Phillipsburg has an interesting religious history, made memorable by the sainted David Brainard, who, as minister and physician, labored among the Lenni Lenapes from 1740 to 1744.
In this very town, near the point where the Morris and Essex branch of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad cuts through Brainard Street, a log church was erected with labor and pains. Here David Brainard preached most faithfully to white settlers and Indians alike, urging them to quit tippling and mend their ways. Tradition states that all trace of this log church had disappeared before the close of the century.
One can readily understand that with prowling Indians and Revolutionary battles, the few defenceless women, left alone, had little heart for anything more than a silent worship.
So the years went on. There was no record of any church here. Now and then an itinerant Presbyterian or Methodist missionary would hold a service in some house, or field, but—that was all.
Phillipsburg, in 1851, was a struggling affair, unlike the well-built town of today. Along Main Street, with now and then a frame house, was an open field. On the back streets boys played ball in a fine apple orchard. Further on there were rows of peach trees. One year later a memorable event happened in the history of the town. Amid wild enthusiasm, and witnessed by hundreds of people, the first passenger train, on the Central Railroad of New Jersey, July 5, 1852, wended its way to New York, bringing in its wake to the sleepy old town of Phillipsburg, new ideas, new longings and new faces.
It may not be amiss here, in the pride of our town, to mention that William Davis and John Alpaugh were the firemen. Mr. Alpaugh and his esteemed wife are among the oldest members of our church.
The old town was awakening. People were weary of wandering now to the old Greenwich Church, to Harmony, to Easton, or, as was the case very often, kept at home by distance or inclement weather. They wished a church of their own, for in 1851 there was no church nearer than Easton. The people were united; the matter was discussed at houses and on street corners, or wherever two or three might meet, in spite of the opposition of the nearby churches who feared to lose so many paying members from their church rolls. So application was made to the Presbytery of Newton for permission to organize a church. This was granted “should the way be clear.”
Due notice having been given, the Committee appointed by the Presbytery of Newton to organize a church in Phillipsburg, met at “the Academy” on Tuesday, December 13, 1853, at 11 o’clock. “The Academy” refers to the old “No. 1 School Building” at the corner of Brainard and Hudson Streets, the site now occupied by the handsome Sitgreaves School Building.
This Committee consisted of Revs. A. H. Hand, George C. Bush and Andrew Tully; Elders Robert S. Kennedy, John A. Creveling and Jacob Cline.
The meeting was called to order by the Rev. A. H. Hand, and was opened with prayer, reading of the Scriptures and singing. A sermon was then preached by the Rev. George C. Bush, after which an invitation was given to all who were supplied with certificates of dismission from other churches or who desired to be examined with reference to their knowledge of the Scriptures and experimental religion to come forward that they might be organized into a Church.
The following persons presented certificates from the First Presbyterian Church of Easton, Pa.: John Lander, Mary Lander, Benjamin Burwell, Hannah Burwell, Thomas Reese, Mary Reese, Catherine Seagreaves, Elizabeth C. Roseberry, Maria Ferguson, Mary Searles, Jane Learch, Christiana Carhart, Amanda Lodrick, James Dempster, Agnes Dempster, Robert Dempster, Christina Dempster, Sophia McPhic, Sarah Lunger, Charlotta Emery.
From the Presbyterian Church of Greenwich: John T. Rarick, John C. Bennett, Mary C. Bennett, William D. Hawk, Diana Hawk.
From the Presbyterian Church of Harmony: Mary Deats, Elizabeth Metz, Mary Ann Lomerson.
From the Presbyterian Church of Mansfield: John R. Barton, Mary Ann Carter.
From the Presbyterian Church of Groveland, N.Y.: Duetta A. Sturges.
All of the above were duly admitted to membership in the “Phillipsburg Church,” this name having been adopted at a preliminary meeting held August 1, 1853.
The members of the church then proceeded to elect three ruling elders, whereupon John Lander, Benjamin Burwell and John C. Bennett were duly elected.
The election of deacons being next in order, Thomas Reese and Robert Dempster were duly elected.
A recess was then taken until 7 o’clock p.m.
At the evening service on the same day, Mrs. Eliza McPeek made application for membership upon profession, and the examination proving satisfactory, she was admitted to full membership. A sermon was then preached by the Rev. A. H. Hand, after which the Elders and Deacons were installed.
It was a day of anticipation. The upper room of the old schoolhouse was crowded by a serious, waiting audience. Denomination was forgotten in the pleasure of having service at home. The ordination of the Elders and Deacons was most solemn, many persons being moved to tears by its impressiveness.
Thus, with songs of praise, prayers and benedictions, on December 13, 1853, the First Presbyterian Church of Phillipsburg, N.J., sprang into existence.
Mrs. Christina Dempster, widow of Robert Dempster, is the only one known to be living, of the original thirty-two members who united with the church at this first service.
Announcement was made that the first Communion service would be held on Sunday, January 1, 1854, (New Year's Day). On the Saturday evening preceding (December 31, 1853,) at 6 o'clock the session met at the residence of Rev. S. Sturges, the pastor in charge, at which time the following were admitted on certificate: from the Presbyterian Church of Greenwich: William Bardow, Elizabeth Bardow; from the Presbyterian Church of Scotland: Samuel Wright, Mary Wright. The following were admitted upon examination: Zacheus Smith, Henriett Smith, Eliza Bardoe, Sophia McHughs.
The preparatory sermon was preached at 7 o'clock, same evening, at the place of worship, "the Academy," by Rev. S. Sturges, from the text: "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord; forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord."--I Cor. 15:58.
At ten o'clock Sabbath morning, January 1, 1854, the first Communion service was held. The sermon was preached by Rev. D. V. McLean, D.D., from Ex. 12:26, "What mean ye by this service?" Elders John Lander and Benjamin Burwell passed around the elements. It was an impressive event, made more so by the earnest, helpful ones, who then participated, and who long since have passed beyond the gates. Their love of God and their church must always remain a tender memory.
These people were strong, rugged men and women, firm in the faith, who did what they could.
Mrs. John Lander baked the bread for the first Communion; others kept the upper room garnished and clean. Each did something in his own way and that something was for the good of all.
The people in those days did not see any obstacles in attending their own church. There were no luxurious, cushioned seats; it was not brilliantly lighted or even comfortable. A stove, with a long pipe running around one end of the room, and out of a window, was the means of heating. The room was dimly lighted by candles and smoky oil lamps. The presiding Clergyman had both a lamp and a candle for himself. As to instrumental music, there was none. It is doubtful if few or any had ever seen an organ. The minister gave out good old-fashioned hymns, "Jesus, lover of my soul" and "Nearer, my God to Thee," being favorites. Everybody sang in their own melodious way, straight from their hearts. A Mr. Hulshizer, who possessed a fine voice, started the singing, pitching his voice with the aid of a tuning fork, keeping the voices in unison. Services were held morning and evening and sometimes afternoons, the room being crowded with others than the church members.
Everybody sent their children to Sunday School. It was considered a privilege. Parents, unless seriously prevented, accompanied them. If they did not teach, they sat on the hard wooden benches, against the wall, in winter wrapped in shawls and overcoats (for sometimes it was bitterly cold)--fathers and mothers, all interested in the Sunday School and gladly waiting to give their services if required. Have times changed? Is it so now?
Parents took their families to church. This was a rule. Little tots, almost babies, would fall asleep and were carried home by their parents. It is related of one dear sister, who, fearing that her children might not profit by a series of sermons on doctrinal points by going to sleep during the long evening service, took with her a bottle of smelling salts, which had the effect of awaking them spasmodically.
The first Sunday School was under the able and efficient supervision of Elder Benjamin Burwell, Superintendent. Sunday School was at 8½ o'clock in Summer and in Winter at 9. Fancy any of this generation going to Sunday School at that hour now. Many of us, like the sluggard, desire a "little more sleep and a little more slumber." Mr. Burwell also had charge at this time and for many years after of a school in the eastern part of the town, near Cooper's furnace, which he conducted in the afternoon. His devout, Christian character; his kindness; the eloquence of his prayers; the sincerity of his life--is it not all well-known history?
Students from Lafayette College were persistent workers, among them the late lamented Dr. Edsall Ferrier, Mr. B. Patterson and Mr. Banks--later one of the ministers of the Brainard Church, Easton.
The little flock struggled
along without any settled pastor. Sometimes Mr. Burwell held prayer-meeting;
Dr. Cattell, Mr. Banks and Mr. Ferrier preached quite regularly.
Occasionally the Rev. Dr. John Gray, of Easton, preached to them.
He was much beloved, some of the members of his own flock coming to hear
him preach. The remembrance of his melodious Irish voice, as he read
the Bible, or his favorite hymn, commencing
have left a loving memory."Palms of glory, raiments bright,
Crowns, that never fade away,
Gird and deck the saints in light--
Priests and kings and conquerors they"
A congregational meeting was held on Monday evening, April 16, 1855, for the purpose of electing a pastor. The Rev. George C. Bush presided. Rev. Smith Sturges was unanimously elected. It was a day of congratulation to the little flock. Mr. Sturges was a man of pleasing appearance. He had a wife and one daughter--Luella. The installation ceremonies were held Tuesday evening, April 17, 1855.
At a congregational meeting November 4, 1855, Adam Ramsey Reese was unanimously elected a ruling elder of the church. On the following Sabbath, William D. Hawk was unanimously elected to the office of deacon. Messrs. Reese and Hawk were installed at the evening service, November 11, 1855.
The new church to be was ever the uppermost thought. Building sites were being discussed, the present one being the selection. Everybody was interested. The pastor often accompanied the elders or members, riding in buggies, over the country, walking over hills, getting subscriptions from people or soliciting new families to join the church. There were perhaps only one or two of independent means in the church, but they all gave from their wages to the utmost farthing.
The site having been secured, the committee, consisting of John Lander, Thomas Rarack, and Thomas Reese, staked out the ground. Mr. John Lander raised the first shovel of earth. Then with bowed heads there was consecrated to God, in a beseeching prayer, the church in which we now worship.
We of a later generation know little of the troubles and anxieties that beset our fathers. How they planned and worked! Many of them gave voluntarily days of labor, among them Mr. James Dempster.
So the foundation progressed until the corner-stone was laid in 1854. This, the first the town had ever seen, was witnessed by a large crowd. In a tin box, deposited in the corner-stone, were placed with great solemnity a Bible, a copy of The Presbyterian, an Easton paper, the history of the church and its members, together with the name of the pastor and some coins of that year.
Phillipsburg had at that time no paper of its own. The church was then not self-supporting, being aided by Newton Presbytery.
Rev. Smith Sturges, the first pastor, presented his resignation to the congregation September 7, 1856, and it was accepted. The Presbytery of Newton, which convened in Phillipsburg, September 8, 1856, dissolved the pastoral relation.
At this time the congregation was worshiping in the basement. The completion of the church had been delayed on account of financial embarrassment, but, thanks to liberal giving and persistence, things began again to move smoothly. Perhaps many will recall a concert held in the upper part of the building. There were no windows, the cold air being kept out by unbleached muslin, nailed firmly to the sashes; nevertheless, it was most enjoyable and one of the events of the day.
Nor was the Sunday School neglected at this time. It was held before service in the morning. All recited Bible verses. There was quite a rivalry as to who would receive the greatest number of "red" merit cards. The mothers taught verses to the children at home.
After the Bible verses each teacher heard his class recite a portion of the Shorter Catechism. It was thought quite a disgrace to forget even one word. The crowning glory came, however, when Mr. Benjamin Burwell handed each child a Bible for a public recitation of the Catechism. He knew it so well that he never used a book in asking the questions.
After the departure of Rev. Smith Sturges, Dr. W. C. Cattell preached as a supply for the next seven months. His delightful personality, the charm of his voice, can still be recalled by many.
At a congregational meeting held on Monday, May 13, 1857, Rev. James Y. Mitchell was unanimously elected pastor, and was installed July 26, 1857. It was his first charge, coming hither from the Princeton Theological Seminary. He was an attractive preacher and greatly interested in his work.
The next event was the dedication of the church on September 12th, 1858. It was a beautiful day and the exercises attracted many people. A rousing, brilliant sermon was preached by the Rev. Nicholas Murray, D.D., of Elizabeth, N.J., in the morning, at which a large sum was subscribed for the church.
Rev. Dr. John Gray preached in the afternoon and Rev. Dr. A. T. McGill in the evening.
The congregation after the dedication worshiped where it now does. The choir occupied the center of the gallery. Where the organ now stands was an enormous bay window in the centre of which stood a red velvet sofa and on either side a high-backed chair also cushioned in red.
During Mr. Mitchell's pastorate a social organization called, "The Mite Society" was in full operation. The society met each week at a different house; no refreshments were served; the whole congregation was invited and came. Each person paid ten cents. It lasted for a long time, a good deal of money being collected, and then died out, and has never been resurrected.
November 29, 1858, Dr. Charles Davis, Thomas S. Whitenack, Aaron Losey, L. Marshall Teel and Samuel Baker were elected Elders.
After the resignation of Rev. James Y. Mitchell, Rev. Myron Barrett came as a supply.
At a congregational meeting Tuesday evening, July 29, 1862, Rev. James Petrie was elected pastor. The installation of Mr. Petrie took place October 4, 1862. The sermon was preached by Rev. A. H. Hand; Rev. S. M. Studdiford proposed the constitutional questions; Rev. W. C. McGee gave the charge to the pastor and Rev. Geo. C. Bush the charge to the people.
Mr. Petrie was born in Scotland and was a most conscientious and thoroughly religious man. He remained until November 11, 1866.
Mr. Benjamin Harris, who was a Trustee, was most helpful to the church. Mrs. Harris was also deeply interested in the work of the church and Sunday School.
After the departure of Rev. James Petrie followed a season of "hearing candidates." In March, 1867, Rev. Henry B. Townsend was called to the pastorate of the church.