No. 27  July 2003
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

Two Churches in Plainfield: Common Roots, Different Styles:

A few blocks from the Quaker meetinghouse that marked the original center of Plainfield sits a church that is as opposite in form and function from the meetinghouse as it is possible for a house of worship to be, yet they have common roots. The Society of Friends erected their meetinghouse as a place to assemble, and believed that such a building should not call attention to itself. Although men and women entered and sat separately, their buildings are invariably symmetrical, symbolizing the equality between men and women. There is no altar, no pulpit, no stage, no organ, no decoration or adornment of any sort. The materials are all of the kind that would be used for a home or barn. The double-hung window sashes are identical to what might be found in a modestly prosperous home of the period. Doors and shutters are plain, some might even say crude.
Five blocks away a visitor one hundred years after the Plainfield meetinghouse was erected would encounter a mighty architectural shout—the Seventh Day Baptist church. The orange brick of the tower glows in the afternoon sun, as though just removed from the annealing oven. Its materials are glazed brick, rusticated and carved stone, red tiles, and ornamental granite. There are no shutters to hide the sculpted Gothic tracery of the windows. The chimney, tower and pinnacles, undoubtedly rich in Christian iconography, puncture the sky in late nineteenth century exuberance. These Baptists met to hear the word and celebrate with music, and to be sure that no one missed the point of the services, the pulpit and the stage are the hub of this building. In short, within a few blocks of each other, we have extremes of both architecture and attitude, of outlook and the manifestation of that outlook, but both denominations arose out of dissent within the Church of England in the Restoration period that followed the pinched Puritan dominance of Cromwell's tenure.

Most Americans know little about either the Society of Friends or the Seventh Day Baptists. Curiously, both date to roughly the same period—the mid-17th century England, when dissent from doctrines and practices of the Anglican church led to many separatist movements. Both denominations came early to the colonies, and both were persecuted in New England by the dominant Puritan church. The Quakers who settled in Plainfield were a mission of the Piscataway Friends, who came from New England prior to the great immigration that settled Burlington and, a bit later, Pennsylvania. The Seventh Day Baptists who organized their congregation almost certainly came from Piscataway as well, for it was there that a separation from the Baptist church occurred in 1705, when a deacon of the local church became convinced of the biblical basis for Sabbath observance. That deacon and sixteen others withdrew to form their own church, and in 1738 this congregation was organized in Plainfield.
The practice of Saturday worship (the seventh day) occurred not only within the Baptist convention, but also in a German pietist movement in Ephrata, Pennsylvania (the German Seventh Day Baptist denomination, often referred to as Dunkers) about 1728. That observance was also promoted by a schism in the Society of Friends led by George Keith (better known in New Jersey history as the surveyor of the Keith Line demarking East and West Jersey) about 1702. Who knows but the Keithian doctrine on Sabbath worship might not have influenced the good Baptist deacon's reading of scripture?

the Friends meetinghouse
The meetinghouse is standard Quaker architecture: a two story symmetrical frame building with two entrances. The style is repeated in brick and stone in south Jersey and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. This building was erected in 1788, and is supposedly an exact replica of the earlier building which was erected in 1738. It sits at Watchung Avenue and East Third Street, fronting on what was once the commons.
      The building is 48 feet by 34 feet, and sits on a stone foundation. The wooden roof was replaced in the 1930s by slate, and about that time the original carriage sheds were converted into a Sunday school. The building is shingled, and the windows are 8 over 12 on the lower floor and 8 over 8 on the upper. On the west side there is a single entrance with a small porch supported by two columns. A fire destroyed a portion of the building in the 1920s, but it was rebult in the same style.

the Seventh Day Baptist church
One remarkable feature of this church is the interior dome of the main auditorium, which gives the room the appearance of a baptistery, like the famed Baptistery in Pisa. It is the only one I know of in the state. The church was erected in 1890 in a late Victorian style that borrows from both Romanesque and Gothic architecture—Romanesque in the use of towers and chimneys and turrets, different textures, and the use of rusticated stone, but it adopts and adapts from later Victorian Gothic as well, inside and out. The tracery in the interior is clearly Gothic influence, while the clay pantiles of the roof are just as clearly Romanesque. The architect was O. M. Teale, but a search revealed no additional data on him, or any other buildings of his.
      The main auditorium is circular in shape, with magnificent plaster tracery covering the ceiling and the widow arches. It was damage to the ceiling's tracery from a leaking roof that led to the decision to replace the tile roof some years ago. The tiles were made in upstate New York especially for this church, and are still stored in the church basement. Adjoining the main auditorium is another astonishing open space amphitheater, designed in the “Akron plan” manner, with a double tier of small rooms in a gallery, opening on the auditorium by means of sliding doors. That design enabled a number of Sunday School classes to be held, all with access to a general prayer or lecture session as well. The two auditoriums are joined by sliding glass doors, and the pulpit is visible from much of the area of the amphitheater.
     The is the third church on the site, located at Central Avenue and West 5th Street. The congregation's second building, a large Italianate design erected in 1866, remains on an adjacent plot, now occupied by the Board of Education.

The Plainfield Friends meetinghouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as the state register (along with two other Plainfield churches) and there is a wonderfully complete set of measured drawings done by the Historical American Buildings Survey (HABS) in 1936. Teale's masterpiece, arguably the most delightful church in the state, is neglected. It is not on any national or state register and seems virtually known outside the city of Plainfield and the community of architectural historians in the state.



Copyright © 2003 Frank L. Greenagel