No. 35  May 2004
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

Trying to make sense of it all

With some 900 churches in the New Jersey churchscape inventory, a few generalizations emerge quickly when one sorts by date or architectural style, or even by county or denomination. But usually it takes more time and analysis before I begin to see any patterns in that mass of images. I prepared a graphical time line for a lecture about a year ago and have recently updated it so that it is now about as complete as it is likely to get. It illustrates the kind of church each of eleven denominations were building over eight time periods, from 1703 to 1900. It clearly reveals, for example, that most denominations built Greek Revival buildings in the 1840s or 50s, and that most adopted Gothic or Romanesque following the Civil War. Interested readers may download a PDF file of the time line (it's 843KB and will take someone with a 56K dialup modem about 24 minutes).

For the Episcopal and Quaker denominations the generalizations are pretty obvious, and even the Reformed church yields several interesting patterns relatively easily. But the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches are a different kettle of fish. I have written an article for the New Jersey History journal that is to be published in the Spring-Summer issue in which I deal with Methodist church architecture at some length. I will not reprise that article here—it should be available in most public libraries in the state shortly—except to note that Methodism was essentially a rural/small town movement, and that fact is reflected in the scale and style of the great majority of Methodist churches. Moreover, Bishop Asbury's Discipline laid out his ideas about church building: They should be "simple and decent and not more expensive than necessary." That prescription was observed (largely) until sometime after his passing. By 1830 the Methodist church had surpassed the Presbyterians in this state as the largest denomination, and with that membership base and the rising affluence, congregations decided they wanted churches that reflected their new status and position. So the simple wooden frame meetinghouses that can be found in nearly every hamlet in the state began to give way to larger, more fashionable edifices, often constructed of brick or stone in the cities, and clearly showing the hand of an architect.

In one attempt at analysis I constructed a booklet (actually a Pagemaker file never intended to be printed) with thumbnail images of all 217 Methodist churches I have photographed to date, then sat down to see what sense I could make of that profusion of sizes, shapes and materials. I quickly concluded that architectural style may be of only marginal interest, in contrast to the Episcopal church, where architectural design was regarded as integral to the liturgy. Methodists adopted and adapted every popular style in the mid-Atlantic region; they seemed to show no partiality to Greek Revival, for example, as the Reformed church in Somerset county did, nor to the Gothic or Romanesque, although there are fine Methodist buildings in both of those styles. They clearly did not eschew ostentation and expense as Asbury decreed. Some congregations engaged established architects, used costly materials, built their steeples as high or higher than anyone in town, attached a porte cochere to their side entrances, and purchased corner lots on the main thoroughfare where once their buildings had been erected on whatever donated land in general proximity to the initial members could be obtained. In spite of that, there is no Methodist church in the state I would single out as an outstanding exemplar of any style or period. I do not attach any particular significance to that observation, as architectural quality is largely a matter of personal taste; what was intriguing, however, was the wide range of styles and scale, and the changes over time, not simply in architectural style but in the scale and location of the Methodist churches.

I moved images around in that booklet, trying to see trends or patterns; then I constructed a couple of scattergrams to see what generalizations that might tease out. What I can offer is that scale, function and prominence may be as interesting a way of looking at Methodist churches as anything. By scale I mean the size of the building relative to its local environment; a church the size of an average barn in a small town would appear dominant, but in an urban area might appear rather modest. Function in a church may range from the simplest of meetinghouses or preaching stations to the multi-functional community churches which include Sunday Schools, gymnasiums and playgrounds, as well as a variety of chapels and meeting rooms. Most early eighteenth century churches of all denominations were little more than meetinghouses; by mid-century, most added space to accommodate Sunday Schools and other meetings and activities. By the end of the century, there are more of those rooms, often dedicated to specific purposes. Prominence may be a bit more subjective, but combines location, scale, construction, and design. The Methodist church on the green in Morristown is exceptionally prominent by any assessment, as is the Methodist church in Mt. Holly. When the first Methodist church was erected in Belvidere (before the town was selected as the county seat for Warren) it was on the northern fringe of the town; in 1848 when the congregation erected a new church, they did so on the town square, kitty-corner from the county courthouse. That's a movement towards increased prominence that was common throughout the state.

The simple Methodist meetinghouse continued to be built throughout the nineteenth century, although by 1850 most congregations added a belfry, or perhaps stained glass windows or just an accentuated pediment, embellished by several sets of brackets which new manufacturing processes had made affordable to all. Those meetinghouses account for perhaps ten-to-fifteen percent of the Methodist churches in the state. Juliustown's Methodist church (Burlington) incorporates pilasters, an interesting entrance treatment and an accentuated pediment as well as round-arch windows in its 1869 building, but other than those details, it is not much altered from the 1807 Weymouth plan.

At the other end of the spectrum we can find perhaps twenty large urban churches, generally built of stone or brick, and all designed by an architect. Trenton, Pemberton, Roseville (Newark), Williamstown, Mt Holly, Morristown, Camden, and Salem all boast such buildings. A few hundred yards from the imposing First Methodist church in Millville sits the even larger and more prominent Trinity Methodist church, erected in 1881, a little more than twenty years after the First Methodist was built. I suggest there is not only twenty years difference and the resources of larger congregation, between this church and the one in Juliustown, but also a different concept of what the membership expected of their church. Trinity makes a statement about its congregation, not only to First members, but to the membership of the Baptist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches that sit a block or two away along "church row."

That leaves about three-quarters of the Methodist churches to be accounted for. And here's how I have sorted them out: about two-thirds are multi-functional buildings, with separate spaces designed for Sunday School, Bible study, even literary and sports groups. This reflects the changing role of the Methodist church in a community. What was initially expected to be not much more than a preaching station—Asbury did not want to encourage his preachers to minister to a settled congregation and in fact penalized ordained ministers who would not ride the circuit and extend its boundaries. (Not surprisingly, incessant travel in all kinds of weather took its toll; the mortality rate for itinerant Methodist preachers was exceptionally high. By 1860 nearly half the Methodist preachers died before age 30, according to studies published in Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity.) As congregations grew in size, they could afford a full-time minister, or perhaps share one with another nearby congregation rather than have services every six weeks. With the increased size and the rising affluence of the community, more activities centered around the church. One result was that congregations demanded more comfort in seating, lighting and heating. Original pews, which can still be found occasionally, are narrower and the backs are almost vertical; later pews are broader and the backrest is canted by several degrees. Most churches erected after about 1860 were designed to accommodate additional meetings with rooms on the first floor; the plan designated the main auditorium on the second floor, still with its gallery (which made up a third floor). That increased the size of the church even in smaller towns. In several cases, including Buttzville (a very small town in Warren county), congregations raised their existing churches on jacks and dug a basement to make space for those meeting rooms. The Methodist church in Titusville, a small community along the banks of the Delaware-Raritan Canal just north of Washington's Crossing (Mercer) built specifically to provide meetings rooms on the first floor and a main auditorium on the second. About a third of the surviving Methodist churches, including Center Grove and Juliustown, appear to be single function buildings, with no raised basement or extensions for special uses.

Considering the prominence issue, it seems to me that about a third of the churches erected after 1860 were planned primarily so they would be noticed. In scale, location, and construction, as well as design, they assert the prominence of their congregation. This is true not only in urban areas, but often in seemingly improbable locations. In hamlets and crossroads such as Aldine and Alloway (Salem), Columbus (Burlington), and Hainesburg (Warren) there are Methodist churches whose scale rivals or exceeds those of much larger towns. And in West Long Branch, Hackettstown, Bordentown, Williamstown, Mt Holly, and Clinton one can find large, fashionable edifices situated prominently near the center of town.

My intention in calling attention to these generalizations is not to offer a theory of church-building, but to suggest some hypotheses that you might use to examine the churches around you. While I enjoy noting the details of architecture and construction, I suggest that it is worthwhile to look closely at scale, location, and prominence when considering the churchscape.



Copyright © 2004 Frank L. Greenagel