By John Burton
MIDDLETOWN – Imagine what life was like 325 years ago in the area that is now Middletown.
It’s a wilderness with a few small pockets of settlers, looking to carve out a life in the New Word. In that frontier setting there is a communal center to the area, the church. It’s a church that still exists today, continuing its mission to offer spiritual and community support.
Old First Church, 69 Kings Highway, is celebrating its 325th anniversary Sunday, Oct. 6, with programs, including costumed tours of the historic site, a morning worship service with the church’s pastor, the Rev. Joyce A. Phipps, and a 7 p.m. candlelit community concert of music by early American composers. The musical program will be performed by Glenn May from the Monmouth County Historical Association, who will be wearing 18th-century dress and playing the church’s 700-pipe Fritszche organ.
The program also will offer some historical notes about the lives of early county residents.
A point of pride for the church is its long history of patriotic fervor shown by its members. That is especially true of some of its earliest congregants, including clergy members, who were quick to support the call of liberty and revolution in the 18th century, said Elaine Lent, the church’s moderator – the lay leader – who also serves as the church historian.
In honor of the church’s participation in the nation’s history, members have placed 400 small American flags around the church buildings and along the outline of its 150-plot cemetery, which contains the graves of some of its original members.
Founded in 1688, it was the first church and meeting house in the Middletown area, though personal diaries and records show worshippers had met in each other’s homes as early as 1668, according to Lent.
The founders were early settlers arriving here from Massachusetts and what is now the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, N.Y. They landed in the area of what is now Atlantic Highlands and made their way inland.
Like many of those who traveled to the Colonies, the earliest church members were seeking freedom from the religious intolerance they found elsewhere. The Baptist sect was relatively new at that time. “So new that there was a number of schisms,” within, Lent said. Being new and often misunderstood, the church was dismissed or derided by other denominations. One of the church’s early clergy members, Obadiah Holmes, was horsewhipped in Boston for his beliefs, Lent said.
Even though it is a Baptist denomination, the church attracted those of other faiths, including Episcopalian and Quakers.
“It was what I would say were a bunch of free thinkers,” who saw the church’s mission as one dedicated to freedom of conscious, soul liberty and respect for diversity, beliefs that still hold true today, Lent said.
By the time of Revolutionary War, the church had become known as the “Patriot Church” under its pastor, Abel Morgan, who served there until his death in 1785. Morgan was “a very charismatic, intelligent minster,” known for his debating skills, having traveled as far away as Oyster Bay, Long Island, and Staten Island, N.Y., to preach.
“He took this very divided congregation and united it,” Lent said.
Morgan’s writings show he was an early supporter of the Colonists, looking to break away from England, Lent said.
There was certainly a division between the British and the Anglican Church and the relatively upstart Baptist denomination with Anglicans and their Tory supporters having little regard for other faiths, she said.
Joseph Murray, a church member, who owned a Middletown farm, was killed fighting the British in 1780, and is buried in the church’s graveyard.
Around the time of the Battle of Monmouth in Freehold in June 1778, British troops took control of the church, using it either as a field hospital or to house soldiers, according to Lent, who said the information on that is somewhat vague.
Morgan was unable to preach there, his services relegated to his farm’s barn, located about a mile away.
Following that period “the church just grew like mad,” with its congregation swelling to its high point of about 500 members in the late 1880s, Lent said.
Since then, the church has seen some of its members leave and start other Baptist churches in the area, including in Matawan, Holmdel and Atlantic Highlands. About 14 area churches were formed directly from Old First Church, Lent said.
The church that sits at the Kings Highway location is the congregation’s third. The first burned down in 1734 and was rebuilt immediately. The existing structure was built in 1832 by members who volunteer their time, funds, lumber and equipment for the task.
Over the years there have been expansions and renovations, including moving the former Middletown Women’s Christian Temperance Union Hall to the property in 1921, where it is still used as a social hall.
After all these years, Old First Church continues to be a center of community involvement and a source of spiritual guidance for its congregants, Lent said.
In the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy last October, Old First Church, like a great many houses of worship, remained open and available, allowing the public to come and use the gas-operated stoves to cook meals, and its hot water to wash clothes and themselves when so many were without power for so long.
“Churches are some of the few places to handle things like that, because of their size,” making them oftentimes ideal community focal points, Lent said.
This summer the church hosted 39 youth and disaster assistance workers from Upstate New York who spent time in Monmouth County working to restore homes for families still recovering from Sandy’s effects.
That’s a role the church has always played and continues to take pride in, Lent noted.
“As a community church it is dedicated to community efforts,” and continues to host organizations, conduct its own programs and work with the efforts of other community groups.
Old First Church now has a diverse membership of about 40 to 50 families. “We have people from all over Monmouth County,” who attend services and participate in programs, said Peter Ahern, chairman of the board of trustees.
But some things don’t change with time.
“Community was always the heart of this church,” Lent said. “It still is.”