DISCLAIMER: This was originally a paper I wrote for my American History course at Brookdale Community College. Written in 12/4/2012.

Founding

During the late seventeenth century, America in the northeast was being colonized by England. It was around this time, in 1685, that a small number of followers of the Covenanters–a band of Scottish Presbyterians, a branch of Calvinism, that dealt the worst persecution during the restoration of the Stuarts on the British throne, were sold into indentured servitude. They did not pledge fealty to the state church and were posed as a direct threat to the crown, since they planned to remake Scottish culture within the hegemonic British style. As a result, some of them were banished from Scotland and were sold to what is today Monmouth County, New Jersey. As such, they started to purchase their freedom in the new world and eventually bought an acre of land at “Free Hill” and built a small log church there. Presumably, this would’ve happened in 1692 according to tradition (oldtennentchurch.org). The small, wooden house of worship in Free Hill was surrounded by wilderness with an unwelcome pioneer’s house, Indian tribes, and wild animals now considered extinct. Many of these people came from miles to congregate and sing their psalms (Free Hill).

In 1705, the church under Elder Walter Ker became associated with the Philadelphia Presbytery. It was there in Free Hill that the first ordination of a Presbyterian minister took place in America, as Elder Ker put into authority John Boyd.  Elder Ker would also be instrumental in the ordinations of brothers John and William Tennent Jr. as pastors (oldtennentchurch.org). The minutes of the Presbytery of Philadelphia begin on December 27, 1706 during the registration of John Boyd.  Two days later, Boyd was ordained to the gospel ministry. In his short-lived ministry, he served on important committees of the Presbytery. This was his only church.  He died August 30, 1708 at the age of 29 and was buried beside the meeting house (Free Hill).

Boyd was succeeded by Rev. Joseph Morgan who served the church from 1708 to 1729. He was succeeded by Rev. John Tennent as pastor from 1730 to 1732 before his brother, who would birth the eponymous church. During John Tennent’s time, the country was settled more to the south of Free Hill, where it was decided to build a new meeting house in order to be nuclear to the congregation. This building was erected about five miles south of the old one and the first service was held in it April 18, 1731 (Free Hill). It became known as the Upper Meeting House and was built because of the augmentation of the congregation in what is now Freehold Town.  It was the first church built in what became Manalapan Township. In 1751, the new building had become too small, therefore it was decided during the pastorate of Rev. William Tennent Jr. to dismantle it and replace it with another meeting house (40 x 60 ft.) on the same spot. The original Upper Meeting House was formally called the Presbyterian Church of the Town of Freehold; This building became known as the Old Tennent Church (Brown pg. 20-21).

Role in Revolution

Although agrarian, Manalapan was a major site of the Revolution.  During the Battle of Monmouth, British forces had relocated from Philadelphia to New York but were met by American soldiers in Manalapan in June 1778. Some of the action occurred around the Old Tennent Church (Encyclopedia of New Jersey). The church was used as a field hospital. The burial ground next to it contains unmarked graves of the American causalities (Old Tennent Church).

This part of the church’s history is mainly important for not just its role, but of the interim period of no pastorate(s) between the serving of Rev. William Tennent Jr. and Rev. John Woodhull. Although Rev. Benjamin du Bois of the Brick Church performed most of the ministerial functions for Old Tennent, he couldn‘t ignore his own church that Sunday morning on June 28, 1778. Even during this time, it was still a calm morning of Sabbath. Little did the worshippers expect that one of the greatest and momentous battles of the American Revolution was about to take place three and a half miles away, until they were given warning by having the women and children taken to safety. About midday, Gen. George Washington, with his 6000 men, raced across the road by the church to the Battle. The real battle took place in the woods and fields about half way between Old Tennent and St. Peters P. E. Church in Freehold–a small town during the time (Symmes, History of the Old Tennent Church pg. 96-102).

In what led to the Battle, the British troops were quartered in Philadelphia while the Americans had survived through Valley Forge. Gen. Henry Clinton then led the British to abandon Philadelphia and repair to New York. He evacuated early in the morning of June 18th and crossed the Delaware River and began his march through New Jersey. George Washington hoped to follow the British by having his forces move from Valley Forge on the afternoon of the same day and crossed the Delaware at Coryell’s Ferry and came to Hopewell where Washington held a second council of war of what to make of the pursuit. Upon agreement, they proceeded to Kingston then to Englishtown by June 27. He sent in advance his main army several detachments of troops at different times to harass the British army. These detachments consisted of around 5000 men and were commanded by Gen. Charles Lee, sent to arrange an attack. On Saturday afternoon, the Americans were completing their arrangements for this attack and Gen. Clinton, already aware, had changed the positions of his troops to be ready. This anxious battle started with minor skirmishes before proceeding to attacking the rear of the British on their march toward Middletown. What confused the Americans were the backward advancing of the British army. They kept at it until the Americans found themselves in the road from Freehold to Old Tennent Church. General Lee ordered a retreat, which later led him to be court-marshaled and punished. General Washington, in Englishtown, proceeded with his main army where he found the men retreating, all of which occurred a hundred miles from the church. While he restored order, his army had to deal with the British dragoons. Gen. Wayne had managed to push them back. The day after, the British forces quietly retreated (Symmes, History of the Old Tennent Church pg. 96-102).

Old tales are told to relate the people of the church to the Battle, often with proof.  One of the tales is that the house of William Ker, located a quarter a mile from the church, was used as a hospital at the time. Another is the story of the Bills’ family, descendants of the George and Tone families, that their great-grandmother and her mother nursed the wounded soldiers in the church and their great-grandfather George and his brother spent the entire day carrying water to them from Molly Pitcher’s spring, and the two women entered the British lines and secretly brought the soldier the great-grandmother was to marry and bought silk and broadcloth for her wedding apparel, five years after (Symmes, History of the Old Tennent Church pg. 103).

Current Activity

Today there are monuments that represent the past of the Church. In a way, the Old Tennent Church itself is a living monument, used for more than 300 years. But there are other representations of the Church’s past. In commemoration of the American Revolution, a bronze mural tablet was placed on the exterior of the church Oct. 15, 1901, by the Monmouth Chapter of the New Jersey Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It was a beloved memory of the loyal patriots that became a badge to the Church that survived the great Battle.  Less than seven months after, the same Monmouth Chapter presented the church with a handsome valance, or drapery, of maroon rep, fastening it around the sounding-board and around the pulpit desk (Symmes 110). The site of the first house of worship, the old log church, became what is now known as Old Scots’ graveyard, near Wickatunk depot (Symmes 25).

Whether one is a Presbyterian, a Catholic, a Muslim, or doesn’t believe in God, what matters a lot is this Church’s role in our history as Americans. Throughout its 300 year period, it has stood erect from its foundation of outcasts and endured one of the most epic battles of the American Revolution. It continues to affect the lives of the people of Manalapan, the rest of Monmouth County, and the rest of New Jersey.

Works Cited

  • Brown, James S. Manalapan in Three Centuries. Manalapan Township: Manalapan Township, 1991.
  • Encyclopedia of New Jersey. New Brunswick, NJ: Rugers University Press, n.d.
  • Free Hill. 14 11 2012 <http://www.oldtennentchurch.org/html/free_hill.html>.
  • Old Tennent Church. 14 11 2012 <http://www.revolutionarynj.org/guide/monmouth-battlefield/old-tennent-church.php>.
  • oldtennentchurch.org. Church History. 10 11 2012 <http://oldtennentchurch.org/Church_Location/churchhistory.html>.
  • Symmes, Rev. Frank R. History of the Old Tennent Church. Cranberry, NJ: George W. Burroughs, 1904.
    • —. History of the Old Tennent Church. Cranberry, NJ: George W. Burroughs, 1904.
    • —. History of the Old Tennent Church. Cranbury, NJ: George W. Burroughs, 1904.
    • —. History of the Old Tennent Church. Cranbury, NJ: George W. Burroughs, 1904.
    • —. History of the Old Tennent Church. Cranbury, NJ: George W. Burroughs, 1904.

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