No. 68  June 2008
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250



   
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Feature of the month

The White Pilgrim, Abigail Roberts & Christian churches

About 15 years ago Bob Dylan recorded an old folk song that begins with the lines,

I came to the place where the lone pilgrim lay
And pensively stood by his tomb,
When in a low whisper I heard something say,
"How sweetly I sleep here alone.”

The song is entitled “The Lone Pilgrim,” but it was based on a nineteenth century poem about the White Pilgrim, not a lone one. Fascinating! you say, but what does it have to do with the churches of New Jersey?

Well, there really was a White Pilgrim; he traveled in New Jersey and died immediately after preaching a sermon in Johnsonburg (Warren County) in 1835, and is buried there. His story is an interesting one (and I'll get to it shortly), but it's really an excuse on which to hang a larger explanation of the itinerant preachers of several denominations—Baptist, Christian, Methodist and Presbyterian, who worked the rural areas of this state in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

In 1801 there was an enormous (and slightly infamous) camp meeting in Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Its success, and perhaps its notoriety, stimulated a flurry of revivals and other camp meetings that continued up to the Civil War. The 1820s are known as the Second Great Awakening, but revivals were the major engine of enlarging church membership even down to 1900. Revivals, camp meetings, itinerant preachers, and circuit-riding ministers were instrumental in turning a county where only 8-10% of the population had any connection to a church in 1800 to one where almost 50% of the population had some connection to a church by the turn of the century. A byproduct of that Cane Ridge camp meeting was that several ordained ministers in attendance rethought the convention of formal denominations— Presbyterian, Congregational, and so on, all of which were directed to a greater or lesser degree by a central authority—a bishop, synod, or conference. Some of the Methodists soon broke off and formed a new sect originally called "Republican Methodists." Presbyterians did the same and called their operation simply “Christians,” but were called Campbellites after a leading minister, Alexander Campbell, and following later mergers and combinations came to be known as the Disciples of Christ. Baptists from New England also objected to the idea of denominations; they, too, adopted the name Christians, but soon came to be referred to as the Christian Connexion, and it was this affiliation, based in western New York, that sent several missionaries into the northwestern part of the state in the 1820s.

The most successful of those preachers was Mrs. Abigail Roberts, who organized Christian churches in Spring Valley (below, Sussex County) and Milford (Hunterdon County) by 1826. She probably organized several others, but these are the ones directly connected to her efforts by Snell's two history books covering Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren counties. The Milford church in turn spun off daughter churches in Locktown, Little York, Frenchtown, and probably Mt. Hope on the Sourland Mountain just about on Hunterdon-Mercer boundary. Mrs. Roberts returned to the state in 1838 and when she was refused the pulpit of the Methodist church in Vienna (Warren County) she organized a congregation a mile or so away in Great Meadows. I haven't worked out the mother church-daughter church relationships completely, but there were soon Christian churches in Balesville, Beemer and Lafayette in Sussex County, and Christian churches in Finesville, Hope, Johnsonburg, and Springtown (all in Warren County). Roberts was an organizer, and apparently an exceptionally capable one. The White Pilgrim, in contrast, was a preacher who never stayed more than a few days in one place before moving on.

Joseph Thomas was the real name of the White Pilgrim. He was born in North Carolina in 1791 and was inspired by a camp meeting in 1806 when he was 16 to become a preacher. Instead of the customary long black frock coat most ministers wore, Thomas dressed in white. All white, including his horse and even his saddlebags. After a dozen years and thousands of miles of travel, he wrote a brief autobiographical “Life” in 1817, which is fascinating in its account of the internecine battles and backbiting among the several evangelical churches that were struggling to convert souls and build congregations. That account, a diary of his travels and experiences, is available online.

Thomas spurned the entreaties and advice of more experienced itinerant preachers and allied himself with the Christian Connexion and traveled extensively preaching to any who would listen. He had a wife and children in Ohio, but neverthe-less traveled most of the year. In 1835 he preached at the Anglican mission in Johnsonburg (above), where he died suddenly of small pox and was buried there. Sometime later a Christian minister-poet came upon his grave and wrote a maudlin poem, which got reprinted widely, was turned in to a Christian tune and reproduced in numerous songbooks, adding to the legend, but in the process the White Pilgrim became the Lone Pilgrim of Dylan's song.

Ministers like Charles Grandison Finney, Lorenzo Dow and the White Pilgrim were revivalist preachers, and although they get much of the attention in the literature on the frontier culture and the Second Great Awakening, it was the organizing efforts of Methodist Bishop Asbury, Charles Pitman, and Mrs. Abigail Roberts in New Jersey, for example, who sacralized much of the rural areas of the mid-Atlantic states. The Christian Connexion churches later merged with the Congregational church, and then with the Evangelical church and is now known as the United Church of Christ. Some of the key denominational leaders of the Christians served pastorates in New Jersey, according to church historian Richard Taylor, to whom I am indebted for some of the information here, and for needed corrections for some of my misconceptions about the origins of the Christian churches in the state. The Christian Palladium, at one time the official denominational periodical, was published in Irvington (1855-1860). The New Jersey Conference at times included parts of Pennsylvania and New York (and near its end Delaware), and the church even operated an orphanage in Carversville, PA, which was then in the NJ Conference. The nineteenth century Christians were open to theological diversity, Tayor writes, and some people did label them "Evangelical Unitarians," although others rejected that title, desiring only the simple Biblical name "Christian."

Henry Beck in his book Tales and Towns of Northern New Jersey has a rambling account of his search for the burial place of the White Pilgrim. A more useful source on the early Christian Movements—those with roots in Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist ministries will find Nathan Hatch's book, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale, 1989) of considerable interest. You can also find pictures of all of the surviving Christian churches in my books on the old churches of Sussex and Warren counties, and within a month or two in the forthcoming book on Hunterdon County churches.

 

 
 

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