The Presbyterian Church in New Jersey
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FIRST CHURCH, WOODBRIDGE
The history of this church begins with John Woodbridge, an early English immigrant to Massachusetts. Beginning in 1663, Woodbridge served ten years as pastor of a congregational church in the Puritan village of Newbury, MA. During his ministry, Woodbridge and two associates challenged the congregational concept that the source of church authority was the "brethren as a whole". They claimed instead that elders representing the congregation should have powers of "admittance and discipline" - something approaching Presbyterianism. They were repudiated by a special synod called of the Massachusetts churches.
In the summer of 1665, agents of Governor Philip Carteret of New Jersey were in Newbury and other towns seeking settlers for the new colony of New Jersey to the south. Willing emigrants were found at Newbury, and on May 21, 1666, articles of agreement were executed between Governor Carteret, on behalf of the proprietors, and three representatives of the emigrants - John Pike, Daniel Pierce, and Abraham Toppan. These articles gave them permission to settle one or two plantations or towns, each to consist of between 40 to 100 families, and to be located in the area between the Rahway (Rahawack) River and the Raritan River. The articles required that each town set aside 200 acres of land for the maintenance of the ministry and additional land for the building of a church, the land to be exempt from taxes and from the Lord's rent (a half penny per acre).
The settlers paid L80 for the vast tract of land and about sixty-five families moved there from Newbury. They named their new community Woodbridge, in remembrance of their long-time minister at Newbury, John Woodbridge. One-third of this purchase was later sold to emigrants from New Hampshire where the town of Piscataway was settled. Woodbridge was chartered as a township June 1, 1669. The charter defined the boundaries of Woodbridge as being the Arthur Cull (Kill) River to the east, Elizabethtown to the north, New Piscataway to the west, and the Raritan River to the south. Among the earliest families with land-holdings were - Obadiah Ayres, John Bishop, Samuel Hale, Jonathan Haynes, and John Pike, all of Newbury, as well as Thomas Bloomfield, William Compton, Henry Jacques, and Daniel Pierce.
[KDS note - Sarah Moore, wife of an unknown Skinner, was from Newbury, MA; John Pike, Obadiah Ayres, and Henry Jacques all were ancestors or relatives of Elizabeth Cutter, wife of third generation John Skinner, Jr.].
Most of the provisions of the articles of agreement were incorporated into the township's charter. Two hundred acres of land were set aside for the ministry (parsonage land) and 100 acres for a school, all exempt from taxes and the Lord's rent. Inhabitants of different religious persuasions could maintain another ministry at their own expense, and while not having public support , would not be persecuted.
The foundations of the Woodbridge town church meeting house were laid in 1675, and the building finished six years later. This building, thirty foot square, lasted well over a century, near the spot occupied by the present church, built in 1803. In those early years, there was great difficulty finding a regular minister and the pulpit was frequently vacant.
In September, 1980, Rev. John Allen, a Congregationalist of England, was secured as pastor of the town church. He was succeeded by Rev. Archibald Riddell, a Scotsman, who ministered until 1689, and was followed by Rev. Samuel Shepard, who was pastor until 1706. Richard Skinner is one of numerous persons mentioned in the 1708 will of Samuel Shepard, probably as a result of accounts due as payment to the minister. In 1707, Rev. Nathaniel Wade became pastor and served until 1712, when he was dismissed by the Presbytery of Philadelphia, with which the church had been affiliated since 1710. It was under Nathaniel Wade's ministry that records were kept that are available today - records that indicate that Richard, Francis, John and Ann Skinner were all church members.
An Episcopalian minister who visited the church in 1702 referred to the church as "the Independent meeting house". Evidence that the town church became Presbyterian first appears on March 28, 1710 when the church records indicate a Presbyterian form of government.
Early settlers to Woodbridge included families from Long Island and New England towns. Another source of migration began with the arrival of the ship 'Henry and Francis' from Scotland in 1685, containing 140 Presbyterians, including Calvinists who had been imprisoned for their beliefs by King James, and who had petitioned the authorities for permission to come to East Jersey. The voyage of four months resulted in the deaths of 60 of the original 200 passengers. These immigrants were the forerunners of many Scotch and Scotch-Irish who were to come to America in the 1700's.
The Presbyterian form of Calvinism had been established in the 1500's in Scotland, with a complete structure of Presbyteries, Synods, and a General Assembly. In England, where Presbyterianism had not succeeded in becoming the established church, Calvinism became Puritanism, an effort to purify and reform the Anglican Church. The Puritans believed that the State must be governed by the holy. They were not able to implement their idea of a "union of civil and religious authority" until they migrated to Massachusetts.
Despite their common roots in Calvinism, the Puritans and Scotch Presbyterians had a different concept of what constituted a true church. To the Puritans, membership was restricted to the saints, and the convenant of the saints constituted the visible church. They were Congregationalists - believing that congregation members could collectively carry-out all decision-making without the need for any higher church organization. The Presbyterian concept of a true church was much broader. Membership was not limited to saints. Individual congregations were viewed as a subordinate part of the church as a whole, represented by elders in a Presbytery or Synod. Even within a single church, they believed in a form of representative administration. These differences in philosophy were often blurred in practice, and that was particularly the case of the Woodbridge church in which there were both Puritan and Presbyterian roots. The Presbyterian influences would gradually win out.
The original proprietors of the colonies were Anglicans, but as landlords they needed settlers and thus provided agreements that no religious persecution would take place as long as there was no civil disturbance. A permissive environment was thus created - not only for Presbyterians, but also for early Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, and Dutch Reformed. The 24 proprietors who bought East Jersey after the death of Sir George Carteret defined and provided for a broad degree of religious freedom in their constitution of 1681. Unlike England, Scotland, or New England, New Jersey was not to have an established church. Furthermore, the practice of settlements supporting their own churches through public taxation changed to a reliance on member subscriptions as communities grew and encompassed multiple churches. In Woodbridge, these changes were beginning to occur by the early 1700's.
Due to the number of religious organizations, the separation of civil and religious authority, and occasional friction between royal governors and churches after 1702, the congregational churches in New Jersey required better organization. When the Presbytery of Philadelphia was established in 1706, many churches rapidly sought admission. Woodbridge was admitted in 1710. The existence of this Presbytery created an American Church authority completely independent of the Scottish Presbyterians and of Europe in general, and independent of the civil power of the royal governor. This process of Americanization was underway in other denominations as well.
Detailed records of the First Presbyterian Church of Woodbridge are available beginning 1707. The minister at the time was Nathaniel Wade, a Congregationalist. A membership list begun by Wade showed 47 members in 1708, 20 added in 1709, and 8 in 1710. The three original church members were Samuel Hail, John Pike, and Noah Bishop, all immigrants from Newbury, MA. Wade was a man of strong opinions and created much controversy, and was finally removed in 1712. Some of his opponents seceded from the church to form an Episcopal (Church of England) congregation.
John Pierson came to Woodbridge in 1714, was ordained there on April 29, 1717, and served a remarkable career there until 1753. Pierson's initial salary was set at L80 per year, paid by subscription, and he had use of the 200 acres of parsonage land. Among his many accomplishments, he was instrumental in founding the College of New Jersey for the training of Presbyterian ministers. This of course became Princeton University. [KDS note - third-generation John Skinner, Jr., "preacher of the gospel at Woodbridge", was Willed money by a John Hude for the erection of this college near Princeton].
Many new churches were formed in the first half of the 1700's as new centers of rural population began to develop. A Westfield church split off from Elizabeth in 1727 and Woodbridge communicants formed a Rahway church in the 1740's. In 1738, six churches in East Jersey, including Woodbridge, and eight on Long Island, united to form the Presbytery of New York, which became one of the Synod's leading Presbyteries, rivaling that of Philadelphia.
During Pierson's ministry, sometime between 1720 and 1730, a second church was built in Woodbridge, located in the northwest part of the township in an area called Metuchen. The church was built "for the purpose of preaching lectures in every fourth week on week-day by the Rev. Mr. John Pierson". The meeting house, located at the junction of the Bonhamtown-Oak Tree road and the Woodbridge-Metuchen road was rarely, if ever, used for church services, but rather for occasional week-day lectures or sermons for the benefit of Woodbridge parishioners living in the western part of the township. In the 1750's, at about the time Pierson left the ministry In Woodbridge, a larger meeting-house was built. (The oldest marker in the Metuchen graveyard is dated 1731).
The growth of new churches and revitalization was propelled by the Great Awakening, an upheaval that reached its peak in Presbyterian and other churches in the 1730's and 1740's. After the initial colonization of the 1600's, an indifference to the church as a moral force had begun to set in, an indifference probably resulting from the hard, unrewarding, and somewhat uncivilized frontier life. A new breed of ministers began to fight that indifference, focusing not on the need for conversion, but the need for individual struggle with conscience.
The movement was critical of the old orthodoxy that had been overly formal and not responsive to the existing situation and American lifestyle. Revival preaching tended to be strong in its oratory, appealing to the individual to fight the sinful nature of man and to lead a holy life with an active faith. They questioned the commitment of their conservative opponents and the relevance of the orthodox training and education, eventually setting up an alternative school in Pennsylvania called Log College. John Pierson invited one of these preachers, English evangelist George Whitefield, to Woodbridge in April 28, 1740, where he preached to an open air congregation of some 2,000 persons.
The Synod of Philadelphia tried to deal with many of the controversies resulting from this new movement. However, the Presbytery of New Brunswick, the strongest center of this revival, was eventually expulsed from the Synod. In 1745, thirteen ministers of this Presbytery of New Brunswick, nine ministers of the Presbytery of New York, and other advocates of the new way formed the rival Synod of New York. John Pierson played an active role in forming the new Synod. The new Synod underwent significant growth, consisting of 23 ministers when it was formed in 1745 and growing to 73 ministers in 1758, when it was reunited with the Philadelphia Synod. The largest Presbytery was now that of New York, to which Woodbridge belonged, with 23 ministers, of whom 16 were graduates of Yale, and four of the College of New Jersey.
Prior to the reunion, the Synod of New York had been in need of a college for the training of ministers, due to the large number of vacant pulpits. Log College had not been sufficient. In 1745, four prominent ministers, all favorable to the Great Awakening, petitioned Lewis Morris, Governor of New Jersey, to found a college. The four were John Pierson - Woodbridge, Jonathan Dickinson - Elizabeth, Ebenezer Pemberton - New York and Aaron Burr - Newark. Because of his Anglican background, Morris refused, but an interim governor, John Hamilton, granted a charter in 1746. The College of New Jersey first met in Dickinson's parsonage in Elizabeth, then in Burr's in Newark, and finally moved to the town of Princeton in 1756. Pierson served on its Board of Trustees for nineteen years. Note that Pierson's father had been a founder and first President of Yale, from which Pierson had graduated.
John Pierson left the Woodbridge church in 1753, after having served as minister since 1717. He went on to preach in Mendham, NJ, and died in 1770. The Woodbridge church was temporarily serviced by Timothy Allen, and after 1755, by Nathaniel Whittaker, a graduate of the College of New Jersey. It was probably during Whittaker's ministry, in 1755 or 1756, that the Metuchen church separated from the Woodbridge church. The first minister at Metuchen was likely Alexander Cummings, who left in 1761. During the next nine years, a permanent Metuchen minister could not be found, and Metuchen and Woodbridge reunited in 1770. Azel Roe, who came to the Woodbridge ministry in 1763, preached half time at each church. Azel Roe was minister at Woodbridge for 52 years until his death in 1815, and achieved much fame as both a minister and zealous patriot.
In the 1780's, the Metuchen church again took steps that would eventually make it independent of Woodbridge. In 1784, Metuchen selected its own administrative staff and in 1787, its own trustees - Benjamin Manning, John Conger, John Ross, Ebenezer Ford, Ellis Ayres, Timothy Bloomfield and Robert Ross. [Note that Benjamin Manning Senior was a brother-in-law to Nathaniel and Cornelius Skinner and lived near Cornelius Skinner, John Conger and Wright Skinner. Both Wright Skinner and Benjamin Manning faced ejectment suits from their lands by New Jersey's proprietors.] At their first meeting in October of 1787, they elected to incorporate as an a church independent of Woodbridge called the Second Presbyterian Church of Woodbridge. The name of the church was changed to the First Presbyterian Church of Metuchen in 1858.
Problems staffing churches with ministers was a common problem during the frontier expansion of the 1700's. Often, ministers from more established churches were asked to spend a month or two on the frontier. Azel Roe, for example, was ordered to spend time in Virginia and the Carolinas.
Some information about colonial life - farming was the chief activity of the people of Middlesex County before the Revolution. Winter wheat was the chief cash crop. Corn, rye , barley, oats and cabbage were also grown. Peaches and apples were cultivated. Cattle raising was increasingly important. New York was a major market for agricultural produce shipped through New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. Weekly markets were held at Perth Amboy and Woodbridge. Women spun yarn, smoked meat, brewed beer, peach brandy, and apple cider, and made candles and soap. Rural social events were built around these activities - there were apple paring bees, quilting bees, and wood frolics to supply the minister with firewood.
Presbyterians were active opponents to British colonial policy in the 1760's and 1770's. They were concerned about the preservation of rights and the increasing use of force by the British to enforce their claims. The Presbyterians also were concerned that Parliament might take steps to establish the Anglican Church in America. Presbyterian ministers were in the position of being the most educated and influential persons in their communities and in a position to mold public opinion through widely heard and published sermons. A British official is said to have remarked in 1776, "Presbyterianism is really at the bottom of this whole conspiracy."
More than half of the New Jersey troops in the Continental Army were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. Azel Roe assisted in resisting a British attack and was captured and held prisoner in New York. The home of Moses Bloomfield was plundered five times by the British. Exekiel Bloomfield also suffered extensive damage to his home. The frequent battles in New Jersey convinced many residents to avoid supporting the cause of independence and to take advantage of British offers of protection, a fact George Washington noted with disappointment..
The most important military event of the war in the North Jersey area occurred in 1777. On June 26, a column of troops under General Vaughan moved from Staten Island to Oak Tree via Fords and Metuchen. A second column under General Cornwallis moved to the same vicinity via Woodbridge and Iselin. Several clashes took place at Short Hills and Scotch Plains, before the British retreated back to Staten Island via Rahway.. The whole effort, which was designed to lure Washington out of his positions in the Watchung Hills and to allow Howe to move across New Jersey toward Philadelphia, failed. Peace eventually came in 1783 with the treaty recognizing the independence of the United States. [KDS note - Captain Richard Skinner was killed at Rahway 29 June 1779].
[Note - I have not found any mention of Skinners in Presbyterian records, or in detailed books concerning the histories of the Metuchen or Woodbridge churches, other than the family joining the Woodbridge church in 1708 and Richard being made a Deacon there in 1710. John Skinner, who is mentioned in the Will of John Hude as being "the preacher of the gospel in Woodbridge." does not appear in church records. My assumption is that John Skinner, though not the primary minister at either Woodbridge or Metuchen., was probably one of the numerous unnamed lower-level ministers in the Woodbridge area. The Woodbridge church records are not complete - there are no records for the years around 1759 - 1786, although the primary ministers at the time are well-documented. There is a brief mention in the records of a Thomas Skinner in 1758, though he was not necessarily a church member. Undoubtedly, he was a member of the Perth Amboy Skinner family.]
above copied and/or paraphrased from:
Weber, Thomas, Phd., "The Heritage of the First Presbyterian Church of Metuchen, NJ", Thomas Weber, Phd.,1967
"History of Middlesex County, New Jersey, 1664-1920, John P. Wall and Harold Pickersgill, Vol II, 1921.
Also reviewed Ayers, William Henry, " A History of the First Presbyterian Church of Metuchen, NJ", William Henry Ayers, 1947.
References footnoted in Weber that I would like to have reviewed:
Clayton, W. Woodford, below
Leonard J. Trinterud, "The Forming of an American Tradition", Philadelphia, 1949
S. D. Alexander, "The Presbytery of New York 1738 to 1888, New York, 1888.
FIRST CHURCH, ELIZABETH, NJ
This church was organized as Congregational when the town of Elizabeth was founded in 1664. The original meeting house was erected in that year on land purchased from the Indians. This site served as the place of worship for forty years. In 1717, the Presbyterian articles of faith were adopted and affiliation with the Presbytery of Philadelphia followed.
In 1724, a new church replaced the old, and in 1753, the church was chartered by King George II. During the Revolutionary War, at about 1780, the British burned the church. In 1789, the replacement church was completed (Broad St.) and serves as the present church.
A transcribed record of births, marriages, members, and burials for the years 1717-1800 is the only pre-1800 record remaining.
Historical Reference - England, Herbert K., Historical Sketch of the Presbytery of Elizabeth. Elizabeth, George R. Iles, 1925. 8pp.
FIRST CHURCH, PERTH AMBOY, NJ
Services were held in private residences prior to the erection of a church in 1735. During the Revolutionary War, the church was used as a stable for British cavalry, and in 1785, it was burned down. A new church was completed in 1803 on the present church property. There are no church records remaining for the years prior to 1802.
Historical Reference - Mendenhall, Harlan G., Presbyterianism in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Perth Amboy Publishing Company, 1903. 92 pp.
FIRST CHURCH, RAHWAY, NJ
Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, organized the Rahway Church in 1741 to serve the growing population there who would have found travel to Elizabeth to be difficult. A church was erected later that same year and remained until 1832.
Church records remain for as far back as 1795.
References - Clayton, W. Woodford, History of Union and Middlesex Counties, Philadelphia, Everts and Peck, 1882, pp. 259-270
Pomeroy, J. Jay, Historical Sketch of the First Presbyterian Church of Rahway. New York, William C. Martin, 1877. 88pp.
"Inventory of the Church Archives of New Jersey", The New Jersey Historical Records Survey Project, Newark, 1940; Rutgers University library.