Upon the 150th Anniversary of the 1867 Sanctuary

One hundred and fifty years ago today – November 20, 1867 – an unknown number of faithful members of the First Presbyterian Church of Ewing gathered together to dedicate a brand new building. It was the fourth building to stand on the same site, and replaced a much-loved meeting house that had stood since 1797.

The new building was striking, with a soaring steeple (almost twice the height of the current one) which could be seen for miles around above the rural landscape. Wrapped in locally quarried brownstone, it had multi-colored pastel stained glass windows, wooden pews, gas lamps, and beautifully stenciled interior walls. It was a magnificent building, the vision and construct of a small congregation of farmers, tradesmen, professionals and a few businessmen, who, if the past was any indication, probably could not afford the project.

But build it they did. We are told in a sermon written “on the occasion of the last service in the old (1797) church,” that the 1867 Sanctuary was built NOT to “gratify our pride in the possession of a more elegant building,” but instead to “enlarge our dimensions, and lengthen our cords” in order to invite “those who may settle among us … and those who shall come after us” to worship. The sermon by Rev. Atwater continues, describing the building as one “which shall stand as a lasting memorial of our thankfulness and of our purpose to provide for the spiritual wants of our fellow men” (and women!).

And so it is appropriate to celebrate the fact that 150 years later, it still stands as a welcoming, lasting memorial. Although the building is currently under the stewardship and care of a secular organization, Preservation New Jersey, it continues to provide for the “spiritual wants” of the community. Once a month on the fourth Sunday, those “spiritual wants” are those of the Presbyterian congregation which birthed the building and otherwise worships across the street.

But the building also now serves the spiritual wants of many others. It serves as a welcoming space for all denominations and faiths. It has recently offered a safe space for discussions of justice, race, policing and peace. It provides a lovely setting for couples becoming married, especially those who may have no other space in which to wed. It provides a comforting and peaceful place for memorial services, whether formal, traditional or casual. It provides a community gathering place for the enjoyment of the arts (especially music), whether as a participant or observer. All of these activities ultimately feed the spirit, even if they are not technically spiritually-religious activities. Spiritual wants continue to be met within this landmark.

The original congregational visionaries could not have imagined that the 1867 Sanctuary would still be standing 150 years later, nor the situation under which it remains standing. But the Lord works in mysterious ways, and is revealed in surprising events. Many, many people have contributed to the continued existence of the 1867 Sanctuary, providing funds, expertise, encouragement, energy, time and dedication to its restoration and new life. The recognition of the 150th anniversary of the building is also a recognition of the efforts of all of these “angels” who have brought us to this day. How fitting that it is Thanksgiving Week, because it is thanks to these people that the anniversary can be observed; it is thanks to the visionaries 150 years ago that we have the building; and most of all, it is thanks to God for the many blessings given us all.

~ Helen Kull, 11/20/2017