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A HISTORICAL SKETCH, fee.
The exact date when the Presbyterians of New Brunswick were organized into a church is not known, owing to the want of early records. The place itself was not of much size or importance until some time after the commencement of the last century. Originally a mere ferry across the Raritan river, settlers gradually collected in sufficient numbers to form a town. But the settlement was long known only as "Prigmore's Swamp, or as "The River," until the accession of the house of Brunswick to the British crown in 1714, after which time the loyalty of the inhabitants would seem to have conferred upon the rising town the name of New Brunswick.
The first inhabitants were of Dutch extraction, and had a church of 78 members in 1717. The Presbyterians were very few, and with the help of the Landing and vicinity, constituted a church for worship in the English language. The number of communicants is not known. The earliest mention of their existence is about 1726, when they called Mr. Tennent to be their pastor. They had a house of worship, built in 1727, situated on Burnet street, below Lyell's brook, which is now considered as quite down town; but in vain will the eye search for it now. The building was destroyed by the British in the Revolutionary War, and the site is now occupied by dwelling houses.
Cornelius Hardenberg, Esq. has informed me of a tradition in his family, that one of the early founders of the Presbyterian church in New Brunswick, was James Hude, an ancestor of his and a native of Scotland. James Hude came to America with a number of his compatriots, who fled from religious oppression. The ship Caledonia, which brought them, was lost at Perth Amboy. Mr. Hude was Mayor of New Brunswick, and Member of Council under one of the royal governors. He resided in the house now the Bell Tavern. It was a one story stone house, which was afterwards raised a story, and the whole was weatherboarded over.
The congregation was connected first with the Presbytery of Philadelphia; in 1733 with that of East Jersey. In 1738 the Presbyteries of East Jersey and Long Island were merged in the Presbytery of New York, and two days after, the Presbytery of New Brunswick was set off from that of New York. (See Min. of Syn. Phila.)
Intthe close of the year 1726, or beginning of the year 1727,*the Rev. Gilbert Tennent was ordained Pastor of this congregation. The map published by Messrs. Marcellus, Terhune & Letson, states this event to have occurred in 1726. Mr. Tennent's name is found on the roll of the New Castle Presbytery as a licentiate in 1725 ; and on the roll of the Synod of Philadelphia as an ordained minister in 1727. ' He acted as an assistant in the Log College at Neshaminy \ for some little time, but as this institution was not opened till May, 1726, it is clear that he could not be in New Brunswick much before the close of that year. In a letter written by him to Mr. Prince, dated Aug. 24, 1744, he says, that he came to New Brunswick about seven years after Mr. Frelinghuysen, and as Mr. Frelinghuysen settled there in 1720, Mr. Tennent's arrival must have been as we have stated.
The tablet on the front of the present house of worship recites that " The first Presbyterian church edifice in New Brunswick was erected on Burnet street, A. D. MDCCXXVII."
Gilbert Tennent was a noticeable man in his day. He was a member of a remarkable family, a companion of Whitefield, a leader in the Great Schism, and a voluminous writer.
His father was the Rev. William Tennent, Sen., an Irish clergyman of the established church, who emigrated to this country about the year 1716, and who, from conscientious scruples renounced his former ecclesiastical connection, and joined the Presbyterian body in 1718. He was a man of learning, piety and zeal; and did good service to the church by founding a classical school, called in derision the Log College, at Neshaminy, in Pennsylvania. He died at the age of 73, May 6, 1746.
The elder Tennent had five children, four of whom were sons, and all the four entered the sacred ministry, Gilbert, William, John and Charles. William was settled at Freehold, and is the person who had a remarkable trance, on his recovery from which he was found to have forgotten the bible, and even his letters. This trance occurred in the house of his brother Gilbert, in New Brunswick, whither he had gone for aid in his theological studies. The house has since been pulled down, but the site pointed out by tradition is that at present occupied by the building, number 168, in Burnet street.
Gilbert, the oldest of the four sons, was born in Ireland, at Armagh, April 5, 1703, and was consequently 13 years of age when he was brought to America. His education was conducted altogether under his father's eye, and his subsequent standing did credit to his training. His mind was turned to religion when he was 14 years old, and the piety which was so early sown, ripened with his growth; and at 22 he was licensed to preach the gospel. After assisting his father in his school for a few months, he was ordained pastor of the congregation at New Brunswick, in 1726, where he continued for 16 years. He was now a young man'of 23, possessed of a strong mind, an ardent, impetuous disposition, and brimming with zeal. Such a man would have been a man of mark any where. He soon made an impression in New Brunswick. But it will be best to let him narrate the tale in his own words. Writing to Mr. Prince, a clergyman and historian of Boston, in 1744, he speaks as follows:
" The labours of the Rev. Mr. Frelinghuysen, a Dutch Calvinist minister, were much blessed to the people of New Brunswick and places adjacent; especially, about the time of his coming among them, which was about twenty four years ago. When I came there, which was about seven years after, I had the pleasure of seeing much of the fruits of his ministry: divers of his hearers with whom I had the opportunity of conversing, appeared to be converted persons, by their soundness in principle, Christian experience, and pious practice; and these persons declared, that the ministrations of the aforesaid gentlemen were the means thereof. This, together with a kind letter which he sent me, respecting the dividing the word aright, and giving to every man his portion in due season, through the divine blessing, excited me to greater earnestness in ministerial labours. I began to be very much distressed about my want of success; for I knew not for half a year or more after I came to New Brunswick, that any one was converted by my labours; although several persons were affected transiently. It pleased God, about that time, to afflict me with sickness, by which I had affecting views of eternity.
After I was raised up to health, I examined many about the grounds of their hope of salvation, which I found in most to be nothing but as the sand. With such I was enabled to deal faithfully and earnestly, in warning them of their danger, and urging them to seek converting grace. By this method many were awakened out of their security, and of these, divers were to all appearance effectually con