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Piscataway, New Jersey

Historical Narrative
By James F. Brown, Pastor

     The constitution of this Church dates back to that period of our Colonial history when New Jersey was under the proprietary form of government, to the very year (1689) that William and Mary of Orange came to the throne of the mother country. The records of the Church, from the time of its constitution till 1781, a period of nearly one hundred years, were either lost or wil[l]fully destroyed during the Revolutionary [W]ar. For any knowledge of the Church during this period we are indebted chiefly to municipal records, fragmentary Baptist history, and to the Minutes of the Philadelphia Association.

     From the former source we learn that the first settlers of the township from which the Church takes its name were chiefly emigrants from Piscataqua District in the Province of Maine, and that they gave the same name to the district settled by them in the Province of New Jersey. How many of them were Baptists, either by profession or education, it is now impossible to ascertain. We may however say with Dr. Benedict that "were we to judge of the religious tenets of these settlers by the lists of members of the two Baptist Churches of Piscataway, we should conclude they were of that denomination, most of the names being found in those lists." The names of Drake, Stelle, Smalley, Runyon, Martin, Dunham, Fitz, Randolph, Sutton and Smith are as familiar names now as they were in the last half of the seventeenth century, and are still prominent on the register of the Piscataway Church. Of these early settlers tradition will allow only six to have been professed Baptists, namely: Hugh Dunn, John Drake, Nicholas Bonham, John Smalley, Edmund Dunham, and John Randolph. These persons were constituted a Gospel Church in the spring of 1689, by the Rev. Thomas Killingsworth, who came to this country soon after his ordination in England, and became the first pastor of the Cohansey Church, which was constituted the following year (1690). The name of no female appears among the constituent members either of this Church or of the Middletown and Cohansey Churches. Of the six constituent members, three were exhorters or lay-preachers, namely: John Drake, Hugh Dunn, and Edmund Dunham. The latter afterwards became a Seventh Day Baptist, and was one of the constituent members and the first pastor of the Sabbatarian Church near the settlement now known as New Market. Of Hugh Dunn nothing more is known.


     Mr. Drake was ordained as pastor of the Church at the time of its organization, and continued to occupy this relation till his death in 1739, a period of fifty years. Nothing definite is known of Mr. Drake's ministry, or of the condition of the Church during his pastorate. Morgan Edwards speaks of him as "an excellent man," a fact that his long pastorate would of itself establish. The same authority states a report in his time that the Church continued without change either by diminution or addition from its constitution till 1709, just 20 years. This report can neither be substantiated nor disputed. All that is certainly known is that after the lapse of twenty years from its constitution it numbered only twenty members.

     In 1707, the Church united with four others in forming the Philadelphia Association, the first formed Baptist Association in America. The other four were the churches at Pennepack, Pa., Middletown, N. J, Cohansey, N. J, and Welsh Tract, Del.


     The Rev. Benjamin Stelle, son of Pontius Stelle, a French Huguenot, was born in New York in the year 1683, and ordained as pastor of the Church soon after the death of Mr. Drake. He continued in this relationship till January, 1759, or about 20 years, when he was called to his rest in the 76th year of his age. He united the office of magistrate with that of pastor. In the judgment of his contemporaries he was a popular preacher and very upright in the administration of justice. During his pastorate, the Church largely increased in membership, numbering in 1746 over one hundred members. These members were scattered over a wide extent of country. A number (fifteen), living in the vicinity of Plainfield and Scotch Plains, were in the following year (1747) constituted an independent Church at the latter place, of which the Rev. Benjamin Miller took the pastoral oversight. Those 1iving in the vicinity of Morristown were constituted a Church in 1752.


     Mr. Stelle was succeeded in the pastorate by his son Isaac, who had been ordained as assistant to his father in 1752. He took the exclusive oversight of the Church in 1759. He was a good minister of Jesus Christ, and abundant in labors both at home and abroad. "I need not," says Edwards, "publish the goodness of the man or the excellency of his preaching. For many are now alive who know both, and who regard him as their spiritual father. He was remarkable for his travels among the American Churches in company with his other self, Rev. Benjamin Miller." In the century sermon before the Philadelphia Association, preached by Dr. Samuel Jones, Mr. Stelle is referred to as one especially distinguished for pulpit abilities in his day. He died October 9th, 1781, in the 63d year of his age, after a pastorate of twenty-two years, and a ministry of twenty-nine years.

     The Church at the commencement of his pastorate had dwindled through dismissions to about forty members; numbered in 1755, seventy-five. For some reason no statistics of the Churches were published in the Associational Minutes, pending the Revolution, so that the membership at the time of his death cannot be ascertained.


     Rev. Reune Runyon, the fourth pastor, son of Reune Runyon, Esq., who was of French extraction, succeeded Mr. Stelle in 1783. He was born in Piscataway, November, 29th 1741, licensed 1771, and ordained as pastor of the Church at Morristown, March, 1772, and remained there till 1780. On taking charge of the Church in Piscataway, he was promised fifty pounds per annum salary, which, it was said was not always promptly paid. But as he owned a good farm, he obtained a comfortable support from it for a large family. His ministry proved a rich blessing to the Church, which at the time of his settlement had a membership of only forty persons. Two only were added the following year, none the next year, so that the whole number reported to the Association in 1785 was thirty-nine. The year 1786, however, was a year of grace to this and several other Churches in the State, seventy-eight being reported to the Association as having been baptized and added to the Church, making the whole membership one hundred and twenty-one, thus increasing the membership over that of the preceding year more than three fold. This revival continued many months, twenty-two baptisms being reported the next year, and the total membership reaching in 1790, one hundred and forty-eight.

     In the year 1779, the question whether deacons should be ordained by the imposition of hands was discussed, and finally decided in the negative.

     In 1792, the members of the Church living in the neighborhood of Samptown were constituted an independent Church. In August of the same year, the Church united with the New York Association, having been dismissed for this purpose by the Philadelphia Association the previous year, after a connection with that body of eighty-four years. The condition of the Church for several subsequent years was not one of growth and prosperity. In 1794, it appointed a day of fasting and prayer; and again in the following year, in accordance with the recommendations of the Association to all the Churches, it observed four days of public prayer "on account of the coldness and barrenness in the affairs of religion." There were however, but few additions to the Church till 1807, when in that, and several successive years, numbers were baptized. Mr. Runyon's pastorate ended only with his life. After a tedious illness, which he bore with patient resignation, sustained by a strong hope of a glorious immortality, he entered into rest November 21st, 1811, having faithfully served the Church just twenty-eight years.


     After an interval of about a year, Rev. James McLaughlin was with great unanimity called to the pastorate. He accepted, and commenced his labors October 1st, 1812. As the Church had no parsonage, he rented a house in New Brunswick, where a number of the members resided, and for whose accommodation a house of worship had been erected two years before. He preached in the Piscataway meeting house in the morning and in the New Brunswick house in the afternoon on Lord's Days. The members in New Brunswick, twenty-four in number, were on September 16th, 1816, recognized as an independent Church, under the name of the "First Baptist Church of the City of New Brunswick." Mr. McLaughlin continued to supply this Church till the following May, when owing to its desire to have the exclusive services of a pastor he terminated his connection with it, and a few months afterwards, October 19th, 1817, resigned the pastorate of the mother Church, having served it just five years. He is described by Deacon Samuel Smith as "a man of eminent piety, a good minister of Jesus Christ, grave in his deportment, and unusually solemn in pulpit address." The memory of his many virtues and faithful labors is still fondly cherished by [t]hose who were contemporary with him in the Church.


     Another interval of about a year followed, when the Church extended a call to the Rev. Daniel Dodge, of Wilmington, Delaware. He commenced pastoral duties October 1st, 1818. Mr. Dodge, like his predecessor, lived in his own hired house in New Brunswick. The divine blessing rested upon his labors pre-eminently the first year of his ministry, forty souls being added to the Church; and no succeeding year passed without the accession of one or more by baptism. Yet the period of his ministry which embraced nearly thirteen years may be called the troub[l]ous period of the Church. Questions affecting Church polity and practice, and one touching the lawfulness of marrying a deceased wife's sister, came under earnest discussion. Mr. Dodge held that the "laying on of hands after baptism was a Gospel ordinance and necessary to be practised [sic]." This was contrary to the usage of the Church, and the practice of it proved grievous to many of the brethren. The difficulty was finally compromised by agreeing to leave it to the option of the candidates whether to be received with or without the imposition of hands.

     The marriage question was not so easily disposed of, and for a long time it greatly disturbed the Church. In 1827, the Church sent up to the Association the query, "whether the Scriptures do not prohibit marriage between a man and a sister of his deceased wife?" As the Association gave no direct answer to the query, but simply left it for "each Church to determine the lawfulness of such marriage in the light of the Holy Scriptures," the daughter Church at Samptown renewed the query the following year. This was referred to a committee of seven, Elder Parkinson, chairman, who reported at the same session that "though they were unanimously and decidedly of the opinion that there is nothing in the Holy Scriptures forbidding such marriages, nevertheless, considering the importance of the question and the extent of its bearings on the Christian and civil community, they advised the appointment of a committee of three to prepare a more full report upon the subject at the next term." From this opinion Elder Dodge, who was Moderator, expressed his solemn dissent, as tending, in his belief to sanction incest. This committee of three having failed to present such report, the following year (1829) the Association "cordially and affectionately recommended to the Churches not to make a difference of opinion respecting the matter in question any bar to Christian fellowship and friendly intercourse between them, to an exchange of pastoral labor, or to the mutual dismission and reception of members." It appears that this advice had not been practically anticipated by the Church. Controversy on the question had waxed more and more warm, and resulted in alienations and divisions. By request of the Church, presented at the session last named, a Council of seven persons was appointed by the Association to aid in the restoration of harmony to the Church. This Council, of which Elder Parkinson was chairman met with the Church on the 10th, day of June, 1829, and after a session of three days succeeded in healing every difference and effecting a formal reconciliation between the Church and its disaffected members. At the same time and in accordance with the advice of the council, the Church voted that in [the] future, candidates be received exclusively by the imposition of hands.

     Mr. Dodge remained with the Church three years after the meeting of this Council. Nothing of importance occurred in the mean time to affect its peace and prosperity. Mr. Dodge purchased a farm near the meeting house and resided thereon till his resignation as pastor, which took place on the 29th of May 1832, when he was dismissed to the First Church, Newark. He is portrayed by Deacon Smith as "a godly man, a good preacher, in doctrine strongly Calvinistic, neat in person, dignified in deportment, winning in manners, and very exemplary in his walk and conversation, exerting an influence, wherever he was known, that tended to promote piety and all moral and social virtues. Though dead, he still lives in the warm affections of many friends in Piscataway."


     The Rev. Daniel Lewis, of Paterson, was called to the pastorate June 23d 1833.

     The views of Mr. Lewis were the reverse of those held by his predecessor respecting the imposition of hands after baptism. He objected to the practice as not warranted by the Scriptures, and hesitated about accepting the call. Whereupon the Church decided to rescind its resolution of June 12th, 1829, which forbade the reception of members except by the imposition of hands, and again to leave the mode of reception to the option of the candidates. This was satisfactory to Mr. Lewis, and he at once entered upon pastoral duties.

     At a special meeting of the Church held Jan. 1st, 1834, it was also voted that the resolution passed Aug. 29th, 1827, respecting incestuous marriage be rescinded. By these votes, both secured the influence of Mr. Lewis, the Church was brought back to its ancient practice. Nothing of marked interest occurred from this time till the close of the year 1836, when after a long season of spiritual apathy, the Church was awakened to earnest and agonizing prayer. The Lord heard, and in the winter of 1837-38, forty-five souls were hopefully converted and added to the Church. Harmony and brotherly love prevailed, and the peaceable fruit of righteousness was richly enjoyed. Declension followed this happy state, and in the three following years only two were baptized. But in 1843 God, in his rich mercy, again visited the Church, and there was a great awakening. Sinners trembled and saints rejoiced. So great was the demand for ministerial labor that Elders Webb and Hires came to the assistance of the pastor. This work of grace continued for some months, and within the space of a year the number of souls added to the Church was one hundred and one. Bro. George Drake, a licentiate of the Samptown Church, but recently received [as] a member of this Church, rendered the pastor invaluable service, and continued to preach the gospel gratuitously wherever a door was opened to him till his death in March, 1851.

     On the 27th of September, 1849, the revered pastor was himself called to rest from his labors, having served the Church with great fidelity and success a little more than sixteen years. His remains were interred in the graveyard adjoining the house in which he had so long ministered in holy things. A plain stone marks the spot where they rest. The same brother who has described the two previous pastors speaks of Mr. Lewis as "a plain man who made no pretensions to either learning or eloquence, diffident and retiring in his manners, yet sound in the faith, and earnest in his delivery of the truth, seeking the honor of his Divine Master and the peace and harmony of his people, in which he was eminently successful, and faithful in warning sinners of their danger, and pointing out to them the way of salvation. God prospered his labors, and through him gathered into the fold one hundred and sixty-five souls during his ministry in Piscataway." Many of these still live, are steadfast in the faith and active members of the Church. They gratefully cherish the memory of their good old pastor and his many works of faith and labors of love.

     It should be here stated that in the month of November, 1841, the Church united with thirteen others in New Jersey in organizing the East New Jersey Baptist Association, after a connection with the New York Association of forty-nine years.


     After much prayer by the Church that it might be wisely and divinely directed in the choice of a pastor, a call was unanimous extended to Rev. Henry V. Jones of Newark, N. J. He accepted, and commenced his labors April 1st, 1850. Previous to his call, the Church had taken measures to provide a home for their future pastors in the parish. A house and lot of twenty acres were bought about two miles from the meeting house. The old house gave place to a new and more commodious one. The lot together with the new building cost about $4,000. This house continued to be occupied by the pastors till 1869, when, owing to its distance from the meeting house and the amount of land attached to it, which was deemed by many an encumbrance rather than a benefit to the pastors, it was sold at twice its original cost, and a new and tasteful edifice was erected on a lot of ore acre within a few rods of the meeting house, the whole costing about $8,300.

     The first parsonage had not been completed, when on the 1st day of January, 1851, as the people were gathering at the meeting house for worship, it took fire from a defect in the stove pipe and burned to the ground. This was a great trial to the Church, not simply because it involved larger pecuniary outlays, but chiefly because they loved the old house in which God had so often manifested himself to them and vouchsafed rich displays of his sanctifying power and grace. Cast down but not destroyed, they at once resolved to rebuild, subscribed most of the money needed on the spot, and within a year the present house, occupying the site of the former, was completed at a cost of about $7,000 and dedicated to the Lord.

     The ministry of Mr. Jones was greatly honored of the Lord, both in adding souls to the Church and in raising the membership to a higher standard of spiritual life and activity. At no time in its history had so much been accomplished towards awakening the spirit of benevolence and securing systematic contributions to the cause of Christ. Missionary societies were formed, and the whole parish was divided into districts with solicitors and collectors in each, so as to secure the co-operation of every member. The results were apparent in much larger contributions for benevolent objects. The Sunday schools, four in number in as many different neighborhoods, were vigorously maintained, and continue prosperous to this day.

     Some time before the close of Mr. Jones's pastorate his health so greatly declined as to disqualify him for much of the labor incident to so large a field. The Church, cherishing a most hearty appreciation of his ministry, granted him from time to time indefinite periods of rest, in the hope that he might recover his strength and for many years continue to go in and out before them, but in this both he and they were disappointed, and in March, 1856, he bade a tearful farewell to a deeply attached people.


     In the month of August following a call was given to Rev. Christian J. Page, of Bristol. He entered upon the pastorate October 1st, the same year (1856). The Lord wrought with him effectually. A revival which followed his labors at an outstation of the Church resulted in the conversion of many souls, and within a period of about eighteen months just one hundred persons were baptized and added to the Church. The total membership in 1858 reached two hundred and eighty-five and in the following year two hundred and eighty-nine, the highest total it has ever attained.

     A protracted declension followed this season of refreshing, and in the five succeeding years only ten were added by baptism.

     In the month of September, 1862, Mr. Page, having received an appointment as chaplain in the U. S. Army, was voted leave of absence for nine months, with the continuation of his salary. Returning to his charge at the expiration of this time, the Head of the Church again smiled upon his labors, and in 1864 nearly forty souls were added to the Church by baptism, while each of the three following years of his pastorate also witnessed many accessions. In the month of March, 1867, he tendered his resignation, and in the following autumn, removed to Spring Valley, New York, bearing with him the testimony of the Church that during the eleven years of his ministry among them he had been "abundant in labors, instant in season and out of season, earnest in contending for the faith, and faithful in seeking the peace, harmony, and prosperity of the Church and the salvation of souls."


     Rev. James F. Brown of Bridgeton, N. J., succeeded Mr. Page in March, 1868, and is still in charge. With this simple statement we bring our sketch of the pastorates to a close.


     The first pastor, John Drake, was, as we have already seen, recognized as a licentiate some years before his ordination. It is probable that his brethren, whom with others he was wont to exhort, had informally approved of his exercising his ministerial gifts, and that at their organization he, as the one deemed most "apt to teach," was called by them to become their pastor, and received ordination.

     The third and fourth pastors, namely, Isaac Stelle and Reune Runyon, were born in the parish and licensed by the Church. How many others, or whether any, were sent into the ministry before the Revolutionary war cannot now be ascertained.

     Henry Smalley, son of John Smalley, a worthy member of the Church, was born in Piscataway, October 23d, 1765; graduated at Princeton College in 1786; soon after which he was licensed by the Church, and rendered much valuable assistance to the aged pastor, Rev. Mr. Runyon. On November 8th, 1790, he was ordained pastor of the First Cohaney Baptist Church, and there labored till his death, February 11th, 1839. in the seventy-fourth year of his age after a pastorate of nearly forty-nine years.

     Jacob Sutton was licensed in January, 1811. He preached for the Church at Penn's Neck, then recently formed, but after a brief ministry was called to his rest in 1814.

     Lewis F. Stelle, son of Deacon Drake Stelle, was licensed September 18th, 1843. He labored with the Churches at Branchville, Herbertsville, and Bloomingdale successively. He died December 21st, 1863, aged forty-four years.

     In the month of April, 1844, Hezekiah Smith, a youth of eighteen, son of Deacon Peter Smith, was encouraged after [a] trial of his gifts, to commerce a course of preparatory study. He entered Hamilton with high hopes of future usefulness, but being suddenly arrested by disease, he returned home and died in June of the same year.

     Warren Randolph D.D., now pastor of the Fifth Baptist Church, Philadelphia, was licensed May 26th, 1847; graduated at Brown University; was ordained at Pawtucket, R. I., August 24th 1851.

     Bergen Stelle, a brother of the above mentioned Lewis F. Stelle, was licensed November 29th, 1848. His first pastorate was at George’s Road; his second and last at Cherryville. He died August 9th, 1864, in the forty-ninth year of his age.

     George Pawley was licensed March 25, 1860, but soon retired from the ministry.

     Charles C. Smith was licensed October 2d, 1860, graduated both in the Collegiate and Theological Departments of Madison University, in the latter in 1869, and was ordained in March, 1870, as pastor of the Baptist Church at Cooperstown, N. Y.


     The first House in which the Church worshipped was built by the early settlers of the township. This appears from an item in the town records, taken from the official record at Trenton, Liber. 4, which we copy verbatim; "January 18, 1685-6. Att the Towne Meetinge then agreed yt there should be a meetinge-house built forthwith, the dimensions as followeth: Twenty foot wide, thirty foot Longe and Ten foot between joynts." This house stood in a small village now called Piscatawaytown, about one mile south-east of the present house of worship, and near the Raritan river. The village was for a long period of colonial times the seat of justice for a large extent of territory, extending over Middlesex and considerable portions of the counties now known as Union and Somerset. It was, doubtless, in this humble building that the Church worshipped from its organization in 1689 till 1748. In the latter year a house, 40 by 36, was built on a lot of four and six-tenths acres, bought of Alexander Mc-Dowell in April, 1731. Morgan Edwards speaks of this house as "a well-finished house, but wanting the necessary convenience of a stove." The records of the Church do not state when this "convenience" was introduced. The house stood till 1825, the first year of Mr. Dodge's ministry, when it was taken down, and a new and more spacious one erected on the same site at a cost of $3,000. Its size was 52 by 42. This house, as already stated, was entirely consumed on the first day of January, 1851, and on the same spot was erected the present house. Its size is 68 by 52, having a gallery on three sides, three aisles, and a recess pulpit. A spire will be put on this building the present season, in accordance with the original design of the architect.


     The present officers of the Church are: James F. Brown, pastor; Henry Smalley, Alexander Dunn, Samuel Smith, Augustus T. Stelle, and James D. Stelle, Deacons.

     Trustees -- Runyon Walker, Furman R. Stelle, Wm. F. Crowell, Martin Lupardus, Wm. F. Randolph, Wm. Hummer, and Mefford Runyon.


     The Church is now in its one hundred and eighty-second year, and is the second in age in the State. It has had ten pastors, which is an average of nearly twenty years to each. Of these the longest pastorate continued fifty years; the shortest five years. The first four pastors and the seventh died on the field, full of years and honors, all loved and lamented by the Church. Of the remaining four who left the field to labor elsewhere, only two survive.

     The territory occupied by the Church has always been extensive, though in the lapse of time it has become more circumscribed, owing to the formation of sister churches in the more remote neighborhoods. From the beginning, preaching stations have been mentioned in several different localities, varying in distance from two to four miles from the meeting-house, which the pastors have occupied in the afternoons and evenings of Lord's Days. At the same stations Sunday-schools have been conducted for many years, almost exclusively by members of the Church.

     The Church has always been in sympathy with the evangelical enterprises of the age, but aims at a yet higher standard of benevolence. Her contributions to different institutions of learning show her interest in the education of the young, an interest destined to grow with her growth.

     The total membership of the Church in 1800 was one hundred and twenty-four. Since that year to the present time five hundred and sixty-four have been added by baptism. The largest number of baptisms in any decade was one hundred and sixty-six, between 1850 and 1860. The total membership at the present time is two hundred and fifty-five.

     The general harmony of the Church has been undisturbed for many years. Only two disciplinary councils are known to have been called throughout its history. The social element in the membership is largely cultivated. Descended from an honored ancestry, occupying the very lands on which they lived and toiled, related to one another not only by the ties of a common faith, but largely by those of blood or marriage, weekly assembling in a house occupying the site of those in which their fathers worshipped, and hard by which their relics slumber awaiting the resurrection, no people have stronger motives to dwell together in love, and to contend earnestly or the faith once delivered to the saints, and in which those fathers died; while all the good that God in his providence and grace has done for them calls aloud upon them to "praise Him for all that is past and trust Him for all that is to come."


[From the Minutes of the East New Jersey Baptist Association, 1871, pp. 24-35. This document is from a photocopy of the original at the Rare Books and Special Collections Library, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall - 2004.]

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