BUILT OUT OF THE HEART
In 1750, it must have required extraordinary circumstances for the staid and frugal fathers of our congregation to justify building two churches on the same spot within the span of twenty years - tearing one down and building up another. At the time, membership was growing rapidly and it is possible that a decline in attendance at the Old Scots church led to a belief that soon all of the congregation would be assembling at White Hill. Furthermore, this was a prosperous period in English history and the Crown looked with more religious tolerance on the wishes of the American colonists. In New Jersey, there was a "Great Awakening" among the people under the preaching of Edwards, Bellamy, and the Tennents; and the Brainerds spread the gospel to Native Americans in outlying areas. It was during this time of peace, prosperity, and religious fervor, that the Old Tennent fathers were moved to build the venerable sanctuary which we know today.
When the Royal Charter for the Monmouth churches was granted in February 1750, the Trustees met in the next month and organized their board. At the very next meeting they took measures for the construction of a new building of sixty feet long and forty feet wide. This third and last church in Old Tennent history was erected on or near to the spot where the former meetinghouse stood on White Hill. While it is likely that some parts of the former church were used in the building of this one, for the most part a new frame was made, hewn out, by skilled hands with the broad-ax from the enduring native white oak and set on a stiff, rugged foundation. The steeple of the church is stoutly built, set on a trestle-work of enormous strength in the rafters. Dr. A. A. Hodge, Professor of Theology at Princeton Seminary, once said of this house: "It was built out of the heart," which was doubly true, materially and spiritually.
The best materials available were used. The interior was finished with beaded and paneled Jersey pine and the sides of the building were sheathed with long cedar shingles, and fastened with nails wrought out on an anvil. Benjamin Van Cleve, whose initials are stamped in the iron bars or latches of the east and west doors, is reported to have made the iron furnishings of the church, such as nails, door-hinges, latches, and possibly the weathervane or finial on the steeple. These presumably were all painstakingly forged out on his anvil.
Tradition tells that William Redford Craig, a carpenter, built the elegant "wine stem" pulpit which is the sanctuary's focal point. It is placed against the wall on the north side of the building, with narrow stairs leading up to it, closed in with a door. The Bible desk is fully nine feet above the audience floor and a great sounding-board in the shape of a crown overhangs the whole. The three wooden pegs fastened in the paneling above the pulpit seat are forever linked to Rev. William Tennent. It is said that he was accustomed to hanging his hat on one of them and in warm weather he would hang his coat on another peg. On a very warm day or perhaps during delivery of a particularly intense sermon, he placed his wig on the third.
Below the main pulpit a second desk or sub-pulpit is built, where the clerk of session took attendance and a precentor used to stand and lead the congregation in singing the Psalms. Around and in front is a square of seats, commonly called the "Elders' Square." Members of the congregation sit in straight high-backed pews, closed in with entrance doors. Galleries extend along three sides of the room like a canopy over the pews below.
The building seems to have been begun in March 1751 and it appears to have been two years before it was fully completed, as the iron bar fastenings of the doors are stamped with the date 1753. But, like its predecessor, it is likely that the work was rapid until the house was "enclosed and glazed," and so Old Tennent may be spoken of as built in 1751, though not completely finished and furnished until 1753.
In 1902, after very careful measurements and study, Louis Rue drafted in blue print ten architectural plans of the old building, showing its structure in different elevations, and its various frameworks and finishings. He also prepared elaborate specifications of the construction of the building so detailed that an exact copy of the original could be erected. The drawings are now in the possession of the church.
Rev. Frank R. Symmes, History of the Old Tennent Church (second edition), Cranbury, NJ: George W. Burroughs, Printer, 1904, pp 44-52.