40 October 2004
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— Highlights —
Free land, closer to home
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- Mill Hill church
photo of the month
Egg Harbor City - Moravian
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of the month
Myths and misconceptions of the churchscape
get at facts that help us to understand why the old churches look the
way they do, one must sift through reams of handwritten church minutes,
scan the commemorative books issued on the one hundredth
of the churches (if they can be found), and examine carefully
the accounts of religious organizations in the several county histories
(Snell, Munsell, etc).
The reader must cut through lists of ministers and deacons,
their tenures, and how much they were loved by the congregation, as
well as grateful
notations of who paid for the new organ or for refurbishing
of the pastor's study. Standard fare is an opening paragraph about
the abiding faith
of the early settlers, the fortitude of their ministers,
the beauty of the churches in the county, and the impact of religion
on the community.
Honeyman's history of Northwestern New Jersey, for example,
begins his chapter on the churches of Sussex County with this generalization,
From the earliest settlement the religious element in this county
(not that all pioneers were classed among the saints)
and the corner-stones
of the community now making up Sussex County
were of a religious character,
the results of which may be seen today.
In fact, the religious element came late to Sussex county and was so
feeble and widely scattered for most of the nineteenth century that it
appears irrelevant as a shaping factor in determining the complexion
of the region.
I have little trouble at this stage of
my research in dealing with the fatuous. What I am looking for, of course, is
on where the founders came from, when they settled in the
area, when the congregation was founded, when the first meetinghouse was built,
and when it burned or was torn down and gave way to the second
or even fourth) church on the site. I am delighted when I
come across the name of a builder or an architect (rarely), but happy enough
I find that there was a building committee who issued instructions
to a contractor (unnamed) to "build a neat and plain church, 40 x 60,
at a cost not to exceed $2,000." Often enough the name
of the donor of the land, or the price paid for it is noted,
but rarely anything about
what the congregation wanted the church to look like. Certainly
there is nothing in the record that says, "the congregation
down the street erected a new church so we must have one
a little larger and more fashionable
to maintain our preeminence in the community," yet that
is a conclusion I occasionally impute, a little tentatively
perhaps, to a congregation
based on what I see in the churchscape.
Inferences and conjectures are an inescapable
part of my task. So is sorting out the comforting little myths that have
grown up around the
experience. I have come to a rather low regard for the writing of
local history. This is not the time or place to elaborate, except to
note that many works gloss
over events such as the periodic decline in church membership and
the consequent financial troubles—defaults and foreclosures, for example,
instead of relating
them to larger social and economic factors, such as the financial
depressions—the Panics of 1837 and 1873 that affected wide segments
of the country. Audiences
I speak to are often well-informed about the history of their own
church, but know virtually nothing about the social trends and even political
shaped the consciousness and concerns of their early congregation,
and thus, their building. In short, there are major of myths and misconceptions
state's churches and congregations, and a few of the most salient
ones are the subject of this month's feature.
One: The early settlers brought their religion with them. This is one of
the most widely-repeated partial-truths of our colonial history.
Obviously some of the settlers did bring their religion with them, but
most had no religion. In Yorkshire in the middle of the eighteenth century,
for example, the largest parish (6,200 families) reported only 150 regular
communicants; 75-90 percent of people in the shire lacked a steady affiliation
with institutional Christianity. In Hertfordshire, a parish reformer
complained that "on Sunday a man may find the churches empty, saving
the minister and two or four lame, and olde folke." Similar accounts
can be found elsewhere in England, as well as in the parts of Germany
and Scotland where many colonists came from.
Historian Richard Hofstadter says that
in the Middle Colonies, "probably
less than one in fifteen was a member." Even in New England, church
membership in the 1750s was no more than 10-15 percent of the eligible
estimates vary and there is wide margin for error, the consensus among
contemporary American historians seems to be that only 7-15 percent of
the settlers up to
the time of the Revolution were affiliated with a church in any way,
and a significant portion of those were only loosely affiliated. They
were not atheists
like Paine, or deists as Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson were, but
simply had not been touched by organized religion. An Anglican missionary
the SPG in 1768 noted of his parishioners in the vicinity of Changewater
There are a great many families who call themselves Church of England people
from no other principle as far as I can find
than because it was the religion of
their fathers. . . . I have once preached about 16 miles distant from the
generally attend at Muskenetcunk where I was told there had been churchmen
(as they called themselves) arrived at the age of 40 who never in their lives
been to hear a church minister.
Men in Puritan and Dutch Reformed areas apparently delayed church membership
until age 30 or 40. Single men seldom became members at all, and married men
often undertook full membership only before assuming local political office.
In the 1830s a Presbyterian minister in Oneida County (NY) took a survey of
church membership among his largely rural and small-town neighbors—only
about a quarter of those he surveyed sustained any significant connection with
a Christian congregation, and the fraction would have been even lower had he
not apparently ignored recently arrived European immigrants and those too transient
to be likely church adherents. In 1850, adherence in the increasingly populous
cities lagged far behind that in rural areas.
Membership in the four major Protestant denominations rose from about
10 percent [of the population] in 1810 to about 20 percent by 1820 [the
height of the
Second Great Awakening], and this figure remained quite stable through
lower than the 60% who claim affiliation today.
two: Early settlers were seeking religious freedom.
truth, with two parts to this myth. The first part implies that most
colonists came for religious reasons, and the second asserts that it
was religious freedom they were seeking. Certainly the Quaker settlements
in both east and west Jersey were founded to escape the religious persecution
in England and New England. Settlers from Ulster (Northern Ireland) were
hurt financially by trade and commercial restrictions on Dissenters,
but all evidence points to economic, not religious motives for the massive
emigration. Most colonists were simply seeking land or a better life.
America has always liked to dwell upon those who
came to gain religious liberty
or to realize some other religious ideal.
But the extraordinary
number who were
content to live either without organized religion or
with only a weak or token
relation to it suggests that the majority
of white colonials may have come for a
very mundane reason—not
to reach the glories of the other world but to relieve
And it worked, although better in some colonies than in others. Scholarship
has shown that "the first colonists in New England were able to
improve their life expectancy by as much as twenty years; those in
Virginia were more likely than not to die in their first year."
But religious toleration was the last thing on the minds of most of
those who came for religious reasons. Newark, for example, was established
by a Puritan
community from Connecticut that objected to the "Christless rule" of
the New Haven colony (which had signed the Halfway Covenant); the governor
of New Jersey was willing to let them set their own qualifications for voting
and civic participation. They responded by forbidding non-members to buy or
lease a home or even to remain in town without a permit. "For the good
of their faith—the only true faith, Puritans did not seek religious freedom
in any recognizable sense, but an isolation in which they could be as hidebound
as God required." Any toleration of clashing religious opinions was "the
first born of all abominations", said one Puritan divine. Hofstadter summarizes
the attitude: "the universal goal of churchmen [in the seventeenth century]
was to transplant the European church-state system whole." The Spanish
and French (in Quebec) succeeded, as did the Puritans in New England.
the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791, the exclusive, European-style
state church system was common in this country. Catholics did not obtain
freedom in New Jersey until revision of our constitution in 1830, and even
in relatively tolerant Pennsylvania, public officials were required to swear
to a belief in Christianity. Not until 1819 did the New Hampshire legislature
abolish the statute that allowed towns to collect taxes to support Protestant
congregations. It was not freedom or toleration they sought, but a right
to establish their own brand of religious exclusivity.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century,
even the Puritans had been forced to make concessions to religious toleration.
Although the intellectual basis for religious freedom was laid by the Enlightenment,
the pressure for
it came from the commercial interests. The English proprietors of Jersey,
hungry for revenue and settlers, opened the gates to members of all faiths
them to live together in peaceful prosperity.
Myth three: Only Baptists and Methodists conducted revivals.
lurid accounts of the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 have resulted in the stereotype
that only those religions with an uneducated clergy (especially Methodists,
Baptists, and the numerous millennialists) engaged in revivals and camp meetings,
which were disdained by the more respectable mainstream denominations. The
truth is that Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian ministers in this colony, and
the Congregational minister Jonathan Edwards in Connecticut were, more than
anyone except George Whitefield (an ordained Anglican minister), responsible
for the emotional appeals of the first widespread revival, now called the
Awakening (circa 1740). Camp meetings, which might go on for days, attracted
thousands of people to a fair-like atmosphere with vendors and hawkers and
gawkers of all sorts setting up shop amidst the almost non-stop preaching.
By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, all denominations in this
state except the Catholics and Quakers, used revival meetings, often featuring
an imported preacher as well as the congregation's own minister. These meetings
were not pallid one-day events, but usually occupied the entire evening for
a stretch of several weeks. There are few churches in the state that do not
credit revivals during the nineteenth century for their founding or for the
periodic increases in membership. The revival became the dominant theme in
antebellum history, and following the Civil War, churchmen of almost all
denominations began to "champion the camp meeting, turbulence and all,
for a simple reason: it was a phenomenally successful instrument for popular
Settlers built a church as soon as they could.
The six original Puritan
towns of Newark, Elizabeth, Woodbridge, Shrewsbury, Middletown,
and Piscataway did put up meetinghouses very shortly after establishing
themselves. Quakers in Salem, Burlington, Gloucester, and other settlements
along the Delaware did the same. But for the most part, it was many years
before most settlers erected a church. In the first place, this was a
colony of widely scattered farms, not the villages of New England. With
low densities, it was often decades before there was a sufficient concentration
of people to afford even a small preaching station. For the devout, a
visiting minister came through the territory occasionally, ministering
to families rather than to established congregations until late in the
eighteenth century or even early in the next. Secondly, there were few
ministers in the colony, and those were mostly itinerants, responsible
for congregations or families scattered over hundreds of square miles.
Even when a group of like-minded "members" might be organized,
they met in private homes, taverns, schoolhouses, barns, and even in
open fields for years before building a church. In Virginia, one historian
noted that "church-building proceeded lethargically. . . vestries
simply ignored church construction." In 1702, there were only three
Anglican missionaries in the entire colony, so here it was due less to
lethargy than to the low density and the little emphasis on securing
converts until the Great Awakening in the third decade of the seventeenth
This is a different picture than is usually portrayed
in the history books, but particularly in an election year when religion has
been brought into political
issues more directly than anytime in my recollection, it may be pertinent to
reflect on these myths as a corrective to some of the sweeping assertions
about the country's religious heritage.
the historians I have drawn on for quotations and generalizations used
herein are John Pomfret's, Colonial New Jersey, Jon Butler's Awash
in a Sea of Faith, Richard Hofstadter's America in 1750,
The Democratization of American Christianity, and J.C. Furnas', The
Americans: A Social History of the United States.