No. 21  January 2002
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Feature of the month

Burlington's St. Mary's—the oldest church in New Jersey

The oldest church building in the state, Old St. Mary's, built in Burlington in 1703, will celebrate its 300th anniversary this August. It is not only an interesting building in its own right, but its story offers us a reminder of how much of the churchscape is influenced by personalities and politics. First, a little of the historical background.
     Burlington was settled by Quakers in 1678, but William Penn and other Quakers who owned massive acreage in West Jersey had sold most of their holdings here by 1681 to concentrate on development of Pennsylvania. Burlington was by then the capitol of West Jersey, and the Burlington Meeting was, with the Philadelphia Meeting, one of the two principal seats of the Society of Friends in America. By 1702, internal strife resulted in the revocation of the proprietary charters, and in that year New Jersey became a crown colony under Queen Anne, with Burlington and Perth Amboy alternating as the meeting place of the colonial Assembly. The West Jersey area of the colony was dominated by Quakers and Presbyterians, and the populace was decidedly cool to the Church of England, which had persecuted both denominations in England, Scotland and Ireland. There was concern by the Crown that the whole of West Jersey would be settled by Quakers and Dissenters (Presbyterians) so the governor and the Parliamentary body charged with colonial administration felt the Church of England needed to be represented at the seat of government (Perth Amboy already had an Anglican church).
     At this point, George Keith, formerly the Surveyor-General for the colony and for much of the previous 30 years, one of the leading Quaker missionaries in America before he was expelled from the Philadelphia Meeting, re-enters New Jersey, but this time on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, the missionary wing of the Anglican church. Following his expulsion, Keith had gone to England and gotten himself ordained as a Episcopal priest, then returned with another missionary, John Talbot, to organize an Anglican congregation in Burlington. Keith still had a substantial following among the Quakers and many of the initial members were former Quakers; they helped raise money to buy a plot of land on Broad Street, next to the burial grounds that had been dedicated as "free for all other Christian people, who shall hereafter be reminded to bury their dead." (Which prompts the question: what else would they have done with them?)
     The cornerstone was laid in March 1703 and by August, the small church, measuring only 22 by 40 feet, was dedicated. It was built of brick (120,000 of them!) in the Georgian manner, and probably looked much like the old Pilesgrove Presbyterian church built 64 years later in Daretown (Salem county). Talbot became the first Rector, and was later designated as Bishop, but by a rump session in England which was later disavowed by the Church of England. The Anglican church in America was not to have its own Bishop until after the Revolutionary War, largely because the English authorities feared that so doing would make the colonies even less dependent. Other Protestant denominations also opposed the establishment of an Anglican Bishop in the colonies because they feared the alliance of the church and the secular power would curtail their religious freedom.
     The building was extended 23 feet to the west in 1769 (Robert Smith of Philadelphia, who designed Carpenters Hall there, as well as the Anglican churches in Shrewsbury and Freehold, was the architect.). The entrance was moved from the west side to face Broad Street on the south, and extended again to the east in 1810. The initial expansion was probably due to growth in the size of the congregation, but it may have been part of the continuing effort to secure an American Bishop by providing a suitable seat. The 1810 work, which included considerable remodeling and the addition of an apse, was carried out according to plans prepared by the architect Robert Mills, originally from South Carolina, but lately of Philadelphia and destined to become architect of the U.S. Capitol. Wings were added to the north and south in 1834 under the direction of Isaac Holden, another Philadelphia architect, which gave the church its present cruciform plan. George Washington Doane became Rector of St. Mary's and Bishop of New Jersey in 1833, and undoubtedly influenced the design, as he was much enamored of returning the church to traditional liturgy and medieval architecture. Fortunately, the economy had improved at this time after several years of extremely tight money which followed President Jackson's conflict with the Second Bank of the United States. At this time, the building was stuccoed, covering up one of the last major traces of its Georgian roots. What we have today is essentially what a visitor would have seen in 1834, but quite a different church than the original one built in 1702. "Buildings are messy," according to one architectural historian. "The facades of most buildings conceal complex histories, histories which we can begin to unravel by examining style in conjunction with other features, such as form or construction. Style provides only one of several clues to a building's past." Clearly, we need to look at much more than form and construction to fully realize St. Mary's.
     The building served the congregation and as the seat of the Bishop for New Jersey until 1854, when the new St. Mary's church, a few hundred feet south, just across the old burial grounds, was dedicated. The original building was converted for Sunday School use in 1875, then served the congregation again in 1976 when the new church was severely damaged by fire; services continued here until repairs were completed in 1979. Over the last several years it has been extensively restored and is used for occasional services. It is recognized as a National Historic Monument.

A note on sources: The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) is an archive that contains information, measured drawings and photographs on many early churches. The drawings and vintage photographs in this article are drawn from the HABS online materials.



Copyright © 2003 Frank L. Greenagel