History of the Church
The Beginning Years 1836 - 1886
It is just a 5"x 8" piece of paper. On it, though, is the request dated May 17, 1836 "to organize a Reformed Dutch Church in this village" in Middletown. The petition was presented to the Classis of New Brunswick by the Rev. Jacob Ten Broeck Beekman, and it was signed by 44 members of the church then known as the Reformed Dutch Church in what is now Holmdel. They also presented a communication from the consistory and the great consistory of the Holmdel Church showing that six of the members voted in favor of the application, three were opposed and one was indifferent (abstained). All of the greater consistory were in favor expect two who opposed and one who abstained.
Mr. Beekman had served as pastor of the Holmdel Church from 1825 to 1836, and when the parishioners wanted to have their one place of worship, Rev. Beekman agreed to serve as their minister. Events moved swiftly that year for the congregation. The idea of beginning a new church was first mentioned on February 15, 1836. Plans were made at that meeting as to the shape and size of the building. It was to be forty by fifty-seven feet with a cupola suitable for a bell and the tops of the pews were to be capped with mahogany. The cupola was replaced with a wooden steeple in 1856. The cost of the building was $2,500. By December 9, the new congregation was able to worship in their new building. There is a model of our original church in the Monmouth County Historical Museum in Freehold.
Mr. Beekman supplied the church for three years, from 1836 to 1839, without salary and contributed generously toward its upkeep. He especially appreciated the contributions the women made toward the maintenance of the new building and with wit and warmth proclaimed that "one woman was worth thirteen and a half men.”
The first regular pastor was the Rev. John B. Crawford who graduated from New Brunswick Seminary in 1839. He was installed in January of the following year but died nine months later at the age of twenty-six. A tablet on the wall of the sanctuary commemorates his untimely death.
The next pastor was the Rev. Alexander C. Millspaugh who served the longest of the Middletown Reformed Church clergymen. His pastorate covered the twenty-four years from 1841 to 1865. Until 1859, there were three elders and three deacons on the consistory. At that time it was voted to increase the number to four each, although the minutes from 1874 to 1886 show only two elders and two deacons on the consistory.
This was a difficult time financially for the church. During the first five years, Millspaugh records that $1,400 was paid to liquidate debts, of which "it seemed at times there would be no end. But in 1847, all debts were paid, our house repainted and repaired and our bell procured." Of the bell he says, "It is especially grateful to us to remember the generous donation of the bell by Mr. Garrett Ban Doren, whose pleasant tones have so long and so earnestly reminded us to out duty, and invited us to the house of prayer." Concerning the debt he says, "Of this $1,400, $800 was paid by the untiring and unremitting efforts of the ladies of this church and congregation." There is nothing written in the consistory minutes about the tragic and terrible event, the Civil War. However, Ernest Mandville, in his "History of Middletown," begins a chapter with these two significant statements: Middletown sent more commissioned officers to the colors in the War that any other community of its size in the country. On the other hand, it was the scene of one of the largest "peace meetings," allegedly traitorous to the Union, in the Northern States.
The "Peace Meeting" was held August 29, 1862. Most northerners wanted peace above all else. As far as they were concerned the southern states could secede if they wanted. They had had enough of this disastrous Civil War. So a meeting of like-minded people was called; men and women came to the little village of Middletown from throughout the northeast. On the scheduled day five thousand armed men assemble in the center of town to make sure it never took place. One of the main speakers was an author named Thomas Dunn who was actually forced to flee for his life. A band had been hired for the occasion, but they were too terrified to appear in public and spent their time hiding behind closed blinds and playing muted instruments.
So, when the Rev. George Siebert became pastor of the Middletown Reformed Church in 1866, tensions and tempers were still very much present. The president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, had been assassinated just the year before.
Mr. Seibert wrote on March 7 of 1873, "During the six years and nine months of my pastorate, twenty members were received into communion, seven were dismissed and seven died. $9,461.55 was raised for congregational purposes and $561.54 for benevolent projects. We reported fifty-three families, sixty-nine communicants and fifty children in the sabbath school." In 1886, Mr. Seibert was one of the guest speakers at the 50th Anniversary Jubilee. He said, "I came here and found the teapot at boiling heat. The people were curious to know what I might be politically, and consequently watched me closely. I can never forget the Thanksgiving service in the fall of 1866, which was my first as I came in June of that year. The church was full of people, all inquisitive to hear what would be said, and more eager to find out my party affiliations than to learn the lessons of the occasion. Well the upshot of that was that, just as the service closed, one of the most radical Republicans in the congregation came to me and taking my hand said ‘Dominie, let me congratulate you. You did give it to them this time.’ Scarcely had he left when a radical (Democrat) of the other side stepped up and said, ‘That's the talk I am glad you have the courage to speak your conviction. You gave them a nut to crack this morning.’ He went on to say, "The first year of my pastorate was occupied in healing wounds, reconciling differences, which owing to the good judgment as well as the good nature of the people proved successful and having won the confidence and good will of my congregation, they were disposed to make all allowances for my mistakes and peculiarities. Much of what they did, however, was largely due to the blessed influence of honorable women. God bless them. The success of our efforts was largely due to their steadfast faith, cheerful courage, and helpful hands. Not a step was taken, without first consulting them, not a thing accomplished, without the labor of their hands."
Mr. Seibert accepted a call to become the stated supply minister at Havana, Illinois and was succeeded by the Rev. Luther Van Doren of Montville, N.J. in 1873. He would accept the call to Middletown, "if they would build and provide a comfortable parsonage near the church." His salary was eight hundred dollars, paid quarterly, with the use of the parsonage and four or five weeks vacation. The land, purchased from Azariah Conover, was directly across the street from the sanctuary and the parsonage was erected for a total cost of $5,652.50 for the building and grounds. Mr. Van Doren was sixty-two years old when he accepted the call. He lived only three more years. At his death in 1876, the consistory resolved "not to hear any candidates at present, also that the church remain draped in mourning at least thirty days."
On March 21, 1877, the Rev. Charles D. Buck accepted the call to become the fifth installed pastor. Mr. Buck was a great keeper of records and anecdotes, and the consistory minutes are filled with details and interesting stories.
During this ministry, Mrs. Eleanor D. Hendrickson bequeathed one thousand dollars to the church. This enabled the parsonage debt to be paid off and, as stipulated in the will, enabled some to be given toward the minister's salary.
It was in 1881 that it was decided to change from the old system of collecting pew rents to the modern method of using offering envelopes. This was deemed a more successful way of raising funds for the church and a growing practice in other churches.
In 1883-84, the year-end report contained this unusual account: “a year of more than uniform prosperity. The church has been revived; though not to the extent that might have been. The prince of power of the air withstood us one and forty days with rains and snows, and mud and fogs, also with gales of winds; but out of the meetings appointed extra, we succeeded in holding about one half.”
In 1873, the Legislature of New Jersey passed a special act exempting parsonages from taxation. It was not until 1891 that we realized our church had been paying taxes needlessly for eighteen years!
The Middle Years 1886-1936
During Rev. Buck's ministry, the church celebrated its Fiftieth Anniversary. He continued to be pastor here until his sudden death in 1893.
The Rev. Peter K Hageman became pastor in 1894 and served until 1902. On May 13, 1895, the consistory accepted a contract from R. Midmer and Sons for a two-manual pipe organ at a cost of not more than $1,150.
In 1896 and early 1899, extensive improvements were made in the church. It was then that the circular pews and the stained glass windows were installed. Also, the entrance of the church was extended twelve feet, new carpet was installed and a recess was built in back of the pulpit to house the pipe organ. Cost was $3,000 and the church was closed for five months while these repairs were made.
The January 19, 1899 issue of the local newspaper says, “The old, straightened pews, which some of the people "painfully" remember, have been discarded and new circular oak pews have been put in their places. The audience room has been lengthened by throwing the former vestibules into the church proper. The front of the gallery was taken down and a new oak railing put up. A new and larger vestibule was built, in which are the entrances to the Sunday School and prayer meeting rooms up-stairs.”
Also, "The carved oak pulpit and the five oak chairs, the communion table, the flower tables and Bible stands and the baptismal font, were all the gifts of ex-Senator and Mrs. William H. Hendrickson." Much of the way the church looks today is the result of the ministry of the Rev. Mr. Hagerman.
In 1903, the Rev. Willard Dayton brown became the 7th minister, after being graduated from the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. In 1906 Elder Charles Tindall reported that twenty sheds could be built for about $400 and it was decided to have this done. They would be across the street form the church and be used for stabling the horses.
The Rev. Dr. Brown left Middletown in 1905 and later became Secretary of the Board of Education of the Reformed Church in America, a position he held for many years. He died in 1968 at the age of 94. The Rev. James C. Forbes succeeded Dr. Brown and was pastor from 1906 to 1910. He was a strong preacher of Scottish ancestry.
The Rev. Charles W. Roeder came to our church directly from seminary. This young man was remembered for his eloquent preaching and his friendly Christian personality. It was during his time, in 1912, that the Consistory voted by ballot to decided whether to install gas or electricity in the church. After the votes were counted, there were eight to three in favor of gas lamps. But two weeks later a special meeting was held. Cecil Conover stated the object of the meeting was as follows: "By some mistake, the gas company had piped the church parsonage for gas and at the present time was nearly completed. There was no objection made by the consistory and the "Young Ladies" (younger women's group) were instructed to finish the work of installing the gas in the parsonage."
A Remarkable Churchman
It was is 1912, too, that James Abram Stout became a Deacon and served as one until 1923 when he became an Elder. He was an Elder until 1959 when he resigned and was declared Elder Emeritus. He was a member of the 100th Anniversary Committee with the minister, the Rev. Peter Boelhouwer and Deacon Karl B. Helwig in 1936.
Mr. Stout also served as the elder delegate to the Class of New Brunswick from 1936 until 1950 when Elders Benjamin Allen and Henry Gulick replaced him for three years. Elder Gulick served from 1956-1958 and Mr. Stout then served again as the Classis Elder from 1958 until the end of 1973 when William Henselder became our representative. On May 20, 1970 a testimonial dinner was held in recognition of his long and valued service to our church as Deacon, Elder, Vice President, President, Treasurer, Sunday School Superintendent, Elder Emeritus and Classis representative. On February 24, 1974, one of the sanctuary stained glass windows was dedicated in his honor. He was a rarity among people, a man who sincerely used his time, energy, talents and treasurers for the Lord. He was "Mr. Churchman!!" Mr. Strout was born in Middletown in 1886 and baptized on Mar 2, 1887 in our sanctuary. He died on August 31, 1979 at the age of 91.
The Rev. Marion T. Conklin served from 1915 to 1920, and the Rev. John Amos Thomson was pastor from 1920 until 1927. Not too much is known about them. The minutes of the consistory record routine business, although there are three interesting things that happened I n the 1920's. Electric lights were installed in the church in 1920. In 1923 there was a plan to move our church across the street and dig a basement under it. This was voted down. In 1926, a letter was written to the New York and Long Branch Railroad to complain about "sparks escaping from the engines of the trains passing through town" and possibly endangering the nearby church.
1927 to 1929 was an extremely difficult time for the church financially. The Rev. Emmet B. Groseclose supplied the congregation for one year, and although Dr. Willard brown in his 1936 historical address, states that the church was closed for two years, it appears that guest ministers preached on Sundays. On February 17, 1929 a motion to merge with the Holmdel Reformed Church (the original Mother Church) was defeated.
The Rev. Jacob J. Sessier, a very popular clergyman, was pastor during the opening years of the Depression, serving from 1929 until 1934. He wrote a number of books during his lifetime, many of them for children. He was highly regarded in the denomination, serving for a time as pastor of the of the Third Reformed Church, Holland Michigan. He died in 1985. It was during his ministry that the consistory gave permission "to have the Ladies Aid obtain an estimate to have the dirt removed from under the church where a room for socials, etc. could be held. William Potter, Jr. remembers the dirt being removed with picks and shoves and wheelbarrows, an arduous task.
Mildred Layton, who became a member in 1930 said that membership was so low that at times only six people would be at the services of worship. Due to the lack of funds, the janitor was dismissed and "the consistory could fire the furnace and the Ladies Aid would clean the church." During the depression years, financial assistance both in the form of grants and loans was received from the Board of Domestic Missions, and these were necessary for church survival. In 1935 the minister, the Rev. Earl D. Compton read a letter from the Board stating that they would cover the cost of vital repair work.
The Recent Years 1936 - 1986
The Rev. Peter M. Boelhouwer became stated supply pastor on May 1, 1936 at a salary of $800 for the next twelve months. In October of that year we celebrated the 100th Anniversary. Dr. Willard D. Brown was one of the speakers.
The March 1, 1939 minutes record that "the annual Congregational Meeting and supper was held in the church rooms. The supper was served by the Ladies Aid Society. The supper was a penny supper, meaning a penny for each portion."
The 1940's were also low times for the church. The minutes of consistory record very little of substantial progress. The Rev. Abram J. Van Houten was pastor from 1938 to 1947.
In 1948, the Rev. Donald Ross MacNeill came to our church from New Brunswick Seminary as a student minister. He had an interest in missions from the very beginning of his ministry and was very popular with our congregation. He was ordained in 1950 and in 1951 left to become a missionary in Arabia. He served there until 1965. He was the Literature Secretary for the Near East Council for churches for 15 years and had several other responsible positions in the mission field.
To be continued . . .