About Our Church
First Presbyterian Church of Salem, NJ is a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This denomination is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States. We are a theologically conservative congregation and remain proud of our Presbyterian heritage.
Early Church History of First Presbyterian Church of Salem, extracted and paraphrased, by Austin B. Ricketts, from a handwritten manuscript originally written by Col. Robert Johnson and Anna Hunter Van Meter.
In the late 1700s, there was no Presbyterian presence in the town of Salem, NJ. It was Col. Robert G. Johnson and the Van Meter brothers who changed this. As his manuscript reads: “Colonel Johnson belonged to an Episcopal family, but in his youth had been sent to a Presbyterian school in Pittsgrove Township, where he early imbibed a love for the simple Presbyterian worship, and a dislike for the ritualistic service which in after life, by the providence of God, led to the founding of this Church.”
Dr. James Van Meter, from Pittsgrove, NJ, was a man of note. From his biography, it is quoted: “No physician I believe ever lived in this country possessing a more spotless reputation, nor did there ever die and more sincerely regretted than Dr. James Van Meter.” By all accounts he was a man of steady character.
His brother Dr. Robert Hunter Van Meter, while a very good man in his own account, was of a different temperament. Apparently, he was more excitable, showing forth much more energy. The building of First Presbyterian Church of Salem was for him a passion. It is said of this passion, “…he appeared to think no labor too hard, or any sacrifice too great, it was the subject of his conversation, and the theme of his prayers; in proportion to his means, he gave with great liberality and by obtaining subscribers, collecting money, hauling material, and in many other ways rendered valuable assistance.” He was also the first resident Presbyterian in the Salem, NJ.
For years (1809-1820), Episcopalians and Presbyterians worshiped together in Salem. It began in that the Episcopal Church in town had no clergyman to lead worship. So, they invited Presbyterian ministers to preach for them, thinking that if the Presbyterians would preach the Gospel then everyone could get along. And they did for over a decade.
Certain Episcopalians began to worry that they would lose their identity. If the Presbyterians were allowed to continue preaching, then they would all become Presbyterians. It was mostly over the 17th Article of the Church of England that became the point of separation. This is the Article about Predestination. One of the Episcopalian leaders stated that the Presbyterians always put a wrong construction upon that Article. And so moves were made for the Presbyterians to found their own church building.
The cornerstone of the Presbyterian Church was laid on the morning of Tuesday, March 6, 1821. The entire cost of the original building was $2, 419.79. Col. Robert G. Johnson donated the land, taking on the bulk of the money required to build at a cost of $1,161.26. The Van Meter brothers together took on the second largest amount at $315.61. John Congleton and Matthias Lambson each donated $100. There were many other contributors, all who donated under a $100, with amounts ranging from $0.31 up to $65.
The original church, described above, was built on the present day Grant Street. This was not yet a street at the time of building, but was private property. There was a brief moment where the laying of the cornerstone was objected, due to property concerns and the building of a new road. Eventually, these were settled. The church was built and Grant Street became a real street.
With attendance increasing, the church had to expand its building, which it did around 1835 at a cost of $3000. But attendance would continue to grow. The need for a new building would soon arise. The cornerstone of the new building, now to be on Market Street, was laid on July 17th 1854. It took around three years for the building to be completed. The bell of the old church was transferred, on October of 1856, to the present church on Market Street. The bell would serve until December 1857. At that time it was donated to the Fenwick Fire Company.
In 1902, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Sherron donated a Tiffany Glass window in memory of their daughter, Miss Eva Alberta, who died in 1900.
Another memorial donation occurred in 1909. Mrs. Harriet Van Meter Cone gifted the current baptismal font in memory of her father Robert hunter Van Meter.
The Hook and Hasting organ is a two manual, fifteen rank pipe organ, built in 1878 and installed in the balcony of the First Presbyterian church in 1879. Air for the organ was supplied by pumping by hand until 1902, when the ladies of the Pastoral Aid purchased a water driven motor. The organ was moved from the balcony in 1908 to the front of the church, into the newly constructed choir loft. The organ continued to be powered by the water motor until electricity was installed in 1912.
The church Manse, or pastor’s home, is the last major donation that we will discuss. The home of Dr. James Van Meter, 60 Market Street was part of the bequest from the will of Martha J. (1900) and Artemesia K. Van Meter (1901). The stipulation was that the home be used only for the church. (The home had been rented following the death of Dr. James Van Meter, 1885.) The original Manse, 59 Market Street, no longer seemed to meet the needs of the congregation and many began to discuss building a new Manse.
Dr. Van Meter’s home was moved to 7th Street, and the foundation was used to build a new Manse. A brass knocker from the Dr. James Van Meter home was place on the side door and a plaque at the front door reading:
This Manse was erected I 1906
A Memorial to Artemesia K. Van Meter
And Martha J. Van Meter
And represents a part of their bequest
To the Presbyterian Church
Of Salem, New Jersey