No. 25  May 2003
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

What should a church look like?   

The earliest Puritans who settled in New England wanted to emphasize their differences with the Anglican and Catholic churches of England, so built their wooden-frame meetinghouses without steeples, buttresses, Gothic-arch windows, transepts or chancels. The pulpit, not the altar was the center of worship. Quakers moving into New Jersey and Pennsylvania followed the architectural tradition of the English midlands, where many of them had come from. So, too, several of the early Reformed congregations from the Netherlands built the six-sided meetinghouses (none of which have survived) that had come into vogue among Protestant denominations in their country. Each group answered in its own way the question, what should a church look like?
     By the 1750s, many congregations looked to the basic lines of Christopher Wren, who rebuilt London's churches following the fire of 1666 for their model. In the first decades of the 19th century, Americans were aflamed by the Greek rebellion against the Ottoman rulers, and responded with the declaration that the Greek temple was an ideal form for a house of worship in a republic, just as it was for a civic building or a home, and so the country saw hundreds of Greek Revival buildings erected. A mere thirty years later, the Anglican church said that worshiping a Christian god in a building designed for pagan sacrifice was entirely inappropriate, and went back to 13th and 14th century England for their inspiration. As the country headed towards separation or war over slavery, congregations in south Jersey decided that a church that looked like a bank or a school was just fine with them, and a half dozen erected in that style between 1858 and 1885 are our focus this month.

The Broadway Methodist church in Salem, occupying a prominent lot on Main Street across from the First Baptist church and less than two blocks from the Presbyterian church and the Friends meetinghouse, has no steeple, no belfry, no Gothic windows or buttresses—very little that might identify it as a house of worship. Erected in 1858, it is one of the earliest churches in the state built in this style, which was borrowed from a Methodist church across the river in Philadelphia, I suspect. It was clearly intended to be an edifice of some distinction: note the deep pediment, the exaggerated dentils, and the pilasters, all of which are borrowed from the Greek Revival tradition. In place of the pointed arch windows of the Anglican churches, the round-arch of the Romanesque style is blended in with those Greek Revival elements in a substantial brick building. Meeting rooms for Sunday school, ladies aid, Bible study and many secular activities occupy the lower floor, while the auditorium/ sanctuary is up one flight. By this time, stained glass windows had lost their Roman Catholic associations and a window could be installed by a member in memory of parents whose family name would be clearly readable from nearby pews.

A similar Methodist Episcopal church was erected in Burlington not much later (I'm not sure about the dates of several of the following churches.). It may have undergone a facelift at a later date, but the essential elements are all there—a symmetrical, three-bay brick building, with elongated windows, pilasters with distinctive capitols, and above all, a prominent pediment. Three front doors have replaced the single entrance in Salem, and there is less of a clear delineation between first and second stories, but the congregation obviously felt a "bank-front" building was an appropriate answer to what a church should look like.

In Mullica Hill (Gloucester county) about  the same time, a Baptist congregation erected a wooden-frame church along similar lines. There are corner pilasters, stained glass windows and a pediment, although not quite so prominent. The entrance is modest, and there is little decoration surrounding it or the windows. Except for the stained glass in the windows, there is little that is "churchy" about the building. In Lumberton (Burlington county), another Baptist congregation erected a similar building, although they elected to have a belfry atop the pediment. Theirs is a large building, but without the pilasters, capitols, and accentuated pediment of the others in this tradition.

The Mt. Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal church in Salem, one of the oldest black congregations in the country, erected a fine brick church in this tradition in 1878 (the church was not completed until 1883-1884) on the outskirts of town. They would have been "discouraged" from building near the center of town, but no one could prevent them from erecting a church that was just as upscale as any other in town. This, too, is a large, two-story, three-bay symmetrical building. The pilasters are missing, but the accentuated pediment and prominent dentils, which are becoming brackets in the Italinate style found on Salem's other bank-front church are well-represented here. Only the stained glass windows informs the passersby that this is a church instead of a school or a bank.

Four years later, a Baptist congregation in Vincetown (Burlington county) put up another church in the bank-front tradition. Except for the belfry, it has all the elements noted in the Salem church erected 25 years earlier. Notice the exaggerated dentils, which have mutated into full brackets in this version. The pilasters have no capitols and the entrance has a Georgian frame, but there is none of the asymmetry of the Victorian Gothic styles which had become so popular in that era.

In Aldine (Salem county), Alloway Township (Salem, also), Hoboken, and Woodbine (Cumberland) one can find other brick bank-front churches—symmetrical three-bay, two story buildings with strong pediments, pilasters, elongated windows, and a central entrance. Others undoubtedly were built and a few remain. But perhaps I have the terminology all wrong; instead of labeling these buildings "bank-front," perhaps it is the banks that ought to be called "church-fronts."

 
 

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