46 April 2005
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of the month
Elizabeth's Presbyterian churches
Of the seven Presbyterian churches that flourished in Elizabeth at the
end of the nineteenth century, four remain, and two of them are still
occupied by their original congregations. Both the First and the Second
Presbyterian churches are distinguished by their architecture, and I
will get to that shortly. But the history of the congregations offer
an opportunity to raise some interesting but little known aspects of
Jersey's colonial history, and I find that temptation irresistible.
We all have been taught about the Puritans of New England
and their quest for religious freedom, but it is rarely mentioned how
deeply the Puritans
New Jersey, or how disputes within their successor congregations in the state—several
of the early Presbyterian congregations, including the First Presbyterian church
in Elizabeth—continued to play a role in controversies that roiled the
Presbyteries of New York and Philadelphia
a hundred years after initial settlement.
New England was founded largely by Puritans who
had assumed a significant measure of self-government, which they used to exclude
from town all who were not members of their
congregation and to persecute Baptists and Quakers. Their churches and schools
were supported by local taxes, and their meetinghouses served as the seat of
local government as well as for worship. Indeed, many of the early leaders saw
no difference between leadership of the congregation and leadership of the government.
Several of Jersey's first six towns, including Elizabeth, Newark and Woodbridge,
were founded by Puritans from Connecticut and Long Island, but to appreciate
the forces that lead to the departure of whole congregations from Connecticut
we need to fill in a little background.
The restoration of Charles II in 1660 alarmed Puritans
in the colonies—they
had, after all backed Cromwell. Fearful that the restrictive arrangements they
had enjoyed (i.e., the right to drive out those who were not Puritans) would
be lifted; they made application to the Dutch government of New Netherlands to
settle in what was to become East Jersey, then called Achter Kull. The
Dutch encouraged them, but were ousted by the English in 1664. The petitions
Indians were renewed and soon granted by Colonel Richard Nicholls, governor of
New York. A large tract (about 575 square miles, from the Raritan to the Passaic
Rivers, extending west into Morris and Somerset Counties) was purchased in that
year. But all of the colony had subsequently been granted, unknown to Nicholls,
to the King's brother, James, and by him to two of the Stuarts' loyal supporters,
Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. The latter dispatched a cousin, Phillip
Carteret, as governor, who landed in 1665, and immediately purchased a share
in the Elizabethtown grant from the original petitioners. One consequence, intended
or not, was thus to break up the Puritan monopoly in Elizabethtown. Middletown,
Piscataway were settled by a mix of Puritans, Baptists and Quakers, but Elizabeth,
Woodbridge and Newark were founded essentially by Puritan congregations. Newark
alone of the six was able to maintain its religious exclusivity, perhaps until
1733 when a leading member broke with the church and started an Anglican congregation.
The First Presbyterian church was
founded in 1666 by Puritan settlers, largely from Long Island, but who
had arrived there from Connecticut.
By this time, the Puritan churches were calling themselves
Congregationalist. It is generally credited as the first English-speaking
in the state. The first building was a plain wooden frame shingled
structure, probably erected shortly after 1665, and used as a town
meetinghouse, courthouse and for other public purposes. The first sessions
of the Assembly were held in it, as Elizabeth was at that time one
of the two provincial capitals.
Under a substantial influx of Scotch and Scotch-Irish
Presbyterians, the colony quickly was dominated by Presbyterians in the East,
and by English Quakers
in the West. Most of the Congregational churches affiliated with the Presbytery
of Philadelphia by the early decades of the eighteenth century, and Elizabeth's
First church did so in 1717. A new church was built in 1724; it was burned
by British troops in 1780, when they also burned the Presbyterian churches
at Connecticut Farms and Springfield. More than forty men of the congregation
were commissioned officers in the Continental army, which is not entirely surprising
when one realizes that the minister, Reverend James Caldwell, was
a chaplain in the army. Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that the
Brits burned it.
The present church was laid out over site
of the original in 1784 and completed in 1789 or 1793 (the sources disagree,
the latter date is more likely correct).
The building is constructed of brick and red sandstone, about sixty feet square,
with an interior in the New England tradition—a gallery running along
three sides and a raised pulpit. The interior columns supporting the galleries
were Doric, similar to those in the North Reformed church in Dumont,
erected eight years later. The building has been altered, extended and remodeled
times since, with a major alteration in the Gothic manner in 1851. Following
a fire in 1946 which essentially gutted the building, the exterior was carefully
restored and the interior was reconstructed as close as possible to its original
George Whitfield preached in the church in 1763,
which in one respect is curious. Whitefield, although ordained in the Church
of England and closely associated
with the Methodists in England, was the leading speaker of the religious revival
that later became known as the Great Awakening. Presbyterians were divided
on the matter, with the traditionalists (i.e., many of Congregational descent)
among them generally eschewing the “enthusiasms” of the emotional
revivals, and the Scotch-Irish portion of the church, largely centered on the
Church in Freehold, embracing them as a rather familiar feature of Scottish
Presbyterianism. The fact that Whitefield was invited to speak at Old First
tells us that this original Puritan congregation had aligned itself with the “new
lights” in terms of ministerial qualifications and style of preaching.
Great revivals held in 1793 and in 1817 added significantly to the membership.
By the second decade of the nineteenth century, most of the mainline Protestant
churches in the colony had adopted the religious revival as a principal means
of recruiting new members.
The Second Presbyterian church in Elizabeth was organized by forty members
of the First church in 1821, when membership in the First had grown
from some 200 to 660 by 1820, mostly as a result of revivals. It is
located on East Jersey Street, just a couple of blocks from Old First.
The First counted most of the old families on its rolls (except for
the Anglicans in town who attended St.
Johns), but the Second attracted
the business and professional classes of the city, according to an
1889 publication on Elizabeth. If we read between the lines, that tells
us that the most desired pews (which were sold or rented in those days)
were in the hands of the old families and the others were consigned
to the rear of the church or perhaps to the galleries. The only way
the new business and professional elite could obtain a prominent pew
worthy of their status would be to start a new church! Although they
were granted rent-free use of the Session house for five years, the
newly organized congregation determined to build immediately and the
church was erected in 1821 and dedicated 1822.
a building (or at least the interior of the church) modeled after Fanueil Hall
in Boston. The exterior of the church, however, is remarkably like the Presbyterian
churches in Connecticut
Farms (1783) , Springfield (erected
in 1791); the Reformed churches in Millstone (1828) and Blawenburg (1832) follow
a similar plan as well. Unusually, we know the names of the two major builders—Nathan
Sayre was the master carpenter and Elihu Mitchell the master mason; both were
members of the church's building committee. There
were separate entrances and separate seating for men and women, and (of course)
seating for “the
the 1889 article puts it. There was an adjacent burial ground, but by the 1890s
the graves were moved to Evergreen Cemetery.
An addition for a Sunday School was erected to
the rear of the building in the Akron Plan style in 1890—a magnificent
space worthy of a detour. The architect for that was Oscar
Teale, who did a similar plan for the Seventh
Day Baptist congregation in Plainfield and for a church in Staten Island.
At its peak the Second's membership was about 1200; it is now down to about
I was told.
are two more surviving nineteenth century Presbyterian churches in
the city, one of them, the Third, practically across the street
from the Second. Located on Scott Place and East Jersey Street, adjacent
to City Hall, is a large orange brick church, whose congregation was
organized in 1851 by seventy-five members drawn in equal proportion
First and Second churches. The cornerstone was laid in 1852 and the
building dedicated in 1855. It's a large church, built in a traditional
style—how closely it resembles Old First—but the Georgian details
replaced with the round-arch windows and decorative arcades of
style popular during the period. For the last several years
the building has housed a neighborhood theatre, the Elizabeth Playhouse,
understand the city had tried to tear it down to provide a parking
lot. When one is elected to office, parking seems to take priority
over historical preservation.
Madison Avenue Presbyterian church was erected in 1884 at Madison and
It was an outgrowth of a Sunday School organized in 1883,
probably as a mission or chapel of the Westminster Presbyterian church,
an exceptional Gothic church which burned down sometime in this century.
The style is Queen Anne—a
frame building that most of us would probably call “late Victorian.” The
style features massed windows and an asymmetrical arrangement with
on gables and surface texture. The church is now the Iglesia Adventista
del Sabado Dia, but the wooden frame building hardly differs, except
in color, from that shown in a photograph taken more than a hundred years
the 1880s when the city had seven Presbyterian churches, there were
others, including four Anglican, Methodist, and Roman Catholic
churches, three Baptist churches, as well as a Congregational church,
a German Lutheran church, a synagogue, a Moravian church, and three black
churches—two Baptist and one AME. There were at least two mission
chapels. Of those thirty-five, less than half—seventeen—remain.
for this article was drawn from John Pomfret, Colonial
New Jersey: A History. (New York: Scribners) 1973, and from The
City of Elizabeth Illustrated. (Elizabeth: Elizabeth Daily Journal)
1889. Thanks also to Peter Campbell of the Second Presbyterian
church for his observations and assistance.
have now completed five books on the churchscape of New Jersey, comprising
a complete inventory of the northwestern counties
of the state: Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, and Warren. There
are available for purchase in book form or as PDF files on cd-rom. Click
here for more information.