Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Stepping Back in Time at the Old Yellow Meeting House

Stepping Back in Time at the Old Yellow Meeting House
Written by NJ Historian

Tucked away from modern conveniences and highways in Upper Freehold, New Jersey is a structure that has had very few changes since the time of its construction. The Yellow Meeting House, the oldest existing Baptist Church in New Jersey, sits far back from the road, with a sizable cemetery in front of it, patiently waiting for visitors to meander up its long curved driveway and peer through the single panes of hand-blown glass that separate one century from another.

In 1720, Thomas and Rachel Saltar, owners of a nearby mill and ironworks, deeded twenty five acres of land to early Baptist settlers in the Upper Freehold area. An existing farmhouse on the church's property was converted into the first church building on the site. It was used for worship services until it was destroyed by fire in the mid-1730s.

A new church building, two stories in height, was built and traditionally has been dated to circa 1737. It was built on exact compass settings, to allow for a long southern exposure for heat and light. Originally, the church building was three bays wide, built on a fieldstone foundation. At some unknown point in its early history, a fourth bay on the western gable end was added to accommodate a steep staircase to the 21-foot-deep balcony. The western gable end has two entrances and one single door is located on the southern side of the building. The building is covered in clapboard siding and its roof is composed of cedar shingles.

At this time of its construction, the congregation was originally part of the Baptist Church of Middletown (Monmouth County). In 1766, the congregation petitioned to be released from the church at Middletown to become independent. Independence was granted in May 1766 and the newly chartered church, now called the Crosswicks Baptist Church, was organized with forty-seven families. This name remained until 1773. Thereafter, it was called the Upper Freehold Baptist Church.

A parsonage for the minister was constructed on the property around 1740. It would have contained one room on the first floor with a large open hearth and a staircase on the eastern wall of the house that led to a single room on the second floor. The earliest section, now located in the center of the building, (three bay, side hall plan) was expanded on both gable ends in the early 1800s.

The church was served by itinerant ministers until the church was formally organized in 1766. David Jones became the church's first minister and served until 1775. During the American Revolution he was known as the "fighting parson" in the Continental Army and gained fame for his sermon "Defensive war in a just cause - sinless."

Many of the oldest graves in the cemetery yard are unmarked or marked with fieldstones with no inscription. The oldest dated grave markers are those of John Saltar (1723) and his father-in-law Elisha Lawrence (1724). About sixty surviving headstones are dated prior to 1800, including the Reverend John Coward's (1760).

Grave marker of John Saltar who died in 1723.
In 1855 the congregation purchased its present site and built a new church in nearby Imlaystown. Activity at the old church decreased and it became a forgotten site, allowing it to serve as a time capsule today and appear much as it did when it was last used. Plumbing was never installed and only a few lights along the outer walls have been wired. Other than that, the building is devoid of modern technology and materials.

In 1975, the Friends of the Old Yellow Meeting House was founded to assure the preservation, care, and appropriate use of the site. During this time the church was added to the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places. In 1985, the Friends completed the restoration of the Parsonage. Interpretive signs were installed throughout the property in 2002. The building is occasionally open to the public. It is part of Monmouth County's annual Weekend in Old Monmouth and an annual reunion service is held at the church on the last Sunday in July at 11:00 am.

Additional photos of my trip to the Old Yellow Meeting House on Pinterest

For More Information
Ye Olde Yellow Meeting House

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