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Tela inter Martia : A SALEM SOJOURN

Old Pittsgrove (formerly Pilesgrove) Presbyterian Church (1767)

In colonial New Jersey, all loyal and peaceful subjects of the Crown were guaranteed the right to “their Judgments and Consciences in matters of Religion.”[1]   A visit to one of the most pastoral areas of the state teaches us that the coexistence of different communities of faith does not always ensure peace within them.

William Tennent and his sons – all of them ministers – would become catalysts for controversy not long after their arrival from Ireland in 1718.  The elder Tennent started an informal Presbyterian seminary, the so-called Log College at Neshaminy, Pennsylvania; his sons John and William inspired an early religious revival in Freehold; and his oldest son Gilbert, as pastor in New Brunswick and as an itinerant preacher, would spearhead the first Great Awakening, a movement emphasizing personal religious experience over doctrine and orderly government that would divide the Presbyterian church for a generation.

The able but impetuous Gilbert Tennent travelled extensively in the colonies, preaching to large crowds, expounding the terrors of damnation and the necessity of conversion, and publicly challenging the fitness of many of his fellow clergy.  In 1741 the church split into Old and New “Sides.”  One by-product of the schism was the creation of the College of New Jersey, known today as Princeton University.  The individualistic, extra-hierarchical character of the Awakening would also help prepare the way for the colonies’ later separation from Britain.

The charismatic English preacher George Whitefield was a star of the movement. In 1739 he began the first of many evangelizing tours, some of them with Tennent by his side, extending all the way from Massachusetts to the Sea Islands of Georgia.  Benjamin Franklin, who was of no particular religious denomination, admired Whitefield’s skills, not only at inspiring piety but at parting the most tight-fisted of listeners and their money in order to advance a charitable cause.[2] 

In November 1740, a travel-weary Whitefield toured southern New Jersey.  Throngs turned out to hear him, but the results were mixed.  His journal entry on the 18th records:  “Preached at Piles-Grove in the Afternoon to about 2000 People.  Saw only a few affected.”[3] 

Pilesgrove at this period included what are now the townships of Pilesgrove, Pittsgrove and Upper Pittsgrove in Salem County.  In Upper Pittsgrove, the hamlet of Daretown is the site of the first Pilesgrove church.  It was formally established in the year following Whitefield’s visit, with David Evans as its minister.    The elders purchased land “for a Burying Yard, and to Build thereon a House for the Publick worship of God, and a School House for lawful useful and Christian Book-Learning.”[4]   Neither of these structures remains today, but in the churchyard stands a reconstruction of the log schoolhouse known as “Pittsgrove College,” where children of the first families were educated, together with the gravestones of early ministers and many of the lay founders.

In 1753, the Pilesgrove church welcomed the man who would be its pastor for the next twenty-five years.  Born in Connecticut and prepared for the ministry at Yale College, Nehemiah Greenman had previously served congregations on Long Island and in Madison, Morris County.  With his appointment, Pilesgrove joined the New Side, but the Presbyterian church was already on the way to healing its schism:  the factions would be reunited in 1758.

It seems that, under Greenman, the congregation grew slowly but steadily, for in the year 1767 a spacious new meeting house with a gallery was completed.  Above its twin entrances are keystones with these inscriptions:


NG / VDM / 1767 / PGC

[N(ehemiah) G(reenman) / V(erbi) D(ei) M(inister) / 1767 / P(iles) G(rove) C(hurch)]

This impressive structure served its congregation until the 1860s, when a still larger church was built a short distance away.

All was not well at Pilesgrove, however.  For most of Greenman’s tenure, the congregation neglected full payment of his salary, leading him to lodge a formal complaint in 1760 with the governing Presbytery.  Pilesgrove’s accounts were still in arrears when the Revolution swept through Salem County, and Greenman fled the area ahead of British incursions in March 1778.  When he returned to his duties after several months’ absence, the breach was with difficulty smoothed over.  He died the following year and was buried on the grounds of the church he had served, the inscription on his tomb daring to hope “that he will have / many Jewels in his Crown : Especially / from the congregation, where he statedly / Laboured.”

Gravestone of Colonel Cornelius Nieukirk (1795). In the background is a replica of the log schoolhouse known as Pittsgrove College.

Only a few feet from Greenman’s well-worn slab lie Cornelius Nieukirk, one of the founding members of the church, and his son, Colonel Cornelius Nieukirk.  The younger Cornelius, born in Pilesgrove in 1735 and schooled very possibly by the first pastor, David Evans, held the rank of captain in the Salem County militia during the Revolution, and retired a Lieutenant-Colonel.  His epitaph is notable for its concluding line in Latin, a phrase of unknown authorship that seems to have become commonplace at least a century earlier.[5]    A further monument to Nieukirk is his military sword, displayed at the Salem County Historical Society.

Weaponry, surprisingly, plays an important role in the later history of this region.  Two miles from the old church, near a traffic circle where the municipal building of Upper Pittsgrove now stands, was the site of a county arsenal established in 1812, during the second armed conflict with Britain.   A colonial tavern and an early flagstaff or liberty pole united to give to this locality the name Pole Tavern.  At the conclusion of the war, the county purchased for its militia rifles, muskets and cannons, and stored them in a wood frame building. The arsenal, training ground and tavern have all disappeared, but one of the cannons is still here, and another stands some fifteen miles away in Salem, the county seat.

The identical bronze pieces are thought to have been taken in 1814 at the battle of Plattsburgh, but they are not of British make.  The coat of arms on the muzzle belongs to the royal house of Bourbon, and the engraving around the breech reveals their origin in the kingdom of Naples:



“Il Sannito” from Naples (1763), in front of the old courthouse in Salem

The cannons were cast at the foundry where Girolamo Castronovo had the title of royal founder of the kingdom of Naples since at least 1752.[6]    But much of their strange history remains to be told.  The most common accounting for their travels from Naples to British North America, and thence to Salem County, has the weapons passing to the French armies and via the Iberian peninsula to the British, all as spoils of the Napoleonic Wars.

The gun at Salem was emblazoned with the name IL SANNITO; that at Pole Tavern was christened IL LVCANO.  The names recall the Samnites and the Lucanians, two of the many warlike peoples of ancient Italy subsumed in the empire of Rome.  IL LVCANO has had several adventures since coming to Pole Tavern, including some episodes (not unlike the Reverend Greenman’s) of unauthorized disappearance.  It is now enclosed in a padlocked shelter, but can be viewed on application to the township historian.

Copyright © 2012 by Gregory J. Guderian

This is a corrected version of an article that first appeared in the Bulletin of the New Jersey Classical Association, Spring 2006, pages 4-5.

^ 1] Concessions and Agreements, 1664.   ^ 2] Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, part 3.  ^ 3] Whitefield, Life and Journals (London 1756).  ^ 4]  Declaration of Trust and Bond of Performance, January 1, 1742/3.  ^ 5]  The complete inscription reads:  “Here lie the Remains / of Colonel / Cornelius Nieukirk, / who departed this Life / November 8th. 1795 / in the 61st. Year of his age / He filled the various Offices / Of Life with general esteem. / My Wife, my Friends and Children dear / Reflect on me without a tear; / But when you think on my cold Grave / Remember him who dy’d to save: / Attend the means which God hath giv’n / To pardon Sin and give you Heav’n. / Hoc momento Eternitas pependit.”  The phrase AB HOC MOMENTO PENDET ÆTERNITAS occurs in John Flavel, Pneumatologia: A treatise of the soul of man (London 1698) 161, and it is attested, sometimes with EX in place of AB, on a number of sundials in the British Isles:  see Margaret Scott Gatty, The book of sun-dials (rev. ed. London 1900), 205255.  ^ 6] Carlo Montù, L’artiglieria borbonica e la Nunziatella (Naples 1990) 1:13.

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