South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic and Cultural History - R. Craig Koedel

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Religion and Education

      The old-time religion in new vesture, the Methodist movement, swept into South Jersey in the years just before the Revolution. Haltingly at first, restrained by opposition and the hazards of war, Methodism grew in the closing years of the 18th century into the predominant faith of South Jerseymen, displacing older denominations that had been rendered effete or ineffective. With an appeal to the heart instead of the mind, offering a free salvation to all who would repent and believe without the stricture of divine election, proclaimed with passion by colorful men in simple words, the Methodist gospel found fertile soil among the unsophisticated farmers, woodsmen, small traders, and iron-workers of South Jersey.

      John Early, who came from Ireland in 1764, was the first known Methodist in New Jersey. He settled in Gloucester County, where for forty years he was a Methodist class leader and steward on the circuit. A Philadelphia merchant by the name of Edward Evans, a convert to the teachings of George Whitefield when he was on his first American tour, began to preach Methodist doctrine at Greenwich in Gloucester late in the 1760’s to "an assorted congregation" composed of Methodists, Episcopalians, "half-Quakers," and a few Swedish Lutherans.

      Answering a call from the Methodist founder, John Wesley, for preachers to go to America, Joseph Pilmoor and Richard Boardman took ship from England in 1769. These first representatives of the new movement in America, carrying full credentials as Methodist preachers under assignment by Wesley himself, stepped ashore at Gloucester Point on October 21, 1769. Methodism had arrived officially in the New World. As the ministry of Pilmoor took him into South Jersey, to him the Methodist church in New Jersey’s southern counties owes its recognized beginning as an offshoot of the parent society in Great Britain.

      "Live or die, I must ride." Such was the motto of Francis Asbury, who landed at Philadelphia in October, 1771. The name of this man, more than any other, is associated with the origins of the Methodist church, in South Jersey as in the whole of the young American republic. Preacher, able organizer, first bishop, and patron saint of American Methodists, his itinerant ministry of more than forty years took him again and again to old Gloucester County, to Cumberland, Salem, and Cape May Counties, and to the Egg Harbor Country, where he preached, organized Methodist classes, baptized, administered the Lord’s Supper, counseled, supervised the building of meeting houses, dedicated churches, pled with the sinful, rejoiced with the saved, broke bread with the high and the lowly, and was the untiring servant of the Lord in whose vineyard he labored.

      A compilation taken from Asbury’s journal shows that, between 1771 and 1814, the indefatigable preacher made ninety-two stops at forty-two different Methodist preaching stations in the southern counties. These stations included Methodist chapels, free churches, churches of other denominations, and private homes. Not only do these figures show the extent and intensity of Asbury’s ministry throughout the area, but they show as well how widely Methodism spread, its itinerants preaching more often in more places than had those of any other religious group up to that time.

      In New Jersey, Methodism’s most spectacular gains were in the formerly Quaker areas. By 1830, more than 7.5% of the population of the southern counties (including Burlington) was Methodist. In Cumberland County, predominantly Presbyterian going into the 19th century, 11% of the population was Methodist in 1864, whereas five years later the Presbyterian population had dropped to an amount just over 3.5%. At the time, there were three-fourths as many Methodists in Cumberland County alone as there were Presbyterians, the next largest religious group, in all the southern counties put together, including Burlington.

      The spread of Methodism is commonly attributed to a number of factors, among which are its emotional appeal, its reliance upon the unstinting labor of devout laymen, its lack of educational qualifications for ordination, its democratic theology, whereby salvation is offered free to all, not just the few, and the mobility afforded by the circuit system.

      Each circuit was made up of a varying number of preaching stations separated by a distance of several miles. An itinerant preacher, familiarly known as the circuit rider, was assigned to a circuit, and was expected to make a visit to all its stations every two, four, or six weeks, depending upon the distance to be covered and the designation of the circuit. As membership of the classes and societies grew, the circuits were divided. Between the calls of the circuit riders, local class leaders and lay preachers conducted services, held prayer meetings, and in general tended the Methodist flock in their communities. Variety for both clergy and congregation was assured by the frequent change of preachers. Such a system had the benefits of utilizing the talents of capable lay leadership, providing on-the-job training for young preachers, and guaranteeing frequent and regular coverage of the field by licensed clergymen.

      Despite a wide appeal in South Jersey, Methodism encountered resistance, sufficiently implacable at times to call it persecution. The highly emotional style of Methodist worship, punctuated with outbursts of shouting and marked by sometimes violent physical tremors unfamiliar to more staid religionists, evoked ridicule from the impious and opposition from the established churches. Besides its peculiar brand of unction, the Methodist characteristic most often deprecated was its suspect Arminian doctrines -- that God predestined an individual neither to salvation nor damnation; that the believer was perfectable; but, on the other hand, that he could "fall from grace." These were particularly offensive to Calvinist bodies, which saw them as error compounded by Methodism’s serious departure from Christian order. The Methodists, they believed, were neither doctrinally nor ritually rational.

      Meanwhile, other religious denominations in South Jersey were expanding also, in numbers if not percentages, as the population increased. The Episcopalians and German Lutherans made small gains, with the Baptists showing substantial increases. After 1840, a revived Presbyterianism organized a score or more of new congregations, largely through the prodigious efforts of Allen H. Brown, the appointed missionary of West Jersey Presbytery. New religious groups, such as the Mormons, made their appearance about mid-19th century. Only the Quakers continued the decline begun during the closing decades of the 18th century, a falling off intensified by the split over procedural and doctrinal issues led by Elias Hicks in 1827.

      For the most part, the 19th century was an era in South Jersey religion dominated by evangelical Protestantism, emotional in manner and fundamentalist in doctrine, which gave evidence of its enthusiasm in frequent revivals and numerous camp meetings. It was tinctured, too, with an American nativism that bred hostility and opposition when the new wave of European immigrants began to arrive, particularly if they were Roman Catholics.

      Catholicism was roundly denounced from the pulpit. A line from an 1834 sermon by a Presbyterian pastor in Cumberland County is illustrative: "And it is apparent that Popery with its abominations and superstitious adherents will, in a great part, be swept off with a terrible destruction. For ye Lord will consume this man [the Pope] of sin with ye spirit of his coming, and from some passages of scripture it appears that many of his idolatrous followers will be killed, while some will become his [the Lord’s] willing people." The Pope was damned by Protestants as the Anti-Christ; the Jesuits were publicly accused of conspiring to subject the United States Government to papal control. The opposition, at times, was more than verbal. Buildings in which Catholics met were fouled with manure, and Catholics were denied, in some cases, the privilege of buying ground for their churches. In other cases, when a plot was secured for a church, construction workers laid down their tools when they discovered the kind of church it was to be. Men were fired from jobs if they admitted to being Catholic.

      The drafters of the 1844 Constitution of the State of New Jersey were more liberal than many other citizens in their religious attitudes. Whereas the 1776 Constitution, while granting suffrage to Catholics, restricted the right to hold office to Protestants, the later constitution specified that, "no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust; and no person shall be denied the enjoyment of any civil right merely on account of his religious principles."

      Furthermore, in spite of opposition, Roman Catholic churches were erected in South Jersey. The first was at Pleasant Mills in the 1820’s, built by the Catholic workers at Batsto furnace on land donated by Jesse Richards. Catholic churches were standing at Salem, Cape May, Camden, Atlantic City, and Swedesboro before the Civil War, and were joined by those at Millville, Egg Harbor City, and Woodbury during the war. The 1870’s and 1880’s saw the erection of Catholic houses of worship in the other larger South Jersey towns, as well as in a number of smaller communities.

      However, South Jersey remained solidly Protestant to the end of the 19th century. As late as 1905, when baptized Roman Catholics in New Jersey outnumbered the membership of all Protestant bodies combined, there was no southern county with a Catholic majority. Finally, by the 1930’s, Catholicism in South Jersey was of a size to be created a separate diocese, the Diocese of Camden.

      Religious attitudes during the first half of the 19th century affected the development of education. Fearing that public education would head in a purely secular direction, some church people resisted any move away from the private and church-sponsored schools that had become traditional in colonial times. Statewide, the national, cultural, and religious heterogeneity of New Jersey encouraged the perpetuation of parochial, private, and charity schools.

      The initial actions taken by the state legislature on behalf of free public education, in 1817 and 1820, strengthened the long-held impression that education at public expense was for the poor alone, whereas those who could afford it should send their children to church or private schools. The 1817 act provided for the establishment of a permanent school fund; the act of 1820 authorized townships to appoint supervisory committees and to raise money for schools "for the education of such poor children as are paupers, . . . and the children of such poor parents . . . as are or shall be, in the judgment of said committee, unable to pay for schooling the same."

      Minutes of meetings in which the townships moved in accordance with this act reflect its language: a committee was elected "for the education of poor children in this township," and "RESOLVED that the sum of one hundred dollars be raised for the purpose of instructing indigent children in the usual form of learning." An Egg Harbor Township (Atlantic County) resolution of 1827 specified that only one child in a family could use the school fund in any given year, and he for no longer than three months. In New Jersey, the association of free education with poverty was an idea that died hard. A committee was appointed at a public meeting in Trenton in 1828 to collect and disseminate information about the condition of New Jersey’s schools. The committee’s report shows that, of the southern counties, Cumberland County was the most progressive, with fifty-four schools averaging a winter attendance of over 1400 pupils.6 In some of the schools, classes in languages, geography, and singing were offered. Despite this creditable record, over 400 children in the county were without instruction. Only half of the townships in Salem County reported. In those that did report, there were twenty-nine schools with a winter enrollment just in excess of 1200.7 Four hundred forty-seven children were not being educated. The Salem representatives decried the miserable deficiency of common school education in New Jersey, urging that the legislature "adopt some more efficient mode of instruction."

      Gloucester County, which at the time still included Atlantic and Camden Counties, pointed to the sparseness of its population in explaining the lack of schools in some places. The people in those areas, it was added, were "very solicitous to obtain opportunities of educating their children," but would need state aid to do so. Cape May County did not report, but the American Bible Society, having become familiar with the level of literacy in the state while distributing Bibles and religious tracts, gave a dismal account of conditions in that county.

      It should be pointed out that these were not free public schools being reported to the committee. The annual tuition in Salem County, for example, ranged between $1.50 and $2.00. In 1839, tuition was still being charged by public schools at a statewide average of slightly under $2.00 a quarter. Although Cumberland County had tax-supported schools before 1830, free schools maintained by taxes and monies from the state school fund were not introduced into that county until 1847. Not until 1871 did the state legislature prohibit public schools from charging tuition. Textbooks and supplies have been free to pupils in public schools since 1894.

      The state response to the 1828 report was the common school act of 1829, which provided for the dividing of the school fund among the counties and townships proportionate to the taxes paid by each, empowered the townships to set up committees to organize school districts and to examine and license teachers, and authorized the election of trustees to secure classrooms and to distribute school funds. Public education was enhanced further by the Constitution of 1844, which established the state school fund as a perpetual fund that could not be used by the legislature in any way for any other purpose. In 1846, townships were required to match appropriations from the state school fund. By the same law, elected, paid school superintendents replaced the township committees.

      Although there was strong objection to these measures on the part of many who preferred that education remain under the aegis of the church, the townships of the state had nearly doubled their 1845 appropriations by 1848, while the number of children in school increased by 60%. South Jersey kept pace with the rest of the state.

      Before the Civil War, public education was on the elementary level only; high schools were the product of the 1870’s and afterward. Private and parochial academies, devoted primarily to college preparation, were the norm for secondary education until the proponents of public high schools first made their voices heard in Trenton in 1871. Action by the state, however, was not taken until the 1890’s, in legislation which required that public high schools be established in all first and second class cities.

      To many, education beyond the common school level was an unnecessary frill that did not justify the expense. They complained that tax assessments for education were already too high. The arguments, pro and con, were taken up by the newspapers, where debate sometimes degenerated into sarcasm. The Salem Sunbeam, for example, lampooned one of the city’s prominent, wealthy citizens who, albeit eager to lend money at 35%, interest, railed at the robbery of having to pay to educate other people’s children. The editor asked, in the last line of a rhymed verse, "Great God -- can such a soul be saved?"

      Camden had the makings of a high school in 1865, when secondary courses were offered as part of a graded school system. Although the Camden County superintendent hoped that the county would soon have a high school where teachers could be trained to instruct the lower grades, his wish was almost thirty years ahead of fulfillment. High school classes first met in Camden in 1891; an edifice constructed for the purpose was opened in 1899, after a number of other South Jersey cities had such facilities.

      Vineland led the way by opening a high school in 1870. In August, 1874, President Grant dedicated the city’s new high school building. The city of Salem graduated its first high school class in 1875. Four other 19th-century high schools in South Jersey date from the 1890’s; they included Camden; Gloucester City High School, which is mentioned in a report of the United States Commissioner of Education for 1892-3; Atlantic City, which was founded in 1893 and moved into a new building three years later, and Egg Harbor City High School, which graduated a class of six in 1895.

      Manual training was included in the curriculum of some city schools, most notably at Camden where instruction was given in drawing, color, and sewing to all grades, and where joining, turning, patternmaking, carving, machine work, and forging were offered at the dual-purpose manual training and high school building erected in 1899. Public vocational education, defined as "any education the controlling purpose of which is to fit for profitable employment," was approved by a state law in 1913, after which Atlantic City High School created industrial and home economics departments. At the same time, Vineland High School was making plans for a vocational department. Atlantic County was the first in the state to provide for a vocational school under the supervision of a county vocational school board.

      Evening schools were a post-Civil War addition to South Jersey learning that proved to be a boon to adult laborers and white collar workers who wished to advance their education. Evening instruction was especially beneficial to immigrants in acquainting them with the language and customs of their new homes. Bridgeton, Millville, Salem, and Camden opened evening schools around 1870. Apprentices in industrial arts and students in household arts were first offered evening classes in Atlantic City around 1913.

      A drawback to the development of public education in South Jersey was the scarcity of qualified teachers. To overcome this obstacle, teachers’ institutes were conducted, as early as 1848 in Gloucester County. Normal schools, which met from nine to twelve on Saturday mornings, conducted studies in school administration, teaching methods, and grammar school subjects after 1866. In some instances, the primary mission of the public high schools was to train teachers for the lower grades. However, post-high school education for teachers was not available within the geographical limits of South Jersey until the state normal school at Glassboro was opened in 1923.

      In the mid-1920’s, a second institution of higher learning was established in South Jersey, the College of South Jersey and the South Jersey Law School at Camden. Incorporated as a part of Rutgers University in 1950, the Camden campus expanded its three-year program to four years in 1951. The state normal school at Glassboro was reorganized as Glassboro State College in 1935, when a four-year, Bachelor of Arts program was introduced. The college began a Master of Arts curriculum in 1949. Stockton State College at Pomona, which admitted its first class in 1971, was the third institution in South Jersey authorized to grant a baccalaureate degree.

      By the end of the 1960’s, five of the southern counties were operating two-year community colleges with authorization to grant an associate degree in a variety of vocational fields and in the liberal arts.

6 Cumberland County population in 1830 was 14,093.

7 Salem County population in 1830 was 14,155.

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