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Cohansey Baptist Church

A History of the Cohansey Baptist Church in Old West Jersey,
By Charles E. Sheppard, 1846 - 1939
(Prepared by J. Meade Landis, from his original notes)

     Charles E. SHEPPARD, the great genealogist and historian was a descendant in the 5th generation of David SHEPPARD, who is the first person named in history as being a Baptist in South Jersey and as a founder of the Cohansey Baptist Church. Many years before his death, availing himself of his vast store of information, he wrote an account of the congregation probably as the basis of a lecture before a meeting of the Philadelphia Baptist Association. Since the manuscript notes were preserved, it seemed that the restoration of the meeting house of the church he loved offered a particularly propitous time to place the full text of his history for the first time in the hands of the people. As the location of the meeting house of a country church is determined largely by the places of residence of the members of the church, the account of the building of the meetinghouse at Roadstown in 1801 is prefaced with a sketch of the origin of the Cohansey Church and of the locating of the four meetinghouses it has possessed. This the writer has been led to do also so as to preserve for the future generations, some of the facts concerning its founders which have been learned in the course of a half century of research into the history and genealogy of this part of New Jersey and especially of this church.

Roots in Ireland

     The first Baptists known to have settled in South Jersey came from Ireland and were members of a Baptist Church at Cleagh KEATING in the County of Tipperary in the Province of Munster in the south of Ireland. They arrived here about 1683 and settled Back and Shrewsbury Necks, in Fairfield Township.

     Morgan EDWARDS, from whose history of the Baptist Churches of New Jersey all the early history of the Baptists of this part of the state has been drawn, visited the different churches in 1789 and 1790 in search of material for his work. He was at Cohansey on July 6th 1789. He states that the early records of the church had been destroyed but the loss was partly supplied by a historical sketch which had been sent him many years ago (as he then said) by Rev. Robert KELSEY [Kelsay], pastor of the church from 1756 until his death, May 30th 1789.

     The Brutal Campaigns, Quoting from that sketch he says: about the year 1683 some Baptists from the County of Tipperary in Ireland settled in the neighborhood of Cohansey; particularly David SHEPPARD, Thomas ABBOTT, William BUTTON, etc. Those names are all English names and their parents were probably among the large number of English Protestants who settled in Ireland after the subjugation by the parliamentary forces under Cromwell in 1651.

Escape to America

     The Baptists of England, as of all other lands have ever been not only upholders of religious liberty, but equally zealous in seeking civil liberty. Large numbers of them served in the Parliamentary forces amongst the Royalists and must have been among those who received lands in Ireland, and settled there. During the reign of Charles the Second, from 1660 to 1685, the great pressure upon dissenters probably led these Irish Baptists to avail themselves of the peace and freedom of America. In doing so, no part of this country presented more attractions, civil and religious, of climate, soil, and easiness of access, than did South Jersey.

     These Irish Baptists, when they settled here, had no pastor, but without doubt held meetings of prayer and praise amongst themselves and were visited occasionally by the few Baptist ministers who came this way.

Earliest Settlers

     These Irish Baptists were soon followed by others of their faith. Obadiah HOLMES, Jr., and Jonathan HOLMES, sons of Rev. Obadiah HOLMES, who was publicly whipped by the order of the court in Boston, Mass., in 1650, for preaching Baptist doctrines, removed from Rhode Island to Middletown, Monmouth County, N. J. about 1667; and in 1685 Obadiah, Jr., left there and settled in Greenwich in Cumberland County. The same year John CORNELIUS, who also came from Rhode Island settled in Penns Neck, Salem County. In 1688, Reyneer VAN HYST, John CHILDE and Thomas LAMBSON were baptized by Rev. Elias KEACH, pastor of the Pennepeck (Lower Dublin) Baptist Church in nearby Pennsylvania. Of these, Reyneer VAN HYST and Thomas LAMBSON are known to have lived in Penns Neck. John CHILDE probably did also.

     Rev. Thomas KILLINGWORTH, who was ordained as a Baptist minister in England, came to this country about 1686 and after preaching the gospel at Piscataway and Middletown, he came to Cohansey about 1689 and settled in Salem, buying a large tract of land at the head of Broadway where he resided until his death in the Spring of 1709.

     Mr. EDWARDS said the settlement of these persons increased the number of Baptists to nine souls, and probably to near as many more, including the sisters; however, the above nine persons were formed into a church by the assistance of said KILLINGWORTH, whom they chose to be their minister: this was done in the Spring of 1690.

     No names of members, other than the nine are recorded, not even the female members, but researches show that there were other Baptists among these Irish settlers of South Jersey.

Zealous in Faith

     When we remember that nearly all the first settlers in West Jersey came here to escape persecution in Great Britain there can be little doubt that they were almost without exception followers of Jesus, whose loyalty to their faith led them to undergo the toils and hardships of creating new homes in the wilderness with few comforts except the satisfaction of worshipping their Maker according to the dictates of their own consciences. But there is specific proof as to some of these settlers being Baptists. David SHEPPARD had brothers, John, Thomas and James who came with him and also settled in Back Neck. John's and Thomas's children and grandchildren were nearly all members of this church, and Thomas himself in 1712 was a delegate from this church to the Philadelphia Association. James SHEPPARD died in December 1690, leaving a widow and two infant daughters.

Wine For Communion

     Upon the constitution of the church, a leather bound book was bought for the use of the church and the first page is inscribed: This book was bought of Brother William BUTTON of Cohansie for the use of the church that belongeth to Brother Thomas KILLINGWORTH in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand Six Hundred and Ninety.

     This book, for many years in the possession of Andrew SINNICKSON, Esq., of Salem, is now (at the time this was written) in possession of Salem County Historical Society. It is to be regretted, however, that records of the church were not entered therein. The only entries pertaining to the church are in Mr. KILLINGWORTH'S handwriting and are of the purchase of communion wine in 1692 entered on one of the pages, and on three other pages Mr. KILLINGWORTH has entered genealogical records under the title: An account of the ages of the children of the members of the Congregation.

Births Listed

     These births run from 1679 to 1704. All those previous to 1692 were entered in that year, and those of subsequent date were probably entered as they occurred. Those entered in 1692 comprise one child of Thomas and Ann LAMBSON, three of John and Elizabeth LACROY, one of John and Rachel GILLMAN, one of Edward and Mary BUTCHER, one of Thomas and Margaret PAVER, two of John and Elizabeth CHILDE, five of Reyneer VAN HYST, 3the two of James and Hester SHEPPARD aforementioned, one of William and Hester BUTTON, and two of 3 Alexander and Hannah SMITH. Of these, LAMBSON, CHILDE, VAN HYST and BUTTON are recorded as constituent members of the church. John LACROY was settled in Penns Neck as early as 1684. John GILLMAN was in Shrewsbury Neck by 1687, and was probably of the Irish settlers. Edmund BUTCHER resided in Chester County, Penna., and was a constituent member of Brandywine Baptist Church. Alexander SMITH resided in Greenwich in 1685. Of PAVER, nothing is known. The entries made after 1692 comprise one other child of BUTCHER and BUTTON and six other CHILDE; also one child of William and Elizabeth WILLIS, the births of Thomas BALDWIN and his wife, Mary, in England, and six children all born in Chester County, Penna., two children of Richard and Mary LINVELL, and one of Albert and Elizabeth HENDRICKSON. Of these Baptists, Willis lived on Alloways Creek in 1685, and Hendrickson was in Salem County, probably in Penns Neck, by the same year.

     BALDWIN settled in Penns Neck on coming to America, but shortly afterwards, in 1685, removed to Pennsylvania. Linvell was probably also a resident of Chester County, Penna.

The Field Was Wide

     As will be seen, Mr. KILLINGWORTH'S field of labor extended throughout South jersey and into Chester County, Penna., the only other Baptist Church in West Jersey or Pennsylvania in 1690 being the Pennepeck, now Lower Dublin, church, a few miles out of Philadelphia, and Rev. Timothy BROOKS' small church at Bowentown, which afterwards united with this church.

     The adding of these names to the early Baptists of Cumberland and Salem counties gives an enlarged view of the part taken by Baptists in the settling of this part of our state. The first pastor, Mr. KILLINGWORTH, was not only a preacher, but for a number of years was the presiding judge of the Common Pleas court of Salem County, a position of relatively far greater importance in that day than this.

A Flair For Law

     Obadiah HOLMES was an occasional preacher, although not ordained, was a justice of the peace at Greenwich for many years, and was also a colleague of Mr. KILLINGWORTH as one of the Common Pleas judges of Salem County for several years. He was of a legal turn of mind and was the legal business of Greenwich in his time, drawing their deeds, leases, wills and other papers, and was an honored member of the community and of his church.

     Nearly all the others were farmers, of the bone and sinew of the land, owning their own farms and large tracts of other lands, and were among the best citizens of the county.

First Meetinghouse

     The first meetinghouse of the church was built in Shrewsbury Neck on the south side of the Cohansey River, below Green Swamp, and on property lately (as of the time of writing) belonging to William MULFORD, deceased, and known as "The Old Farm" property. It was a log building and was probably not very large. That their first meetinghouse was built at that location is almost conclusive proof that there were more Baptists in Shrewsbury and Back Necks than now known. Of those nine constituent members whose names are given, the pastor lived at Salem and four others lived in Penns Neck beyond Salem, one lived at Greenwich and only three of them lived on the south side of the Cohansey.Of the others aforementioned as being either members or adherents of the cause, one four lived there. Unless there were quite a number of other Baptists there, constituting the main part of the church, it would seem very improbable that the meetinghouse would have been built there.

Another 'Society'

     A company of Welsh Baptists, part of the Rev. John MILES' church, who came from Swansea, Wales, in 1663, and settled at Swansea, Mass., came from there about 1687 and settled about Bowentown on the north side of the Cohansey in Hopewell Township and became a regularly organized church with Rev. Timothy BROOKS as pastor. They built a meetinghouse on the north side of the road from Bridgeton to Bowentown, about 200 or 300 yards beyond the brick Holmes house (west of the Bowentown crossing of the Central Railroad). They differed from the other Baptists regarding predestination, singing of psalms, the laying on of hands, and the like, and also maintained a separate organization until 1710.

Congregations Unite

     After the death of Mr. KILLINGWORTH, through the efforts of Rev. Valentine WIGHTMAN, of Groton, Connecticut, the two churches united on the principle of "bearance and forebearance," and Mr. BROOKS became pastor of the united church. This union decided the selection of a new site for the second meetinghouse of the Cohansey Church.

     Each of the meetinghouses then existing being inconvenient to the other part of the united church, a new site was selected in Lower Hopewell, about half-way between the former two houses and near the Cohansey so those on the south of the river could cross in boats, while those at Bowentown could go to meet them at the new location. Roger MAUL, by deed dated December 28th 1713 gave them the land where now is the old graveyard belonging to the church, about a quarter of a mile of Sheppard's Mill. The graveyard was afterwards enlarged by a deed of gift from Nathan SHEPPARD, dated February 6, 1779, and contains in all about one and one-quarter acres of land.

Second Meetinghouse

     Here their second meetinghouse of frame was erected, probably in 1714, where their services were afterwards held. The place of crossing the Cohansey by those residing on the south side was from what was then known as Sheppard's Landing, and since known as "The Red House Farm" and owned (as of the time of writing) by Thomas B. HUSTED, to a landing on the marsh on the edge of the upland, a little farther up the river on the north side where the remains of the old landing could still be seen a few years ago. This landing was about a mile south of the meetinghouse, and from its use for that purpose for nearly 90 years it became known as "Baptist Landing," a name which has ever since remained. But it has now almost faded away with the disuse and disappearance of the old landing.

A Stove!

     In this second house the church continued to worship during the pastorate of Mr. BROOKS, who died in 1716 in his 55th year and that of his successors, Rev. William BUTCHER, who became pastor in 1721 and died in the service December 12th 1724 aged 27. During the pastorate of his successors, Rev. Nathaniel JENKINS who in 1730 removed to Cohansey from the first Cape May church, the third meetinghouse was built on the same site in 1741. It was a frame one 36 by 32 feet in size and Morgan EDWARDS in 1789 wrote: The house is finished as usual, and is accommodated with a stove, something not usual in that time, the small foot-stoves filled with hot coals, brought by the worshippers, being in that day the only way of counteracting the cold most meetinghouses.

     In this house Mr. JENKINS finished his labors on earth, dying June 2nd, 1754 aged 76. Rev. Robert KELSEY succeeded him in 1756 and spent his life ministering to the people from this pulpit, dying May 30th 1789, aged 78 years. Rev. Henry SMALLEY became pastor in 1790. Just how soon after Mr. SMALLEY became pastor the question of a new meetinghouse began to be agitated is impossible to state, as the minutes of the church meetings previous to November 5th 1796 have been lost for many years. The church had grown in numbers and the old house had become too small, and moreover was in such a dilapidated condition that every one seemed to desire a new house, but they were much divided as to its location.

Membership Was Small

     On November 5th 1796, (the date of the earliest minutes of any business meeting now existing) the church numbered 117 members, 47 males and 70 females, but by January 1st 1801 (the year the new meetinghouse was built) although 15 more had been added to their numbers, yet they were reduced to 94 members of whom only 32 were males and 62 females, having lost by letter 10, and death 24, 5 including some of their leading members. The membership was largely scattered, Shrewsbury and Back Necks, the original home of the church, was almost entirely of Baptists sentiment; in Greenwich were quite a number of members, while in Bridgeton, Stow Creek and the upper part of Hopewell were large detachments, but the largest portion of membership lived around Roadstown, Bowentown and the adjoining parts of Hopewell and Stow Creek.

Greenwich Chosen

     The earliest record shows that on April 2cd 1796 the church decided to build the new house in Greenwich and subscription papers were circulated to raise the necessary money. But efforts to raise the necessary amount do not seem to have succeeded and on October 2nd 1796 all action toward building was put off, but the subscription papers were ordered to be continued.

     Nothing more was done until August 5th 1797, when the church adopted the following: "Taking into consideration the decayed situation of our meetinghouse and what has hitherto been done towards erecting a new one not as yet answered the purpose - Resolved, that the church and congregation be invited to meet at this house on the last Saturday in this month at 1 o'clock p.m. to consult and adopt such measures as shall be thought expedient." Of this meeting, on August 26th, is recorded.

List was Lost

     The minute of the second of April 1796, and that of October the second afterward, being read, which directed that the subscription which was out to obtain money for building a new meetinghouse at Greenwich should be continued, the subscription was called for which was said to be lost or mislaid. Wherefore resolved that our clerk draw a new one agreeable to the former one, and delivered to such person who will receive it to be returned on the last Friday in September next.

     On that day, it being the time of the county court, very few attended and the matter was adjourned until October 14th. Of that meeting the minutes say: Also the subscription for raising money to build a new place of worship was brought forward and was found insufficient to proceed any further thereon; therefor the method which we have been trying was laid aside, the minds of the people not being united therein. Our next day of church meeting was appointed to make a further trial to find some mode to unite in the raising money and in the choice of a lot to build upon.

Convenience a Factor

     It is to be supposed that the members on the south side of the Cohansey were with the Greenwich people in favor of that place, because of the short distance they would have to travel after crossing the river in boats, while most of the others were favorable to a location at Roadstown or its vicinity.

     The next meeting, November 4th records: “Taking into consideration the subject of a new place of worship and find the diversity of opinions still subsisting, a variety of conversation was had on the occasion, meeting was dismissed without further order being made.

     Throughout the whole business appears the intention not to force the matter in the interest of any part of the field, but to wait until the Lord should unite the minds of the people. But the need of a new house was great, and the minds of the people were rapidly settling upon the noble location where the building now stands, and their minds crystallized on February 3rd, 1798, in the following: "On Consideration had and motion made, resolved that a subscription be opened to obtain a sufficient sum of money to purchase a lot of land of Thomas SHEPPARD situate nearly opposite the schoolhouse at Roadstown in the township of Hopewell and to build a new meetinghouse thereon, and that our clerk draw a subscription for that purpose payable at four equal payments at such time as he shall think will best answer the purpose for which it is designed." 6 Title Delayed A note at the bottom signed by the church clerk, Isaac WHEATON, says: "A subscription was drew agreeable to the above resolution and a number of subscribers entered on the same, but by reason of death of Thomas SHEPPARD a title could not be obtained, therefore the above resolution rests without further proceedings therein."

     Thomas SHEPPARD, the owner, died May 1798. Nothing further was done until May 4th, 1799, when a resolution was passed reciting that of February 3rd, 1798, and the stopping of all proceedings under it, and now appointing a committee to find out the land could be had and a title obtained. This committee reported favorably on July 6th, 1799 and the trustees were ordered to purchase the lot. August 13th, 1799, a general meeting of the church and congregation was held and David GILLMAN and Isaac WHEATON were appointed a committee to complete the contract for the lot, and Uriah BACON, David SHEPPARD, Isaac MULFORD and Jonathan BOWEN, Esq. were appointed a committee to obtain subscriptions to pay for the lot and build a house of worship, to be payable in Four parts, on November 1st, 1799, May 1st and October 1st, 1800 and April 1st, 1801.

Elwells Deeded Ground

     The next day an agreement was made with Samuel ELWELL and wife Rachel for three acres of ground, which was consummated December 16th, 1799, by a deed from said parties for the lot, 20 perches front along the road and 25 perches deep for the sum of $120.00.

     On August 24th the committee reported subscriptions amounting to 741 pounds (equal to $1976.00) "which was adjudged a sum sufficient for laying the foundation, - Resolved, that David GILLMAN, Uriah BACON and Isaac WHEATON be appointed managers to superintend the making of bricks and purchasing other materials for building." On August 31st, Uriah BACON was appointed treasurer of the funds collected for making the bricks. The number of bricks needed was estimated at 146,000 and their cost of $4.00 per thousand.

Ayars the Brick-Makers

     They were made about 50 rods southeast of where the meetinghouse stands on land now (as of this writing) belonging to Edward MULFORD; quite a hollow in the ground and large numbers of pieces of bricks turned over at every plowing marking the spot even until the present day. One kiln of 68,000 bricks moulded by John AYARS and burnt by him and his brother Levi AYARS, was made and burnt before the year was out, costing $305.96. On January 4th, 1800, a committee was appointed to settled with the managers for making the kiln of brick, and to report what was most advisable to be done during the ensuing season. They reported their settlement February 1st and recommended that "the ensuing season" ought to be taken up in providing materials for building the house and not to put up the walls until the year after, which report was adopted.

Still More Delay

     But there were still those among them dissatisfied with the location of the new house, and such a state of feeling was aroused that the church on March 1st,1800, resolved: Whereas there has arose a dissatisfaction in the minds of some of the Brethren, and some others of the subscribers towards building a new meetinghouse respecting the situation of the lot of land we have purchased and purpose to build upon, alleging, although that place has been appointed and chosen, the majority of the subscribers would wish to build at another place, and further that they have been disappointed in their expectations in regard to assistance expected at that place, and in regard to the erecting the building, and uniting the minds of the Society at large, which was the only inducement to making that place their choice, - the church taking the complaints under consideration, appoint Saturday, the 8th instant for the church and congregation to meet at this place and have a conference on the subject, and make such order therein as shall be adjudged most advisable.

On that day

     The church and congregation met agreeable to appointment, -- taking into consideration the business of the day and there not appearing a sufficient number of subscribers in support of a removal from the place chosen to justify any alteration, therefore resolved that David Gillman, Isaac Wheaton and Eldad Cook be appointed managers to purchase and prepare materials for building agreeable to the advice of our committee in report on 1st of February, last.

     That decision ended all opposition. Having had repeated chances of urging the selection of their choice for the location of the new building, the minority, with a truly Christian spirit, henceforth united with the majority in the arduous task of erecting the new house at Roadstown. Another Kiln of brick was made and burned at a cost of $468.60 and lumber, stone, and other materials were purchased this year.


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