Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Setting the Suburbs Aflame: West Milford, the Story of a Suburb, Ch. 7

Setting the Suburbs Aflame: West Milford, the Story of a Suburb, Ch. 7

Before the Milfordites could gain their freedom, they had to find their souls. If you’re a Glenn Beck fan, you’ve heard him mention the Rev. George Whitefield and “The Great Awakening.”

They had found their freedom, but had scattered themselves across northern New Jersey’s hills and valleys. The heart of Newark - the Milford of which they'd dreamt - was the church, the meeting house. Few villages had enough residents to build a church and hire a preacher. They depended upon itinerant preachers to hold open-air meetings. What’s more, the college most likely to produce the Presbyterian ministers they required was in (relatively) far-off Yale, Conn.

John Cunningham notes, “Late in 17366, a 20 year-old minister named Aaron Burr rode out of the Morris County wilds of Hanover for a preaching engagement at Newark’s First Church. He had none of the look of the leader. His thin, fair cheeks bore little more than fuzz and his dark eyes were soft rather than commanding. His short, slender figure scarcely attracted attention – but here was a man for his times.

“Youngest of six sons in a Fairfield, Conn., family, young Burr went through Yale College, with academic distinction, graduating in 1735 at the age of 19. During the summer of 1736, a religious revival in New Haven made God ‘open my eyes.’ He was granted a preaching license that September and soon after came to New Jersey to preach in Hanover’s village church.

“The First Church congregation, split by the troubles with the Episcopalians, heard of the pulpit eloquence of young Burr, and shortly before Christmas 1736, asked him to preach in Newark, on trial. Mr. Burr revealed serious doubts about the engagement in his journal:

‘***there was scarcely any probability that I should suit the circumstances, being young in standing and trials. I accepted the invitation with a reserve that I did not come with any views of settling.’

“Mr. Burr’s preaching skill and shining intellect made church elders forget his lack of years. They installed him as permanent minister on Jan. 25, 1737, just 21 days after his 21st birthday.

“Sweeping through the Middle Atlantic colonies at that time was a religious fire that has been called ‘The Great Awakening.’ Itinerant evangelists rode through the Colonies, fervently beseeching audiences to seek God. It was not enough to attend church, they warned; to win salvation, man must commit himself without reservation. He must sense a deep personal experience with God. The ‘Awakening’ divided Presbyterians into the so-called ‘New Lights’ who supported such evangelism and the ‘Old Lights’ who were in opposition.

“Presbyterian New Lights rallied behind the Rev. George Whitefield, a remarkable English missionary who traveled through the Colonies in 1740, setting town after town aflame with his zeal and his skill in exciting throngs of people. Many people dated their ‘birth’ to the day that Mr. Whitefield sent the thrill of fervent religious feeling through their minds.

“Mr. Whitefield journeyed from Staten Island to Newark in November 1740 to preach in Mr. Burr’s church. The English missionary struck solidly, recalling in his diary that ‘the Word fell like a hammer and like fire! What a weeping was there! One poor creature in particular was ready to sink into the earth.’ The ordeal so exhausted Mr. Whitefield that he took to bed.

“Newark and Elizabethtown became two main stops on the crusaders’ road, and Mr. Burr bluntly refused a sinner ‘the peace of God until the rebel laid down his arms, and returned to allegiance. The Newark minister and his Elizabethtown counterpart, the Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, supported a growing demand for a college in the Middle Atlantic colonies to prepare Presbyterian ministers for service in America and to promote the evangelical cause. Harvard and Yale, both distant from New Jersey by Colonial travel standards, were also opposed to the radical evangelical spirit manifested by Whitefield and others. Neither could please the New Lights. Mr. Burr and Mr. Dickinson needed a cause on which to pinpoint their efforts.

“The opportunity came when the Puritanical Old Light administration of Yale College decided to make an example of David Brainerd, a third-year student and brother of John, a missionary among New Jersey Indians. David remarked to a classmate that a certain instructor ‘had no more grace than a chair.’ An eavesdropper reported the indiscretion and when it was learned that evangelical-minded Brainerd also occasionally attended services at a church of different faith, the faculty expelled him.

“Such drastic punishment scarcely fit Brainerd’s minor crime, but it gave the New Lights a hero. After leaving Yale to serve as a missionary among the Indians along the Delaware River, he came to Newark on June 12, 1744, to be ordained in a ceremony impressive far beyond that usually accorded a new minister.

“Three of Brainerd’s most outspoken admirers were Mr. Burr, Mr. Dickinson, and the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, the famed Massachusetts preacher. The incident at Y ale College reinforced the resolve that a new American college must be founded to train ministers in evangelical Presbyterianism. The College of New Jersey was the result.

“Governor John Hamilton granted the College of New Jersey its charter on Oct. 22, 1746, and classes began in Mr. Dickinson’s Elizabethtown parlor the following Ma. Mr. Burr invited the eight college students to Newark to finish the year. He found rooms for them in nearby homes and strove to set the bereft college on a firm footing. Mr. Burr divided his time between the church, a private school that he had started in 1746, and college classes in the court room above the county jail on Broad Street.

“A second college class entered in May, 1748, after passing examinations that called on them ‘to render Virgil and Tully’s orations into English, turn English into true and grammatical Latin, to be so well acquainted with the Greek as to render any part of the four Evangelists in that language into Latin or English and to give the grammatical connexion of the words.’

One of the first six graduates of the College of New Jersey was Richard Stockton, the son of a distinguished Princeton family. He became a lawyer and one of New Jersey’s five signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Burr would eventually come to the conclusion that the college could not remain in Newark. The reasons are unclear. The trustees wanted a location nearer to Philadelphia. Burr felt a more central location was in order, and by the second commencement, the college was moved to New Brunswick, on the banks of the Raritan River. In 1750, the college trustees, led by the New Light leaders, named their price for relocating (or not): a bond of 1,000 pounds, ten acres of cleared ground and 200 acres of woodland. According to Mr. Cunningham, “Newark did not respond at all and New Brunswick offended the trustees by dallying – for the site on the Raritan was their first choice. Princeton met the conditions in 1753.” In 1766, Queens College opened in New Brunswick on the banks of the Raritan, later to become Rutgers University.

As for Newark, eventually Seton Hall University, a private college, would open there. When Newark tried to lure the University of Medicine and Dentistry to locate in the city, thinking it would be fantastic to have an educational hospital in their midst that could help their most impoverished residents. Only Newark didn’t have the room. So it made the room by tearing down blocks of its poorest ward, leaving thousands homeless and instigating a nearly week-long riot in the summer of 1967.

Now Regionalists are trying to lure suburbanites into becoming part of Newark again. They intend to absorb all the suburbs that have fled from its clutches for the last 300 years and turn them into mini-Newarks, worshipping at the altar of government. What we will get are mini-Hewitt, points on the map with cardboard houses, no civil authority to govern themselves, and an empty church with a locked door telling us to keep out. Not one stone will be left upon another, as you can observe at Hewitt’s former post office.

We must embark on a new “Great Awakening” and find our souls before the Regionalists do.


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