Mar 15, 2020

A Historic Haven of Shrewsbury, Presbyterian Church

By Lori Draz

Located alongside the iconic Christ Church on Sycamore Avenue lies an equally historic and charming church. The Presbyterian Church at Shrewsbury (PCAS) is the little, white church with the red doors. The two buildings are so close that many believe they are one property, and in fact, the same Nicholas Brown who donated the land to Christ Church, donated this parcel of land to the Presbyterians in 1735.

The richly historic town of Shrewsbury was founded in 1685 by Scottish Presbyterians who, for a number of years, held services in private homes. John Boyd, the first Presbyterian minister to be ordained in this country, was the itinerant pastor for the area and held services in Shrewsbury as early as 1705.

The congregation was formalized in 1732, and the first church building was constructed in 1735. This church served the congregation until it was destroyed by fire in 1800. It was an active parish during the Revolutionary War and the adjoining cemetery has numerous tombstones that date back well into the 18th century.

The members of this congregation were active supporters of the movement to start a new nation, whereas the neighboring Christ Church was Anglican and therefore considered British. The Presbyterian Church at Shrewsbury preached resistance to the crown during the War of Independence. The Rev. Charles McKnight, one of the church’s earliest pastors, even lent $600 of the church’s money to the new government in support of the revolution. In keeping with the sometimes slow-moving wheels of government, that sum has still never been repaid. The brave, vocal reverend was eventually arrested and imprisoned for his sermons on sedition and revolution on the British prison ship, the HMS Jersey, for less than one year and released due to illness. He died January 1, 1778 at his home in Shrewsbury.

While Christ Church may have had Anglican roots, it served as a barracks for patriot soldiers. When the PCAS burned, the Presbyterians actually held services in Christ Church for the next 20 years until the new church was built. The parishes developed a close bond that still exists today – so close that observant Presbyterians would have noticed this congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer using the Episcopal word trespasses instead of the Presbyterian traditional debts for a long time, a little habit they picked up during their time in residence next door.

The building you see today is the second building, the one built after the fire. Its cornerstone was laid in 1821, and the building was completed the following year. The bell tower was added in the 1840s, the social room in 1895. Topping things off, the steeple crowned the church in 1964, making for the familiar silhouette we see today.

Never forgetting the kindness and welcoming experiences of that early partnership, the church states, “Just as we were sheltered by our neighbors, so has this congregation committed itself to providing a haven to religious and non-religious groups, from our surrounding community. It will be understood that the doors of this house shall be opened, when not immediately occupied by the Presbyterians, to all denominations who make Jesus Christ the foundation of their immortal hopes.”

The church has kept that promise, maintaining a relationship for more than 60 years with The Monmouth Reform Temple which held services at PCAS for many years until finding its home in Tinton Falls. PCAS also welcomes groups like the Boy Scouts of America, multiple 12-step programs, LGBTQ+ allied organization PFLAG and, of course, the Shrewsbury Homesteaders who meet there on the second Thursdays of the month.

That welcoming spirit will soon be extended to its new, yet unnamed pastor expected to start in July of this year. In anticipation, the church has completed a total renovation of the Manse which will serve as that pastor’s residence. Built in 1840, the manse was originally built for Major General Stuart Van Vliet, a graduate of West Point with 41 years of service in the US Army, some of which was spent as a quartermaster in the Union Army during the Civil War. Though renovated, the manse still has original door locks and antique door knobs, a “cooking” kitchen fireplace and the mechanical front doorbell with an 1845 patent date.

Perhaps the most welcomed visitor is you. All are welcome at PCAS, so do drop by. The PCAS has launched a new social media campaign to reach people beyond Shrewsbury. The church has a vibrant music ministry including an adult choir, a hand bell choir and a new Hauptwerk organ with auxiliary instruments including the piano, djembe drum, wind chimes and more instruments as well as an active children’s ministry program. Also underway are improvement projects like painting the sanctuary, landscaping the manse grounds and a recycling initiative to collect plastic bags to help earn a new bench from Trex.

For more information, visit TPACS.org. The Journal thanks Bob Suarez, who is on the church’s social media committee, for his passionate devotion to this church and for suggesting this location to Historic Havens. The Presbyterian Church at Shrewsbury’s parking lot is located at 352 Sycamore Ave. (You can’t drive from the parking lot of Christ Church or the residence that separates the two.)