No. 37 July 2004
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

union churches

In this month of celebrating the Fourth it is particularly appropriate to remember some of the other heroes of the Independence who are often forgotten—men like John Dickinson, George Mason, James Otis, Daniel Dulany, and one of my special heroes—though more often maligned than forgotten, Thomas Paine. It was Paine, you recall, who decried "the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot" in his broadside that begins, "These are the times that try men's souls." Paine's earlier pamphlet, Common Sense, was the most effective political tract in our history; an estimated one million Americans read it and it was translated into German, Dutch and French, and even reprinted in London with most of the treasonable remarks about the king omitted. The country had been at war with Britain for more than a year, but many still hoped for a reconciliation; Common Sense brought the issue of independence to the forefront of the debate in the Continental Congress, and this month we celebrate its adoption. Few people appreciate what a touch-and-go issue it was, but Paine's rhetoric, more than the reasoned analysis of legal precedents and philosphical arguments carried the day.
      Paine also wrote The Age of Reason, for which he was vilified and libeled by a generation of churchmen as a scoundrel and a drunkard, as well as an atheist. Even fifty years later, one of the local divines, in an attempt to refute the general disaffection with religion, claimed Paine recanted his atheism on his deathbed (he did not, according to eye-witnesses). Paine, who lived for a time in Bordentown, was recently called to mind when I visited a 1776 church in Easton, Pennsylvania where he represented the Continental Congress at the signing of a treaty with the Indians. That exceptional stone meetinghouse, then called the Third Street Church, was built as a union church by Lutheran and German Reformed congregations, denominations which were at times bitter enemies in Germany. Each had its own minister, kept its own membership rolls, and alternated Sundays. If that sounds unusual, it was rather common in this state. Although none of the buildings those union congregations erected are as impressive as the Easton church, it provides the excuse to direct a little attention towards a few of the union congregations in New Jersey, and incidentally to pay tribute again to Thomas Paine.

At its simplest, a union church is a meetinghouse erected by and for people of different faiths. In many cases there was not a settled minister, but the congregation depended on occasional visits of itinerant preachers. Union churches arose not from an early spirit of ecumenicalism, but because the low population densities of much of the state moved families of one sect to join with families of another to jointly build a church or at least a lecture station. That meetinghouse was available to any [Protestant] minister who visited the area, and in a few cases, a Presbyterian and a Reformed minister, who were each responsible for several congregations, for example, might alternate Sundays. The different segments of the congregations often kept their own membership rolls and a separate identity, but in a few documented cases, the congregation didn't seem to know (or apparently care) whether the minister was Lutheran or Reformed or Presbyterian. The evangelical sects, which disdained the rituals and sacraments of Anglicans and Catholics, were virtually interchangeable as far as their message and services were concerned.
Before the Great Awakening in 1740 that kind of cooperation would have been almost unthinkable, but that movement emphasized a personal commitment to Christ rather than specific doctrines and confessions, and people in the Raritan Valley where the Great Awakening had its inception, realized they may have more in common with other settlers who had a similar outlook, regardless of language or nationality, creed or ritual. There were certainly rivalries, of course—Bishop Asbury told his itinerant preachers to stay away from Methodist conferences because while they were meeting together the Baptists were stealing converts who otherwise might become Methodists. And Alexander Campbell, founder of what became the Disciples of Christ, was said to have given a friendly greeting to a Baptist evangelist, who replied, "Don't call me brother—I'd rather send someone to the devil than to your church." But the history of dozens of the state's churches begin with a union congregation, so let me sketch a bit about a few of them, mostly drawn from the northwestern part of the state.

About 1747 a cluster of the devout near the border of Hunterdon, Somerset and Morris erected a log church, known as the Fox Hill church; the congregation consisted of Lutheran, German Reformed and some Presbyterian families. The Fairmont Presbyterian Church in Tewksbury Township (Hunterdon) traces its roots to that congregation, and there are connections through shared ministers to the German Reformed church in Lebanon, Lutheran churches in Oldwick and Pluckemin, and Dutch Reformed churches in Millstone and Whitehouse. The Fox Hill church was not the antecedent of those churches, but one part of a web of network that crossed denominational lines.

Several miles further west in Hunterdon there are records that a log meetinghouse was shared by the Presbyterian Church of Mount Pleasant (organized by 1752) and a German Reformed congregation in Alexandria (organized before 1763) known as the Dutch (German) and English Presbyterian Church and Congregation of Alexandria. Preaching visits were too infrequent for any difficulty to arise about use of the building, and in any case, there were few differences in doctrine between the denominations. That building served until 1795, and the two congregations decided to erect another church to be used by both. It was completed in 1802, by which time the German Reformed Synod formally united with the Presbyterian Synod.
      In 1774 a Reformed and Lutheran congregations in German Valley (now Long Valley, in Morris County) erected a stone building for joint worship. Some have said that the only difference between the two denominations was the wording of the Lord's prayer, but others maintain it was chiefly in the governance. I suspect there were doctrinal differences as well; the Reformed church was based on Calvin and the Lutherans were not. In any case, that alliance lasted until the 1830s, I believe.
      About 1775 of a handful of German Reformed, Presbyterian and Anglican families formed a congregation and by 1802 built a union church in Knowlton (Warren County). Known as the First German and English Congregation in Knowlton, it soon asked the Presbyterian Synod to supply it with an occasional minister, although services were still almost entirely in German. By the time it erected the existing church in 1844, German language services had died out and the church had become entirely Presbyterian.

Further north in Sussex County, the Old Clove church began as a Dutch Reformed congregation, but when their minister died, they voted to merge with a local Presbyterian congregation. That, technically, is not what I mean by a union church, but it reinforces the fluidity of denominational allegiance during the period.

By 1804 in the vicinity of Beemerville (Sussex County), Baptist, Congregational and Reformed congregations held services in a union meetinghouse. That's particularly interesting because the Baptist and Congregational contingents had immigrated from New England, and the Dutch Reformed members may have been descendants of the copper miners who were in the area by 1650 or so. When a revival in 1824 attracted many new members, the Congregational portion of the group withdrew to erect their own building.
Straddling the Musconetcong River which marks the border of Warren and Hunterdon lies the Finesville Union church which was formed by Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists in 1835. That congregation lasted until 1873, when the Methodists had developed sufficient strength to afford their own building and minister, so they split off, purchased the existing church, tore it down and erected a new one on the foundation of the old, leaving the Lutherans and Presbyterians to find their own place to worship. The spirit of union is stretched a bit too thin when one part has a substantial majority.
About 1841 a small and rather isolated community in Warren County organized and built a preaching station by 1843 and made it available to all visiting preachers. Eventually the Methodists were more successful to establishing themselves and it became a Methodist church; the community took its name from the church and is now called Free Union. There is also a Dutch Reformed church in Hainesville (Sussex) erected about 1855 with the proviso that it be available to any visiting preacher. Methodists and Reformed congregations regularly shared the building by the 1870s and it was long known as the union church.

In 1870 a group in Budd Lake (Morris) formed another union congregation—one composed of Presbyterian, Baptist and Episcopal members—the only union congregation I know of with an Episcopal presence. The church, according to early photos was a plain rectangular building, but sometime thereafter the Episcopal part of the congregation (presumably) persuaded the others to build a transept; a well-articulated chancel was the means of separating clergy and laity, which is what the transept would accomplish. That's my theory, anyway; a postcard from the 1920s shows the building without a transept, so if the Episcopals prevailed, it was only after 50 years or so.

At least two union churches got their start from the organization of Sunday Schools. In 1883 a Sunday School was started in an outlying area of Dover by a group of Methodists. A woman erected a small chapel at her own expense, which served for a couple of years, then was sold to the First Presbyterian Church of Dover for use as a mission. When they outgrew that, they built another on the corner, but sold it shortly to a neighborhood union congregation; until relatively recently it was known as the Chrystal Union church. In Watchung (Somerset) volunteers from the Washington Valley Sunday School Association erected an interesting vernacular building in 1890 and called it the Mary E. Wilson Memorial Union Chapel. It has flourished, as there have been several later additions.
In Lavalette (Ocean) a union church was erected in the 1880s, and a small wooden chapel was built in Pomona in 1890 by a congregation of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. There are several other examples but they essentially repeat a common story—a group of people from different [Protestant] religions unite to erect and maintain a meetinghouse or chapel. Many have continued, but most eventually affiliated with one of the major Protestant denominations.

The point is that in this country by the middle of the eighteenth century, people's attitudes toward creed and religious doctrine were fluid—a consequence of the Reformation. Page Smith, historian and author of the four volume work on the American revolution, A New Age Now Begins, wrote of the significance of Luther's and Calvin's insistence that the individual was responsible for his own spiritual state, "The importance of this transformation was that it produced not only an individual, but a highly introspective, aggressive individual, who was able to function remarkably well outside those older structures [traditional churches and the rigid class structure of Europe] that had defined people's roles." In New Jersey, congregations were beginning to coalesce around neighborhoods rather than the confessional creed of their ancestors. It can be seen particularly among Germans who were nominally Reformed or Lutheran affiliating with a Presbyterian church, and many communities jointly erected meetinghouses and preaching stations made available for almost any visiting preacher.
This should not be entirely surprising, of course, for the majority of early settlers in the colony had no religion, and many of those who counted themselves Church of England, according to one SPG missionary, did so simply because at one time a father or mother in England would have attended the occasional service, but who themselves had never been within 40 miles of an Anglican church. The periodic revivals and protracted camp meetings of the 1820s and 1830s often featured preachers from several denominations, some of whom had started out in one denomination, and switched to another and sometimes found their eventual success in yet a third. There are several congregations in the central part of the state who followed that example. The congregation in Clover Hill was never a union congregation, but it began as Dutch Reformed in 1834, switched to Presbyterian by 1838, and returned to the Reformed fold in 1862. When a congregation in Pluckemin was refused recognition by the Dutch Reformed Consistory in 1850, it promptly reorganized itself as a Presbyterian church. A congregation in Coontown (Somerset) organized as Lutheran about 1846, switched to Dutch Reformed in 1855, and 16 years later to Congregational; it is presently a Methodist congregation.
     The remaining union churches stand as testimony to the breakdown of the denominational rigidities characteristic of the time before the settling of the colony, and in a way they reflect something of the coming together of disparate peoples and traditions that was necessary to make the American revolution a success.



Copyright © 2004 Frank L. Greenagel