Telling Old Tennent’s Story
For hundreds of years, the historical, religious, and architectural significance of Old Tennent Church has drawn visitors to White Oak Hill. In the mid-Twentieth Century, the church doors were left open on Sunday afternoons and members took turns standing inside to greet visitors and share their stories about Old Tennent. Unfortunately this practice has been discontinued, but the following transcript of a 2001 presentation by a local historian and lifelong member of the church again gives us the opportunity to learn the history of this special place from one who knows it well.
All buildings have a story to tell - the older the building the more there is to say. For a moment, I’d like you to forget that this structure is a church. The wonderful part, considering it is a wooden structure, is that it has survived 249 years. We do know that the church was struck by lightning and the resulting fire was seen by a neighbor who was able to save the building by using water from the rain barrel. The church has remained remarkably the same over the years except for the painted interior, electricity, heating system, and raised floor over original brick floor. Most of the materials used were native to the area or from South Jersey - the white pine flooring, Jersey sand glass (many original panes) and Jersey bog iron. The large door hinges have the initials of the maker “ Benjamin Van Cleef (sadly his house was burned by the British). The dimensions of the pews are not identical - just ask a member which ones are more narrow. The white oak frame is from the native oaks on this hill (only one remains). An itinerant architect drew the plans. It is thought that he also designed the Covenhoven house.
This building is a very plain but elegant Georgian barn. Remember, this area was mostly settled by farmers who would respect this type of structure and know how to build a barn. If you were to take out the windows, pulpit, pews and balcony you would see the truss work of a fine barn. The building's purpose was to preach to the people, hence you are directed to the pulpit. Note the sounding board and the three pegs on the back. Tradition tells us that the minister could hang his coat, hat and if an especially hot day, his wig on the third peg. Yes, William Tennent followed the English tradition of wearing a white wig (his picture is on the wall to my right). Essentially this is the floor plan of a Scottish church. The settlers who located here were of Scottish descent and built their first church of logs five miles from here in 1692. Only a cemetery remains there with a monument commemorating Rev. John Boyd, the first ordained Presbyterian minister in America.
If you were to visit New Castle, Delaware, you could see a very similar church there. Another almost identical church is located in Wye, Maryland. The Dupont Foundation restored that church.
The boxed in area is where the Elders sat. The double pulpit signifies the shared importance between the laymen and the clergy. Here is the collection bag used at that time. As there was no heat, the worshippers would bring their own foot warmer, which would have live coals from home. The boxed in pews helped somewhat in keeping them warm. This building had no heating system until 1880.
As you can see, there is no religious art here. Our forebears wanted no distractions from the purpose of the meeting, which was to listen to the preacher. They would have decried these flags as well as the portraits of ministers on the side wall. What do you think is missing that many other churches have? There is no altar. The communion service is held at this table, which predates the building and was perhaps brought from the log church. It is recorded that David Brainerd, the missionary to the Indians, used this table.
Our forebears did not believe in choirs. A “precentor” would sing one line from the Psalms and the congregation would repeat it (similar to a cantor in the Jewish faith). Following the Civil War, an organ was added. Over the years there have been three other organs. Lately, to restore its original look the pipes were removed, and the works for the organ are housed outside of the building. One other architectural change is the addition of the narthex - a very needed addition in the present day. We can seat about four hundred - during slave holding days those individuals would be seated in the gallery. The families paid a sum for their pews. We have the original chart of the pew holders. A collection was taken in these bags - note the tassel on the end. The ushers might have used them to awaken the nodders, as the sermons were two and one half hours long. There, of course, were no bathroom facilities. We have preserved the “necessary” or “outhouse” as it was called.
The pastor was given a “glebe,” meaning farm. There was little payment from the congregation aside from giving to the pastor at harvesting time. The most famous of our parsonages is the one which was located on the Battlefield. A canon ball was lodged in the wall as it was located adjacent to where the heaviest of the fighting took place. Rev. William Tennent used it until his death in l777. The house and farm of 240 acres was sold in l835 for the sum of $9,900. The house fell into decay and finally in l86l it was taken down.
Rev. William Tennent was a most beloved pastor. The village of Tennent was named for him. He had been very vehement in his speeches against the Tories during the time of the Revolution. At the time of his death, the Tories had threatened to dig up his body. He had made his wife promise to bury him where he could not be found. Here (on the wall next to the pulpit) you see his memorial stone and he is buried beneath this center aisle. An interesting tale to verify this fact is that when Duncan Perrine was digging under the church to install a furnace in 1952 his equipment touched something and he went no further. You will read on the memorial plaque “located in Freehold” because we were then a part of Freehold. Not until l848 were we a separate township. You might also note the difference in printing on the last line: "His body rests beneath this church.” That was added at a later date.