Less than 50 years after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth and 20 years before Philadelphia was settled by the Quakers, a small group of men signed a treaty with the native Indians on October 28, 1664 and established Elizabeth Town. They built a Meeting House in which to gather for public affairs on weekdays and worship on Sundays. The first Colonial Assembly met in that building on May 26, 1668. It was the first and only English speaking congregation for many years in what is now New Jersey. Three and a half centuries later, this church, parish house, and burial ground still occupy that site; a witness to the faith and our continuing commitment in the heart of the city. First Presbyterian has a unique and significant place in the development of the city, state, and new nation.
Those original members built a town in the wilderness that became the first capital of the state. They formed a government, served as mayors, judges, and members of the Provincial and New Jersey Assemblies, which met here. Three were governors. They represented the state in both houses of the U.S. Congress. One, Abraham Clark, risked his life by signing the Declaration of Independence. Another was the famous ‘Fighting Parson’ during the revolution, James Caldwell. He and several hundred members who served in that war -from privates to generals- are now resting in the graveyard next to the church they built.
The original meeting house (1664-65) was enlarged several times and burned by the British on January 28, 1780. They also burned Pastor Caldwell’s manse and the Academy, the site of the parish house (now the Elizabethtown Academy) today.
Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, pastor from 1709 to 1747, was a seminal influence on higher education and theology. He was a prolific author and recognized scholar who conducted classic studies in the manse. In 1746 he received a royal charter and established The College of New Jersey. After his death it moved and became Princeton University. He is considered one of the two theologians who most influenced Protestantism in the 18th century. The other was Jonathan Edwards, who often preached here, as did the famous evangelist of the Great Awakening, George Whitefield.
In addition to the theological contribution of Dickinson, and the political leadership of many of its early members, the church attracted strong pastors. Several had prominent roles in the denomination, heading national and foreign mission agencies. Two were moderators of the General Assembly. Lawyer and financier, Elias Boudinot, was elected the first president of the General Assembly Corporation which he helped establish.
First Church remains a commanding physical presence. Its 220 ft. spire with the town clock dominated the skyline. Its bell called the Colonial militia to arms on the Common beside the church. The steeple of today was dedicated in 2008, replacing one destroyed by fire in 1946, still sounding the hour and commemorating important events. The church left its mark on the city in other ways. Five streets are named after its clergy, and eleven for prominent members. Today, the buildings and graveyard are reminders that our history is literally in sight and underfoot.
We revere the past, the thousands who have gone before us, and treasure our rich heritage, but we do not worship it. We are pledged to preserve it, and just as determined to serve the human needs all around us as our forebears did.
Today this 1916 building houses the church offices, and is the center of our urban ministry. Over 12,000 meals are served to the hungry and homeless every year. We endeavor to help people at our doorstep in a variety of ways. For ten years that has included the Red Ribbon Fellowship, a healing ministry for those infected and affected by HIV and Aids, through counseling, testing, and worship. New immigrants to the area (now over 50% Latino) are welcomed, with services in both Spanish and English.
We invite you to help us Preserve and Serve, by becoming a “Friend of First.” Contributions and volunteers are welcome. Please make your check payable to First Presbyterian Church and send it to the address below. We’re located right next to the courthouse.
To download a brochure (legal size) of this information, please click OldFirstbro.pdf.
To purchase a book about the first three hundred years of First Presbyterian Church, entitled “Church of the Founders of New Jersey”, available through CreateSpace.