No. 39 September 2004
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250


  
   
   
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Feature of the month

Free land, closer to home, and more fashionable

Where the landscape of rural New England is dominated by white clapboard Congregational meetinghouses with multi-tiered towers located on the town square, the churchscape of New Jersey is so varied that no generalization as to style, location, construction, or even scale is productive. But we do need a way of coming to terms with this richness—some organizing framework or even a set of terms that allow us to impose order or coherence on the 1300 religious building erected before 1900 in the state.
      The most obvious, but in many ways the least useful is by architectural style—Greek Revival, Gothic, Georgian, Wren-Gibbs, and even Victorian are terms I frequently invoke to characterize the style of a building. But half the churches don't fit into any of those categories very neatly, and even if they did, knowing the name of the style doesn't necessarily tell you much about why the church looks the way it does, or even the denomination and ethnicity of the early congregation. Unless you know a bit about the history of architectural styles in this state, a label doesn't provide much of an understanding. To realize the churchscape, we need something more than architectural labels, although they are indispensable, of course. What I will outline in this and subsequent issues are some dimensions or frames of reference that one might use when making inquiries about a church. At the minimum, these considerations might enrich your understanding when reading the notes about the founding date and the date of construction, and such other aspects of a building that I find worthy of mention.
      The location of the building is often significant. Not only on what street or site in the town, but even where in the township—at a significant crossroads, on one of the early turnpikes, or out in a cornfield miles from any population concentration? I'll consider the location in this month's feature, and in later issues we'll examine construction, the changing functions expected of churches and meetinghouses, and, yes, even architectural style.

The early Quaker settlements in Burlington and Salem counties put their meetinghouses at the center of the village, as did the early Puritan settlements such as Elizabeth, Newark and Shrewsbury, where you can still find the Presbyterian churches at (or very near) their original seventeenth century plot. But there are dozens of early churches and meetinghouses located apart from any settlement—how to explain their seeming isolation from any population center? If this were New Mexico and the churches were called spiritual centers, we might attribute their location to the identification of vortices which mystics claim facilitate channeling of messages from outer space. But this is New Jersey so we ought to search for a more verifiable explanation. And our search would be rewarded by the dozens of early accounts of land given for a church—it might not have been convenient, but it was free. Early deeds record an acre of some settlers farm given to the trustees of a congregation for the purpose of erecting a meetinghouse, often with the denomination strictly specified—"a Presbyterian church and no other." Free land was no small consideration, especially in the decades before and after the Revolutionary War, when hard currency was scarce. Some towns like Asbury Park and Belvidere made specific provision in the town plan for churches of several denominations to be located at or near the center, but in the majority of cases in rural areas, the location was incidental to the fact that the plot was a gift.
     In other instances, church minutes show that the location was carefully considered so that the meetinghouse was central to a widely dispersed population, rather than in the region's only village, and therefore equally convenient, even when that meant a hike of three to five miles for just about everyone. In several of the large townships in New England, by law the meetinghouse was located in the geographic center of the township; where that site did not conincide with the locus of the population density, divisive arguments over church attendance and financial support occasionally led to the breakup of the congregation.
     As Catholics and Methodists overtook Presbyterians in membership towards mid-century, they began to acquire locations on important streets or near the center of town—sites commensurate with their new status. In Mt. Holly, for example, the early Catholic church was located near the outskirts of town, along with the Methodists and the black congregations; by midcentury, Methodists had built an imposing stone church adjacent to the old Quaker meetinghouse at the center of town, and a generation later, the Catholic church also moved uptown. That was a pattern repeated in many of the cities of the state. There are numerous examples of congregations acquiring aggressively prominent locations—in Hoboken, Morristown, Lambertville, Belvidere, and Trenton—to build new and imposing edifices that reflect the social prominence the congregation aspired to far more than a location central to the membership. The growing affluence, and in many cities the availability of public transportation, made such moves possible.
     When the Catholic church modified its practice of strictly geographic-based parishes and took into account the ethnicity of the congregation, we can see how Polish, Irish, German, and Italian Catholic churches marked specific neighborhoods, often within a few blocks of each other, as in Jersey City, Hoboken, and the Chambersburg section of Trenton. Some of the architecture reflects the influence of the national idiom of the membership, but for the most part, St. Bridgit's and St. Joseph's don't look much different from St. Stanislaus.
     The Anglican church was not attractive to most of the early settlers of the colony, except to those seeking political or social preferment; the Church of England had persecuted Quakers, Presbyterians and Baptists in England, and sought laws that would give it preferential if not exclusive recognition in this state, as it had in most of the crown colonies. In spite of that antipathy, which was especially strong in areas settled by Scotch-Irish and the Calvinistic Reformed areas, we can find Anglican churches in every county seat and important town by the onset of the Revolution. The English Crown (and the Bishop of London who had authority over American churches) feared that Quakers and other Dissenters (mostly Presbyterians) would dominate the colony, and so the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) subsidized the building of churches and the support of ministers until 1776. The result is that even in hamlets like Log Gaol (Johnsonburg, Warren County) and Ringoes (Hunterdon), or towns like Bridgeton (Cumberland), Newton (Sussex), and even Shrewsbury, one can find early Anglican churches. When the original churches were erected in the eighteenth century, they were not necessarily indicative of a flourishing congregation of like-minded souls, as some have asserted, nor, according to the evidence, even of the religious tradition and preferences of a portion of the populace, but reflect instead the desire of the political order to impose its presence on a region. Without that support, there would be many fewer Anglican churches in the state.
     
The low population density of the state through all of the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century also had a most significant impact on the location of the churches. In substantial villages and towns, a growing membership usually resulted in building a larger church, but in rural areas, the first inclination, it appears, was for a portion of the membership to hive off and erect a daughter church closer to the homes of that part of the congregation. Instead of a ten mile walk to church, they might cut the distance to a mile or two. It is difficult for us to realize that Presbyterians in Connecticut Farms (Union), for example, once walked to Elizabeth for Sunday services. That splintering of a congregation was resisted often enough by the remainder of the congregation, which saw a lessening of financial support for the church, but eventually they acceded to the request, sometimes with the stipulation that the new congregation remain as part of the original one for a period of time and the services were to be held in the daughter church only ocassionally, or during the winter months. One of the consequences is that today when distance is no longer an issue, we have churches of the same denomination (often with small congregations) within a few miles of each other.

It is usually a productive question to ask why is this church, of this denomination located here? The answer sometimes has to be teased out of the history of the region, the coming of the railroads, the folkways of the early settlers, or sought in the rising affluence of the post Civil War cities which led to the emergence of a mercantile class. A study of the churchscape can tell us much about the state's economic, social, and even political history. It can lead to an enriched understanding of the attitudes and perceptions of the generations who erected those churches, or added a basement and remodeled the façade, or sold the building and constructed a newer one closer to the center of town. Ironically, the churchscape usually tells us much less about particular beliefs, the liturgy or the religious zeal of the congregation.

 
 

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