The beginning of the First Congregational Church of Chester, NJ
John Swasey and William King originally came to this country from England and settled in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1630s. There are many records in Salem to prove this, such as ship records, court records and church records. They both upheld strong religious beliefs and they came to America so that they could worship God the way they thought was right for themselves and their families.
By 1658, John Swasey had left Salem for Southold, Long Island and William King stayed and eventually died in Salem. Some of King’s descendants did travel to Southold along with Swasey. Twelve years prior, in October 1640, the Reverend John Youngs formed a Congregational Church in New Haven, Connecticut and together with 13 other men sailed to the eastern tip of Long Island. These families intermarried with the Swasey and King families.
These migrants were of the Puritan faith and there were two schools of thought among the Puritans. One group preferred a church organization of councils (Presbyterian) and the other preferred a federation of independent churches (Congregational). The Kings and the Swaseys were Quakers, but got along well with their neighbors and records show that on April 14, 1655, John Swasey and five others purchased Brookhaven from the Setalcott Indians.
The early comers to the Black River-Mendham area were highly religious. Those from Southold were strong Congregationalists, though the Southold church is, and was from the beginning, Presbyterian. It has been called the earliest Presbyterian Church in America. At first it was attended by everyone, but after a time a group broke away and organized a Congregational church in nearby Orient. The particular Southold families who immigrated to Black River were Congregationalists. Those from the Hamptons were strong Presbyterians.
Before 1750, some of these eastern Long Island families were beginning to feel pressures of religious intolerance again. These strong, godly, independent and liberty-loving people had held fast to their ideals, in spite of adverse forces from within and outside their communities. They heard of fine lands in New Jersey, where there was a great concentration of kindred souls. Soon plans for another migration were under way. Constant King and Samuel Swayze, with their large families, headed west.
Arrival of Early Settlers to Black River
Early accounts tell of settlers coming to the Black River (Chester) area as far back as 1680. They were trappers and fur traders mostly. These new settlers purchased the land for fifty cents an acre from Lord John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret, who had been named Proprietors of New Jersey by the Duke of York. One of these men was John Wills, who in 1713 received a deed for a tract of 862 acres in Roxiticus (Indian word meaning “meeting place”) and now called Ralston. This area was along an old Indian path and what was later to become known as the Washington Turnpike.
There was extensive manufacturing in the Ralston area, where John Logan built the first gristmill in 1732. There were other gristmills built, plus a saw mill, blacksmith, wheelwright shop and a glass factory. Homes were being built and also the first “meeting house,” as the earlier churches were called, was built in this area sometime between 1729 and 1736.
This primitive log church was established on the north side of the road, along the sharp corner on the hill sweeping down into Ralston. Called “God’s Barn” because of no lighting or heating, it initially had no established minister, but the settlers came here to worship their God. This Meeting House was a plain log house with two windows on the sides, shuttered but without glass, no steeple, no belfry and no heat. Around the Meeting House was a graveyard twenty five yards square and crowded with graves. Headstones were unknown and unlettered.
In 1740, during the great religious revival period known as the “Great Awakening,” members of this church were known to have been part of the three thousand people that met in a barn in Basking Ridge to listen to the preaching of the well-known George Whitfield.
In 1743, the Roxiticus meeting house people called Eliab Byram as their minister providing him with land to farm. But two years later, as the population increased and the different groups were missing their own form of worship, it seemed best to divide the congregation. So in 1745, a new meeting house was built closer to the Black Horse Inn for the Mendham worshippers (Presbyterian) and Eliab Byram remained the pastor of the Mendham church until 1753.
In 1747, further separation took place when the Chester people split into two groups. One group stayed with the Mendham Presbyterians and the other called Samuel Sweezy, Jr. to be their first minister of the Congregational Church of Chester.
These Congregationalists, content to have their own form of worship back again, found themselves able to erect a new meetinghouse. It was a commodious house of worship, with pews and galleries to seat 400. It had a high pulpit, unpainted wooden walls, seats with no cushions, and no heat. The furnishings of the old church at Roxiticus were given to this newly formed church and it was used for a house of worship until 1803. Hymns were sung from memory or, because few could read at that time, the leader spoke a line or two, which the congregation sang back. This was called lining out the hymns.
The first site of the church was described as across Hillside Road from the cemetery, and we think that it most likely stood very close to where the road is now. Rev. Samuel Swayze, Jr. was the first pastor of this church and was installed in 1753. The list of names of deacons includes those of Samuel Sweazy, Caleb Horton, Samuel Coleman, Caleb Sweazy, Manassah Reeve, Nathaniel Horton, Barnibas Horton, Samuel Briant, Silas Reeve, Henry Burnet, Isaac Corwin, Jacob Briant, Isaiah Fairclo, and Israel Howell. Some of these worthies sleep beneath the crumbling brown stones in the adjoining church yard, but the good old Anglo-Saxon names go on in Chester to this day.
About the time of the building of this first church, the excitement which caused the separation in the Congregational Churches of Connecticut and Long Island reached this settlement, and a majority of the inhabitants became “Separates,” as they were then called. Rev. Swayze labored with the church for twenty years and then organized a colony, largely from his congregation, and located near Natchez, Mississippi. Soon after arriving in their wilderness home they were regularly organized into a Congregational Church and Mr. Swayze took its pastorate. Of this, Reverend F. A. Johnson writes, “He was beyond doubt the first Protestant minister that ever settled in what is now the state of Mississippi, and his church was the first Protestant Church ever organized there. Therefore the Chester Church may be said to be the Mother of Protestantism and Congregationalism in the great Southeast.”
Soon after the close of the pastorate of the Rev. Samuel Sweazy at the Black River church, the war of the Revolution began. The years 1777-78 were stirring times in New Jersey. Chester was off the line of conflict, and yet must have been a source of supply for the patriot army while encamped at Morristown. During these years worship was suspended and the Congregational Meeting house was used as a hospital for wounded and disabled soldiers and there are a number of soldiers buried in unmarked graves in the cemetery.
To be continued…..
1640 – Rev. John Youngs, who had been a Minister in Hingham, England, came to New Haven, Conn. with a group from his church. They had fled England because of the “tyranny and oppression, and sought asylum or the enjoyment of religious freedom.” From New Haven they moved to Southold, Long Island, NY.
1714 – a group from the Southold Church moved into this area, and set about establishing a Church here.
1740 – Church organized
1747 – First House of Worship was erected.
1773 First Pastor, Rev. Samuel Swayze left Chester in the spring and settled in the wilderness in what is now the State of Mississippi.
1803 – Second House of Worship erected.
1856 – Third (and present) House of Worship erected.
1873 – Organ Installed.
1909 – The horse sheds were built behind the Sanctuary in 1909. In the 1950s and 60s, these sheds were used during the annual fairs for games and booths.
1935 – July 3rd – The Rev. Basil L. Johnson accepted the call to the pastorate of the Church and will begin his duties at once.
1935 (Fall) – A corner cupboard has been built by Mr. A. Snedaker under the balcony in the northwest corner of the Church. Its purpose was to contain valuable antiques, records, etc. Cost is $50.00. The choir loft was also enlarged and repairs made wherever necessary in the Church auditorium. A better lighting system was installed. Pews were grained and refinished.
1936 (Jan. 17th) – Contract for the redecorating of the Church was given to Mr. Daniel McDonald for $1420 as per specifications and he engaged Carl Hoegger of Morristown to paint the walls. The Church was soon closed and the work was begun. This was in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of the Church’s founding.
1936 (May 31st) – rededication service was held and Dr. D. Diefendorf of Drew University made the address.
1938 (April 8th) – The new Pilgrim Hymnals were put into use by Pastor Rev. Basil L. Johnson.
1940 (Sept. 15 – 22) – Church’s 200th Anniversary Celebration
1943 (November) – The Book of Remembrance was presented to the Church by Miss Sara Stone. The table which holds the book was given by the Fritts family.
1946 (May 9) – The Trustees were empowered to buy the Cyphers’ property adjoining the church for a parsonage ($11,000) and sell the old parsonage on Main Street ($12,000). Rev. Zezzo and his family took possession of the new parsonage August 15th, 1946.
1953 (Palm Sunday) – A brass cross and candlesticks were dedicated in memory of Miss Carrie Fritts who had served as clerk for 20 years and Treasurer for 17 years.
1957 (Spring) – The Odell Organ was restored to “first class shape” for the amount of $2,000. This organ is the second oldest in the country built by O’Dell Co.
1858 – A strip of land 66’ X 445’ adjacent to the Parsonage and behind the Chester House was purchased for a new facility.
1961 (March 27) – A congregational meeting was called to discuss the pros and cons of the constitution and the merger of our church with the United Church of Christ. On a meeting in May a vote was taken and merger passed 36-6.
1963 (Sept. 8) – The new Christian Education Building, built by Lee Case was dedicated and the new minister, Dr. Cutler was welcomed.
1964 (March 8) – The Christian Education Building was officially named “Hillside Center” and the large room “Pilgrim Hall.”
1971 (Oct. 24) – A decision was made to withdraw from the United Church of Christ and with that lost Rev. Leroy Hastings and 26 members of the church.
1973 – Rather than paint the church, it was decided to have aluminum siding installed at three times the cost ($7600).
1976 – The “Good News” monthly church newsletters began in March and the new missions program of 25% of offerings was put into place.
1977 – The Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
1979 – Chapel renovation completed, such as new floors, insulation, lavatories and windows installed, new porch, reconstructed doors and a new plumbing and heating systems installed.
We have the honor and distinction of being the oldest Congregation Church, West of the Hudson River. In 1740, the church’s records relate, Rev. Samuel Sweezy, with several members of the congregation, left the Chester congregation, having served them for 20 years, and founded the first Protestant Church in what is now Mississippi. Thus, the Church claims the title of “Mother of Protestantism and congregationalism in the great Southwest.
The chandelier, given to the congregation by members of a sister church in Newark at the time the building was erected at a cost of $5,000, still sheds light on Sunday worshippers today.
The Trompe l’oeil painting, a series of 12 columns marching back through the scene in perspective and said to represent the 12 disciple or pillars or the church.
We have had many, many Ministers during our history. One Minister only stayed for 27 hours! And one minister, who stayed for only 4 years, received 220 members into the congregation!