No. 46  April 2005
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature 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 touched 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 to buy land from the 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, Shrewsbury and 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.

Old First
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 congregation 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, but 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 several 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 colonial design.
     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 Old Tennent 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.

Second Presbyterian
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.
     The congregation wanted 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) separate seating for “the blacks,” as 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 100, I was told.

Third Presbyterian
There 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 from the 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 have been replaced with the round-arch windows and decorative arcades of the Italianate style popular during the period. For the last several years the building has housed a neighborhood theatre, the Elizabeth Playhouse, although I 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
The Madison Avenue Presbyterian church was erected in 1884 at Madison and Fairmount. 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 emphasis 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 ago.

In the 1880s when the city had seven Presbyterian churches, there were twenty-six 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.

Information 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.

I 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.



Copyright 2005 Frank L. Greenagel