No. 23  March 2003
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Feature of the month

When Friends Part

More than one church of a single denomination in a small town usually points to an interesting bit of the settlement history of the area. Nineteenth century English and German Presbyterian and Reformed churches, built within a few miles of each other in Hunterdon County, reflect the language and national origins of the congregation, as do the many national varieties of Catholic and Lutheran churches found in Trenton and Roebling, for example. Those churches mark neighborhoods as well as the congregations' origins, language and/or form of service. But in some towns, the existence of two churches signifies a schism in the congregation, often over the choice of minister, but occasionally over personalities or doctrine. In Hopewell (Mercer County) two Baptist churches face each other, one Old School (built in 1823 ) and the other a New School congregation (erected in 1872 ). In Hunterdon we have several examples of schisms that began in personality clashes and spread to doctrinal differences in a Dunkard (German Baptist) church and in a Methodist church. The most widespread schism, easily documented in brick and stone, is scattered over the southern part of the state.
     Edward Hicks, an influential Quaker preacher from Long Island, was largely responsible for the abolition of slavery within the Society of Friends. He also opposed the adoption of a set creed by the Society of Friends at a time when the Yearly Meetings were moving in that direction. As his influenced widened, he was increasingly regarded as a heretic by orthodox Quakers in the Baltimore area, and ultimately most of the Yearly Meetings cast him and his followers out. Hicks' adherents thought of themselves as the Liberal branch of the Society, but the orthodox members called them "Hicksites," and that name stuck.
     The schism of 1827-28 spread throughout the Society of Friends in the mid-Atlantic states and resulted in the formation of many separate congregations. Some splits were apparently cordial, but at least one resulted in prolonged litigation over church property. Some congregations agreed to share the meetinghouse, but in many cases, the minority faction (which might be Hicksite or orthodox) was obliged to leave and erect a new meetinghouse.
The Chesterfield Friends meetinghouse (far left) in Crosswicks was erected in 1773 and was retained by the orthodox faction when the congregation split in 1828. The Hicksite group erected a meetinghouse a block away in 1850. That building (above, right) now serves as the headquarters of the Chesterfield Township Historical Society.
      In Trenton, the Hicksites were in the majority, for they retained the original meetinghouse (erected in 1739, but greatly modified over the years) and the orthodox Friends built a new meetinghouse (right), calling themselves the Mercer Street Friends, in 1858. I haven't determined where they met for the 30 years between the schism and the erection of this meetinghouse. Smaller buildings like this one often have a single entrance, whereas all of the larger Quaker meetinghouses have two entrances, one for men and one for women. In other respects, all the aspects of the conventional Quaker idiom are present in the Mercer Street building, including the pent roof, cornice and even the details of the latches for the shutters.

Hicksites were the majority in Medford, as well, and they kept possession of the fine meetinghouse (below, left) that was built in 1814, while the orthodox group withdrew and built their own, the Union Street Friends meetinghouse (below, right) a couple of blocks away, in 1843. The Union Street building looks essentially identical to the 1814 building, down to the large sycamores trees that grace the grounds of both sites. The new building is no longer used for services, but was undergoing a restoration or stabilization when I last visited a year ago.

One of the finest early meetinghouses in the state is found in Greenwich (Cumberland  County) (extreme right). It was erected in 1771 and does not appear to have been changed, inside or out, since. The Hicksite faction withdrew and built their smaller meetinghouse a mile or so away in 1857 (right). Although smaller, they did manage to squeeze in two front doors.

In Mt. Laurel Township, the Evesham Friends hit on a different solution—they simply extended the existing building, erected in 1770, which is why that meetinghouse has three front doors.
    By the turn of the 20th century, the schism had been healed and one of the two buildings was converted or used for other purposes. In Camden, it is the Hicksite building, erected in 1828, which has survived. In most New Jersey towns, there is only one Quaker meetinghouse, but few published records to inform us about the impact of the schism.

 

 
 

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