952.
At one time there were Christian churches in Baleville (Sussex), Irvington (Essex), and Bridgeboro (Burlington). Some of the Christian congregations merged in the 1930s with the Congregational church, and there is a suggestion that Congregational churches in Jersey City, Bound Brook and Westfield began as Christian churches.

The churches, from top to bottom: Little York Christian church, founded in 1842 and erected in 1844, is in use as a barn. The Frenchtown Christian church, founded in 1846 and built in 1861 , now serves as a residence. Locktown's Christian church, founded in 1829 and this, the second church on the site, built in 1864; it now serves a Presbyterian congregation. The Christian church of Johnsonburg, it's steeple sitting to the side, is unoccupied; it was founded is uncertain, but this building was erected in 1846; The Hopewell Mountain Christian church, founded in 1844 and build in 1847; it was rebuilt in 1895 and held services into the 1960s; it now serves as a residence. The Finesville Christian church (not pictured) was a union church, shared with a Lutheran and Methodist congregation; it was organized in 1842 and the present structure erected in 1877.


 

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