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“Mr. Parry, can you read Latin?”

“I ought to be able to do so a bit, Mr. Dooley.  Why do you ask?”

This exchange, recalled years later, would set Samuel Parry on a quest whose fulfillment seems little short of miraculous.  The inscription which the Presbyterian minister found is today placed prominently on the front of the church where he served as pastor from 1873 to 1906, in the village of Pluckemin (Bedminster Township, Somerset County).[1]   It comes, however, from a more ancient congregation of Lutherans, mostly of German origin, who had a church on the same site.

The upper Raritan river valley saw some of the first German settlements in New Jersey.  One early Lutheran church, known as Raritan in the Hills, was embroiled with its pastor in such lengthy recrimination and litigation that no less a figure than Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the father of the Lutheran church in America, was called in to restore peace.[2] 

On December 7, 1756, a subscription was begun to replace the beleaguered Raritan in the Hills, and building started the following year on land in Pluckemin belonging to Jacob Eoff.  On July 4, 1757, a diamond-shaped foundation stone, inscribed in Latin, was placed in one of the walls.  The finished church, known as St. Paul’s, is remembered as a stone structure, its main doors facing south, with interior woodwork, a gallery and a sounding board over the pulpit.

Muhlenberg preached in St. Paul’s at the dedication in 1758 and many times thereafter, but the church’s days of glory were numbered.  After the Revolutionary War services became infrequent, and in time the building, like its unfortunate predecessor, was abandoned.  Sometime in the early 1800s St. Paul’s was demolished and its stones incorporated into other structures.  A Methodist church was erected on the site, replaced in 1851 by the Presbyterian church now standing.  Remnants of the Lutherans’ graveyard can still be seen on its north side.

One day Stephen Dooley, an Irish-born blacksmith, spotted an inscribed stone forming part of the floor of his cistern.   His neighbor Samuel Parry could make out very little in the dim light, and assumed it to be a gravestone fragment.  By the time Parry began to search in earnest for the St. Paul’s stone, Dooley and his shop were gone, the cistern had been filled in and its whereabouts forgotten.  The minister hired a team of men to locate it, and in April 1901 they unearthed what turned out to be one half of the foundation stone of St. Paul’s.  A year later, the other half was rescued from the cellar floor of a nearby home.[3] 

Reassembled and mounted on the present church in 1903, the stone could at last be deciphered.  Its deceptively crude lettering conserves a precise record of the first steps in the founding of St. Paul’s:

D(eo) O(ptimo) M(aximo)

Imp(erante) Georgi[o]

M(agnæ) B(ritanniæ) R(ege) A(ugustissimo?) sacra hæ[c]

Ædes A(nno) 1756 7th Id(us) Dec(embres)

Delineata atque A(nno) 1757 4th

Non(as) Jul(ias) condita

Cura conjuncta

Georgii Remeri.

The record, while precise, is incomplete.  If the words cura conjuncta were intended to convey the shared sacrifice of the founders, it is strange that no name appears but that of George Remer. Remer had a leading role, but so did Jacob Eoff, who gave the land, headed the subscription list (he and Remer promised £20 each, the largest amount pledged) and co-managed the lottery to fund the church’s completion.[4]   Muhlenberg gave religious instruction and preached at the homes of both Eoff and Remer, even after St. Paul’s was built.[5]   Much of the history of this ill-starred enterprise remains obscure but, thanks to the curiosity of a village blacksmith, a vital piece of it can still see the light of day.

Copyright © 2011 by Gregory J. Guderian

The original version of this article appeared in the Bulletin of the New Jersey Classical Association, Fall 2007, page 6 (.pdf).

^ 1] An undated typescript in the collections of the Bernardsville Library, entitled “Strange uses of Graveyard Relics,” may be the only contemporary account of the recovery of the Pluckemin inscription.  It appears to be part of a memoir by one Mrs. Hunter.  The encounter of Reverend Parry and Stephen Dooley (census records provide his origin and first name) and the details of Parry’s search are taken from this narrative.   ^ 2] For the earliest Lutheran congregations in this region see John C. Honeyman, “Zion, St. Paul and other early Lutheran churches in central New Jersey,” published serially in Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society (= Proceedings), n. s., 9 (1924) to 16 (1931), esp. 11 (1926), 532-42, for the organization of St. Paul’s.  For Raritan in the Hills see also A. Van Doren Honeyman, “The Lutheran church of ‘Raritan in the Hills’,” Somerset County Historical Quarterly (= SCHQ) 2 (1913), 87-98, 161-72.  ^ 3] Communication from Samuel Parry, reprinted in “The Old Pluckemin Burying Ground Stones,” SCHQ 1 (1912), (312-17) 313; J. Honeyman, “Zion, St. Paul,” Proceedings, n. s.,11 (1926), 534n.   ^ 4] Archives of the State of New Jersey, ed. William Nelson, ser. 1,20 (Paterson 1898), 283-7; Oscar M. Voorhees, “Some Somerset County lotteries,” SCHQ 3 (1914), (88-99) 89-91.   ^ 5] See The journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg in three volumes, trans. Theodore G. Tappert and John W. Doberstein (Philadelphia 1942-58), 1:362-3, 423-5, 427, 429.

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