Once Known as the Locktown Christian Church
Near the center of the village of Locktown stands a 19th-century church and its parsonage, waiting for a new owner. The congregation that has been worshipping in this church for the past 30 years or so is joining with the Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church on Route 202 in Flemington, so the Locktown property must be sold.
It includes the church building, a cemetery adjacent to it, and across the road, the old parsonage or “Manse.” The church has been somewhat modernized, but still retains much of its historical fabric, like tin ceilings and walls (the ceilings are concealed behind a modern dropped ceiling). There is an unusual (though not unique) corner belfry, with a bell which was rung for services right up to this year.
The history of this church is notable for its remarkable ministers (one of them a woman). Although it has been considered Presbyterian since the 1980s, it began as a Christian Church in 1828. In two previous articles concerning the Kingwood Baptist Church (here and here), I referred to the Second Great Awakening, which swept the country and caused disruption in Hunterdon congregations. The Baptists of Kingwood and Locktown began to feel this influence in the 1830s, but a few years earlier, disturbers of the peace arrived in Milford, spreading a new gospel of love, simplicity and tolerance. In Snell’s History of Hunterdon County,1 a member of the church in 1880 recited some of its history. (We must depend heavily on this person’s recollections because the church minutes for the first 40 years or so are missing.)
“The third Sunday in June, 1829, there was appointed a two-days’ meeting in the woods near Locktown, attended by Simon Clough, of New York, William Lane, of Ohio, John F. Thompson, of Johnsonsburg, N. J., and Mrs. Roberts. On Saturday the meeting was held in a public- house occupied by Benjamin Hide (Hyde). On Sunday the meeting was held in the woods, a large assembly of people being present. William Lane preached on the ‘ Sonship of Christ,’ and the sermon caused great excitement among the people.”
Benjamin Hyde’s house was the old Locktown tavern and inn, an odd place for sermons from religious revivalists, but in fact, taverns were considered public spaces in those times, and had not yet become the dens of iniquity that the temperance movement made them out to be.
One of those evangelists, one of the remarkable ministers, was Mrs. Abigail Roberts, who had come to Hunterdon County as early as January 1827 to hold revival meetings.2 She found a receptive audience for her message:
“ . . . that the followers of Christ were Christians, and should be known by His name, and that they should acknowledge no creed but the Bible. She taught that the mission of the Christians was to promote unity among God’s people; that it was wrong for Christians to be bitter against each other simply because they disagreed on some tenet of religion; that creeds and party names not only promoted divisions, but were stumbling stones in the way of sinners, and that they should be removed.”3
Mrs. Roberts’ message, which is certainly relevant to us today, was well-received. By November, 1827, a church was built in Milford for the new Christian Church in Hunterdon, as reported in the Hunterdon Gazette, November 14th:
“Dedication & General Meeting. The Christian Church erected in the village of Milford, will be opened for Dedication on Wednesday the 28th inst. Sermon by Elder Simon Clough, of the city of New York. Divine service to commence at 11 o’clock A. M. Elders Frederick Plummer of Philadelphia, and Jonathan S. Thompson of Johnsonburgh, likewise Mrs. Abigail Roberts, are also expected to attend and preach.”
Many sources state that Mrs. Roberts came to preach at Milford in 1828. Perhaps she was there that year—the Gazette does not say. But she was present there in 1827—at least, she was “expected to preach.”
Abigail Hoag Roberts4 was born on February 17, 1791 at Greenbush, Rensselaer Co., NY to William and Esther Hoag. They were devout Quakers, and raised their daughter in the Quaker tradition in which it was acceptable for women to speak publicly about their religion. She married Nathan Roberts in 1809, and found in him a supporter for her evangelical work. She converted to the Christian Church in 1814, and soon began speaking in public at several gatherings in New York State. By the mid 1820s, she and another woman preacher (Anne Rexford) had come to New Jersey to spread their gospel. In 1826, the Christian Church at Johnsonburg, Warren Co. was organized after Mrs. Roberts had been preaching there for two years. In Memoirs of Deceased Christian Ministers, Rev. E. W. Humphreys tells us:
In 1827, she extended her visits as far as Milford, N. J., and such was the interest awakened through her preaching, . . . that the people, irrespective of denominational lines, built her a fine stone meeting house, that has stood there ever since. The same people also donated a house and some ground, to which the Roberts family moved, and lived there for several years. The crowds that came to hear her during this time were very large, and many were the numbers converted under her preaching.
Soon after their removal to Milford, her health began to fail, and although she labored at home and in other places after that, to good success, yet her health never entirely recovered. In 1830, Elder William Lane took charge of the church in Milford, but Sister Roberts, who lived in the place some years after, rendered valuable service in the work.5
The Roberts eventually moved to back to New York in 1834, and later to Luzerne Co., Pennsylvania. Abigail Roberts died there on July 7, 1841. Rev. Humphreys continued:
Three years later, the faithful husband died and was buried by the side of his companion. In 1856, the bodies of both were removed and deposited in the grave-yard adjoining the meeting house in Milford, N. J., their old home, where a monument was raised by the church to their memory. A son of hers, Philetus Roberts, has been a useful minister in the same church for many years.6
Building a New Church
Some of those who joined the Christian Church at Milford were residents of the Locktown area, in Amwell and Kingwood Townships. There were enough of them, and the distance to Milford was great enough, to justify building their own Christian Church in Locktown.
I find it interesting that during this time, the popular minister, Rev. David Bateman, was still preaching at the Baptist Church in Locktown (he died in 1832), and yet some of his congregation left to join the new church. Among them was Elisha Rittenhouse and, I presume, his family. Meanwhile, by 1831, notice was being taken in the Hunterdon Gazette of the activities of the Milford church.
PUBLIC DEBATE. – We learn that a public discussion, on the subject of the Divinity of our Saviour, will be held at Milford, in this county, on Tuesday the 7th of December next; – the affirmative to be maintained by Mr. McCalla, a Presbyterian minister of Philadelphia; and the negative, by Mr. Lane, a minister of the society of Christians, assisted by a gentleman of New York. We give this information on authority which may be relied on.7
A few months later, there was another big event at the Milford church:
Four Days Meeting & Conference. A four days meeting will commence at the Christian Meeting-house at Milford, Hunterdon county, N. J. on Friday the 20th inst. at one o’clock P. M. to continue Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. – and on Tuesday, 23d inst. at 10 o’clock A. M. the first Christian Conference of New Jersey will commence its session in said Meeting-House. Elders Clough, Goff, Bryant, Brown, Thompson, Richmond, Plummer, Coe, and Lane, are expected to attend the meeting and conference. John Duckworth, Church Clerk.8
This meeting must have been especially inspiring, because about two weeks later, on April 21st, a meeting was held at the house of Samuel Cooley in Milford to select trustees for the new church in Locktown. They would be responsible for raising funds and overseeing construction of the church. Francis Roberson of Kingwood was named chairman and Samuel Cooley secretary. The three trustees were: Roberson for one year, Philip Gordon for two years, and Elisha Rittenhouse for three years.
Joseph Lair donated a lot of thee-quarters of an acre on the west end of his farm for the church. Lair’s farm ran along the north side of the Locktown-Flemington Road, and the lot he donated came to be the southern end of the village of Locktown. He deeded the land on May 8, 1832 to the “Christian Church of Amwell,” and soon after, construction began.9 The church was nearly complete by October 1832 when meetings began to be held there. Here is an excerpt from the deed, as recited by Egbert T. Bush:
“By deed dated May 8, [sic, 18th] 1832, Joseph Lair conveyed to the “Christian Church of Amwell” a lot upon which to build a house of worship, the deed providing “That the house shall be a free house according to the Principle of Christian Liberty, that it shall bear the name of Christian Chapel and shall be under control of the Christian Society so long as they act according to their views of Christian Liberty, believing as they do.”10
Elisha Rittenhouse had been very active in the Old School Baptist Church and was the person designated to oversee construction of that beautiful building in 1819. Why he became dissatisfied with the Baptist Church is hard to say—perhaps Rev. Roberts’ message was just more compelling to him. By 1832 he was 64 years old, but not too old to supervise construction of another church. How I would love to have seen that first Christian Church building, to see if it had any resemblance to the Baptist Church up the road. According to former Locktown resident, Mary Smith, the original church “was small with plain pine seats and gallery. The entrance was through a door beside the pulpit.”11 This does not sound like the style of the Baptist Church at all.
Trustees of the Christian Church
That anonymous member of the church in Snell’s book provided a list of the trustees from 1830 through 1880, sorted by decade rather than exact years of service. An asterisk indicates those that are buried in the cemetery next to the church:
1830-40, Francis Roberson, Philip Gordon, Elisha Rittenhouse, Jonathan Harden, David Lair, William Eike, *Tennis Servis, Isaac Hann
1840-50, Elisha Rittenhouse, Nathan Stout, Mahlon Emmons, Isaac Hann, *Tunis Servis
1850-60, Nathaniel Stout, *Joseph B. Slack, Eli Britton, Abraham Slack, Thomas Hibbs
1860-70, *Francis Rittenhouse, *S. D. Horner, *David Bodine, John Bodine, George Hoppock, Wesley Hawk, John Eick, Samuel Bodine
1870-80, *Peter Hoppock, *Asa Corson, *David Bodine, Wesley Hawk, *Edward Hellier, William J. Walker, Richard S. Conover, John T. Eick, Sylvester Lake
The Summerbell Family of Ministers
The Summerbells were a remarkable family of ministers in Hunterdon County, beginning with Rev. Nicholas Summerbell, who was ordained as a minister in the Christian Church in 1839. He spent some time in Sussex County where he met and married Euphemia Johnson Sutton (said to be daughter of Capt. Joseph Sutton who served in the Revolution). Euphemia was born in May 1817, and married Nicolas Summerbell in Sussex County on February 8, 1843. The couple probably came to Milford shortly after their marriage.
Nicholas (usually spelled Nicolas) Summerbell was born on March 8, 1816 in Westchester, NY and came from a family of ministers—his grandfather was Nicholas Summerbell (1760-1844), his father was James Joseph Summerbell (1787-1821) and his brothers were Benjamin F. Summerbell (1819-1895) and James Summerbell (1821-1893), all of them ministers. Both Benjamin and James also spent some time ministering in New Jersey. Benjamin and Nicholas both had sons who joined the ministry.
Even though he was pastor of the Milford church, Nicholas Summerbell probably ministered to the Locktown congregation. The Milford Church seems to have always been something of a mother church to the other Christian churches in Hunterdon County. The earliest notice of Nicholas Summerbell in the Hunterdon Gazette was in 1845 when he officiated at a special wedding. It was the marriage of his brother James to Rachel Garrison Lawshe., daughter of Abraham Lawshe and Sarah Garrison of Franklin Township.
By 1850, Nicholas had moved on to Ohio and then Indiana, eventually becoming president of the Union Christian College. He died in Ohio in 1889. His son Rev. Joseph J. Summerbell, became pastor of the Milford Church in 1877 and remained until 1889 when he moved to Philadelphia, then on to Ohio. Rev. Benjamin F. Summerbell, brother of Nicolas, was present in Hunterdon County in 1874, when he accepted the call to minister to the Milford and Locktown churches.
The Church During & After the Civil War
By the time of the Civil War, the old church was in need of replacement. A new church was constructed in 1864, on the site of the original building. It is the same building that is standing today, with its attractive corner bell tower. Details regarding its construction are not available because the minute book for that period of time is missing. In 1871, the members decided to build sheds attached to the church to shelter their carriages.
In 1872, the church experienced something of a revival. As reported in the Hunterdon Democrat on March 12, 1872, there was “a great revival” taking place at the Christian Church in Locktown. Fifty people were converted, and meetings continued to attract “large numbers.”
On October 1, 1872, the Lambertville Record reported that “A protracted meeting is now being held at the Christian Church at Locktown. Rev. A. H. Damon, evangelist, is preaching.” During that time, the pastor was Elder John Soule. Some insight into how the members of this church celebrated Christmas can be found in this item from the Hunterdon Republican on Jan. 2, 1873:
“A celebration was held at the Christian Church at Locktown, with music and presents for the children. At the appointed hour, Mrs. Mary Trout played the organ, signaling the start of the exercises. Aaron Lewis, of Kingwood, delivered the opening remarks; Andy Bellis, also of Kingwood, gave a recitation; a dialogue, “Lovers’ Quarrel,” was performed by Miss Lizzie Snyder and Joseph Chamberlin; the last address was by John Lequear, of Kingwood and the Pastor of the Church, Rev. John C. Soule, ended the ceremony.”
In April 1874 Rev. Soule moved to Schenectady, and the church called Elder “B. F.” Summerbell of New York (brother of Nicholas) to be pastor of the Christian churches in Locktown and Frenchtown.12 But Rev. Summerbell preferred to spend his time in Frenchtown. Or perhaps Locktown was dissatisfied with him. What was missing from the newspapers was mention of a new pastor for the Locktown church who was recruited in 1875. On April 24, 1875, the minute book recited the following:
“Resolved that we the members of Locktown Christian Church do hereby request the Ministers who may be present to morrow to Ordain to the work of the Ministry Bro John M. Woodward who has been elected Pastor of this Church Resolved that this resolution be entered in full on our church record.”13
Rev. John M. Woodward was another of the remarkable ministers I mentioned earlier. He was remarkable because of a memoir he wrote later in life recalling his turbulent year in Locktown—a memoir so intriguing that I will have to write a separate article about his time in Hunterdon.
Judging from that memoir, Rev. Woodward was an earnest young man who attracted a certain amount of unwanted attention from the ladies of the congregation. But fortunately for him, one of those ladies was Lavinia MaCauley, whom he married on November 14, 1875, with Rev. B. F. Summerbell officiating. (Summerbell resigned from the Frenchtown church in early April 1876, according to the Hunterdon Republican. His brother, Rev. Joseph F. Summerbell became pastor of the Milford Church in 1877.)
Brother Woodward was never comfortable with his congregation. He came from Massachusetts, where sympathy with the Union cause during the Civil War was widespread, while residents of Locktown were quite the opposite, and even ten years after the war had ended, feelings still ran high against it. This was very troubling to Woodward, but it seems likely the church trustees were as dissatisfied with Woodward as he was with them. In December 1876, he “resigned all control over & all responsibility for this Christian Church in Locktown.”
Now the congregation needed a new pastor. The minutes of Feb. 19, 1876 state that Elder George Tenney of Vienna, Warren County, NJ was “called to take the Pastorel care of this church if he can leave Hope & Vienna, provided he can be got for $500 & donation.” The trustees were instructed to “rent brother Hiram Horners House north of this church if they can get it at a rent not to exceed $70.” They also agreed to cooperate with the Frenchtown Christian Church regarding a minister. It appears that Summerbell must have been signaling his imminent retirement. By June 1876, Elder Tenney was present and acting as pastor. On March 3, 1877, the meeting voted to retain Elder Tenney as pastor from April 1 to August 1, 1877, at $50 per month.
Back before Rev. Woodward was pastor, the members had decided to build a parsonage house across the road from the church. Fundraising had begun in 1874, and in September 1876, it was agreed that the house would be built that fall and should be “a Square House 24 ft by 32 ft.” How can that be square? I suspect that “square” refers to a style of architecture rather than to dimensions. The building committee was Elder George Tenney, Brother H. F. Bodine and Brother Wesley S. Hawk. The meeting also voted to get a deed for the parsonage lot from Brothers H. F. and David Bodine, who had agreed to donate it.
The lot for the parsonage was conveyed to the church trustees on March 21, 1877 by Henry F. Bodine & wife May and David Bodine & wife Emily all of Delaware twp. for $20. (Trustees were William J. Walker, Edward Hellier and Wesley S. Hawk.)14 A week later, on March 29, Francis Rittenhouse and Maranda his wife of Delaware twp. conveyed to the same trustees for $10 the lot adjacent to the church on the north side, where the sheds were located. It was part of land formerly owned by Joseph Lair.15 On Dec. 2, 1876, the building committee decided to put up a fence and a barn on the Parsonage lot. Both fence and barn are no longer there.
On June 2, 1877, the building committee reported that the “whole cost” of building the parsonage was $885.96. They also decided to give Elder Jacob Rodenbaugh a call to become pastor of the Locktown Christian Church at a salary not to exceed $450. This was affirmed at the meeting of June 23, 1877, when they agreed to share Rodenbaugh with the Frenchtown church.
So here we come to the third of this church’s notable ministers. Jacob Rodenbaugh was an “enterprising farmer” who bought the farm of Joseph West dec’d from Ampleus B. Chamberlin in 1879. This farm was across the road from the church and parsonage, so it is most likely that Rodenbaugh did not live in the parsonage. He was best known for his work as a director of the Locktown Creamery and was remembered as “a live man about the works.”16
I was at first confused by the Hunterdon Republican notice that on July 5, 1877, “The order of exercises on July 8, at the Locktown Christian Church will include the ordination of Rev. J. W. S. Johnson. Rev. Isaac C. Goff will preach the ordination sermon.” I had jumped to the conclusion that Rev. Johnson was to be pastor of the church, but clearly that was not the case. On December 6, 1877, the newspaper announced that Rev. J. Rodenbaugh, the new pastor of the Locktown Christian Church, would preach his first sermon on December 9th. (George Tenney did not appear in The Hunterdon Republican until Jan. 22, 1880, when he assisted Rev. Rodenbagh in meetings at the church.)
Jacob Rodenbaugh was born about 1812 in Pennsylvania. He was living in Radnor, Delaware with his wife and children in 1850, in Lower Marion, PA in 1860, and Kelly Twp., Union Co., PA in 1870. By that time he was an ordained clergyman. I have little doubt that he is connected in some way to the Rodenbaugh family of Hunterdon County that was present here in the 18th century, but I do not know who his parents were, or his wife Susan’s maiden name.
In 1878, Rev. Rodenbaugh was expanding his ministry. The Republican reported that “Rev. Jacob Rodenbaugh, of Locktown, is holding extra meetings in the Frenchtown Christian Church. A good deal of interest is manifested and three persons have made profession.” There were 3 baptisms and 4 new converts.17
In 1881, Rev. Rodenbaugh was a member of the newly formed Locktown Dairymen’s Association when it purchased a lot of land from John Mechlin and built a creamery. As Mr. Bush noted, Rodenbaugh was very actively involved in management of this important institution in Locktown, and seems to have given up farming at this time. On March 9, 1882, the Hunterdon Republican reported that Rev. Rodenbaugh had decided to move into the Parsonage as of April 1st. (Nothing was said about this in the Church minute book.) Rodenbaugh was 68 years old by then (wife Susan was 74).
Four years later, the church minutes for December 4, 1886 state that the Ministerial Committee read the resignation letter of Elder Rodenbaugh and it was accepted. Rev. and Mrs. Rodenbaugh returned to Pennsylvania where they were born. Jacob Rodenbaugh died at Lewisburg, PA on July 3, 1894, age 82. His wife Susan had died on January 24, 1899.18
According to Snell, church membership in 1880 was 204 and the church property was valued at $4,000. It is likely that the membership began to gradually decline after Rev. Rodenbaugh retired, until this year when there were only four families remaining. There has been a congregation in this church for 182 years. Unless another religious organization purchases the church, that legacy will come to an end.
Postscript: The Cemetery attached to the church has many interesting graves and deserves an article of its own. I have found it to be a wonderful example of the inter-relationship between families living in and around the old villages.
Addendum: I received an email from S. Carlson pointing out that I had spelled Francis Robeson’s name incorrectly, that it should be Roberson. He/she also wrote: “I am a direct descendant of Joseph W. Roberson and Amy (Brown) Roberson through their daughter Sarah “Sallie” Jane (Roberson) Mohler. His wife, Amy Brown Roberson, died young, and Joseph remarried. Joseph W Roberson moved to Fairfax County, Virginia (together w/ Opdyke in-laws), sometime before the Civil War. His daughter, Sarah Jane Roberson Mohler (born in Hunterdon Co. NJ) is my maternal great-great grandmother, and she died young in childbirth in Centreville, Fairfax County, VA. Joseph W Roberson was a direct descendant of Francis ROBERSON (not Robeson) of Hunterdon Co. NJ. Francis Roberson was a direct descendant of Thomas Roberson and Catharine (Peirce) Roberson, both born in the Northern Neck of Virginia in the 1700’s and migrating to NJ, date unknown.”
- James P. Snell, History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, pp. 379-80. For some background information on the history and beliefs of this denomination, visit Wikipedia. ↩
- Frank Greenagle, The NJ Churchscape. He also discusses her ministry in “The White Pilgrim, Abigail Roberts and Christian Churches” ↩
- I. F. Burnett, Early Women of the Christian Church. Dayton, OH: The Christian Publishing Asso., 1921. See also: “Abigail Roberts—Pioneering Spirit” by Shirley Wydner, published in the Hunterdon Historical Newsletter, Winter 1999, pg. 805. She discussed Roberts’ sojourn in Hunterdon County, but said nothing about the Locktown congregation. ↩
- Portrait of Abigail Roberts, taken from Memoir of Mrs. Abigail Roberts by her son, Philetus Roberts. Irvington, N.J., 1858., frontispiece. Portrait is also shown on the Milford Borough Historical Society website. ↩
- Rev. E. W. Humphreys, Memoirs of Deceased Christian Ministers, brief sketches of the Lives and Labors of 975 Ministers who died between 1793 and 1880. Dayton, OH: Christian Publishing Asso., 1880, pp. 298-99. ↩
- Memoirs of Deceased Christian Ministers. The graves of Abigail and Nathan Roberts can be found in the cemetery attached to the Milford Christian Church, and also on “Find-a-Grave.” ↩
- Hunterdon Gazette, February 2, 1831. ↩
- Hunterdon Gazette, April 5, 1832. ↩
- Deed 58-384; not recorded until Aug. 30, 1834. ↩
- E. T. Bush, 22 May 1930, “Locktown Got Its Name As Result Of A Church Quarrel.” ↩
- From a copy of a history of Locktown written by Mary Smith in my possession. I do not know what her source for this information was; it was not in Snell. Perhaps she had access to the first volume of church minutes. ↩
- This announcements and others in this article were made in the Hunterdon Republican, as abstracted by William Hartman. ↩
- The Minute Book of the Locktown Christian Church, beginning on Dec. 5, 1874, and ending in 1949, was loaned to me by one of the church members. ↩
- Deed 176-527. ↩
- Deed 176-531. ↩
- E. T. Bush, 22 May 1930, “Locktown Got Its Name As result Of A Church Quarrel.” ↩
- Hunterdon Republican, Dec. 5 and Dec. 19, 1878. ↩
- A brief obituary for Rev. Rodenbaugh was published in the Hunterdon County Democrat. The Rodenbaugh graves can be found on Find-a-Grave. ↩