No. 40  October 2004
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

Myths and misconceptions of the churchscape

To 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 anniversaries 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
    predominated (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 hard data 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 third 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 when 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 American religious 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 events that shaped the consciousness and concerns of their early congregation, and thus, their building. In short, there are major of myths and misconceptions about the state's churches and congregations, and a few of the most salient ones are the subject of this month's feature.

Myth 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 population. Although 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 sent by the SPG in 1768 noted of his parishioners in the vicinity of Changewater (Hunterdon County),

    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 place I
     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 had
     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 1860—far lower than the 60% who claim affiliation today.

Myth two: Early settlers were seeking religious freedom.
Another partial 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. Hofstadter noted

    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
     the hardships of this.

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.
      Until 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 full religious 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 and encouraged them to live together in peaceful prosperity.

Myth three: Only Baptists and Methodists conducted revivals.
The 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 Great 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 recruitment."

Myth four: 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 century.
     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.

Among 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, Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity, and J.C. Furnas', The Americans: A Social History of the United States.



Copyright © 2004 Frank L. Greenagel