In this month when we celebrate Independence Day, we reflect on the brave patriots who fought to establish this union. On June 28, 1778, General George Washington led the Continental Army to fight the Battle of Monmouth. However, long before this became hallowed ground, Old Tennent Presbyterian Church was a thriving center of worship for the Scottish Calvinists who staunchly defended and refused to recant their faith and adopt the British Church. So devoted were these members they became known as The Covenanters, as they often signed pledges in their own blood to mark their allegiance to their form of Christianity.
In the 1600s, a small group of these exiled believers were sold into indentured servanthood in what would become Manalapan. According to the church historian, it was more than likely these believers either had their faces branded with a “T” for traitor or had their ears “cropped” to serve as a permanent sign of their rebellion. In 1692, they established a Presbyterian meeting house and cemetery at the “Old Scots Burying Ground” (also known as Free Hill) in Marlboro – approximately five miles from its current location. As they worked off their slavery, they purchased an acre of ground at Free Hill in 1731. Under the leadership of Elder Walter Ker, the congregation was aligned with the newly formed Philadelphia Presbytery and called a permanent pastor, John Boyd. As a result, the first recorded Presbytery meeting in North America (The Presbytery of Philadelphia) and the first ordination of a Presbyterian minister in North America took place at Free Hill. Elder Ker was later instrumental in calling both John and William Tennent, Jr. as pastors.
In 1731, the congregation left Free Hill and re-established itself at a place named White Oak Hill, due to the number of white oaks that surrounded the building location. The first acre and a half was bought from Ker for the price of 1 shilling. They built a one-story church building, but the growth of membership and visitors was so quick that in 1751, the structure was remodeled, a gallery was added, and most of the 1731 building was incorporated into the new sanctuary.
In 1751, the congregation built the new and much larger building that remains intact today. The Georgian-inspired architecture and simple, barn-like design was solidly built using cedar siding and native materials like the Jersey bog iron fixtures. Its overall lack of adornments is in keeping with the church’s views. Inside, you are instantly transported to the 1700s. The church has two floors and can hold about 400 worshippers. You will notice boxed pews, which were rented to families who paid on average about $3,000 in today’s money to have their reserved seating. The parishioners would bring coal scuttles to keep them warm in their pews during the cold months. The story goes that parishioners would bring their Sunday suppers to get the cooking started during service. The upstairs seating was used by visitors, indentured servants, slaves and Native Americans.
There is a central pulpit from which such church notables as George Whitefield, Jacobus Frelinghusen, Gilbert Tennent and Jonathan Edwards preached. David Brainerd administered the Sacrament of Communion to his Indian converts here as well.
Fourth pastor William Tennent Jr. asked to be buried “somewhere where the British will never find me,” and so he rests six feet under the church’s main aisle. He died in 1777 during the war. The local and converted Lenni Lenape Indians dug under the church to hide him from the British.
The Old Tennent Cemetery, just outside, also is the resting place of militia commander Joshua Huddy and Capt. Henry Fauntleroy.
Now for those of you who like a ghost story, Old Tennent Church has a few, though they are not endorsed by the church administration. The story with the deepest roots in truth dates back to the Battle of Monmouth, when the church was used as a field hospital. Fauntleroy, a 22-year-old soldier was resting on a gravestone during the battle when a stray cannon ball split the gravestone and severed his leg. He was immediately moved inside the church where an unsuccessful amputation was performed, and he succumbed to blood loss. Many report seeing a Revolutionary soldier roaming the grounds, and some say they have heard him crying in the back pew. You may never see Fauntleroy, but the bloodstains and saw marks can still be found in the church.
The second popular tale belongs to Cookie, a young lady whose picture in a prom dress appears on her gravestone. The story says she was killed waiting for her prom date and visits the church still looking for her missing companion.
Though fun, none of these other-world visitor stories compare to this cherished space that we are honored to explore. Old Tennent Church is still the active worship place of the Tennent congregation, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. It also maintains an active Sunday School (more than 160 years old) and youth programs. Visit OldTennent.org to learn more.
Thank you to Catherine Mitschele, Treasurer and Administrator of Old Tennent Church for her help with this story.