No. 55 January 2006
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Greek Revival, revisited

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17th century meetinghouses

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Trenton - Word to the World

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Pompton Plains Reformed

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Feature of the month

Oldest churches & meetinghouses in New Jersey, part 1

New Years is a time for lists—the ten best this and the ten worst that are staples of every popular magazine, including even trade and scientific journals. It's a way of recalling the newsworthy events and people of the year, and perhaps of suggesting something of their longer-term significance. Certainly Katrina, which is on everyone's list, was not just another storm, but one with considerable political, social and economic implications that raised it far above earlier Category 4 and 5 hurricanes. Some of the lists generate considerable controversy in the form of letters to the editor (i.e., “How could you omit so-and-so from your list, you simpleton ninny!”). I have nothing so timely or so controversial to offer, but in the spirit of making a list I hope that an inventory of the oldest churches in the state for each denomination might be of more than passing interest. We'll look at ten of the oldest churches in the state this month, and at ten more next month. because I am listing the churches in chronological order, do not be distressed if your denomination is not mentioned here—it simply means that no church or meetinghouse of that denomination survives that was built before 1784.

By “oldest church” I mean the oldest religious building, not the earliest congregation. I expect partisans of a couple of old churches will quarrel with my identification—the existence of a foundation or a partial wall has been used to justify a claim of priority over a couple of the churches included here, and I welcome any evidence that might cause me to modify my list. All of these buildings have separate entries on the website, so I provide here little more than the basic information about founding and construction dates.

St. Mary's Church, Burlington, Burlington County, 1703.
St. Mary's was organized shortly after Jersey became a royal colony in 1702. It was not the first Anglican congregation in the state—St. Peter's in Perth Amboy and Trinity in Woodbridge are contenders for that distinction, although St John's in Elizabeth also claims the honor. St. Mary's has been altered considerably over the centuries so this church, like several others on the list, bears little resemblance to the 1703 structure. National Register.

Woodbury Friends Meetinghouse, Woodbury, Gloucester County, 1715. Quaker settlers in Woodbury had probably established a Society soon after arriving in 1681—nine years after the first Quaker meeting was organized in Shrewsbury, in Monmouth County, by Quakers from New England. The Woodbury area was settled by Quakers from Lancashire (England) who came to escape the persecution there. The large brick meetinghouse was expanded in 1785, and one can still see traces of the original profile. The skirt roof is very likely a later addition, as the earliest meetinghouses usually had small pent roofs over the entrances, or none at all. National Register.

Ye Old Yellow Meetinghouse, Upper Freehold Township, Monmouth County, 1739. Baptists were among the earliest settlers in the state and several of the best preserved early meetinghouses were erected by Baptist congregations. The Upper Freehold Baptist Meetinghouse, recently restored, is located on Yellow Meetinghouse Road, off Route 526 a bit east of Imlaystown (off I195). Its dual entrances are, atypically, on the gable end rather than the long side. I believe the Middletown Baptist congregation, also in Monmouth Country was the first formally organized in the state (about 1688), but the congregation in Cohansey, in Cumberland County, was also a very early one. National Register.

Manahawkin Meetinghouse, Manahawkin, Ocean County, 1748. This is the oldest of several examples in the state of early meetinghouses erected for the use of any visiting Protestant preacher. Land was often donated for a Christian burial ground and, eventually, for a non-denominational meetinghouse. Baptists took over the building at some point, modifications to the interior and exterior were made, and the building, now nicely restored, houses the community center.

Zion Lutheran Church, Tewksbury Township, Hunterdon County, 1749. The present building is an amalgam of multiple alterations since the stone walls were first put up by an early German congregation. The entrance used to be on the long side, the roof was hipped, and the windows would not have been Gothic. The façade is now Greek Revival and the belfry Westlake; all this is the product of several renovations over 250 years. The congregation was founded in 1714, probably near Millstone in Somerset County, by a freed slave; by the 1740s, Reverend Henry Muhlenberg was in charge of all Lutheran congregations in the region and the church was erected under his leadership.

Old Tennent Church, near Freehold, Monmouth County, 1751. Scotch Presbyterians arrived in Perth Amboy in 1685 and by 1692 had organized and erected their first church in the vicinity of Freehold. This wood frame building, their second, was known for a time as the White Hill church, to distinguish it from Old Scots, the original building. It became the Tennent Church from the name of two brothers, leaders of the Great Awakening in the Raritan Valley, who were ministers here. It is one of the few churches in the state that appears regularly in surveys of American architecture. It stands on the edge of the Monmouth Battlefield—the largest engagement of the Revolutionary War—and was used as a field hospital following the battle. I believe it is the oldest Presbyterian church in the country. National Register.

Good Luck (Potter) Church, Murray Grove, Ocean County, 1765. The first Universalist service in the United States was held in this building on September 30, 1770. The meetinghouse was originally erected as a non-denominational church, but shortly thereafter a chance visit by the head of the Universalist Church in England lead to services here. The building was essentially rebuilt in 1841.



First Reformed Church of Pompton, Pompton Plains , Morris County, 1771. The style of this building is similar to a number of Reformed churches in Bergen county, and the congregation was formed by people moving west from Bergen and Passaic counties. It had been a mission of the Reformed church in Ponds, perhaps as early as 1713. This basic design can be found in Hackensack, Saddle River, Ridgefield, Ridgewood, and Ramapo—all Reformed churches, and all built with 20 years of each other. A disastrous fire in 1938 left only the exterior walls standing, but the restoration was authentic, so I regard this as the oldest Reformed church in the state rather than the one in Neshanic in Somerset County which was started a couple of years later.

Gemeinhaus, Hope, Warren County, 1781/86.
Although long-since converted into a bank, this solid stone structure, the center of the religious life for Moravians, has also served as a school, a hotel and as the county courthouse. Religious services were held on the second floor, and many original details in doors, fireplaces and cornices have been preserved. By 1808 it was clear that the community could not be economically self-sustaining, so the town and all community-buildings were sold off; the Moravians returned to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There are two other early Moravian churches in the state, although only one continues to hold services. National Register.

First Methodist Episcopal Church, Salem, Salem County, 1784. There are at least eight Methodist congregations that were organized in the 1770s, but the oldest remaining Methodist building erected as a meetinghouse is this small frame structure in Salem. It stands a block away from a successor erected in 1888, and is now a multi-family residence. I suspect there is not much but the frame of the building that is authentically 18th century, but that's enough for my purposes here. Most of the earliest Methodist congregations in the state were organized in south Jersey—the most prominent of which is the Head of the River meetinghouse, built in 1792 at Tuckahoe in Atlantic County. And that building is entirely authentic.

Being listed as one of the oldest meetinghouses is not, in itself, especially significant; two of these building have been greatly modified and two more are of no architectural merit. What I do find of more than passing interest is the sense of the religious diversity in the state that can be found in this list, as well as the variety of architectural styles and construction methods. You would have to visit eight counties to see the ten churches listed above. No state, with the possible exception of Pennsylvania, can exhibit the diversity that we find here in the eighteenth century. Nine different denominations erected meetinghouses and churches that have survived more than two hundred years, and two more served union or non-denominational congregations. Another nine denominations built their first churches or synagogues in the nineteenth century, not counting several other small splinter sects such as the Protestant Methodists, Wesleyan Methodists, Evangelical, or the Danish and Swedish Congregational churches, for example. And I have made no attempt to identify the first Particular Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Old School Baptists, and so on. But I have identified the first Seventh Day Baptists, the first Brethren, and the first Campbellite/Christian churches, as well as the state's remaining Mormon church; you'll find those plus six other of our oldest in next month's issue.

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Copyright 2006 Frank L. Greenagel