In 1942 the Old Tennent Congregation celebrated the 250th year since their forebears began to worship in Central New Jersey. On the occasion, the Reverend Charles Harnish Neff presented the following history of the founding of the church. Rev. Neff was the beloved pastor of Old Tennent from 1926 to 1964. Neff Chapel is named in his honor.
On a small hill amid the green fields and woodlands of Monmouth County, New Jersey, is located an acre of ground containing a monument and a few ancient gravestones. The place appears deserted now and not many visitors go there. But it is a place sacred in the history of this country and especially in the history of the Presbyterian Church. The influences that have gone forth from it cannot be measured. It stands for certain values that are denied today in many places and that are being earnestly contended for again by half the world. The place has long been known as the Old Scots Burying Ground. The Fathers, some of whom are buried in it, called it Free Hill.
On this acre of ground we have some reason to believe, as early as the year 1692, two hundred and fifty (now more than 310) years ago, stood a small log building, not much larger than a settler's cabin, dedicated to the worship of God. The country around was for the most part a wilderness with here and there a small clearing and the rude home of a pioneer. Indians lived in the vicinity and wild animals now long since extinct in this area were common. The roads were no more than paths through the forests. To this log meeting house people came many miles on the Lord's day to hear the Word of God read and preached and to sing their Psalms of praise. Who were these people? How did they come to settle here in this wilderness? Why did they call this acre of ground “Free Hill”? Their story is a long one but it is significant for the times in which we live.
They were mostly Scottish people who came to this country in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. They came from a troubled land. Unhappy Scotland had long been vexed with troubles economic, political, and ecclesiastical. For something like three quarters of a century before 1688, the Stuart kings attempted to rule as absolute monarchs. They were opposed in England by the Puritan party and in Scotland by the Presbyterians. They were determined that the established Church of England should become the established church of Scotland and that Scottish ministers and Scottish worship should be regulated according to Episcopal ideas. Scotland, which was largely Presbyterian, resisted with all the courage and stubbornness of her nature. Bishops were sent into the country to govern the church but the people would have nothing to do with them. They were persistently resisted and one of them was murdered. Various attempts were made to force the English prayer book upon the churches but the Presbyterians preferred their own prayer book or none at all. Repeated attempts were made by the government to coerce the General Assembly just as attempts have been made in Korea and other places in modern times. Ministers who refused to yield to the government were forbidden to preach. The people were forbidden to assemble for worship. Then began the practice of assembling in some remote part of the hill country for what were called “field coventicles”. There they listened to their beloved ministers and partook of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper at the table spread on the ground. Many of these people were imprisoned, tortured, burned at the stake, hanged, banished from the realm. Of course, many conformed to the government's demands, but many more held out and did good service for the cause of human freedom, particularly freedom of worship. Some of those who were banished from Scotland were among the little group that first assembled for worship at Free Hill. They came to Monmouth County at various times and under various circumstances.
In this country, they no longer needed to hold “field coventicles.” At first they worshiped in the homes of some of their number. Then they built their log meeting house with none to disturb them or make them afraid. Being permitted thus to worship as they pleased must have been gratifying to them. They had longed for such freedom all their lives but had never experienced it. No wonder then that they called the place “Free Hill.” No wonder either that when the township was formed it was called “Freehold,” or that when they chose a seal for their church in later years they had inscribed on it the words “religious liberty.” The church was known for years as the Freehold church.
In December 1705 representatives of the congregation appeared before the county court in session at Shrewsbury asking that their meeting house might be registered according to the law. The court record reads in part as follows: “At ye Request of Mr. John Craig, Walter Ker, William Ronnol, Patrick Imlay in behalf of themselves & their breatheren ye protestant decenters of freehold Called Presbyterians that their publick Meeting house may be Recorded Ordered by this Cort yt It be Recorded as followeth. The Meeting House for Relidgous Worship belonging to the Protistant discenters Called ye Presbeterions of ye town of Freehold In ye County of Monmouth in ye Province of New Jersey is Scituate built lying & being at & upon a piece of Rising grownd or little hill Commonly known & called by the name of free hill in sd town.”
In this meeting house the first minister to preach regularly was the Rev. John Boyd. The minutes of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, the first Presbytery in America, begin Dec 27, 1706 in the midst of a record of the trials for licensure of John Boyd. The first page of the minutes has been lost. Whether the Presbytery was meeting at the time at the Scots meeting house or in Philadelphia has always been a debatable question. On December 29, 1706, Mr. Boyd was ordained to the gospel ministry. This is the first recorded ordination of a Presbyterian minister in America and this congregation is said to be the first in New Jersey and belong to the original Presbytery. Mr. Boyd apparently lived somewhere in the vicinity of the Scots meeting house but very little is known about him. In his brief ministry he served on important committees of the Presbytery. This was his only church. He died August 30, 1708 in his twenty ninth year and was buried beside the meeting house. A monument now marks his grave and the original tombstone is in the rooms of the Department of History of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Witherspoon Building, Philadelphia.
Mr. Boyd was succeeded by the Rev. Joseph Morgan who was pastor of the church from 1708 to 1729 and he in turn by the Rev. John Tennent, pastor from 1730 to 1732. During John Tennent's pastorate, the country being settled more to the south of Free Hill, it was determined to build a new meeting house which would be more central for the congregation. This building was erected about five miles south of the old one and the first service was held in it April 18, 1731. Services were then held for many years in both buildings, sometimes on alternate Sundays. In 1751, the new building had apparently become too small. It was town down and another meeting house 40 x 60 feet was erected on the same spot. This building still stands today essentially the same as when it was built 191 years ago. It is known far and wide as Old Tennent Church.
Gradually the old log meeting house at Free Hill must have fallen into decay. Dr. Archibald Alexander states that as late as 1840 the outlines of the foundation were still plainly visible. Probably the last minister to preach in it was the Rev. William Tennent, jr who succeeded his brother, John, as pastor and served from 1733 to 1777.