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

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Meeting House and Schoolhouse

      Religious worship and the social control maintained by the churches were introduced to South Jersey with the coming of the earliest settlers. Albeit the membership of religious societies seldom, if ever, constituted more than half of the total population during the colonial era, the churches of the time were the most formative and important bodies in politics, education, and the care of the poor. The region’s literary output of the century came almost exclusively from the pens of clergymen and Quaker preachers.

      The first religious minister known to have labored in South Jersey was a Swedish Lutheran, Israel Fluviander, who was appointed by Governor Printz to serve as a chaplain to the military and civilian personnel engaged in the construction of Fort Elfsborg. However, his ministry there was brief, no parish or congregation was founded, and Swedish Lutherans looked to the west bank of the Delaware for spiritual care until after 1700. Lutheran parishes were established early in the 18th century at Raccoon (Swedesboro) and Penn’s Neck (Churchtown). Permanent religious societies were organized and meeting houses were built in South Jersey by Quakers, Baptists, and Presbyterian Puritans before 1695.

      The company of John Fenwick is said to have turned the sails of the Griffin into a Quaker meeting house immediately upon their landing at Salem. As the ship is thought to have returned to England by way of the West Indies, the legend is improbable. But, if true, the meeting tent soon gave way to the log residence of Samuel Nicholson, where the people of Fenwick’s Colony began gathering for services of worship twice each week in 1676. In that year, the Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, a monthly session in which business and disciplinary matters were handled, was settled. The same residence was later donated by the owner to the Salem meeting for their exclusive use as a meeting house. Enlarged and improved, it provided the Salem Quakers with a place for worship and business until they erected a brick meeting house on the same lot in 1700.

      With each successive wave of Quaker immigration, new meetings were settled in South Jersey. Gathering at first in private homes, each group eventually built its own meeting house. As their numbers grew, monthly meetings for business and discipline were established. By the end of the 17th century, Quaker meeting houses were standing at Salem, along Alloway’s Creek, on Newton Creek in Gloucester County, and at Greenwich on the Cohansey. Between 1700 and the middle of the 18th century, Quaker houses of worship appeared at Hancock’s Bridge and Pilesgrove in Salem County, in Cape May County at Beesley’s Point and Seaville, in the western end of Gloucester County at Haddonfield and Woodbury, and along the shore at Somers Point, Leeds Point, the "upper end" of Great Egg Harbor (Linwood), and at Tuckerton on the Little Egg Harbor River. As the original buildings became too small or fell into disrepair through years of usage, new structures replaced them.

      Quaker meeting houses, often of sturdy, brick construction, inside were plain in the extreme. Meeting goers sat on rows of benches, parted by a middle aisle that separated the women from the men. (In many buildings, the two sexes had entered through separate doors.) Facing them were similar rows of benches, frequently on a stepped platform, from which the elders and overseers looked out upon the congregation. The whole was void of decoration. There was neither altar nor pulpit. Indeed, there was neither sacrament nor priest, nor ordained minister, but only the people, one or more of whom spoke according to the moving of the spirit. Otherwise, they all worshiped in silence, contemplating the inner light.

      Plainness of dress and speech, modesty and sobriety, the eschewing of any ostentation in their homes or manner of living were enjoined upon all Quakers. No idleness, frivolity, or worldly entertainment were countenanced. Quakers were permitted to marry only Quakers. Control over the membership was exercised by the monthly meeting of elders and overseers, who dealt with individuals accused of violating Quaker principles, imploring them to confess their fault and repent. The errant member who ignored this admonition was subject to the ultimate punishment of disownment by the society, or as is commonly said, of being "read out of meeting." Whenever possible, civil disputes too were adjudicated by the monthly meeting, Quakers preferring that such matters be settled peaceably among themselves rather than by the civil courts.

      Quakers who married outside their faith faced a humiliating confession or disownment. Before the middle of the 18th century there was little infraction of this precept. As the Society’s influence in South Jersey waned, however, the incidence of irregular marriages among their membership increased significantly, alarming those who longed to preserve their homogeneity as a religious and social group.

      Settlers of Baptist persuasion migrated in or about 1683 from Ireland to the Cohansey precinct of Salem County, where shortly they were joined by another group of Baptists from Rhode Island. They were constituted a church in 1690, met for a time in private homes, and built their first meeting house at Back Neck in 1692. Later the congregation moved to a building at Sheppard’s Mill, then to Roadstown. A second group of New England Baptists settled at Bowentown in 1690. At Cape May, Baptist services are thought to have been held as early as 1675, but a congregation was first organized in that county in 1712. Their first permanent house of worship was near modern Rio Grande, where they met until 1742, when a new building was erected at Cape May Court House. During the three and one-half decades prior to the Revolution, Baptist churches were organized at Salem, Pittsgrove, Dividing Creek, and Tuckahoe.

      Puritan emigrants from New Haven Colony first settled along the banks of the Cohansey River as early as 1660. Exactly when these Puritans organized a church is not known, but a pastor was among them by 1695. Rev. Thomas Bridge, an Englishman and Oxford graduate described as having been "a man of wealth, piety, learning, ability and manifold experience," was requested in 1692 to consider removing from Bermuda to the Cohansey region, because "Many Persons in diverse Parts of ye Country have frequently exprest their desires of a Minister & assure us they will Contribute towards his Comfortable subsistence & pay him all that duty respect & deference his worke deserves . . . . " It is known that Bridge accepted the call and was in Fairfield in 1695. Under his direction, a log meeting house was built, to be replaced later by the frame predecessor of the Old Stone Church, which stands today near Fairton. In 1706, the congregation affiliated with the first American presbytery then being formed at Philadelphia, thus becoming, in fact, a Presbyterian church.

      Across the Cohansey from Fairfield, at Greenwich, a second Presbyterian congregation was begun around 1700, although its formal organization was delayed for a quarter of a century. Meanwhile, Calvinist whalemen sailing southward from New England located finally at Cape May, where they founded a church of the Presbyterian order at Cold Spring, around 1714. A small, log meeting house was erected near a spot where fresh water bubbled up in a salt marsh. Unorganized congregations of Presbyterians were meeting for worship in private homes at Pilesgrove and Woodbury in 1716. Presbyterian meeting houses were standing at both places before mid-century.

      Deep in the pine forest, along the Little Egg Harbor River, Presbyterians are said to have been worshiping in crude cabins early in the 1700’s. One group was at Pleasant Mills, where Scottish exiles, fleeing from the persecution of the later Stuart kings, found refuge. Downstream, at Clark’s Landing, Puritan emigrants from Connecticut established a town, and built a primitive meeting house, shortly after the turn of the 18th century.

      Less plain of speech and dress than the Quakers, the Baptists and Presbyterians were no more tolerant than they of slothfulness, frivolity, or sexual misconduct. Such vices as dancing, card playing, gambling, drunkenness, cheating, profanity, fornication, and Sabbath breaking were sternly denounced. Presbyterians suspected of engaging in these evils were forced to stand trial before the elders of the congregation. A public confession and the promise to mend his ways were required of anyone found guilty. A sentence of excommunication was pronounced upon unrepentant persons convicted of serious immorality or blasphemy.

      Other religious denominations which established congregations and erected meeting houses in South Jersey during the colonial period were the German Lutherans at Friesburg and a short-lived German Reformed Church nearby. The Moravian Brethren had churches along Oldman’s Creek and at Port Elizabeth on the Maurice River. The Church of England (Anglican), from which many of the colonists were in dissent, had little strength or influence in the southern region of the province. However, by the time of the Revolution, Anglican churches were standing at Salem, and at Waterford and Berkeley (Mount Royal) in Gloucester County. After the Revolution, the Swedish Lutheran churches joined the Anglican churches in becoming member congregations of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. Methodism, officially introduced to America by Joseph Pilmoor in 1769, and later to become the dominant religious group in South Jersey, was not widely followed in the area before the 1780’s.

      Roman Catholics, without legal protection or civil rights during the years of New Jersey’s status as a crown colony, were forced to meet in secret. At first, Catholics were exceedingly few. However, their numbers increased as European immigrants from predominately Catholic countries came to work in the Wistarberg glasshouse and at the iron furnace at Batsto. Itinerant priests from Philadelphia, one of them at times disguised as a physician, traveled to Salem and Gloucester Counties to celebrate the Mass in the homes of the faithful. The first such trip on record was in 1743.

      Made of logs in the earlier days, the meeting houses of all religious denominations eventually were shuttered structures of brick, frame, or stone. The interiors were sparsely furnished, initially with planks for seats, to be replaced later by plain box pews. In Lutheran and Anglican churches, the Sacrament was consecrated on simple wooden altars, usually bare of sacerdotal coverings or adornments. In Presbyterian meeting houses, the minister addressed his people from a high pulpit, approached by a staircase with balustrade, that loomed at the front or side of the room. Beneath and before it was an enclosed pew on a slightly raised platform, from which the precentor led in the congregational singing. Balconies on three sides were common in the larger of these buildings. None were heated. Late in the 18th century, when a new church building was furnished with a stove, it was a progressive innovation that occasioned commentary by contemporary writers.

      A change in the desultory spiritual climate that characterized much colonial religion was signaled when the great British evangelist, George Whitefield, first swept into South Jersey in 1740, bringing with him the early stirrings of a religious revival, known as the Great Awakening. That year, Whitefield appeared at various places in Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland Counties, aided by the visits of the famous and fiery Gilbert Tennent of New Brunswick. From then on, most of the stellar lights of American Presbyterianism appeared regularly and frequently in South Jersey pulpits. Whitefield, himself returned in 1746, when, according to stories carried in the Philadelphia newspapers, "he preached 4 times at Cape May, once at Cedar Bridge, once at Woodbury, and 3 times at Greenwich, to a very large and affected Auditories . . . ." The membership of the old churches grew. They gathered in newly-erected meeting houses, which were often filled, while new Presbyterian congregations emerged at Deer-field, Timber Creek (Blackwood), Quihawken (Churchtown), Long-a-Coming (Berlin), and elsewhere.

      One of the unsung heroes of South Jersey history in the mid-18th century was John Brainerd. Unfortunately, time has placed him in the shadow of his more famous brother, David. Missionary to the Indians and overseer of a reservation in Burlington County, to him fell the burden of providing a regular ministry to the white population along the coastline and the Egg Harbor Rivers. Sermons, sometimes three on a Sunday, were delivered by him at widely scattered places throughout his huge parish. His busy Sundays were the beginning of busy weeks, when Brainerd would travel into the Pine Barrens toward the shore preaching, administering the Christian sacraments, solemnizing marriages, attending the sick, conducting funerals, counseling the distressed, organizing congregations, and supervising the construction of meeting houses.

      Brainerd, too, was an apostle of the Great Awakening. He began his South Jersey labors in 1758. Soon there appeared throughout the Egg Harbor country preaching stations commonly called "Brainerd’s churches." One was at Cedar Bridge (Bargaintown) and was known as Blackman’s Meeting House. Today Zion Methodist Church stands in its place. Another was Clark’s Mills Meeting House, near Port Republic, and another at Long-a-Coming. The peripatetic Brainerd stopped most frequently at Pleasant Mills and Batsto, where he was entertained by his intimate friend, Elijah Clark, in the fine colonial mansion still standing along the Nescochague. The log meeting house they erected at the Forks has long since given way to the Pleasant Mills Methodist Church.

      The humanitarian concern of the churches was directed toward the plight of the Lenni-Lenape. With the encroachment of white settlers upon their lands, the Indians began to leave New Jersey. A few of them were enslaved by the colonists. Their numbers were reduced when they fell prey to the white man’s diseases and vices, among which tuberculosis, small pox, and the use of intoxicants, against none of which they had resistance, proved to be the most devastating. By 1700, the Indian population of New Jersey was probably little more than 500.

      A missionary society in Scotland, responding to an appeal by a group of Presbyterian ministers in the colonies, provided funds for the relief of the distress of the New Jersey Indians. David Brainerd, of Connecticut, was appointed in the mid-1740’s to carry out the mission. After his tin-timely death in 1747, Brainerd’s task was taken up by his younger brother, John, in 1748. Ten years later, the provincial legislature purchased 3000 acres in Burlington County upon which was to be founded a reservation for the Lenni-Lenape, in exchange for their surrender of all remaining claims to land south of the Raritan River. The reservation was placed under the supervision of the colonial Presbyterian synod and John Brainerd was appointed overseer.

      Under Brainerd’s direction a settlement of several houses, a church, a school, a grist mill, and a saw mill was created. The Indians called it Edgepillock; Brainerd named it Brotherton. (Today the town on the site is called Indian Mills, but nothing of the old reservation remains.) About 200 Indians gathered there at first, but Brotherton was not a successful venture. Too much of the exhausting work fell upon Brainerd who, tired and worn, retired from his mission on the reservation in 1767. No one took his place. By 1774, no more than sixty Indians were left at Brotherton.

      After the Revolution, a few Quakers from Haddonfield attempted to revive a mission to the Indians. Clothing and blankets were collected, fields were plowed and planted, education and religious worship were provided. But it was to no avail. The last of the Lenape left New Jersey in 1802 when, at their request, their lands were sold by the state legislature and the proceeds used to relocate the remaining few with their fellow Indians in upstate New York.

      The rudiments of education in colonial South Jersey were dispensed by the churches, and by lone pedagogues in their private homes. In a few instances, education was provided as a public service by a community, but there was no comprehensive system of public education on a wide scale.

      A school was begun, it is believed, under Quaker auspices at Salem soon after Fenwick and his company settled there. This was the first of a number of similar Quaker schools which were instituted between 1676 and the middle of the 18th century. Usually, the meeting house and the schoolhouse were one and the same. Intended at first for Quakers only, these schools were opened later to children of any religious denomination. Only the basic skills of reading and writing were taught. Anything beyond these and a few practical skills, such as arithmetic for boys and homemaking for girls was thought to be frivolous and unnecessary. Instruction was "guarded," lest Quaker children be introduced to ideas and practices not in conformity with Quaker tenets. A broadening of viewpoint was evident in 1751, when the Haddonfield meeting proposed that Quaker parochial education give way to good neighborhood schools, for which the Quakers would use their influence in securing competent teachers.

      The Swedish Lutherans in South Jersey had a schoolmaster before they had a pastor. A school was opened at Raccoon in 1701, when Hans Stalt was sent to double as a schoolteacher and lay reader at Swedish worship. The purpose of the Raccoon school was not only to catechize children in Lutheran doctrine, and to teach them to read and write, but to try to preserve the Swedish language and culture in the midst of an English-speaking society. This parochial school met intermittently throughout the 18th century. Immediately prior to the Revolution, a schoolhouse was erected alongside the church at Swedesboro (Raccoon until 1763.).

      The German Lutherans and the Moravians both had parish schools in South Jersey during the last half of the 18th century.

      The best educated group in colonial South Jersey was the Presbyterians, who brought both teachers and a long tradition of sound education to the region. Their pastors were proficient in the reading and writing of the Biblical and classical languages, they were informed on the most recent advances in scientific and philosophical thought from abroad, and they were fluent in the presentation of all the comp1exities of Reformed theology. This learning was dispensed weekly to their congregations in erudite sermons of extraordinary length.

      The Puritans brought the New England school system to Fairfield in 1697, when the New Haven settlers bound themselves to finance and maintain a township school to instruct their children in reading and writing. Land was reserved for its support. It was supervised by the town meeting and managed by the township officials. Similar schools were established later at Greenwich and Deerfield, and wherever New Englanders or Scotch-Irish Immigrants settled.

      For the most part, education in colonial South Jersey consisted of little more than instruction in reading. Boys were taught writing and arithmetic also as tools useful in running a household. A knowledge of these skills, more often than not, was denied to girls. A farmer from Penn’s Neck, for example, stipulated in his will that his son should learn "to read and write true Inglish," while his daughter was to be taught "to read as far as to know her Christian faith." A Cape May farmer directed that his son "larn Read rite & Sifer" up to the rule of three. Another legator from Waterford provided in his will that his daughter be apprenticed to "some religious and discreet master and mistress to learn to read the Bible and housewifery."

      Private schools were sometimes held in the homes of prominent citizens, often the local clergyman, or in buildings erected by them for that purpose. Frequently, they were academies, or classical schools, which offered advanced studies preparatory to admission to one of the colonial colleges. Such schools were conducted at Pittsgrove and Deerfield, where the usual academic fare included large portions of reading Greek and Latin classics in the original languages, writing dissertations in these languages, and the study of older and contemporary classics of English literature. Most of the graduates of the classical schools in South Jersey matriculated at Princeton.

      In many homes, the Bible was the only printed matter to which the literate could apply their learning. Homes with more extensive libraries included on their shelves, with the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, psalters, sermons, the journals of noted preachers, and other works of a religious nature. Primers and books of history were sold at some general stores.

      Although education was minimal, early South Jersey had its literary figures nonetheless. The first almanac in America was published by Daniel Leeds, property owner and part-time resident of Leeds Point, beginning in 1687. His sons, Titan and Felix, continued the publication after their father’s death. A collection of poems by the priest of the Anglican church at Waterford, Nathaniel Evans, was published posthumously in 1770.

      Most notable among the journals of Quaker preachers was that of John Woolman, of Mount Holly. The first edition was published at Philadelphia in 1774. Praised for the exquisiteness and grace of its style, the journal was called by William Ellery Channing "the purest and sweetest of all autobiographies." Charles Lamb is quoted as having said, "Get the writings of John Woolman by heart and love the early Quakers."

      Peter Kalm, a Swedish scientist, specializing in botany, spent the winter and spring of 1748-1749 and 1749-1750 at Raccoon and Cape May, where he wrote part of his book, Travels into North America. Kalm left not only a description of the flora and fauna of the region, but gave an account of Indian customs and remedies, marriage practices among the white colonists, and road conditions. He discussed such topics as Negro slavery, the rapid growth of population, climate, and the digging of wells. In botanical nomenclature, his name was given to New Jersey’s mountain laurel, kalmia latifolia. Written in Swedish, Kalm’s Travels was translated first into French and German. An English translation was published in 1770. A minister and scientist, Kalm served as pastor of the Swedish Lutheran churches in South Jersey during his stays at Raccoon.

      Probably the best known today of the 18th-century journals by South Jerseymen is that of Philip Vickers Fithian. Hardly a book currently being published on the topic of colonial culture or religion fails to quote from Fithian’s works. Selections from his war diary appear in most collections of Revolutionary documents. The son of a farmer, Fithian was born and raised in Cumberland County. He attended the classical school at Deerfield, was admitted to Princeton, and graduated in 1772. For a year he tutored the children of a wealthy Virginia planter, was licensed as a Presbyterian preacher in 1774, and afterward made several missionary tours. In 1776, he enlisted as a chaplain and died in camp at Fort Washington during the New York campaign. His journal is a masterpiece of vivid description of people and places, of personal thoughts, and accounts of events which reveals all the passions, hopes, and fears of a sensitive young man caught up in the affairs of 18th-century life in America and of those leading to the colonial struggle for independence. Fithian’s writings, unknown in his time, lay in unpublished manuscripts until the 20th century.

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