No. 21 January 2002
The authoritative source
early churches in New Jersey
We've created a database and photographic inventory containing more than
half the 18th & 19th century churches in the state and add to it each
month. We welcome and solicit all contributions and suggestions from our
the emphasis in this website is on the architectural aspects of the early
churches of New Jersey, we've noted the architect or master builder wherever
that information was available. We have compiled a directory of individuals
and firms who worked in the state, and offer it now, even in incomplete
form, for suggestions, corrections and additions.
white walls, black churches
American Whig Party
you identify this church?
Bridgeton, Cumberland county
photo of the month
A dozen at-risk buildings are noted. Submit your nomination for the most
endangered churches in the state. We will research the submissions and
feature one each month, then maintain that list indefinitely.
Do have additional information about any of the buildings in this article?
Or perhaps an old photograph or an article that can enrich our knowledge?
Please submit that information for the benefit of other visitors.
to use this site
Architects & master builders
Consult the database
Annotate the database
Upload a photo
Suggest a church for inclusion
List of churches, by county
Links to related sites
of the month
Burlington's St. Mary'sthe 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
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
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.