Dec 01, 2017

The Old First Church

By Lori Draz

Anyone who has driven along Kings Highway in the Village section of Middletown has seen the Old First Church. The white steepled landmark is also well-known to book lovers, as it is the site of the annual AAUW book sale.

This historic landmark is still an active parish that welcomes many worshippers each week, but its roots date back to the 1600s. Middletown is one of the oldest settlements in the state, having been founded in 1664. While early recordkeeping has made it difficult to determine the exact footprint of the original meetinghouse, it is known to have played a significant role during the Revolutionary War.

The Old First Church you see now is actually the third church and was built in 1832. The second church was built in 1735, but was eventually torn down because, as one historian notes, “the timbers were rotten and therefore old.” It was that building that played a prominent role in the American Revolution. The period leading up to and including the Revolutionary War was not a tranquil one. The Old First Church and other churches, like Christ Church in Shrewsbury, became the sites of raw divisions between colonists who sided with the emerging nation and those who were on the Tories’ side. In May of 1777, the church drafted a letter that contained four propositions that drew a clear line against the British. This daring document solidified the church’s allegiance with the patriots, and the ground-breaking document even led to the banishment and excommunication of some of the area’s most elite settlers who were sympathetic to the British. The act of excommunication was a very serious blow, similar to the shunning practices of the Amish and Mennonite communities. Later, the church was commandeered by the British army for use as a hospital/barracks after the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778.

Many Journal readers may not be aware that Middletown Mayor Gerry Sharfenberger also holds a doctorate in archeology. He in fact did extensive research and excavations on the property, uncovering many treasures of the past. He reports, “The most productive excavations came from the three artifact-rich strata (soil layers) beneath the church, each attributable to the time period for one of the church structures. The surface layer contained a large number of artifacts related to the construction and subsequent use of the present-day structure, built in 1832. Most notable among these was a heavily worn man’s leather boot. Other artifacts from the surface layer included a pyramid-shaped glass ink bottle dated circa 1850, several “strap-shouldered” whiskey bottles dated circa 1870, and a remarkably well-preserved concert ticket dated October 7, 1908. The first subsurface layer contained 18th-century artifacts that were clearly associated with the second church structure, built circa 1735. Among these were a number of dropped and pulled hand-wrought nails. Other artifacts from this stratum include an 1824 U.S. Large Cent, three brass straight pins with wrapped heads, several clay pipe stems, and two .69-inch musket balls, which was the standard caliber for use with a British Brown Bess musket during the Revolutionary War.”

Digging deeper, the mayor continues, “The second subsurface layer produced critical evidence for the existence of the first 17th-century meetinghouse at this location. Most notable were several cinched nails, which typically indicate that a building has burned or rotted. Other significant artifacts include several fragments of architectural wood directly overlying fragments of crown window glass.” This wood was radiocarbon dated to 1585 A.D. +/- 50 years, suggesting some of the wood may have been salvaged from another building that was already over three decades old. He also discovered ceramics, including glazed redware (1650-1850) and English Slipware (1670-1795), both of which fall within the time period of the first meetinghouse (1668/1688-1735).

The mayor concludes, “The Old First Church excavation was a textbook example of how valuable historical archaeology can be in correcting or clarifying the written record.”

The church also has a small cemetery that contains several Revolutionary War soldiers and members of the Stillwell family. Today, the Old First Church is a Baptist church that is an open and affirming community, welcoming all persons regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, disability, or sexual identity or orientation. Their covenant reads, “We covenant with one another: to seek and respond to the word and will of God; to accept one another with open minds and open hearts, cherishing our diversity; to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God and with one another; and to proclaim the good news of a living and loving God to the world.” Clearly, this church that at one time represented the schism that created a nation is now a home to many differing points of view.

The Old First Church is located at 69 Kings Highway in Middletown. To see worship times and learn more, visit www.oldfirstchurchnj.org.